Death to the HR Business Partner?

Someone recently shared this post on LinkedIn by Tom Rommens, who describes himself as “Passionate about HR.” I guess passion, then, would explain his headline: Would Somebody Please Kill the HR Business Partner?

His point, which I thought interesting enough to share, is that calling the HR leader of an organization a “business partner” doesn’t support the notion that “HR has become or will have to become part of the business itself. So,” he writes,

“we will have to kill the HR business partner … as a concept; please don’t hurt the actual people.”

Rommens mentions Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group in Provo, Utah, a good bit, primarily because he coined the term HR Business Partner in his long-running argument that HR professionals enable the business strategy through human resources. As Rommens puts it,

“I know it’s all semantics, but words do have their influence. I think it’s not accurate to call them partners. A partner is somebody who has a — positive, even interwoven — relationship with someone else but stands next to that other. Nobody calls the CEO a business partner; we don’t even consider the top IT guy to be one. [So why HR?]”

I reached out to Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, HR speaker and consultant, and HRE‘s HR Leadership columnist, for her take on this. Semantics, she says, is precisely what’s at issue. “Ah, another debate about semantics and HR,” she told me. She went on:

“It reminds me of the almost theological debate on whether the profession was ‘personnel’ or ‘human resources,’ followed by ‘people and/or ‘human capital.’ While I know that words can matter, I think sometimes there’s too much debate and focus on the words, rather than the concepts and information the words are trying to convey.

“In short, I don’t feel strongly about the debate — I do agree that the focus should be on HR’s role as an integral part of the business, without worrying about the label of ‘business partner.’ While [Ulrich] uses the term, he does it while describing a role that’s an integral part of the business. That’s where I’d rather see the focus.”

How strongly does Meisinger feel about the overuse of semantics arguments and buzz phrases in the HR profession? You be the judge. In her words:

“To the extent that it gives some HR professionals a greater sense of status — ‘I’m a partner in this endeavor, and my input/contribution is just as important’ — it might be helpful.

“But please, if they tell me they have to be a full ‘business partner’ to be sure they get ‘a seat at the table,’ I’ll go running and screaming into the night!”