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The Price of Admission for that HR Seat at the Table

It’s been said that the senior HR manager should be the CEO’s right-hand. Some think of HR as the heart of the organization. Others may think of HR as a purely administrative function. And some barely think about HR at all (after all, isn’t that something that could just be outsourced?). Outside of the HR function, with all these differing perceptions, there’s often a lack of understanding about adding an HR seat at the table.

For people inside the function, though, there’s usually a strong desire to have a dedicated HR seat at the table, to be part of key strategic decisions, and to be a part of discussions that will have an impact on employees. The lack of understanding here is about what it takes to earn and maintain that seat.  

Because the cost of employees is one of the highest costs of doing business, you might think that the senior HR manager would automatically be included “at the table.” Or you might think that the correlation between engaged employees and business success is a compelling enough reason to include HR. 

There are no “gimme” seats at the table, though. If you aren’t confident, assertive, knowledgeable, strategic, and clear on your own value, it’s easy for others to overlook the contributions HR could be making. That’s why the HR seat at the table has a 3-part price of admission: professional HR competencies, broad business acumen, and strategic thinking skills.  

Are HR Degrees, Certifications, and Continuing Education Really Necessary?  

Graphic Showing hr seat at the tableMost business advisors recommend getting HR representation of some sort once you have 10 or more employees. Once you have 100 or more employees, conventional wisdom says it’s time to add an in-house HR department (even if it’s a department of one).

To fill the seat and offload the administrative work, many growing organizations redeploy an employee with administrative, compliance, or detail-oriented competencies. Oftentimes, it’s a dotted-line connection to finance due to the payroll aspect of the job. 

Over time, the function grows in scope. But it remains a back-office role, focused primarily on data entry and recordkeeping. In small organizations, the person appointed to also handle HR matters doesn’t have and doesn’t pursue any additional education or credentials. 

It’s a missed opportunity. People thrust into this position don’t know what they don’t know. Without exposure to HR colleagues in other companies, they have no reference point for best practices. Without a formal education in HR, they can’t protect the company or proactively head off problems. Without resources like those offered by SHRM, they have no templates and tools they can use as a starting point to better resource the organization. 

HR professionals who pursue education and credentials typically earn higher pay, qualify for promotions, are more marketable, and operate with greater confidence. When HR professionals learn about best practices, industry trends, new tools and technologies, and sound approaches to handling sensitive matters, everyone in an organization can benefit. 

There are three reasons why HR professionals need to engage in HR learning throughout their careers:

  • Because the HR function is rapidly evolving, continually learning new skills prepares HR professionals to keep up with innovations, technology, and employee/employer demands. 

  • Because the workplace and the very nature of the employer/employee contract is changing, HR professionals need to stay ahead of emerging trends.

  • Because employment law is complex and constantly changing, HR professionals need resources that will keep them up-to-date and highly responsive. 

Employers benefit, too. Having a highly skilled workforce, across all functions, is smart business. Highly skilled HR professionals can better recruit and retain highly skilled employees in other areas + ensure delivery of quality services to employees. 

Knowledgeable HR staff can also help protect the business. Matters like labor law compliance, hiring practices, employee development, competitive pay/benefits packages, safety, company policies, and the like need to be administered fairly and strategically. Missteps, even when well-intended, can be costly to a business. To avoid errors and oversights, you’ll want the people who are doing HR work to be knowledgeable about it. 

This is true even for small businesses. You may decide to outsource your HR function or to maintain an HR Department of One. Either option is better than having no knowledgeable HR representation. Owners who attempt to handle all the payroll, benefits administration, performance management, recruitment/hiring/training, and policy enforcement on their own are over-taxed and at risk of missing major gaps. At a minimum, these owners or their designated HR manager should pursue coursework in the basics of HR management. 

Other managers may also benefit. HR certifications and courses are helpful to HR professionals, but there are others in management who can also benefit. If more managers had a fundamental understanding of HR essentials, more businesses would run smoothly and do a better job with people practices.  

Broader Business Acumen Will Help You Claim Your HR Seat at the Table 

Don’t make it easy for managers in your organization to sideline HR. It happens when they believe HR is out of touch and doesn’t really understand their needs. 

Classic examples of HR being out of touch include:

  • Expecting salespeople to log training hours in your LMS on subjects unrelated to selling. Since every minute in non-selling activities can reduce a seller’s commission pay, they’ll resist. Mangers are usually paid on goal attainment, too, so don’t expect them to compel non-selling activities unless they see how revenue will increase as a result. 

  • HR deadline for annual reviews, benefits enrollment, and other timely matters may not make sense to people who do work with seasonal or monthly peak times. The accounting department, for example, works long hours on a tight deadline to close each month. They don’t have time to do HR-assigned tasks at those peaks. 

  • When HR asks managers to create action plans for increasing employee engagement, managers are often stupefied. With no context, no resources, and no knowledge about what employee engagement actually is or why it matters, managers will ignore those requests and continue with business as usual. 

