University of Wisconsin–Madison

HR as a Business Partner, Part 2

In April’s HR CoP newsletter, we shared historical context for the term, “HR Business Partner” and what it means for today’s HR practice. This month, we continue our exploration of what it means to be an HR Business Partner, reveal the potential pitfalls of the partnership model, and share some ideas for how you can avoid those pitfalls as you transition your HR practice to a partnership model.

What does it mean?

Jason Jankoski, Assistant Dean of Operations (including HR) in the College of Engineering, had a mentor once who taught him that there will always be inherent problems within the field of human resources “because people are interesting!” Partnership implies the ability to come up with shared, reasonable, solutions to difficult problems. “You have to have guidelines,” Jason affirmed, “but sometimes the guidelines are ineffective because unpredictable situations arise.”

This is where strategic thinking comes into play. Jason suggested that when it comes to strategic thinking, HR leaders on campus are already working as partners. These leaders also need to coach team members who handle the day-to-day ‘processing’ work, however, so that they begin incorporating partnership practices into their work. This means fostering the tendency to think as one collaborates with managers and department chairs to resolve transactional problems.

Jason agreed that Dave Ulrich’s initial vision of the HR Business Partner model was limited by the fact the transactional components of HR still need to be handled, even as HR evolves into more of a partnership role. “We can’t contract that out,” he acknowledged. Those who handle transactional HR tasks, however, can still learn to work in partnership.

What are the benefits?

Jason suggested that one of the greatest benefits of functioning in partnership with the people we serve is this: “When you are truly a business partner, you typically see problems before they emerge.”

When HR professionals do not function as partners to the people they serve, both within our HR community (HR to HR) as well as with managers and other employees (HR to non-HR), they quickly discover that they are not included in conversations about what is really going on.

“People will learn to work around bureaucracy if you’re not a partner. Our jobs [in HR] are to help managers navigate the rules that are there. Managers generally have the right intent. Our job is to help them get to the right endpoint. If a manager writes a poor position description, for example, I don’t tell them that the PD is of poor quality. Instead, I might say, ‘We have a little work to do here. This is a good foundation… let’s raise it up.’”

Partners create in their behavior an invitation to share information as it’s bubbling up, Jason explained. Managers who interact with HR Business Partners are going to get help, not instructions on compliance. When HR professionals do this, they are more approachable and end up being included at the table.

How does the partner model break down in practice?

Jason emphasized that HR professionals have to make time to put a partnership model into practice. When an HR professional doesn’t have time and/or resources to think strategically, is highly stressed, or is simply annoyed with someone who is asking for something, that person is going to have issues. “The consequences of just firing things off can be long-ranging,” Jason cautioned. “It’s always better to pause, and very important to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.”

Jennifer Stewart of the Advisory Board’s HR Advancement Center echoed Jason’s emphasis on taking time to cultivate partnership. “It sounds really good in theory,” she said, “[but] it can be incredibly challenging when it comes to putting it in practice.”

In a 2013 video entitled, “Three steps to a better HR business partner model,” Stewart highlights key pitfalls of the partnership model, including adopting ‘partner’ in name only – i.e., not cultivating the time to function as an actual partner. HR professionals “can’t be all things to all people,” she states. One has to choose wisely, and “hold business partners accountable for achieving demonstrable progress on a certain goals.” This helps with prioritization of demands on HR professionals’ time.

How might we go forward?

Jason suggested that the HR Competency Model currently being developed by the HR Communities of Practice Office sets the foundation for helping HR professionals at UW–Madison to succeed as partners. “Certainly you have to be competent in your role,” Jason said, “but a lot of [being successful as a partner] involves the softer skills of collaboration, change management, ethics and integrity… These are how you get to be at the table.”

Jason elaborated: “If you have a competent HR person who is not approachable, what you’ll see is the person’s manager translating what the person knows. The competent person knows what to do, but leaders will not view this person as a partner and so won’t be drawn to include the person in high-level decisions.”

“You can’t just tell people all the things they do wrong,” Jason cautioned.

In order to carve out time for learning how to function as a partner, he suggested reading Covey materials on priority management, and learning to embody the soft skills highlighted in the UW–Madison HR Competencies.

As HR professionals strengthen their ability to function as partners, they begin to be able to move a department, division or campus in a direction that meets collaborative operational goals, and they discern correctly when and how far to push. HR professionals can push too little/ too late or too much/ too soon. A strategic partner finds the sweet spot, Jason said, because they take the time to think strategically in conversation with others.

What questions do you have?

In next month’s newsletter, we’ll take time to answer questions about what it means to be an HR Business Partner at UW–Madison. We invite you to email your question by May 19 to