The 3 New Roles of the Human Resources Professional

Traditional HR is transforming and adding new critical roles

New Roles of Today's HR Professional

Image by Catherine Song © The Balance 2019

Some industry commentators call the function of Human Resources the last bastion of bureaucracy. Traditionally, the role of the Human Resource professional in many organizations has been to serve as the systematizing, policing arm of executive management.

Their role was more closely aligned with personnel and administration functions that were viewed by the organization as paperwork. This is because the initial HR functions needed, in many companies, came out of the administration or finance department areas.

Because hiring employees, paying employees, and dealing with benefits were the organization's first HR needs, bringing in finance or administration staff as HR staff is not surprising.

Administrative Functions and Executive Agendas

In this role, the HR professional served executive agendas well but was frequently viewed as a roadblock by much of the rest of the organization. Some need for this role remains—you wouldn’t want every manager putting their own spin on a sexual harassment policy, for example.

Nor can every manager interpret and implement the employee handbook as they choose. Payroll and benefits need administration, even if they are now electronically handled. The administrative functions of the Human Resources department continue to need management and implementation. These tasks are not going away anytime soon.

In this role, employees regarded Human Resources as the enemy, and going to HR was the kiss of death for your ongoing relationship with your own manager. Employees believed and were often correct, that the HR function was in place solely to serve the needs of management. Thus, employee complaints often fell on deaf ears in an HR department that existed to serve managers' needs.

They criticize everything from their education to their professionalism to their support for employees. More importantly, they accuse HR professionals of misleading employees, failing to keep employee information confidential, and exhibiting poor practices in areas such as investigations, benefits options, and hiring employees. 

In some cases, HR is held in such disrespect that you may want to understand why your employees hate HR. Part of it is, of course, that employees don't always understand what the HR department does.

Transformation of HR

If the HR function in your organization is not transforming itself to align with forward-thinking practices, executive leadership must ask HR leaders some tough questions. Today’s organizations cannot afford to have an HR department that fails to contribute to lead modern thinking and contribute to enhancing company profitability.

In this environment, much of the HR role is transforming. The role of the HR manager, director, or executive must parallel the needs of his or her changing organization. Successful organizations are becoming more adaptive, resilient, quick to change direction, and customer-centered.

Three New Roles

Within this environment, the HR professional, who is considered necessary by managers and executives, is a strategic partner, an employee sponsor or advocate, and a change mentor.

These roles were recommended and discussed in Human Resource Champions, by Dr. Dave Ulrich, one of the best thinkers and writers in the HR field today, and a professor at the University of Michigan.

The HR professionals who understand these roles are leading their organizations in areas such as organization development, strategic utilization of employees to serve business goals, and talent management and development.

Let’s take a look at each of these roles and their impact on HR functions and practices.

Strategic Partner

In today’s organizations, to guarantee their viability and ability to contribute, HR managers need to think of themselves as strategic partners. In this role, the HR person contributes to the development of and the accomplishment of the organization-wide business plan and objectives.

The HR business objectives are established to support the attainment of the overall strategic business plan and objectives. The tactical HR representative is deeply knowledgeable about the design of work systems in which people succeed and contribute.

This strategic partnership impacts HR services such as the design of work positions; hiring; reward, recognition, and strategic pay; performance development and appraisal systems; career and succession planning; and employee development. When HR professionals are aligned with the business, the personnel management component of the organization is thought about as a strategic contributor to business success.

To become successful business partners, the HR staff members have to think like business people, know finance and accounting and be accountable and responsible for cost reductions and the measurement of all HR programs and processes.

It's not enough to ask for a seat at the executive table; HR people will have to prove that they have the business savvy necessary to sit there.

Employee Advocate

As an employee sponsor or advocate, the HR manager plays an integral role in organizational success via their knowledge about and advocacy of people. This advocacy includes expertise in how to create a work environment in which people will choose to be motivated, contributing, and happy.

Fostering effective methods of goal setting, communication, and empowerment through responsibility build employee ownership of the organization. The HR professional helps establish the organizational culture and climate in which people have the competency, concern, and commitment to serve customers well.

In this role, the HR manager provides overall talent management strategies, employee development opportunities, employee assistance programs, gain sharing and profit-sharing strategies, organization development interventions, due process approaches employee complaints and problem-solving, and regularly scheduled communication opportunities.

Change Champion

The constant evaluation of the effectiveness of the organization results in the need for the HR professional to frequently champion change. Both knowledge about and the ability to execute successful change strategies make the HR professional exceptionally valued. Knowing how to link change to the strategic needs of the organization will minimize employee dissatisfaction and resistance to change.

Organization development, the overarching discipline for change management strategies, gives the HR professional additional challenges. Consciously helping to create the right organizational culture, monitoring employee satisfaction, and measuring the results of organization initiatives fall here as well as in the role of employee advocacy.

The HR professional contributes to the organization by constantly assessing the effectiveness of the HR function. They also sponsor change in other departments and in work practices.

To promote the overall success of their organization, they champion the identification of the organizational mission, vision, values, goals, and action plans. Finally, they help determine the measures that will tell their organization how well it is succeeding in all of this.