The HRBP Role: Aligning Human Resources with Business Goals

A woman with brown skin and black hair, representing an HRBP (HR business partner), works at a desk surrounded by human resources reports.

Written by Beth Jacobs

March 27, 2024

Human resources leaders from small to medium size businesses are increasingly turning to the help of a specialized HR professional: the human resources business partner (HRBP). This seasoned HR expert helps business leaders align their HR processes and policies with their overall business goals

In this article, we’ll clearly define the HR business partner role and walk through some examples that demonstrate the benefits of taking a strategic approach to human resources management.

What is an HRBP

An HRBP is an experienced HR professional with wide-ranging expertise on the many functions of human resources who can add capacity or provide missing expertise to existing HR teams. They help organizations build strong, durable HR systems and processes, develop their employees, and build an engaged staff culture in line with their core values.

What’s the Difference Between an HRBP, an HR director, and an HR Manager

An HR director, an HRBP, and an HR manager are three distinct roles. 

An HR director is typically the most senior management role in an HR department, especially in a small-to-medium size business. In larger organizations, this role might be called a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) or a Vice President of HR. An HR director usually reports directly to the CEO and/or board of directors.

An HRBP is an individual contributor who serves as a content expert and a thought partner to the HR director. Typically, an HRBP reports to the HR director or the Chief People Officer, but their work is very cross-functional. One of the reasons they’re called an HR business partner is because they bridge the gap between HR and other business units, so they often provide advice and support to business unit owners, line managers, and other stakeholders across the business. For example, an HRBP might provide HR support to the general manager of a manufacturing facility. 

An HR manager handles day-to-day implementation of HR policies, and reports to the HR director.

In a larger organization with more than 500 employees, it often makes sense to have all three positions working together. In smaller organizations, an HR director might work with a few HR specialists and a fractional or part-time HRBP

Full-Time HRBP vs. Outsourced vs. Fractional 

The HRBP role is most commonly found in large companies. In fact, 86 percent of HRBPs work in companies with more than 1,000 employees, according to research by job search platform Zippia. Some large organizations have multiple HRBPs assigned to different teams, and a senior HRBP overseeing all of them. 

But in smaller organizations with a much leaner HR department — from startups with a one-person HR team to companies with 200 employees and a handful of HR managers and specialists — accessing the support of a full-time HRBP can be cost prohibitive. Additionally, small organizations may not deal with complex HR challenges or large-scale HR projects with enough frequency to need the additional level of expertise and strategy that an HRBP brings on a full-time basis. 

That’s where many companies turn to independent consultants and HR agencies for support. Many professional employer organizations, or PEOs, who provide complete outsourced HR solutions, employ multiple HRBPs to support their clients. When clients have questions or face challenges related to HR, they can reach out to their assigned HRBP for guidance and support.

For organizations with in-house HR teams, a fractional HRBP may be a better fit. A fractional HRBP is a skilled individual who can provide flexible HR support on a month-to-month basis. They might work with multiple organizations at once or they might devote all their time to one organization on an interim, part-time basis — depending on their own employment needs and goals and the client’s needs. 

Who Needs the Support of a Fractional HRBP

HR teams at small-to-medium size companies face many situations where the support of an external HRBP could be a game changer. Here are some examples: 

Small HR Teams that Lack Expertise in Specific HR Functions

The breadth of disciplines within HR is so vast that it’s common for HR leaders to lack expertise in some HR competencies. For example, while a particular HR leader might be great at payroll and benefits administration, they might not be an expert in employment law, or the latest strategies for performance management, or cultural issues. In those cases, finding a fractional HRBP who can fill those gaps can help the HR leader fine-tune their HR strategy or work through challenges that fall outside their expertise. 

Growing Organizations that are Now Subject to More State and Federal Employment Regulations

As organizations add employees, they become subject to a growing list of state and federal employment laws. For example, at 50 employees, employers must comply with the Affordable Care Act. Complying with these regulations often involves scaling up existing HR processes, investing in new software systems, expanding benefits, and/or creating new policies from scratch. 

Scaling up HR infrastructure and policies involves a lot of decision-making, and each decision can have far-ranging implications on company culture, retention, and productivity. Take succession planning for example. There are a lot of strategic decisions, starting with which roles need a succession plan. Is it just the CEO role? Or are there critical operations and customer success roles that need a plan to maintain business continuity? What criteria will you use to assess potential successors’ readiness and fit? And will those criteria support your organization’s goals around diversity in leadership roles? An HRBP can help you understand the implications of each choice and choose the best route that supports your business objectives

An Established Company with an HR Leader Taking an Extended Leave

A fractional HRBP can fill in for an HR director and help maintain essential HR functions during an extended absence, such as a sabbatical or medical leave. 