  • If HR becomes the Petty Complaint Department, managers may feel a bit suspicious or feel that HR is driving a wedge between a manager and an employee. HR shouldn’t indulge extended conversations about minor annoyances and should not participate in gossip or office politics in any form. HR should be an extension of the management team, not an adversary to it. 

  • At the same time, HR shouldn’t become the Cover-Up Department either. Employees need to understand when and how to enlist HR support for issues like harassment, fear of retaliation, hostile work environments, discrimination, and employee rights. 

HR is also sidelined when they don’t take the time to know and understand basic business functions. Finance for Non-Financial Managers, for example, is critically important for anyone who will participate in discussions about company revenue, budgets, profit targets, and shareholder returns. 

Similarly, HR should understand the competitive landscape. Industry knowledge, product knowledge, and marketing strategies are important to know before participating in future-focused conversations about the business. 

With basic business acumen, HR will be more credible and capable when contributing to discussions related to the goals, strategies, and vision. HR will then be on-target more often with people initiatives, recruitment and hiring support, and delivery of services. 

Seeking first to understand and then to be understood is a maxim that will help HR build trust throughout the organization. Knowing the innerworkings and workflow within and between departments enables HR to connect the dots and make better decisions. Rather than being out of touch, HR will be relevant, timely, and valued. 

Every HR professional should be able to answer these questions about the business they serve:

  1. What is the mission and vision of this organization? What is the role of each business unit in realizing this mission and in working toward this vision?

  2. Who are our customers? Why do they choose this organization vs. our competitors?

  3. Which product(s) or service(s) are the most vital to our success? Why? 

  4. What do our financial reports say about us? What is the story behind the numbers? 

  5. What are our greatest vulnerabilities as a business? How can we overcome them?

To build business acumen, spend time “in the field” or “on the floor.” Watch the work as it happens. Ask questions. Learn cause-and-effect sequences and don’t be afraid to “look stupid.” People will be thrilled to share what they know and proud to show off what they do. 

Keep Your HR Seat at the Table by Thinking Strategically

Unless HR delivers value at the table, HR won’t keep the seat at the table. Senior executives count on everyone at the table to bring a big-picture perspective and long-range vision. They want people there who understand what impacts the bottom line and how. They don’t want to get deep into the weeds with details, remedial explanations, or short-sighted views. 

For HR to be seen as more than the hire-and-fire, paper-pushing, compliance police, HR has to become true strategic partners across the organization. HR needs to know what the organization values and how the people parts of the business do (or don’t) deliver on that value. HR has to accept accountability for workforce performance and all aspects of it. Side note: that does not mean that HR should do all the work related to performance – that’s the job of managers, and HR must actively resist doing the work of frontline managers. 

To distinguish between what adds value and what is too granular for executive-level discussions, HR should be careful not to focus on policies, procedures, or products/services delivery. Those are solutions for day-to-day needs, short-term focused, and tactical. Instead, HR needs to elevate their perspective when they’re at the table to be more strategic.  

Strategic considerations that will help HR bring value to executive-level discussions and decisions include:

Staffing for future growth to attract, train and retain the talent that can deliver on key company goals. Workforce planning should be aimed at staying ahead of trends and must factor in globalization, digitization, and AI. This may include making adaptations to traditional employer/employee relationships. In the gig economy, for example, HR may need to shift toward contracting people for very narrow and specific tasks. These conversations should already be happening as these realities will likely impact all business strategies.

Employee engagement is so much more than an HR buzzword. Reams of research show the links between engagement and retention, productivity, customer satisfaction, revenue, and profit. Everyone in the business has an interest in employee engagement. They may not know or understand the domino effect, and it’s imperative that HR step up and show them these links.  

Employer brand – Retaining and developing talent plus providing a positive employee experience is essential for all businesses. Consumers choose to do business with employers who treat employees well. They boycott or steer clear of businesses with poor employee reviews. The employer brand is also essential in competing for talent.   

Budgeting and managing the costs related to the workforce. Negotiating for employee benefits costs, monitoring salary trends, and keeping pay scales competitive are just a few of the value-adding functions that strategic HR leaders bring to the table.  

Upskilling and reskilling managers. The role of managers is changing. HR should be calling attention to these changes, as well as training and hiring for the emerging competencies that will be needed in management. Coaching, leadership, distributed decision-making, enablement, ennoblement, critical thinking, learning agility, and soft skills are seldom seen in job postings despite the increasing need for managers who can deliver in these ways. 

Redesigning the HR function and the organization. Change is afoot and will happen to you or through you. Getting ahead of change and managing it is one of the best ways to add value in the boardroom. McKinsey offers a model that shows what HR should be driving and facilitating in preparing for the future.    

Nine imperatives can help HR leaders ready their organizations for the future.


Bigger picture. Longer-term thinking. Out of the weeds. Value-adding. This is the way to earn a permanent HR seat at the table.

influence vs authority