The Uneasy Relationship Between HR Generalists and Staffing

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.

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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!

Ed Davis has been a leader in the staffing field for over 25 years. Davis is currently managing director of staffing with United Airlines. Prior to joining United, Davis was vice president of staffing with ConAgra Foods and R.R. Donnelley. Throughout his career, Davis has created enterprise-wide recruiting processes, systems, and organizations at large corporations. He is a frequent guest speaker at industry conferences and he was recognized as “Staffing Professional of the Year” by the Staffing Management Association of Chicago in 2006.


16 Comments on “The Uneasy Relationship Between HR Generalists and Staffing

  1. Very good points. In our work helping organizations get new leaders up to speed quickly, we have seen repeatedly that a primary cause of misalignment and disengagement of new employees is the way that most organizations split up their recruitment, orientation, training, and management efforts. In many cases, multiple uncoordinated players oversee discrete pieces of the onboarding process and make poor hand-offs across those parts.

    We address this in our upcoming book: Onboarding – How To Get Your New Employees Up To Speed In Half The Time. There’s a download of a summary of the book available on our website.

    George Bradt
    PrimeGenesis Executive Onboarding and Transition Acceleration

  2. In my personal experience, organizations should have the business partners and the staffing partners as peers. They are different enough functions that if you’re going to split them, truly create a partnerhsip by making them equals. Then you lightly force essential communication necessary to bond potential partners.

  3. Well done Ed. I totally agree with your idea of the “power of three”. I am very passionate about this subject, and wholeheartedly endorse your bringing it up and “stirring the pot”. In fact, I wrote an article here on ERE almost four years ago that similarly “stirred the pot”. Its here:

    In this day and age, when recruiters are being laid off, and HR Generalists are now left to hold the bag… its important that recruiting professionals know that we need to ensure that much of the relationship-building onus is on us! Good work!

  4. The dissonance (love this word – see my article in the print Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership, Nov 2008), typically comes down to two words: Turf Battle.

    The irony is that by working in a closely coordinated manner, the recruiting partner and the HR business partner deliver vastly superior results TO THE CLIENT, which is really the name of the game.

    I’ve had both excellent and poor working partnerships with HR business partners. One of the best actually resulted from a candid discussion with an HRBP while at Wachovia where we both admitted to being control freaks in what we deliver and we both believed in the concept of provide me a solution or move out of my way. End game was we collaborated better, shared ideas, desired outcomes and delivered solid solutions to our highly demanding client.

  5. Hi – is anyone having trouble accessing the file attached under the words “I’ve illustrated what I call the HR Collaboration Model” ?

    Email me if you are having trouble, and I’ll email you Ed’s file.


  6. I’ve been a recruiter. I’ve been a generalist. I’ve even been a generalist responsible for the recruitment team. In almost every case, I found that there really never was a turf battle. The generalist was accountable for the client relationship. Staffing was always a part of HR delivery to client satisfaction. The best generalists (and staffing professionals) recognized the relationship and accountablility and simply executed. Turf battles almost always were the result of blame. When things worked well, there was enough relief from the generalist perspective and satisfaction from the staffing perspective that conversation about who “owned” the situation rarely even took place.

    Yes, collaboration was the end result and is always desireable. However, it all begins with simple recognition (from my experience on the staffing side) that it’s good to develop and have a relationship where the generalist is seen as the enabler and facilitator. It’s good to have a buffer when some times hiring managers operate at a level of urgency that borders panic or restlessness.

    Sadly for many it is a turf battle for the attention and respect of the hiring manager/client, but I always caution staffing people to allow the generalist to be the interface with the client because the generalist can give constructive feedback that can seem like poor customer service if given from a staffing professional.

    One of the best ways generalists can bring staffing in as part of the talent delivery and management team is to make sure the business has effective direct and indirect (through the generalist) communications with staffing professionals. There’s probably no 100% correct formula for all companies or situations, but it’s possible to be more effective if the generalist approaches the situation already as the relationship manager who’s called upon staffing professional for expertise and delivery.

  7. Great article!! I’ve been a recruiting manager, recruiter, and fill-in HRBP forthin Fortin 1000 organizations. The recruiter and recruiting manager succeed when they think and deliver like a sales organization.The HRBP succeeds when they operate more like a strategy consultant and financial controller. Very different personalities and agendas. The best relationships are when we see these HR roles as seperate but with the same goal in performance versus department or executive performance..

  8. Ed, the timing of your article is perfect. Many organizations will be faced with some tough retention decisions now. An example on the surface could be; it might make sense to cut talent acquisition staff if you are not acquiring talent and not consider the rest of the HR team because (HR is busier then ever during these tough times, aren’t they?) I for one think that is short sighted but in times like this if you are not thinking like a business person you will be quickly exposed….

  9. Thank you for this article….isn’t it ironic that the team focused on talent can actually have ownership issues? My employer uses the phrase “Weave”…..HR is supposed to be the example and lead the charge so the “power of 3” can work with even 5 or 10 team members. That can also be tricky — one person can refuse the play along and that can have a huge affect on outcomes. But I love seeing successful teams attribute their productivity to a strong “weave”!

