HR Roundtable: Down in the Trenches – Is That Where HR Should Be?

May’s HR Roundtable in Cincinnati went on a deep dive into the HR trenches for this month’s meeting.

There was a great article from XPertHR which asked if the HR Trenches were the best place to be in 2012. Here is the link if you didn’t see the post before.

To get everyone to dig in, the following three questions were posed:

  1. Why does HR practice at arm’s length?
  2. What are obstacles that keep HR from the trenches?
  3. How can we effectively be present in the trenches?

The room was quietly intense as people really dig in and talk about where people are/aren’t socially. It was fascinating to listen in. Here’s what they had to share back to all of us.

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Why does HR practice at arm’s length?

  • It’s easier and less painful. Honestly, this is true to an extent. If HR keeps its distance, it can “appear” to be easier, but in reality it’s ignoring what may be occurring throughout the organization. The answer should be that it puts off the pain, but it still may be coming.
  • It feels safer. Again, it may feel safer, but it can also be an illusion. If you’re practicing HR to be “safe,” you may want to find another profession. Dealing with people is great, but there is risk involved whether you like it or not.
  • Having to fire your friends. Ouch! If this is your take on HR, then you need to reevaluate what HR entails. Terminations occur, but if you feel that it’s an avoidance tactic because your “friend” might lose their job, I don’t know what to tell you.
  • Problems, problems, problems! An undeniable fact of being in HR is that problems define our daily activity. This isn’t supposed to be negative, but it can be burdensome. Always having to solve people related issues can take its toll. It doesn’t have to be dark and dank. There are great ways to make these less of a “problem” and more of an “opportunity.”
  • We avoid conflict. Duh! This isn’t unique to HR by any means. In fact, most supervisors come to HR to have them take on the conflict that they won’t. Conflict is a part of our daily lives as well. However, people need to realize that most change comes out of conflict of some sort. So, we need to see how conflict can be healthy and worked through. It’s tough, but possible.
  • We’re overwhelmed. This is a trying issue with employees in the workplace in general. The reality of “more with less” is at our doorstep in most organizations. Understanding that may give people more perspective. HR people need to realize that the others around them are overwhelmed as well.
  • People feel that HR is intrusive. This is incredibly ironic. Employees want HR to be involved but not “too involved.” If you are being intrusive with folks, cut it out. The key here is to be consistent with people and this sentiment will fade away.
  • Fear and legal issues. These can be two separate items, but more likely than not, they’re combined. The anxiety of litigation can cripple an HR department. This is such a tough one because we are in a legal realm in such a variety of ways. However, we can’t let fear hold us at bay.
  • Maintaining the “Mystique of HR!”  This may be the single best response in the history of the HR Roundtable! This is — unfortunately — how many employees (and management) see HR. Since we work in areas ranging from laws to payroll to benefits to the odd and quirky challenges of Employee Relations, people don’t exactly know what HR does. Some HR folks use that to their advantage because they’re never pinned down. This doesn’t mean that it’s right, but it does exist.

What are obstacles that keep HR from the trenches?

  • The culture of the company. How HR is viewed is the linchpin to what HR can/can’t do in a company. There are a million different ways to say how HR has “allowed” this to happen, or that we’re doormats, etc. We need to just quit being the low self-esteem profession of the workplace. If HR is expected to be at a distance, then it will be difficult for people to change it.
  • Not fully competent. Don’t get hostile with this answer! There is good data out there that CEO’s don’t feel that HR people are competent in what HR can do. This is something that needs to be changed both individually as well as collectively. There are several ways to do this through professional development and certification. It’s key, though that HR people take the initiative to get out and get the training they need to be competent.
  • The inefficiencies of administration. When people feel that the administrative side of what we do isn’t effective, they tend not to want to use us. This is something that can be in our wheelhouse to make the burden of paperwork painless for our employees.
  • Physical separation. Unfortunately, some HR folks can’t even get to the trenches in their organizations because their locations are all over the planet. Being physically separated is a challenge, but there are great options through technology that aren’t impersonal that can bridge this gap
  • HR is ALWAYS on management’s side! This is such a challenge for us. Great HR can be an advocate for both the employee and management. It doesn’t have to be one-sided. We are in the “middle” of these groups of people. We just need to see how to best serve all people.
  • HR doesn’t know the business. Steve jumped on his soapbox here. This may continue to be an issue, but it’s a tired argument. If HR can’t realize that we are in the business, then we have bigger issues than the trenches of HR. It’s up to us to put this to bed. It’s time for us to be businesspeople who practice HR!

How can we effectively be present in the trenches?

  • Involve people in decisions that affect them. You can be very effective in doing while not becoming a negotiating body. Everyone has ideas! Tap into what people are really facing before launching the next “great” HR imitative. People are much more apt to adapt to change with involvement going in.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. This is the “anti-problem” strategy that all of us can accomplish. In order to dilute, or eliminate, the mystique of HR (still love that), then communication is the key. Keep in mind that it should be intentional and focused communication, and not just a splatter approach.
  • Be with people and develop relationships. For some reason HR people don’t feel that can develop healthy relationships at work. Not true. It may be a little difficult to do this, but you can be a true partner to employees at all levels of an organization if you put yourself out there and make yourself available.
  • Evaluate the focus of HR. Is your HR department focused on things or people? Are processes more important than dealing with the humans who bring their best to work every day? We need to get out of the “one size fits all” mentality of HR and practice it on an individual level. Sure, it’s harder, but in the end it’s so much more effective!
  • Take risks! Another soap box opportunity  … We must step out into the middle of the storm in our companies. Having a sideline approach to HR will always keep you in a fire extinguishing mode. Set the vision, mission and strategy of HR for your company and put it firmly in the trenches
  • Be integrated! This is not only possible, it’s what senior management expects from all of the company’s functions. There’s no reason to not be in every department of an organization. Remember that if the department has people – it has a need for HR!

The opportunities for HR to live and thrive in the trenches is endless. The question is whether we’ll go in willingly or if we treat it as a forced march.

Don’t walk away. Strap on the boots, put on your helmet and jump in! The people are waiting for us.

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.



1 Comment on “HR Roundtable: Down in the Trenches – Is That Where HR Should Be?

  1. Steve:
    A very interesting article and food for a lot of thought. I find it hard to believe that there are no comments here.

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