How can HR teams earn a place at board level?

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If people are an organisation’s most important asset, then shouldn’t HR teams have a voice at senior level? Robert Hicks looks at the ongoing debate around HR’s place on the board, and how the function can get more involved in key decisions. 

When it comes to whether HR has a seat at the leadership table, the answer differs from company to company – and it’s a question that’s been posed for decades. The key argument for elevating HR to this level is that if people are an organisation’s most important asset, then the team who look after them should be involved in decision-making.

Traditionally, HR has been siloed to the “transactional processes” – things like payroll, hiring and firing, and pulling aside employees for an “HR chat”. Because of this, HR had little to no part in major business decisions.

Many HR teams and individuals now work with stakeholders on cultural transformation and adding tangible business value. But they can never truly move the needle on matters like employee engagement, workplace culture or reducing turnover unless they can unlock budgets, resources and radical ideas.

So the question is: do HR leaders deserve a seat at the table, or do they have to prove their worth first?

Asking tough questions

People are an organisation’s best asset and not having someone who asks the tough questions like “how will this affect our people?” or “how does this impact our ability to recruit the best people?” will affect its success.

This is where it is critical to have a people-based decision making framework against a commercial one. Think avoiding negative Glassdoor reviews, PR scandals or being known as the business that treats people badly.

HR doesn’t technically represent any business unit, so while there may be a SVP of sales, marketing or product arguing for the sake of their own teams and goals, HR can be an independent guide, making the best decision for the good of the business and its people. If a leadership team is making a large number of redundancies, for example, HR can explain how that will impact overall company morale and how the business can regain trust.

Involving HR in board-level conversations will mean that HR will become more commercially-minded and able to inform leaders on how a people decision can affect business performance. Having this commercial knowledge will also help inform HR policies, processes and guidance.

Earning leadership recognition

But HR needs to earn its leadership seat, not just get one. To rightly earn this place, HR teams need to deliver value to the business through increased productivity and innovation, decreasing turnover and retaining best performers, for example.

The following steps will help elevate HR’s position:

  • Talk to others at the top table – understand their pains and challenges, ask them what the biggest difference the people team can make to them, and then ensure that they can achieve it
  • Prioritise – when you have your list of tasks, get senior leaders to rank what they need and get them to agree collectively on what the people team should focus on
  • Focus on business objectives – in a world of competing priorities, the team needs ensure their initiatives will impact the business, not just the people team
  • Be agile in delivery – often and early is a good mantra when you are looking at delivering HR projects – share what you can, when you can, as fast as you can
  • Ask for feedback –  get comfortable with being uncomfortable and get better at listening
  • Share thought leadership with the team – a key part of showing that you are a c-suite capable person is to share knowledge, be that business, HR, or other
  • Get involved in projects outside of HR – ask to get involved in other areas of the business, sharpen your commercial and financial skills, go to client meetings and talk to clients on the phone. Get educated on the business, not just HR responsibilities.

Ensuring that HR is delivering what the wider business needs and can demonstrate its value will encourage leaders to see it as a business-critical function.

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Robert Hicks

About Robert Hicks

Robert Hicks is group HR director at Reward Gateway.
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