An Ode to the HRBP

For most of my career I was unaware of the full extent of the value of HR. This all changed about two years ago. As is the case with many things, this was the result of a screw-up on my part. Some would call it a failure, but you know — I don’t buy into failure.

Before we get to that story, though, let me sketch my understanding of what HR entailed up to that point.

Human Resources.

Terrible, terrible name for a function. It’s even worse than “management.” This is the ‘20s we live in now, of the 21st century to be precise. We’ve moved beyond scientific management (a.k.a. Taylorism) which, indeed, treated people like resources to be controlled, optimized and squeezed like machines, like… resources. We’ve moved beyond that now, right? Right? (If you don’t feel that’s the case in your job, please reach out to me, I have openings.)

I spoke at an HR conference once where they proudly rebranded the “HR” profession to “People.” I liked it. However, I’m pretty sure that conference still exists and has “HR” in the name. Keep trying!

In most places where I’ve worked, HR seemed to primarily be administrative, process and policy related (vacation days, sick days, contracts, performance cycles). In others, working for HR meant you were a recruiter. All important things.

My previous company was the first place I knew that had another HR role: the “HRBP” — the HR Business Partner.

For years this was yet another odd HR role that I didn’t fully appreciate.

But then, I had my “incident” with Matt (not his actual name).

At the time, we had a big project to be completed. A project that required very specific expertise, which few people in the company had, and nobody was interested in gaining.

Luckily, Matt loved this type of stuff.

“I can do this all by myself, if you let me. Just let me do overtime to get it done.”

I appreciated his enthusiasm, and honestly, it seemed like our best path forward. It was hard to find anybody else. He was motivated. He was capable. And on top, he’d gain quite a bit from it financially as well. A win-win, right?

So, he got to work. In addition to his regular 40 hours, he added probably another 40-60 during nights and weekends. Work was progressing at a rapid pace. Matt was laser focused and got things done. We were going to make it.

At some point Matt got sick (this was pre-COVID). He had a high fever and had to spend some time in the hospital. However, he was still responsive on Slack. “Yes I’m in the hospital, but don’t worry,” he wrote. “I’m still making progress!”

This would be a funny story I would tell people. An extreme case of dedication, I thought. A bit excessive maybe, but alright.

Matt recovered, and finished the work successfully in record time. Success.

Then, I got a call from my boss.

“I’m a bit disappointed, Zef.”

“Why, what happened?”

“In what universe did you think it was a good idea to let somebody slave away for 100 hours per week for months on end. Are you crazy? He was in the hospital. A frickin’ hospital, and still kept going, how could you have allowed this?”

I was completely shocked.

I always thought of myself as pretty human-centered and considerate. I made fun of the term “human resources” for crying out loud. I’m not the controlling, slave-driver type. Those who worked with me will probably agree. In hindsight it seems obvious Matt’s working style wasn’t healthy, but at the time to me it wasn’t. He seemed happy to work this way, so I thought it was fine.

How could I have missed this?

My boss continued.

“Let me tell you a bit about how I work with Alexandra [approximately her actual name], my HRBP. In your department we have Julia [also approximately her actual name], you may want to consider a similar approach working with her.”

He explained how he met with Alexandra regularly, and talked through all the issues he saw in the team. Usually focused on the people aspects of course. How was everybody doing, feeling. Any struggles? Incidents? Unexpected behavior? She’d talk with much of his team separately as well. Therefore she knew the people in question, often from a different perspective — not being the boss can be helpful. This lead to a highly productive relationship and plenty of new insight. A strong (business) partnership, if you will.

The topic of “diversity” comes up a lot these days. For me the moral of this particular story is in the risk of lack of such diversity. Absolutely, it is valuable to have a partner to discuss issues with in general (and I didn’t), but also for that partner to think differently than you do. That way they can challenge you and point out obvious misses. You know, like slave driving somebody accidentally. Hypothetical scenario.

As we promote people from programmers to managers, especially if we’ve been doing the management job for a while ourselves, we tend to forget that managers come in completely ill-prepared for the “people” part of their jobs. If you were formally trained as a software developer in university, how many classes on psychology did you get? How many people related classes? I know that for me that number is 0. I got nothing.

There’s two ways to look at this:

  1. This is wrong and we should put more emphasis on “people” topics as part of computer-science and similar degrees, because quite a few of those people will likely be working with humans at some point.
  2. There’s too many dimensions to management for everybody to be good at all of them, therefore we should build systems to compensate for this fact.

I’d advocate for (1) for sure, but that’s a tough one to change and with the type of people that CS degrees tend to attract. Also, it will not solve the problem sufficiently. Therefore, I’d focus my energy on (2): putting the right support in place.

Support like HR Business Partners.

I got lucky, but likely finding a good HRBP is a bit like finding a good coach, or psychologist. You have to be compatible, but not too similar. The more “diverse” the better, almost. Compatible enough for productive and open conversation, but ideally with a completely different background and life history. Luckily, I’ve yet to come across anybody in HR with a computer science degree, so that helps.

So, this was the moment I started to partner with HR, for real. First with Julia, as mentioned. Based on that experience and value that it brought, it was one of the first things I sought out in my new company as well. Today, I happily work with Lynn (not her actual name as I recently found out, but she goes by it anyway).

This was one of those big “aha!” moments in my career. Sadly at the expense of somebody else. Luckily Matt, as far as I know, is doing just fine.

If you don’t have an HRBP, whether carrying that title or not, consider looking for one. It can make all the difference.

Or just wait for you to make a giant-ass slip up, and learn it the hard way, like I did. That’s also fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.

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