The Uneasy Relationship Between HR Generalists and Staffing

Mar 25, 2009

Okay, I’m probably going to break some dishes here (and in an in-depth article on the topic in the print Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership coming up) and maybe even discuss a few taboo subjects that somehow never seem to reach the light of day. Despite all of our HR and staffing-related publications, I have yet to see an article that addresses the often tense and troubled relationship that can exist between human resource generalists and the Staffing department. Yet, if you get a group of staffing professionals together and raise this question, we can all easily describe some of those relationships that were either highly effective or incredibly dysfunctional.

I suspect that our colleagues on the HR generalist side could also do the same. Why is that? What causes the separation that sometimes exists between staffing and generalists? Why is it we work so well with some HR generalists and have a terrible time with others? What can we do to minimize the friction and maximize collaboration?

Staffing As a Center of Expertise

Historically speaking, in most organizations, staffing was typically one of a handful of core competencies commonly possessed by human resource generalists. In the 1990s, this shifted dramatically as HR became increasingly specialized and we saw the development of Centers of Expertise. These Centers of Expertise provided specialized support that was scaleable, cost effective, and capable of providing a higher level of increasingly complex functional support. They also allowed HR generalists to evolve to what was commonly referred to as a “business or strategic partner” role. So, good in concept, but why does it fail so often in practical application?

Role Clarity and Collaboration

There are basic tools that we use to help achieve role clarity. They include methods like service-level agreements; “RACI” charts to delineate who is “responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed”; or process maps that define processes and accountability. Often, the use of those tools can eliminate a big part of the dissonance that may exist between staffing and HR generalists. Sometimes, though, just defining processes and roles isn’t enough. Some generalists define themselves as the “broker” of all things HR for the internal client.

I’ve illustrated what I call the “HR Collaboration Model.” The first example illustrates the “broker” method with HR as the intermediary between staffing and the client. The second example is the collaborative model which works best since it empowers the HR generalist, enables staffing to work directly with the hiring executive (a key for successful staffing), and gives the hiring manager the support of both the Staffing Center of Expertise and their HR generalist. This is when staffing works best and I call it the “Power of 3”; more on this later.

The Process / Service Continuum

Another source of friction between HR generalists and Staffing occurs whenever either party takes an extreme position in what I call the “process/service continuum.” Some generalists adopt a position that says, “I’ll do whatever my client needs (regardless of process) because that’s my role.” Meanwhile, their Staffing counterparts can sometimes be equally inflexible by being overly process driven in a way that communicates “… regardless of what our internal client needs, we follow the process.” Of course, neither position is right. If you’re a generalist, you need to know when to consult or even disagree with your internal client. If you’re a Center of Expertise, knowing when to deviate from process is every bit as important as having a process in the first place!

Execution, Structure, and Communication

Like any relationship, the Staffing Center of Expertise & HR generalists cannot work well together without a basic foundation of “mutual trust.” So, here are three ideas to build trust:

Execution: The Staffing Center of Expertise builds trust through effective execution, knowledge of the business, and over-communication on results (both positive and negative).

Structure: Embed your recruiters into the business or function as much as your organization will allow. This means that they should be part of both the staffing team and an extended team member with the business and the HR generalist.

Communication: The HR generalist is the person who most holistically owns the internal client relationship. Consequently, the Staffing Center of Expertise must over-communicate with the HR generalist on significant issues that arise.

The Power of “3”

I’ve come to believe that the fundamental reason human resources exists can be summarized in one word: talent. Everything we do really is about recruiting, retaining, or developing talent. Whether it’s our total reward system, our training infrastructure, or organization development processes, they’re here (and, as a function, we’re really here) to help our companies succeed through talent.

I’ve written a lot in this article about the differences between staffing and generalists but, of course, to our internal clients, we are all human resources. They don’t have the perspective of functional silos that we sometimes hold. Despite this, all too often we throw each other under the bus to our collective detriment.

When we work together as a team, the upside however is equally promising. Like most business issues, most staffing issues are not one-dimensional. Anytime I’ve encountered a significant staffing-related problem there’s almost always a combination of factors involved. The fact is that usually Staffing alone cannot solve these problems. We really do need an engaged hiring manager and a strong HR generalist partner to help us overcome the everyday problems and systemic issues we face in staffing. Without this teamwork, staffing is a very frustrating profession with little chance of success. On the other hand, with this teamwork there are very few staffing obstacles that cannot be overcome. That really is the “Power of 3.” It is the hiring manager, the HR generalist, and the Staffing professional working together in an organized, aligned way to succeed in recruiting the best talent.

It’s the type of teamwork that can make us a lot more effective and, while we’re doing it, we can have a lot more fun along the way!

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