What is an HR Business Partner and What Do They Do?

Industry Advice Management

Many large companies are enhancing their human resources departments by hiring an HR business partner. Individuals in this role work with executive leadership to ensure that an organization’s strategies for acquiring talent and retaining employees align with overall business goals for transformation and growth. 

Success as an HR business partner means knowing the ins and outs of how a business works and what it needs to hit its financial and operational goals. At the same time, these professionals must immerse themselves in the principles of recruiting, managing, and supporting employees. The role places a much higher emphasis on strategy development than other job titles within the HR department, and it also comes with a unique set of responsibilities and skills. 

If you’re looking to advance your career in human resources management, read on to see if the role of an HR business partner may be right for you. 

What is an HR Business Partner? 

An HR business partner is a senior professional focused on using human resources to help a business unit succeed. In dealing with hiring, for example, an HR business partner may work with executives and business unit leaders to develop a plan for what types of candidates to recruit, interview, and hire to increase diversity or bring new skill sets into the company.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, there are some notable differences between the role of HR business partner and other HR roles, like HR manager or director.

  • The HR director serves in an executive position and creates policies in areas such as productivity, discipline, benefits, payroll, and compliance. In the hiring example, the HR director would be responsible for reviewing the organization’s salary and benefits structure in the context of the overall budget.  
  • The HR manager has day-to-day responsibility for enforcing human resources policy. During hiring, an HR manager would help business units decide which candidate to hire for a given role.

Because HR business partners are expected to take on a strategic role, they tend to command a higher salary than other human resources roles. Estimates for an HR business partner’s average annual salary range from $85,000 to $103,000, compared to a range of $71,000 to $78,000 for an HR manager and $53,000 to $58,000 for an HR generalist. However, both Glassdoor and Indeed estimate an HR director’s annual salary to be higher, at $98,000, along with the potential for an annual bonus of up to $10,000. 

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Job Responsibilities of an HR Business Partner

The consultancy McKinsey stresses the importance of making the HR business partner role a purely strategic one. Instead of dealing with transactional and operational issues such as managing personnel, executing strategy, or addressing employees’ day-to-day needs, the most successful HR business partners are given the latitude to focus on large-scale business initiatives such as talent acquisition.

In essence, the HR business partner is an adviser and consultant to business leaders on issues pertaining to human resources. It’s important for individuals in this role to fully understand short- and long-term strategic goals for the business, and to interpret the role that HR can play in helping to achieve these outcomes and drive value to the business.

Indeed notes a number of core responsibilities for someone in an HR business partner role:

  • Work with executive leadership to determine business needs and collaborate with HR (including external recruiters) to help meet these needs
  • Compare business goals and objectives to the current structure of business units and distribution of roles
  • Identify new roles and/or existing job openings that must be filled to enable the business to meet its goals
  • Lead the hiring process for high-priority roles, from writing the job description to screening and interviewing candidates 
  • Monitor the HR budget and advocate for the redistribution of funding of salaries to high-priority roles or departments as needed

Making the shift from tactical and operational work to strategic planning can be challenging, notes the research firm Gartner. If the role of the HR business partner is poorly defined, or if there are limited resources for HR managers, then an individual in an HR business manager role may spend the bulk of their day addressing day-to-day employee issues and have little time for strategic planning. 

That said, HR business partners who are empowered to take on a strategic role can make a difference throughout an organization. According to Gartner data, high-performing HR business partners can improve employee performance by up to 22 percent, employee retention by up to 24 percent, revenue by up to 7 percent, and profit by up to 9 percent.

10 Key Skills of a Successful HR Business Partner

The role of an HR business partner is largely strategic in nature, and it requires frequent collaboration with executives and business leaders. As a result, the skills required to achieve success in the role focus on decision-making, communication, and leadership. 

1. Proficiency with Digital Tools 

HR business partners have a wide range of software products at their disposal to help develop and communicate HR strategy, manage individuals and teams, and track spending. The list includes business intelligence, decision support, data visualization, and online communities that facilitate information sharing.  

2. Ability to Leverage Artificial Intelligence 

Data analysis can help HR departments with tasks such as evaluating job candidates, assessing staffing needs, and monitoring productivity and other job performance metrics. As Human Resource Executive points out, data analysis plays an important role in strategic planning—especially in an uncertain market.

3. Cross-Cultural Competence 

Multinational companies compete on a global scale for talent, both in their field offices and at their headquarters. Effective HR business partners have a keen sense of cultural awareness in the areas where an organization operates; this includes an understanding of different labor laws, business practices, and compensation structures.

4. Knowledge of the Business

It’s expected that HR business partners have a background in the principles of human resources management. But success in the role also requires learning how the organization operates: What are the core business functions, how do the business units interact, what is the organizational chart, and so on. This familiarity is critical for earning the respect and confidence of business leaders, especially in an environment where major changes are anticipated.

5. Project and People Management Skills

An HR business partner should be comfortable with tasks such as developing a project scope statement, managing resources and stakeholders, and communicating in large and small groups. Experience leading teams with remote and/or international contributors is a plus.

6. Effective in Addressing Change and Transformation

In aligning business objectives with personnel decisions, HR business partners frequently advocate that organizations change the way they do things—sometimes radically. It’s important to identify these large-scale changes well in advance and develop strategic plans for managing changes with the least disruptive impact to the organization and its employees. 

7. Ability to Identify and Develop Leaders 

In addition to becoming leaders themselves, it’s imperative that HR business partners develop leaders within an organization and, when necessary, identify external candidates for leadership roles. All leaders should be evaluated based on how their expertise and performance align with overall business objectives.

8. Exceptional Networking and Relationship-Building Acumen

Within an organization, an HR business partner needs to be comfortable speaking with business leaders with various backgrounds, both to understand the needs of their business units and to build rapport with key decision-makers over time. Outside an organization, the HR business partner should build a network of human resources peers who can provide professional advice and a network of individuals who would add value to the company as potential hires.

9. Ability to Maintain Confidentiality When Necessary

Just as employees are able to trust HR managers with confidential information, leaders need to be able to trust HR business partners with sensitive or “insider” information about business operations or financial performance, according to Human Resource Executive. Business leaders have to be comfortable sharing this information for strategic planning purposes while knowing that it won’t negatively impact their own job performance.

10. Effective Communication Skills among Diverse Audiences 

Individuals in HR business partner roles must be adept at communicating in many situations, ranging from executive presentations to negotiations to the occasional conflict or crisis scenario. For today’s businesses, intercultural and digital communication experience is a must-have as well. Finally, being willing to say “No” to executives when necessary, and to present well-thought alternative proposals, is an important skill as an HR business partner advocates for change.

Becoming an HR Business Partner

The Master of Science in Human Resources Management program at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies focuses on the trends that are shaping the HR industry today, from the use of technology to the importance of global and cross-cultural perspectives. Students learn how the field of human resources is evolving and how the HR business partner serves as the connection between an organization’s strategy and the people who execute that strategy in their day-to-day work. Explore our program page to learn more.