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3 Key Competency Areas For HR Professionals

By Kelly Craig on May, 16 2016
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Kelly Craig

As HR becomes a more strategic & less transactional function within the organization, the competencies that successful HR professionals need on their jobs are changing.

But which competency areas are likely to deliver the greatest value to HR practitioners as they prepare for new challenges ahead?

3 of the key competency areas for HR professionals today are:

  • Relationship management
  • Business acumen 
  • Ethics

Read on for more details about why these are key areas and why they're so important.


The Changing Face of HR

Few professions have remained unchanged over the past few years, but HR has arguably seen some of the greatest changes.

The way businesses view their talent resources, and the methods used to recruit, develop, and retain them have evolved swiftly, and so has the HR role.

Twenty years ago, there would have been far greater emphasis on compliance and legal issues, and the most valuable competencies might have been those that prioritized “project management” and “attention to detail.”

While those are still important competencies in today’s workplace, the HR function is now more likely to be focused on making a meaningful contribution to business strategy, culture, and profitability.


What’s Behind This Shift?

There are two main factors behind this shift away from the preventive and towards the strategic in HR.

First, technology has automated many of the administrative tasks associated with transactional HR, which has freed up HR professionals to explore new ways to apply their skills and knowledge.

And secondly, talent is now more likely to be perceived as a business asset rather than a business liability.


Exploring the Strategic Shift of HR

An article by Josh Bersin explores this shift and gives some interesting examples of the ways in which HR can make a strategic impact on the organization.

He defines strategic capacity in terms of the ability to create competitive advantage, pricing power, differentiation, or deep levels of customer retention. HR, he argues, is now integral to such business goals as enhancing sales, building culture, and strengthening the company brand.

“To be strategic,” Bersin says, “HR must put time and energy into things that make the company ‘significantly different’ or ‘measurably better’ than competitors.”

When HR effectiveness is measured in terms of retention and engagement rather than legal accountability, and when HR professionals are tasked with “pursuing opportunities” instead of “preventing lawsuits,” it’s time to rethink the skills and capabilities that support HR success.

So what are the competencies that HR professionals need to step up to the challenge and fulfill these ambitious goals?

There are different answers depending on who you talk to or which competency framework you use.


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The SHRM View

For example, the SHRM Competency Model, published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), identifies a list of HR competencies that include:

  • relationship management,
  • consultation,
  • leadership and navigation,
  • communication,
  • global and cultural effectiveness,
  • ethical practice, critical evaluation,
  • and business acumen.


The HRPA View

The Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA) published a Professional HR Competency Framework that echoes many of these competencies. For HRPA, while more traditional competencies such as critical legal thinking, quantitative skills, research skills, and project management are important, today’s HR professionals also need to build:

  • emotional intelligence,
  • decision-making skills,
  • business acumen,
  • independence,
  • ethical behaviors and professionalism,
  • relationship management,
  • negotiating and influencing,
  • strategic and organizational leadership,
  • integration,
  • technological savvy,
  • critical thinking analysis.

And a 25-year research project led by the RBL Group, the results of which were published in HR Magazine, collected data from more than 20,000 HR professionals to identify the competencies that were of greatest benefit to HR professionals.

These competencies, the research suggested, enabled HR to become “strategic positioners,” “credible activists,” “capacity builders,” “change champions,” “HR innovators and integrators,” and “technology proponents.”


The Common Threads:

When we examine these sources, we can see that three competency areas recur in each:

1. Relationship management is included in both the SHRM and HRPA lists, and it aligns with the “credible activist” domain in the RBL Group research. Today, HR is about people, not forms and files, and practitioners need to be able to recognize that human dimension and build relationships with internal and external talent, supporters, partners, and stakeholders.

HRSG competencies: Inspiring others, managing people, managing conflicts


2. Business acumen is also named by both SHRM and HRPA as a key HR competency, and falls under the “strategic positioner” domain. Gaining a critical awareness of the ways in which HR can support or even redefine business goals is one of the most valuable competencies an HR professional can cultivate.

By making HR accountable to the company’s most critical KPIs, practitioners can elevate the HR function and deliver significantly greater value.

HRSG competencies: Business perspective, thinking strategically, nurturing innovation


3. Ethics appear in all three sources, defined as “ethical practice” by SHRM and “ethical behaviors and professionalism” by HRPA, and falling under the RBL Group’s “credible activist” domain.

Being able to build trust and manage personal and organizational reputation is hugely important as our societies increasingly demand greater transparency from the organizations they do business with.

According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, the levels of trust the public places in institutions such as NGOs, corporations, and government have never been higher, and this creates new opportunities for businesses that can leverage their reputations to reach new markets or deepen relationships with existing ones.

HRSG competencies: Exemplifying integrity, ensuring accountability


The Path Forward for HR

While the HR profession will continue to adapt in response to a changing world, these three competency areas are worth exploring.

As HR takes on an increasingly strategic function within the organization, practitioners who are able to navigate the complexities of relationships, business strategy, and ethical issues will have a unique and valuable contribution to make to their organization in the years to come.


Learn More About Competencies & Talent: 


Post last updated: January 8, 2021