Established HR Teams Who Need Extra Capacity for Short-Term Projects

There are a wide variety of one-off projects that HR teams undertake sporadically, as needed, that could benefit from the strategic perspective and experience of an HRBP. In some cases, the existing HR team might not have the expertise to execute the project well, but in other cases, the project simply requires more capacity than the team has, and assigning existing team members to the project would limit the team’s ability to cover essential HR tasks. In the next section we’ll look at some common short-term projects where the support of an HRBP can be a huge asset.

Leveraging HRBP Expertise in Strategic HR Projects

HR Business Partners (HRBPs) bring a strategic perspective and experience that can significantly enhance the outcome of one-time HR initiatives. Let’s explore three key areas where HRBPs can make a substantial impact.

Implementing Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS) 

Selecting and implementing the right HRIS is a major endeavor that can take anywhere between six and nine months. An HRBP can take the lead on a project like this, researching various solutions and creating a shortlist of viable options to present to the leadership team. They can provide advice about pros and cons and cost implications of each choice, helping the leadership team make the choice that best aligns with the business strategy. After the decision is made, the HRBP can lead the effort to customize the system to fit the organization and manage the extensive staff training that any major software change requires. 

Overhauling Performance Management to Align with Core Values

If a company lacks a formal performance management system — as can be the case with startups and very small businesses — or it has a system, but it isn’t effectively fostering employee growth and skill development, taking a strategic approach to developing a new performance management system can improve employee engagement, employee retention, and overall business performance. An HRBP can help leaders assess the current system to identify where and how it could be improved, and develop new performance criteria, feedback mechanisms, and methods for measuring and rewarding performance. 

Revising the Employee Handbook

Employee handbooks serve as a comprehensive guide that clearly communicates employee expectations and sets the foundation for their success. They can quickly become out of date as the business grows and adopts new policies. HRBPs can offer invaluable insights to companies who are creating an inaugural handbook or revisiting an existing one that has become obsolete. One common area that HR teams seek outside support for is Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB). Often, HR teams opt to involve external DEI experts to ensure the language and policies within the handbook not only comply with legal standards but also foster a supportive and inclusive work environment. 

Responsibilities, Skills, and Required Experience 

In addition to the types of duties we’ve already covered related to specific one-time HR initiatives, the ongoing responsibilities of an HRBP can include any of the following: 

  • Train, mentor, and advise leaders on topics across the HR function, such as employee relations matters, union negotiations, performance management, compliance, and compensation.
  • Support leaders in strategic planning around people strategy and culture, while incorporating best practices in DEIB.
  • Provide recruitment services, including creation of job descriptions and hiring materials, hiring process and timeline development, and candidate sourcing and evaluation.
  • Ensure compliance with state and federal employment laws and regulations.
  • Develop staff onboarding, training, and learning and development opportunities.
  • Oversee HR data management; analyze HR data to drive decision-making and provide actionable recommendations to leaders.

To succeed in an HR business partner job, a candidate will need to have excellent communication skills, coaching skills, and change management skills. As they may be frequently required to assist with tricky personnel situations, they must be adept at navigating complex relationships and conflicts. Their role also demands the ability to provide thought partnership to executive leaders and build relationships across functions and levels. Providing support for a one-time project like selecting and implementing an HRIS will require proficient application of change management principles to get employees to adopt the new system and maximize its benefits. 

Required Experience

A typical HRBP will have many years of experience in various HR roles, where they will have developed a high level of content expertise in across talent acquisition, learning and development, benefits administration, Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS), compliance, employee relations, and more. At a minimum, they should have two years of experience in an HR generalist role or an HRBP role, and at least eight years of professional experience as a whole. Lastly, a bachelor’s degree is required, and a professional certification such as SHRM or PHR is usually desired. 

Rock Your People Strategy with a Fractional HRBP

An HRBP can help elevate your approach to people management by strategically aligning your HR practices with your business goals. And with a fractional HRBP, you don’t need to be a Fortune 500 company to be able to afford one.

vChief provides flexible executive staffing solutions that add capacity, fill gaps, and drive growth. Our consultative approach helps uncover your most urgent needs and matches you with seasoned HR professionals with relevant industry experience. Our fractional HRBPs work on flexible month-to-month retainer contracts. You can cancel anytime with only 30 days notice. As your needs change from month to month, you can flex your hours up or down freely. The average time from your first consultation to your fractional HRBP’s first day on your team is just two weeks.

Schedule your free consultation today.

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