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Ways HR Can Get a Seat at the C-suite Table

Jul 31, 2017
Deb Muller


“Now is the time, what we do matters — and who we are matters most.” That’s how David Ulrich, Ph.D., professor of business at the University of Michigan and a partner with the RBL Group, described HR during a 1998 regional conference of the Society for Human Resource Management. Now, nearly 20 years later, where’s HR’s seat at the C-suite table? HR professionals in some circles are still asking that question.

Some have made progress in shifting from the role of mostly handlers of employee-focused functions to strategic leaders of their organizations. But how much progress has been made, and what else needs to be done?


Stereotypes of HR professionals as primarily “compliance cops,” “door-keepers” and overseers of private employee files have been barriers to their roles as strategists and problem-solvers.

Twenty years ago, standardized HR job categories didn’t even include a business-partnership track. The Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI) has since addressed this gap by recognizing the Senior Professional in Human Resources – International’s (SPHRi’s) strategic achievements.

Among the biggest barriers have been non-progressive companies that lack a strategic-partner vision for HR. This has forced HR professionals looking to take on strategic responsibilities to leave their current jobs or avoid joining organizations that lack a progressive vision for HR.

A fourth and crucial barrier has been HR’s failure to collaborate and form partnerships with the managers and heads of other organizational functions, namely finance, marketing and operations. HR must get rid of its self-perception as distinct and apart from the other business disciplines, while recognizing that not all professionals can and will become strategic partners and that the administrative functions they’re known for — compliance with federal, state and local laws, recruiting and hiring, benefits administration and more — are still vital functions.


HR professionals have long identified areas that showcase their abilities to lead their organizations. Two key areas are understanding business financials and global matters, and how they align strategically with organizations’ goals. SPHRi exam certification reflects this vision.

Having automated their own function to remove time-consuming and burdensome administrative tasks, HR has led their organizations’ technological transformations for a few decades. HR leaders can use data analysis to inform other company leaders what an organization’s needs are. HR knows best how to manage employees to keep them engaged and productive. Analytics has become an important HR function, especially now that cost/benefit analysis is more necessary than ever in such functions as employee development and wellness programs.

In these days of more frequent mergers, acquisitions and buy-outs, when the deals have been negotiated and all the agreements signed, HR is charged with making M&As work by getting entities operating as one and winning employees’ buy-in into the change. This ability takes strategic know-how.


A recent survey by Paychex, a firm providing payroll, HR and benefits outsourcing services, shows that two-thirds of HR professionals in small to midsize companies are viewed as strategic partners. In fact, in companies with 50 to 500 workers, 75 percent of the survey respondents — all HR professionals or staff with HR responsibilities — said they’ve shifted beyond their roles as HR administrators to peer status with other organizational leaders.

Survey results also show that 4 in every 10 of the respondents have once-a-week meetings with their CEO or CFO. And another third have direct access to other senior managers when needed.

The challenge for HR professionals is demonstrating their worth internally and getting organizations of all sizes and across all industries to bring them on as strategic partners.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.

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