How to Convince Senior Leaders to Add HR Headcount

By Arlene S. Hirsch January 18, 2023
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How to Convince Senior Leaders to Add HR Headcount

​Although senior leaders increasingly recognize the value of HR, they often are reluctant to add resources and headcount to their HR budgets, according to the State of the Workplace Report issued by the SHRM Research Institute last year. As a result, HR professionals are increasingly burning out from overwork and stress.

However, some HR professionals are finding that they can make a convincing case for more headcount by showing senior leaders how additional resources can be used effectively to drive business results. But before you approach leadership to request headcount, you need to be ready to clearly show the business need.

"Many CEOs still view HR as an expense rather than looking at the whole picture," said Maggie Smith, vice president of human resources at Traliant, a compliance training company headquartered in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "HR may need to educate senior leaders about the HR function." She explained that some in the C-suite may not know what HR does to attract, engage and retain employees, or they may not understand the high cost of turnover.

"HR is often considered a soft [field] because many HR initiatives don't translate directly into revenue. That makes it harder to quantify the value," said Dominique Andrews, chief people officer at Logically, an IT services company based in Portland, Maine. She encourages HR professionals to better understand business needs and priorities and learn to think and talk like the company executives they report to.

The Pandemic Changed Things

A key challenge when seeking approval to add staff is educating senior leaders about how the HR function has evolved over the past three years.

"Since the onset of the pandemic, HR has been the tip of the spear in contending with the complexity of how we work," said Bernard Coleman, chief diversity and engagement officer at Gusto, a San Francisco HR-tech platform. "HR professionals are on the forefront of the employee experience of attracting, hiring, onboarding, engaging, developing, progressing and retaining talent, and [HR] is both the architect and the steward of the employee journey."

But HR also has been stretched to the limit and, in some cases, has become a dumping ground for a wide range of nonessential activities.

"HR professionals need to distinguish between busy-ness and impact. They spend a lot of time doing things that don't deliver or make enough of an impact," said Megan Gregorczyk, vice president of employee experience at G-P (Globalization Partners), a software-as-a-service-based employment platform in the San Francisco Bay Area.

As the former head of staffing operations at Google, Gregorczyk recalled working for a boss who advised her to focus on "landings, not launches." 

"Ask yourself, 'What outcomes do we need to deliver?' and 'What resources do we need to deliver them?' Then ask for the resources you need to deliver those outcomes," she said.

The Leadership Challenge

"Many of the issues that HR is responsible for are not just HR functions, they are leadership issues," said Kristin Turner, who is based in Denver and is head of people at CoachHub, a global digital coaching platform.

This can be problematic for HR professionals who don't view themselves as business leaders.

"HR has an identity problem. They haven't been able to see themselves as crucial leaders in the organization," said Cindy Adams, global president of Cornerstone, a leadership services and products company in Draper, Utah. "HR needs to be more courageous and put forward more ideas. They need to bring a business case to senior leaders about why they need more headcount and show how HR made a difference in the business."

When Turner joined CoachHub in 2021, HR was viewed primarily as a resource for recruitment, compensation and employee exits. She wanted to prove to the senior leadership team that she could be a true strategic partner who could help them solve real business problems. So, she partnered with company leaders in finance, legal and IT, and over time, she was able to show them the value of what HR could do to support their business needs if given the right resources.

The results spoke for themselves. As revenue rose, she was able to grow her HR team from one person to six in a single year. But she admits it took patience, persistence and a bit of creativity.

Align People Goals with Business Strategy

At the beginning of 2022, Payscale's HR team consisted of 10 people supporting a population of about 500 employees. Through 2022, HR grew by seven hires alongside the company's aggressive growth strategy. Lexi Clarke, HR vice president for the Seattle-based compensation company, credited her ability to add HR headcount to her strong working relationship with the company's CFO.

"It was important to tie together people problems with number problems that the CFO was thinking about to determine how our people strategies can support business goals," said Clarke. "We looked at the company's plans for growth to figure out how many recruiters we needed and what kind of specialized expertise was required."     

For HR professionals seeking to convince senior leaders to prioritize people-related resources, it's critical to show how HR efforts support key company objectives, said Neha Mirchandani, CMO and head of people at BrightPlan, a financial wellness company.

"It's also important to back this up with tangible data and metrics related to the positive impact on the business, such as reduced turnover and increased employee engagement," she said.

Be Ready to Do Your Homework

"Don't be lazy. Do your homework before asking for more headcount," advised Debora Roland, vice president of HR at CareerArc, a social recruiting software firm in Burbank, Calif. She recommended using the Scope Triangle to prepare for the kinds of questions senior leaders are likely to ask when considering the cost of additional headcount. The Scope Triangle is a project management tool that shows the inherent trade-offs between three main elements of any project: time, cost and quality.

"Ask senior leaders what they're willing to sacrifice if they don't want to incur additional costs. Are they willing to sacrifice quality or time to save money? Show them how the additional resources can improve quality and/or efficiency," Roland said.

"Choice is a powerful tool," added Gregorczyk. Let leaders decide what they want HR to prioritize. Make it clear what they want you to prioritize and what will need to be delayed. Then, she said, if there's something that senior leaders want to move from the back burner to the front, that's the point at which they need to make a decision about whether to add more headcount.

"That can be a hard conversation for HR because they don't like to disappoint anyone," Gregorczyk said. "But it's just a math equation. There's only so much you can do with the resources you have been given."

Take Purposeful Action

When Andrews decided to transform Logically's HR function into less of an administrative role and more of a value-added strategic partner, she initially turned to training and technology to build internal capability before making the business case for additional headcount.

Andrews recommended using HR technology for repetitive administrative tasks in order to free up members of the HR team for other responsibilities. Then she evaluated her team's existing skill sets to identify whether they had the skills to meet the evolving business needs and whether there were team members who could be trained to fill in the missing pieces.

As Andrews implemented these changes, she was able to convince senior leaders to add an HRIS specialist to the team to deal with more complex technology systems, as well as a compensation analyst.

"Whenever you're adding headcount, it needs to be purposeful," Andrews said. "If there are business needs that require specialized skill sets, that's where you need to focus."

As the HR function becomes increasingly complex, the need for HR specialists is likely to grow, as well. But it's up to HR to make sure that senior leaders understand the value and importance of growing the HR team in very deliberate and meaningful ways. Coleman calls this "the moment when preparation meets opportunity. HR professionals have the skills to navigate building our teams to support the business and to give guidance that minimizes risk and maximizes performance," he said.

"The see-through line is clear," Clarke added. "Better HR equals better retention and recruitment equals better business results."

When HR professionals are able to develop the leadership skills and deliver the kind of outcomes that senior leaders care about, their value and importance to the organization increases exponentially. 

"So, when leaders consider whether to incur the additional expense of adding HR headcount, they will also be looking at the high cost of losing key HR talent," said Clarke. 

Arlene Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.

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