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What is an HR Business Partner?

What is an HR Business Partner?

6 months ago by Jack Stone

​I have been asked countless times by clients, candidates and colleagues about one of HR’s most confusing jobs, the HR Business Partner.

It is a term that more and more companies are starting to use (or use incorrectly) and it is a role that many HR professional are hoping to reach.

But what does an HR Business Partner actually do?

The origins of the HR Business Partner

Part of the confusion comes from the newness of this type of role. It is relatively new globally and especially in Japan where I am based. The academic David Ulrich is credited with coming up with the concept in the late 1990s. His idea was that an HR Business Partner acted as a strategic advisor to the business. They should be a person with relationships with the organizations leaders and he didn’t need to concern themselves with HR operations tasks like payroll etc.

It was a very new idea at the time to have an HR professional who could focus on strategy to add real value to the business by both defining and acting to achieve business goals.

But since then, this idea has been less clear and easy to define.

The term HR Business Partner is now in place of roles that were once titled things such as HR Advisor, HR Generalist, HR Manager etc. whether or not they match Mr. Ulrich’s original definition.

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“HR Business Partner” vs. HR Business Partner

Here are two examples of roles I was asked to assist with the hiring for at clients of mine, both titled HR Business Partner.

The first client was looking for someone to handle recruitment, performance management and vendor related tasks.

They would report to the Head of HR and that Head would be responsible for working with the leadership group.

Due to the combination or tasks and role within the organization I felt this was not a true HR Business Partner but the client used the title for their own “internal” reasons.

The other client was looking for someone to operate as part of a large HR team made up of transactional and operational generalists.

The scale and complexity of the organization called for a true HR Business Partner model.

Without having to worry about daily HR issues, they could focus on two primary tasks, executing the business’s calendar of HR events and working with leadership. As part of that they would join weekly business review where employees would be a key agenda item.

This was a true HR Business Partner role.

However, this type of role is not for everyone, especially in a larger company. There are often so many HR Specialists that when a client has a question, the HR Business Partner simply directs them to the appropriate person rather than tackling the issue themselves. This can dull their HR knowledge over time.

On the upside it will deepen your relationships with key managers and leaders and ultimately lead your way up the corporate ladder.


In short, what I would consider a “true” HR Business Partner to bein generalis:

·      Work as part of a larger HR team where lower-level tasks can be assigned as needed.

·      Unlikely to have any direct reports.

·      Have direct relationships with senior members of the organization or business unit.

·      Be responsible for the business’s most important and sensitive employee relation issues.

·      Have direct access to the business most important commercial information via meetings, documents, reports in order to give data backed advice as how to deal with employee issues.

Hopefully this is helpful to those who want a quick guide to what is becoming one of the most popular roles in the global and Japan HR market.

Feel free to reach out with any comments or questions that you may have.