By Lisa Dishman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
EPS' RealSolutions® Podcasts presents an interview with this month’s author, Lisa Baer. To learn more about Lisa’s experience and how to "Find your Seat at the Table", listen to our podcast.
Anyone who has practiced in the human resources field for any length of time has heard the term “seat at the table” in reference to HR’s struggle to be seen as a relevant business partner – not a bureaucratic obstruction within an organization, or worse. Compliance, benefits, compensation and many other duties fall within the purview of HR and all require attention and organizational focus to be sure. The “seat at the table” proposition though, is different. To have a seat at the table means that HR genuinely impacts business decisions and ultimately maximizes results.
Given the emphasis on productivity within most organizations these days – doing more and more with less, understanding where to spend your time, energy and budget within the HR construct is critical. This definitely means spending more time understanding the financial picture and strategic direction of your organization and less time on helping people “grow.” The helping people part is all well and good, but unless that objective is tied to a business outcome, it’s really just noise to the rest of the people with a seat at the table already. In the words of Rutgers University’s Richard Beatty, “the language of organizations is numbers, HR isn’t very good at data analytics,” Beatty said. “They don’t think like business people.”
For some HR departments, the seat at the table is a long-term objective as you might be in the learning stages of your organization’s business. For others, you are closing in on having that seat by honing your business skills and asserting your influence in the HR realm while being grounded in the business objectives. If you have the seat at the table now, congratulations, it was probably hard won! If you are in the first two categories, consider the following ways to maximize your value:
Invest your time in developing business acumen and develop outside resources for services that can consume valuable internal resources. It sounds easy, but often your time as an HR professional is pulled in a variety of directions – some not terribly strategic. You have to not only recognize when a very valid objective might be all consuming, but you must be able to make the business case for outside resources. Let’s take training as an example. Great training takes time to develop and delivery of large-scale training can eat away at days and weeks of an HR department’s time. Deeply understanding the training your organization needs and understanding the best way to accomplish those objectives – that’s insight. Quantifying those costs relative to the time that you as an HR professional can apply to other pursuits related to enhancing business value can make the difference between being mired in weeks of training prep and delivery versus adding more strategic value and driving the needs of the business through the delivery of engaging and efficiently delivered training.
Use HR analytics to influence business decisions, not simply to meet your organizations’ compliance requirements. The Department of Labor makes clear which organizations need Affirmative Action Plans. The business case around the compliance issue is straightforward – ask anyone who has experienced an OFCCP audit. The business case for attracting, promoting and retaining protected groups as a compelling business proposition that provides long-term organizational value is another thing entirely. Use the analytics to make your business case and accomplish both goals – drive issues that relate directly to the work and long term success of the organization, and avoid simply going through compliance requirements as an end unto themselves.
Recognize when your trust and credibility is on the line as trust is the key to influencing others. HR professionals know more details about individuals within their organization than most line managers could imagine – it comes with the territory. Don’t let this knowledge became a source of distrust within your organization by knowing when to step out of the fray. Use either your in-house counsel or a third party as resources when you are too close to the individuals involved or if the issues will result in outcomes that are likely to meet with controversy with the organization. Investigations of workplace complaints, for example, are often required at all organizational levels. “Employees who participate in investigations often say " that the human resources manager - turned investigator now knows too much…"  It can be tempting to dig into a complaint and be a party to the investigation outcomes – we all want to be seen as problem solvers. Your trustworthiness and influence is more likely to remain intact, and potentially increase, however, if you spend your energy on the higher level issues at hand and not on the details of who did or said what to whom.
Today’s businesses move quickly. HR professionals remain challenged in their ability to do more, to innovate and to become influencers with credibility and insight into their organizations. Determining how to spend your time and energy, how to use compliance data to further the business objectives of your organization, and how to preserve your credibility are all determining factors in getting and keeping your seat at the table.