How Chess Relates to Human Resources Strategies

By Parker Lee, HR Consultant and PEO Broker

Do you play chess? Do you manage the human resources of a small, medium or large sized company.

If you answered yes to both of the questions above, you might have noticed some similarities in the two. Many of the same skills used to win on a chess board can be used in making the strategic decisions needed to succeed in human capital management. Let’s explore:

HR Department Structure: Setting up the board

In chess, the game is traditionally played with 16 pieces arranged in a preset order. The pawns are lined up in the first row. In the center of the back row closest to the player are the queen and king pieces with bishops, knights and rooks flanking them on either side. At the beginning of each game, the starting layout perfectly protects each piece with another piece. If fewer or more pieces are added to the set-up or if the pieces are not placed in the correct order, then the game simply isn’t “chess”.

Likewise, human resources can be standardized into necessary “pieces”. If left out or poorly arranged, then an HR department simply won’t be playing with the full set of pieces. These components of HR are payroll, employee and executive benefits, insurance, training, documentation and software. All companies with one or more employees have some form of payroll in place. However, companies need benefits to successfully hire and retain a productive workforce. Businesses successfully manage their risk through properly placed insurance, adequate training and guideline documentation such as employee manuals. Software helps keep businesses organized as they grow by electronically streamlining the way paperwork is created, stored and retrieved.

Many businesses operate with less than the full set of pieces. It’s important to note that – just like those who set up their chess board incorrectly – these businesses may be unable to leverage important strategies down the line.

Your Day to Day: Tactics vs Strategy

Working in HR involves days filled with activities of different types. These activities can be organized into two categories. The first category consists of strategic planning which takes an holistic view. Strategy considers what tools to use, how to use them and where they should be applied. The second category is tactical. Tactics involve an acute knowledge of how something is done. It looks at each part of an operation individually, in silos rather than as part of an overarching strategy. In chess, strategic planning allows you to launch an orchestrated attack or take a defensive posture using several pieces. Tactical knowledge in chess means knowing how each piece moves individually (eg: the knight can jump and always moves in an L shape).

In HR, strategic planning means taking a holistic view of the different pieces that make up human resources. By being holistic, a strategic approach allows professionals to consider overall budget and effectiveness. Tactical knowledge in HR is limited to getting individual tasks to get done (eg: making a professionally written job description).

While both strategic planning and tactics are important, being able to step back from tactical obligations and look at one’s work holistically makes strategic planning an essential component of success.

Decisions: Using chess move analysis to make better HR decisions

In chess as in HR, it is easy to make a good move if you know how to play. However it’s harder to make a better move and fairly difficult to make the best move possible given the circumstances. This may be the case when selecting a candidate for a position or trying to determine which broker you will use for your worker’s compensation and employment practices liability insurance. It’s a good idea to think through a decision making process that helps you choose the best decision whenever possible. Chess masters always ask themselves questions like:

“why do I want to make that move?”

“what other moves could I make”

“are those other moves better than my original choice?”

“which of these options is the best move given the circumstances?”

HR professionals could approach their work in a similar way. Asking questions like:

“why am I deciding on this approach, choosing this candidate or buying this service?”

“what other options can I take advantage of?”

“are any of those options better than my original choice?”

“which of these options is the best for my company given the circumstances?”

Chess and HR Strategy for Business

Using a PEO: Castling for Business Owners

There is a special move in chess called “Castling” where you move the castle piece and the king at the same time. It can present an impenetrable defense if used at the right time in the game – instantly protecting your king and freeing up other pieces to be used in your overall strategy. Professional Employer Organizations or PEOs are like the castling maneuver: they instantly take over all of the key pieces of your HR department freeing you up to focus on your core business. Many business owners have turned to PEO providers and have benefited from reduced insurance premiums, better employee benefits and best-in-class HR technology. Like castling in chess provides turn key-defense and frees up other pieces on the board, PEO provides a turn-key HR departments and frees up companies to focus on their core business. Not all PEOs are created equal and some may be a better fit for a given company than others. Just like how castling is a strategic move that can be used at specific times in the game, PEOs are best used when the time is right and when circumstances of the company make it the right choice.


Managing human resources is like playing a game of chess. The pieces of the strategic game of HR are payroll, employee and executive benefits, insurance, training, documentation and software. Taking an holistic and strategic point of view is necessary to ensure a win in this game. HR professionals looking to make strategic moves should rigorously look at options both inside and outside of a relationship with a PEO provider to ensure that all of the pieces are set up and handled correctly.

If you are a business owner or HR professional, be sure to find a broker that takes an holistic approach to HR based on your company’s needs, looking at solutions both inside and outside of a PEO relationship.

Parker Lake is an HR Consultant and PEO Broker based in Miami with The OIS Group. He speaks to organizations of all sizes across the US about better ways to think about human resources outsourcing, employee benefits and insurance/risk management. Are you considering ways to get better value for your money in the way you business handles HR? If so, contact Parker today on (888) 654-8927 x135.

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