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“Your ability to act as a strategic partner to the business is the ultimate indication of your HR team’s success.” - Alex Link, Lead Director of L&D, CVS Health

The role of human resources has evolved and expanded so that HR is a strategic partner of the business expected to provide demonstrable contributions to business success.

While no two organizations are the same, we’ve spoken to experts to create a list of HR best practices for HR departments that truly want to support the business.

Many of these kinds of articles state the obvious about ‘hiring the right people’, ‘developing a smooth onboarding process’, or ‘creating a great culture’.

While important, we’re going to assume you’re already aware of the basics and go a bit deeper.

9 HR Best Practices

1. Understand the business

“A great HR leader is one who is curious about the business and strategy, not just the people.” - Doug Dennerline, CEO, Betterworks

It’s difficult to effectively support something that you don’t know anything about. That’s why the number one best practice for HR professionals is to seek to understand the business and how it works.

This means understanding the business model and strategy, the wider market, what the organizational objectives are, and the work your colleagues do.

Some ways that HR professionals can learn about the wider business include:

  • Build it into your individual development plans (IDP). Develop IDPs that include mechanisms to learn the business (e.g. courses or new projects/stretch assignments that will provide exposure to new business areas).
  • Listening to earnings calls. If your organization is publicly traded, earnings calls provide a wealth of information not just to the investor community but to anyone trying to gain a deep understanding of the business, its strategy, and financial performance. 
  • Build formal relationships. Prioritize the leaders you have access to across the business and take advantage of your time with them. Where appropriate to your role/relationship, schedule regular 1:1s and show an interest in learning about them, their teams, and their work. This is your opportunity to build a trusted relationship, act in a strategic consultative way, and help enable the business strategy.
  • Tap into your internal network. Informal learning through your network is one of the best (and psychologically safest) ways to learn. Ask colleagues in your internal network to join you for coffee or lunch and go prepared with questions to learn more about the work they do in their area.
  • Surveys/interviews/focus groups/listening sessions with your employees and leaders. Tools like employee surveys or a series of listening sessions can be valuable for learning more about the business and your colleagues.
  • Attend strategy meetings. Sitting in on (and eventually contributing to) business strategy sessions is a great way to see strategic planning in action, learn about your business strategy sessions, and gain an active seat at the table to contribute over time.
Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

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2. Be data-driven

“The complexity of today's operating environment demands new types of data to inform strategic discussions. This new data goes far beyond typical workforce analytics and even encompasses insights on talent risks and opportunities derived from large bodies of unstructured data.” - Cydney Roach, Global Chair of Employee Experience, Edelman

The shift towards HR being data-driven marks a significant evolution in how organizations manage and optimize their workforce.

This approach not only enhances decision-making but also helps align HR strategies with business outcomes.

So, how can HR teams become more data-driven?

  • Establish HR metrics with clear instructions for how they’re calculated and measured
  • Avoid ‘boiling the ocean’ by creating HR KPIs that demonstrate value to the business
  • Use tools such as HRIS and HR analytics software to help collect and analyze data
  • Take HR analytics courses to gain skills and confidence using data.

3. Listen to employees

“The way business leaders obsess over users is the same level of interest HR must have for their employees. Understand their needs, their pain points, what challenges they face, and what skills they are seeking.” - Donna Scarola, Chief People, Purpose & Culture Officer, Parcl

Part of HR’s role is helping to architect the employee experience to aid in recruitment, retention, and engagement.

Like product teams listen to customers and gather feedback, employee listening is crucial to creating a great employee experience and building a strong employer brand.

The feedback gained can be used to create and test new programs and initiatives and create a successful and engaging workplace culture.

Some effective employee listening strategies, methods, and best practices include:

  • Multiple listening channels for continuous feedback: Effective employee listening requires diverse methods like annual and pulse surveys, 1:1 meetings, focus groups, town halls, stay interviews, and exit interviews.
  • Shared responsibility for capturing feedback: Listening is a collective responsibility and shouldn’t be solely owned by HR or management. Instead, the entire company takes responsibility with senior leaders setting the “listening” tone, HR driving and coaching for success, managers nurturing trust and engagement, and employees feeling empowered to contribute fully to the process.
  • Action from listening data: If team members don't see how their feedback is informing the company’s actions, they’re less likely to continue sharing.
  • Encouraging employees to speak up: Getting employees to speak up can be a challenge for many organizations. Communicating the “why” behind employee listening is a great start as people are much more likely to do something when they understand how it can benefit them. Another aspect is creating psychological safety so people feel confident that they can speak up and contribute ideas without being humiliated.

