What does Human Resources Business Partner really mean?

Our guide to HR’s most confusing role

The Human Resources Business Partner or HRBP. It’s a term that many companies have started to (mis)use and a career step many human resources professionals aspire to. But does anyone know exactly what it means? Or has it become so ambiguous that it’s lost meaning altogether? Find out in our guide to the most confusing role in HR.

As a specialist recruiter of HR professionals one thing I pride myself on is being able to pinpoint the salary of any role, as well as the exact skills, qualification and experience you’d need to fulfil it. And that’s even before I look at the job description.

But the HRBP is something different altogether.

Recently, I’ve had businesses sending me HRBP roles to fill that range from $80,000 to $200,000. And they’ve required pretty much every skill or combination of skills you could imagine - from technical excellence to strategic vision and from attention to detail to blue sky thinking.

So why the ambiguity?

The origins of the Human Resources Business Partner

The HRBP was an idea popularised by David Ulrich in the late 1990s. He saw the HRBP as a strategic adviser - somebody who sat at an organisation’s leadership table and didn’t get their hands dirty with the operational side of HR, such as employee relations.

It was, in many ways, a revolutionary concept: the human resources professional who didn’t engage with procedures but with strategy; who delivered real value to the business, helping it both define and achieve its business goals.

But since the idealistic days of the 1990s, things have become a little blurry.

The HRBP is now used as something of a catch-all title for people who were once known by the more appropriate titles of HR Officer, HR Advisor, HR Consultant or HR Manager, as well as for those who do the bigger picture, more strategic work.

The HRBP role at one end of the scale...

Looking back at my 2016 assignments I worked on several HRBP roles. So let’s examine two of the more extreme HRBP assignments I worked on.  

One role I placed paid just $80K+ super.

The employer was looking for someone who could become deeply involved in recruiting and performance management. But they also wanted that person to look after the monthly payroll.

While the successful candidate would be placed in charge of their own client group, they would report into a Head of HR. And it was that head of HR, not the candidate, who would be responsible for partnering with the most senior leaders in the operations group. 

For me this wasn’t a HRBP role at all and I told the client as much. But they were convinced they should keep the title for ‘internal status’.

And, ultimately, it was their call.

And the HRBP role at the other end of the scale...

At the other end of the spectrum, I sourced an HRBP role for an ASX listed business that paid close to $200,000.

The business was looking for someone who could operate as part of a large, centralised HR team. And that team contained both transactional- and operational- (ER) focused generalists, as well as specialist HR professionals. 

An environment in which to flourish

The first thing that was obvious from the second role was that the scale and sophistication of this operation could make for the perfect environment in which a true HRBP would flourish. 

Devoid of the noise surrounding day-to-day issues, the role would sit - physically as well as theoretically - with the business area they supported. And they would oversee two primary functions: taking the business through the calendar of HR events, and sitting as part of the management team.

More than that they would enjoy an open invitation to management’s weekly strategic business review, where ‘People’ would be a standing item on the agenda.

Now that’s a true business partner.

But there is a downside of being a true HRBP 

While this second role may seem like ‘business partner utopia’ it may not be the perfect job after all.

That’s because there are so many backup specialists available that when an internal client has a query, it may feel as though your role as HRBP amounts to nothing more than making introductions or directing traffic. And that may go some way to de-skilling any HR generalist and reducing their depth of knowledge. 

On the flipside, some people who take on a role like this end up becoming much better relationship managers than they ever imagined.  And that’s something you’ll need if you hope to ever cut it at the very top of the corporate ladder.

What do I consider a true HR Business Partner?

So there’s a brief tour of the two ends of the HRBP spectrum I’ve been asked to fill. But the question remains, what makes a true HRBP?

Well, here’s my quick guide to what it means from my point of view.

1.    It’s not all about money but the role should probably pay more than $150K

2.    You don’t need specialists on tap but there should be a broader HR team where low level tasks are contained and don’t fall to the HRBP.

3.    They’re unlikely to have a direct report on the HR team

4.    They should own the relationship with the most senior member of the client group.

5.    They may be asked to deal with the business’s most complex or sensitive ER issues (Ulrich would frown on this but it’s a reality)

6.    They should have unlimited access to commercial information (via meetings or reports), so that they can give business-specific people advice that’s informed by data.

And if it doesn’t have these characteristics?

Call it what you want, but you’ll never convince me that your role - or the person you’re hiring - is an HRBP.

And I think you’re always better off calling a spade a spade and not a ‘strategic excavation device’.


Get in touch if you’d like a discussion about HRBP's or other HR topics.

Matthew Mayoh is a HR Recruitment specialist operating in the Sydney market.