  10. Darryl – I have seen the turf battles initiated on both sides of the table – HR Generalists and Recruiters. I happen to think they come into play when either one feels the need to “own the relationship” with line managers.

    What each professional needs to own is the service and support that they deliver. No one “owns” a relationship – and therein lies the problem. Turf battles are not about blame as much as they are about “getting credit”.

    I am accountable for what I deliver – to the line manager. I am also acountable for how I conduct myself with my peers. And yes, generalists, HRBPs, Comp & Benie mgrs, etc. are my peers as a recruiting professional.

  11. Todd – Yes, turf battles can be initiated by both sides. I simply suggest that the generalist owns the relationship because the generalist is often most closely tied to the business/hiring manager. In many cases, the generalist is actually a part of the hiring managers operational support team. At least that was my experience, but it isn’t like that 100% of the time or for all companies. I don’t see ownership as a bad thing. Recruiters own the relationships with candidates and other internal/external hire resources that generalists don’t.

    As a recruiter, I learned to never engage and lose time or effectiveness through a turf battle. From my recruiting experience, recruiters almost always lose turf battles even if they win a few challenges here and there. The reason – the generalist is a part of the line area team. Centralized/shared resources recruiters aren’t. I’m suggesting that if a recruiter feels a turf battle growing, he/she probably will be better served figuring out how to use the generalist’s energy and involvement in any other way than trying to prove who’s more valuable to a hiring manager.

    I also recommend recruiters allow the generalist to “own” the relationship because when things don’t work out most often the generalist/hiring manager can simply ask for another recruiter – who wants that? Generalists usually aren’t asked to stay out of recruiting by hiring managers so my perspective and recommendation of relationship “owner” is just one that is based on a hiring manager’s perspective of who’s there go-to. Hiring manager’s usually don’t ask for recruiter replacements – they do it through generalists.

    Again, I’m not suggesting that “owning” is a bad thing. In fact, I’m suggesting allowing the person closest to the hiring manager to step up and own key communication and facilitate through challenges in a way that generalists are uniquely position to do. Again, think about offer time in many situations. The generalist usually has to negotiate disconnects between recruiters and hiring managers.

  12. Darryl – I agree that ownership is not a bad thing. I simply don’t agree that a professional recruiter needs a professional generalist to own communications or challenges on their behalf.

    This is clearly an issue of perspective and yours and mine differ. Which is actually a good thing as it creates dialogue.

    Perhaps I have been spoiled in that, at the firms where I have worked, the recruiter (or certainly the recruiting leader) is viewed as the “go to” person for all recruiting matters. I’ve not experienced having a generalist intercede with line managers on offers. Again, maybe it is because of the environments where I have worked and my view on what recruiters are accountable for providing.

    I don’t see it as proving who is more valuable because that is not my desired end game. I don’t ask the care salesman to be accountable for the service technician – I expect the service tech to handle maintenance and the salesman to handle sales.

  13. Maybe it’s me, but I’ve very rarely had “turf” wars with HR. In fact, when I’m hired as a Corporate Recruiting Consultant, the HR department is thrilled to have someone who can take on the stress of their hiring needs. i’VE Since most HR departments are broken up into certain functions, the staffing function is considered just as important as the compensation, benefits or HR Rep areas. I’ve always sold myself as a solutions-oriented recruiter who will take on the responsibility (and stress) of hiring. That’s why I’m there. All I ask in return is to be provided the tools to do my job.

    What a lot of people don’t realize is that the HR managers and VP are constantly in the middle of budget fights, management/personnel issues, etc. and my job is to have a dialogue with my VP to clarify our goals and develop a game plan for hiring. Most of them are totally relieved that they can pass on the responsibility to a dedicated staffing person.

    In the end, the way you approach your HR collegues is critical. You are part of the team, and the best thing to do when you first start is to observe the dynamics for a few days to get the lay of the land. In fact, I’ve always offered to pitch in with other functions (like benefits, training, HR Relations, etc.) to help when things get crazy. This increases my value beyond the “staffing” function.

  14. I absolutely agree that when recruiting acts in partnership with other HR team members that much better results are delivered. In my current role I am part of a fantastic HR team – we all work in concert with each other and seek out each others various expertise in serving our clients. What I am saying is that it isn’t always the case in every organization and the discord is often about control.

    Could it be that I am the only person who has ever had an HR partner try to tell me how I needed to deliver recruiting?

  15. No Todd- you aren’t the only one. I’ve run into a few “HR Business Partners” who were only interested in justifying their jobs. Half the time, I don’t know what their actual jobs ARE! Anyway, the problem is usually solved with a good talk with my VP (who is who I report to) and also my hiring managers. The hiring managers are usually fed up with getting “lip service’ from HR. I always make it clear that the way I work, I’m the staffing expert and the buck stops with me. I also try to improve the recruiting process which most HR depts. don’t really have the expertise (their process is to purchase an ATS).

    Anyhoo, If I interview for a gig and get a bad feeling about the HR team I’d be working with, I turn the job down. Some disfunction is so ingrained (especially in large companies) that I just KNOW my effectiveness will be impacted.

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