Some could easily argue that the human resources (HR) department is not a “revenue-generating” service. We don’t create new products, interface with the traditional customer daily, or hunt down investors to fund company growth. As an HR professional, I’ve had many CEOs ask in interviews, “Who is your customer?”
My response is simple: The employees are my customer. This answer often draws a few raised eyebrows, and I’m fairly sure there was a job I didn’t receive because of it. And while the employee is not my only customer, they are the customer I am serving as Chief People Officer. That said, serving employees is inherently linked to serving the business, and an HR professional’s role is to simultaneously value and address the needs of these two (sometimes conflicting) parties.
Whether a company is 50 or 50,000 employees, HR works in service of the employees. On a day-to-day level, HR keeps the lights on, ensuring that benefits are robust and up-to-date and that each employee feels supported and enabled to work at their highest capacity.
But beyond this fundamental foundation of support, HR is also responsible for the next layer of employee service: strategic people management. This includes upskilling employees on the latest technologies, scaling up or down employee programs and performance management.
The business itself is HR’s second yet equally important customer. HR cannot focus on employee services alone — we need to be closely aligned with leadership on company-wide objectives and key results (OKRs). When HR does not meet business needs, we risk putting the entire company on shaky ground. For example, if we do not meet the hiring plan and only hire 20 engineers instead of 50, the engineers can no longer create the expected products or might become overworked and burnt out. When HR neglects employee well-being or fails to meet company OKRs, it’s as if we forgot to pay our utility bill — the lights turn off, the water stops running, and the entire business suffers.
Like any other department, HR needs to spend time talking to our employees and leadership to understand their needs and match those to your departmental goals. Are there company-wide goals you can support through HR? Is there something missing from your quarterly plan that employees are craving?
In serving employees, it’s important to remember HR is not only there to provide free lunches and in-office yoga classes (although these services are often appreciated). We are also there to support our employee’s career development, providing opportunities for growth and learning as they advance.
When servicing the business, it’s easy to get caught up in our specific HR goals. However, every goal can’t be company-level important. When doing your quarterly planning, ask yourself, “If I could only focus on two things this quarter, what would they be?” Discuss these goals with your CEO or leadership team to ensure you’re on the same page and can strategically approach your mutual goals/OKRs.For example, within the past year, leadership and I discussed our 18-month hiring plan. From that conversation, we discovered that the specific type of engineer our company wanted is a very competitive hire at the moment. So, we decided to pivot and cast a wider net geographically, gaining the same quality of talent without the same level of competitiveness. In this instance, HR was able to help the business make a strategic decision about the rate and cost of hiring, saving the business time, effort and money along the way.
How do HR professionals balance their sometimes conflicting needs with two customers to prioritize — the employees and the business? When I approach a human resources decision, I start with the ideal world: What would the best possible outcome look like for the overarching population if anything were possible? And while the ideal world is not always attainable, identifying the best-case scenario becomes the north star guiding my decision-making process.
Annual benefit renewals are one of the times that HR has to juggle employee and business needs. Benefits affect the lives of hundreds of employees and their families and can also mean the difference of millions of dollars in the company budget. This year, the renewal of our current benefit plan came with an enormous uptick in cost. I have a fiscal responsibility to the company to minimize costs, but I also have a responsibility to our employees to lessen their burden and ensure they have good benefits. I had to ask myself, “How do I thread the needle to optimize for both sides?”
After weighing many different plans and consulting leadership, I decided that the best outcome for the overarching population was to keep a no-cost plan for our employees. Our company absorbed much of the cost, but we were also strategic in finding ways to pass some of it on, so the company was not sent underwater due to the increased cost. These decisions are not always easy — HR professionals must be rigorous and unbiased while also leaving room for creative problem-solving and collaboration. But it’s also where we get to demonstrate the true skill of anyone in HR: our ability to walk the tightrope between the needs of our employees and our business with acumen and ease.
HR is equally serving the employees and the business; one customer is not more important than the other. What’s more, the customers we serve go hand in hand — when we deliver to employees, they deliver to the business and vice versa.
It is the role of HR to navigate the give-and-get between employee needs and business decisions. A company is a living organism run by real, living people with various needs, idiosyncrasies and backgrounds, which can often lead to murky waters. The role of HR is to filter out the sediment blurring our vision, clear out the rocks that block our path forward and create space for our business to run clearly, smoothly and quickly once again.