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Who's your caddy? Leveraging HR's strategic partnerships

By Elaine Varelas, 9/04/2007

Human resources managers have scores of contacts at work: colleagues, direct reports, clients, prospective candidates, and vendors. A large part of an HR manager's job description is tangled up in these relationships with co-workers and outside contacts. Good relationships can help make your job easier, while rocky ones can sabotage your success.

How do you approach these associations at work, and do you even consider them relationships? Do you treat your contacts with reciprocity and respect? Or do you act as if these people are schlepping your golf clubs – and your game isn't that good?

HR managers have a long history of working with vendors to help get their jobs done, and they work with a variety of different providers and service firms: contingency and retained search firms, EAP providers, employment attorneys, recruitment advertising firms, career management providers, and executive coaching firms, just to name a few. Traditionally, human resources managers have approached vendor relationships as transactional: one service for a fee. While there may be benefits to treating certain relationships as transactions, it is possible that HR managers are missing out by not cultivating these vendor relationships into something more – partnerships and strategic alliances.

Not just a vendor

If you consider a vendor to be just a vendor, then that is what you will get – they will feel obligated to meet the terms of the contract and nothing more. How can HR managers grow their relationships to reap more rewards?

The sheer number of vendor contacts can make it difficult to maintain relationships. Some vendors you may use often, while others you may only contact once a year. Also, with budgets always at the forefront of their minds, HR managers often price-shop to keep costs down. Instead of building partnerships with a handful of vendors, they often jump from one to the next to find the best deal.

I like a good deal as much as the next person – maybe even more! Unfortunately, price-shopping may end up costing more in the long-term. Because there is no history, each new vendor must ramp up for each situation, and they may be missing out on spotting some red flags. For example, an HR manager who continually shops around for the least expensive EAP provider might neglect to see that an ongoing relationship with a strong EAP provider pays for itself in the long run. By creating an alliance, a good EAP provider can report on troubling trends, help to defuse messy employee relations issues, and help get disabled employees back to work more quickly.

Leveraging relationships

The deeper the relationship with all your vendors, the more value you will receive from them. Of course, budget constraints are a reality and there are times and places where shopping around does make sense. Managers need to factor in problem avoidance into the costs, too. Services are not always commodities. If you can define how a strategic alliance is valuable, you may be able to quantify it.

One way to derive value for any relationship is to take advantage of your contacts' expertise, knowledge, and connections. Instead of just contracting for one service, use your contacts as sounding boards or as part of an informal advisory board. HR managers need alliances – co-workers and outside contacts – to get things done effectively. It is human nature that people do more for the people they like and have relationships with. By branching out and developing relationships, you can gain influence. Relationship-building is a great way to maximize your influence within and outside an organization, especially in a time of budget constraints and cut-backs. Think of relationships as being like a currency. You can "buy" more influence with relationships.

This is also true with interoffice relationships. HR managers can leverage relationships within an organization to solve problems and be more successful – and it doesn't always have to be with company leadership. For example, an HR manager working at a busy downtown location may struggle to provide parking for candidates coming in for interviews. If these potential employees have a bad experience in the parking garage or getting through security, it can create a negative first impression, which may be difficult for the HR manager to overcome. By creating an alliance with the parking manager, HR can create a positive first impression for candidates by reserving spaces. It may seem like a small problem, but it can cause a big hassle, and turn off potential employees.

It works both ways

Of course, all partnerships and alliances need to be ongoing and reciprocal. Both members need to derive value from it and be invested in each other's success. HR managers should ask themselves, "What have I done for them lately?" Do you maintain your relationships as part of your network? Do you return calls and communicate often? Are you generous in your response to requests and favors? If you have an established partnership, people will be more willing to go above and beyond for you. And with a caddy who is a partner, your game will improve.

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