Strategic HR vs. Tactical HR

by Jill Christensen

A seat at the adult table – virtually everyone wanted it as a child and as adults, many HR professionals are still yearning for it. What does that seat look like today? A spot on the senior leadership team, reporting directly to the president or CEO, and a voice in the most important decisions that are made pertaining to the company. Although every HR professional who I speak with knows the value of being a player on the team that occupies the “C-Suite,” many do not understand how to secure it and keep it.

What the Numbers Tell Us Today
Oxford Economics conducted a Workforce 2020 study on behalf of SAP. The first report from the study focused on HR’s seat at the table or their weight in the strategic business decisions of their organizations. It suggests that “people management will need to become more strategic and evidence-based to accommodate the increasingly flexible and diverse workforce of the future.”

The study showed that 52% of respondents say workforce issues drive strategy all the way up to the board level, and 53% say that workforce development is a key differentiator to the growth of the firm and bottom-line results. However, 24% of respondents said HR is consulted after high-level decisions have already been made and 26% said HR is not consulted at all about business planning.

Why This Conundrum Exists
Why is HR often “boxed out” of giving input on key decisions? According to Sheryl Kovach, president and CEO of Kandor Group, an HR consulting firm in Houston, “It could be in part due to the fact that HR professionals don’t always have the best reputations among employees. When there’s a layoff, HR is involved. If a discipline problem arises, HR finds its way into the mess. As health care premiums rise, HR delivers the news. With all of these negative instances, many employees have developed feelings of apprehension toward HR.”

However, I believe that if HR showed up first and foremost as a strategic value-added partner vs. a tactical implementer, the feelings of apprehension would dissipate. And this is where HR needs to take accountability for its role in have a permanent seat at the kids table in most companies.

The Path Forward for HR
How can HR shift this dynamic? It begins with HR professionals shifting their mindset. They must begin to look at HR issues from a business perspective and not just a people perspective, and through this shift a seat at the table can be earned. Executives want you to ask yourself, “Is this going to create business value for the organization and if so, how can I measure the impact?” This mindset shift is critical for HR, as it shows that you are thinking strategically about how your organization can help the company meet or exceed its goals.

What does this look like in practice? Tony Deblauwe, a senior director of HR at in Palo Alto, CA, penned the following chart listing tactical vs. strategic HR actions:

Tactical vs. Strategic HR Actions



Employee Relations

Focus on policies, compliance and discipline as well as company events and community issues Engage employees to drive business results and see them as investments rather than costs

Attraction & Selection

Recruit and hire, temporary staffing Create an employer brand and develop talent pipeline based on what the business needs

Employee Development

Basic skills training, new hire orientation Training and development solutions that drive business results while developing careers

Performance & Rewards

Performance management, benefits, compensation structures, job descriptions Cascading business goals down to workforce and rewarding based on goal achievement

As you can see, making the leap from looking at HR
issues from a people perspective to a business perspective simply involves a mindset shift. And while every HR function is not covered in the chart above, this new approach can be applied to every area which HR owns and is accountable for driving results.

Employee Engagement as an Example
My area of expertise is employee engagement and helping companies re-engage workers who are sleepwalking through their day, giving you zero discretionary effort. In the vast majority of global companies, HR owns employee engagement (or culture change) and is responsible for driving improvement in the overall employee engagement survey score.

However, from my experience, few HR organizations approach the global employee disengagement epidemic strategically (according to Gallup, 87% of employee are not engaged). Instead of creating a strategic plan, and engaging senior leaders and mangers in the execution of the plan, many HR organizations brainstorm tactical actions that they can roll out to re-engage workers. This can range from the company picnic to creating an interactive PPT for new hire orientation to writing flexible benefits policies to coordinating a company-wide volunteer day.

Happy is Not Engaged
While these actions make people “happy” in the moment, they don’t drive employee engagement. Happy is not the same thing as engaged.  Engaged is when your employees trust leaders and feel an emotional connection to your company. Happy is a feeling people get when the office dog licks their face while they are drinking a free beer at the company picnic.

The result? Employee engagement is viewed as a temporary HR program or initiative, and we all know what employees think about Programs du Jour. In addition, one-off actions, like the ones listed above – even when pieced together – do not equate to a strategic employee engagement plan, which will yield massive measurable improvements in your culture and bottom-line results. Bottom-line, HR has been responding inappropriately to the employee engagement crisis for decades, and my guess is it may be approaching other areas of responsibility equally as inappropriately.

Then There’s Reality
However, we can’t lose sight of the fact that HR will always have responsibilities in the tactical weeds (administration, policies, procedures, systems, processes, reports), which are routine tasks focused on short-term outcomes. The key? If the tactical is not executed well, it will overshadow anything good that HR does strategically. It’s nearly impossible for senior leaders to hear your thoughts about strategic matters when tactical matters are wreaking havoc on the organization and its employees. Therefore, HR must have its tactical house in order at all times, so it can be viewed as a group that has the skill and bandwidth to chime in on more strategic matters.

Key Takeaways
A seat at the adult table is not elusive. Think about it – in time – you got there in your personal life and you can get there in your business life. For starters, embrace these three lessons:

  • In order to “shift” how HR is viewed, HR professionals must shift their mindset and look at HR issues from a business perspective and not just a people perspective.
  • When HR’s tactical house is in order, senior leaders are more likely to consider consulting HR before high-level decisions have been made.
  • A seat at the adult table is not a given, it must be earned by HR through respect, small wins, executing flawlessly on tactical matters, adding value, and strategic thinking.

I can see the place card on the walnut table in the Board Room now. It says “Reserved for HR.” To your success.

Jill Christensen
Employee Engagement Expert.  Best-Selling Author.  International Keynote Speaker.