March 6, 2024

Employee Advocacy is NOT the Job of HR

You may be missing your most important opportunity.

I’m going to (again) take what might be a controversial position. It’s probably not as controversial as the position around what I see as the perils of the use of the word “safe,” but it’s in the ballpark. As always, I invite dialogue and hope you join the conversation.

If you work at a company or other organization and your job is in the area of human resources, people, or talent, you may think that a significant part of your job is about representing the interests of the employees. You may think of yourself as an employee advocate. You may enjoy the fact that many people gravitate toward you to share things that are bothering them about work or other people they work with. You may feel especially awful when layoffs happen because you know (and you may have hired) all of the people whom you are about to lay off. You likely have an inclination to take 150% responsibility for people more often than others. That likely feels good to you.

There are a few really good reasons you have these tendencies. It feels great to me when I am wanted. I love it when someone calls me and says I’m the perfect person to offer perspective on an issue or decision they’re facing. It’s yummy. It is, for me, a very satisfying point of validation. Secondly, if you chose the field of HR, there is a good chance – based on my extensive experience as an operator and as a company coach – that you chose the field because you really care about people. I appreciate you for caring if you’re one of those people. It is a wonderful trait of yours.

That said, I want to share my point of view: HR professionals who build their roles around serving as a representative “of the people” are missing the most important opportunities to contribute to the success of the business, to grow their talents, and to grow their careers. Being an employee advocate as your primary job is antithetical to your ultimate success in the field.

And I’m writing this because I see it happening all over the place.

I sought some insight from someone smarter than I am about this, turning to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) for its view on the mission of HR professionals:

It is the mission of the human resources department to develop, implement and support programs and processes that add value to [Company Name] and its employees, leading to improved employee welfare, empowerment, growth and retention, while remaining committed to [Company Name]'s key business drivers, its management and prosperity for its customers, employees, and shareholders.

My instincts felt affirmed when I read this, and the contents and prioritization thereof felt right to me. The primary goals of HR professionals inside an organization are very similar to those of professionals in other departments: to support the company’s key business drivers. Of course supporting those includes supporting and growing employees, and of course HR is a key input on those components of people management. But the goals of HR and, in my view, the most successful HR leaders, are wholly aligned with the goals of the company.

I am writing this because I see some more junior HR professionals get stuck in the trap of standing for employees, at times against the company or the executive team. There are surely times when HR should and must stand for something that is aligned with the welfare of the employees – in situations where an impingement on the welfare of the employees is going to cause the company to miss its primary business objectives. But those cases are more the exception than the rule.

The strongest people leaders I see are enmeshed in the business. They understand the key drivers for sales, marketing, product, engineering, and other departments in the organization. Sure, they are primarily responsible for hiring, retaining, and training talent, but they stay close enough to the P&L and the context for every department that they can do those things in a way that supports the business. They are completely tuned in during executive team meetings, offering opinions on how to move more upmarket in selling a new product. They have informed opinions about dynamics that may be affecting the engineering team as AI coding tools become more prominent in the market. They are not just counselors, they are not just pushing for higher benefits when finance wants to turn the dial down in a tough time, they are not just seeking validation from being the people to whom other people complain.

If you want to be a tremendous people leader, first be a tremendous leader. If you want to be a tremendous leader in a business, your job is primarily to lead the business.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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