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The Role HR Business Partners Should Play in Change Management

Big companies are undergoing almost constant change, and their senior managers find it understandably hard; HR business partners are well-placed to help in three ways

There’s been a lot of talk about “managing change” in the world’s businesses over the past few years. And with good reason, as the average firm has undergone five company-wide changes in the past three years, according to CEB analysis. But the discussions tend to center on how to persuade people of the need to change, and how to protect them and the business as those changes are implemented.

The problem with all of this is that it assumes a unified senior management team who understand the need for change and are just itching to get started. But change is just as hard – if not harder – for a company’s leaders. Not only must they cope with “change fatigue” themselves, they are under pressure to make those changes quickly and bring thousands of employees along with them.

In fact, leaders are more likely to resist change — whether vocally or quietly — than other employees, according to CEB analysis. There are many ramifications to this observation, but one important one is for HR business partners (HRBPs) and HR generalists who, regardless of company or industry, are incredibly likely to have to form partnerships with their senior line managers and help them make big changes in the months and years ahead.

Three Opportunities for HRBPs to Help with Change

HRBPs have three opportunities to make the most of these partnerships.

  1. Communicating the change: Senior managers often default to an impersonal, top-down approach when talking about big changes to their teams and other employes. But the best approach is to facilitate two-way, honest conversations so that employees feel they are part of the change and not victims of it. HRBPs are critical in guiding leaders’ facilitation of change discussions and in helping them resist the urge to talk when they should listen.

    HRBPs should provide senior managers with questions like these to ask employees about the change:

    • Why is this change important to our company?

    • Why should we make this change now?

    • What is the most helpful thing you can do to support the change?

    • What will successful change look like? How will we know it’s working?

  2. Implementing the change: Leaders should provide direction and guidance on change implementation based on the goals of the change initiative, but they can leave the specifics to managers and employees. This balance is critical, as leaders often don’t have insight into how employees’ day-to-day roles should be adapted because of the change. In order to provide the right amount of direction, leaders need to consider the change from the perspectives of their employees.

    HRBPs should help leaders assess the following:

    • The change’s departure from the status quo.

    • Their employees’ readiness for this particular change.

    • The change’s possible effect on employees.

  3. Understanding employees’ reactions: Leaders often fear negative employee reactions to change — especially since reactions like confusion and resistance can limit change success. When trying to understand employees’ reactions to the change, HRBPs have an important role in making sure leaders hear employees’ reactions in the first place.

    Employees’ hesitation about communicating their concerns to leaders means that leaders rarely have a clear picture of the real effects of a big change. HRBPs are well positioned to hear and observe employees’ reactions, share that information with their line partners, and help them interpret and act on the reactions accordingly.


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