4. Treat people ops like a product

I mentioned above about using employee listening in the same way that product teams do. This can be taken a step further to treat people operations like a product.

This means treating the employee experience as a product that people buy into when they join the company.

It’s the job of HR/people ops teams to make this product the best it can be. Employee listening is a key part of this, but here are some more methods and best practices to help achieve this:

  • Maximize impact on the mission: If your company’s mission is “Provide Sustainable Energy to Everyone Globally” then it’s the people operations team’s role to do everything they can to enable people to achieve that mission.
  • Accomplish everything through others: Great people ops—from performance and growth conversations to solid 1:1s to a world-class team of colleagues delivered by an effective recruitment machine—are actually done by the people operating that machinery. Machinery should rarely be used by the hands of people ops folk.
  • Feedback loops: If you think of your team as customers to your employee experience, one of the most important principles of product management is developing clear and open feedback loops.
  • Design thinking: To effectively run your people ops function like a product function, it’s necessary to incorporate design thinking and agile working practices. This may take some training, or just sitting in on your product, design, and engineering team’s retros, standups, and road-mapping sessions.
  • Tools: To run a product-thinking people team you will need some tools for planning, feedback, tracking, and testing. Some of these are more expensive but quite effective (Peakon) and some of them are cheap but practical for scaling businesses (Google Forms).

5. Make time for strategy by removing transactional tasks

The life of an HR professional is a busy one. It’s easy to get bogged down in the transactional tasks and not have any time for more important strategic thinking.

There are two ways to combat this:

  1. HR governance model: What can be changed about your HR operating model to free up time to be more strategic?
  2. Self-governance: How can you prioritize your work differently to free up time to focus on more strategic concerns?

6. Don’t neglect your personal development

“HR leaders should rotate through the business and business leaders should rotate through HR. Ultimately, we want well-rounded leaders who have a deep and broad understanding of the business, the culture, and how to best develop our people.” - Michael Knierim, KWM Consulting

We work hard to create learning and development strategies to help others, but it’s important to remember not to neglect your own learning and development.

HR books, podcasts, courses, and conferences are helpful, but experiential learning is where the rubber meets the road.

The 70-20-10 model of learning posits that we should spend 70% of our development time on experiential learning.

This means taking on new projects and stretch assignments that will provide exposure to new business areas and help you develop your skills.

It’s also important to find a strong mentor and/or coach to help you find opportunities and guide you in the right direction.

7. Change the business’s perception of HR

“Most leaders don’t see how to employ HR as a strategic pillar of the business. Yes, we can do office snacks, yes, we can help throw fun events, but “culture ambassadors” is a piece of what we do and not the whole picture.” - Alana Fallis, Director of People Ops, Quantum Metric

There’s still the misconception that HR is only there to “hire and fire” people and isn’t a strategic value add to the organization's long-term success.

If you want to operate as a strategic partner and work on interesting projects, it might be you have to change the business’s perception of what HR is.

Following the best practices above wil help but it’s important that you communicate with your stakeholder and let them know what you’re trying to do, ask them to help define what it is they need from you, and make sure you are realigning your HR approach around their wants and needs.

It’s not about being popular either, it’s about acting as a consultant to identify how you can help the business and then delivering on those KPIs!

8. Be technology agonistic

There’s a lot of hype around new HR software and tools that can do it all. But don’t get pulled in by all the fancy bells and whistles.

Our advice is to be open to new technologies but take marketing claims with a pinch of salt and be judicious about what you actually need.

For further guidance, read our analysis of AI recruiting and how to make a business case for new HR software.

9. Document everything

It’s wise to set up good practices around documentation. This is particularly useful in remote and hybrid organizations!

This includes documenting all processes in a way that’s easily accessed and searchable. Each subject matter expert can document their processes over time and share them with team members.

Standardizing HR processes such as leave management, HR compliance, accommodations, hiring, and onboarding helps alleviate risk and makes it easier to update and audit them as time goes by.

In addition to processes and policies, document decision-making and everything concerning a workplace investigation or dispute.

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By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.