Trench HR: Where Java Means Coffee

Many years ago my friend Charlie Judy coined the phrase #TrenchHR. Boy oh boy did we run the hell out of that hashtag on the Twitterz circa 2010 – 2017 or so. (And then it kind of died off).

It’s still a shorthand I use quite frequently though because it perfectly (and succinctly) summarizes and encapsulates the HR practitioner experience. The phrase #TrenchHR (which, now that I think about it, would look really cool on a t-shirt), is a combination secret handshake, rallying cry and code word. It’s the opening shot to a conversation about REALITY:

Bob: “What do you do?”

Susie: “I work in HR.”

Bob: “Trench?”

Susie: “Yup”

Bob: “Me too.”

*** knowing looks ***

See here’s the thing; there really are different kinds of HR. While HR practitioners may have the same baseline/foundational knowledge and education, they practice their alchemy in different ways…depending, quit often, upon both their function and their environment. The act of #TrenchHR is not necessarily dependent upon organizational size; there are high-level HR professionals (with expansive span of control, fancy titles and an enviable HR tech stack) in enterprise organizations dealing with #TrenchHR issues every day. There are HR practitioners in start-up or growing organizations who rarely have to muddy their boots in the trenches.

For the most part, anyone who works as an HR consultant is not dealing with #TrenchHR on the regular – unless they are a number-crunching organizational wonk, truly embedded with their client, or serving in a Fractional type role.  This is also, by the way, why I firmly believe that no one (i.e. a newly minted HR grad) should EVER move right into “consulting” without spending some time in the trenches. They haven’t even LIVED real HR; how in the world are they going to advise someone? (Same with the academic types. But that’s another blog post).

So what is #TrenchHR? Well it looks like this….

  • Dealing with systems that are outdated and/or don’t function in the current era; stacks of paper for new hires to complete, spreadsheets as an HRIS, and paper time- cards that employees manually complete, sign and drop off (via inter-office envelopes!) in the Payroll Office each Monday morning
  • Being in charge of things like swag, t-shirts, Fitbits and pizzas for the weekly employee lunch (while also tracking shirt sizes and dietary preferences)
  • Needing to hire 40 people per month (#evergreen!!) with a monthly recruiting budget of $400
  • Battling with the CEO/Owner whenever there is a need to update or modernize the company’s people practices (“I don’t care if employees will quit if we don’t let them WFH; I want everyone back in the office NOW where I can see them!”)
  • Investigating in order to determine which employee felt the need to eliminate their bowels in a location not anywhere remotely near a toilet bowl (internal code name: “the mystery pooper”)
  • Completing an HR file audit (of any kind; I-9s; benefit files; training logs; you name it)
  • Having to maintain actual paper files in the first place
  • Conducting any sort of conversation about bodily fluids. This may include (a) discussing with a new hire why they felt the need to carry a urine-filled condom in their pocket to their post-offer drug screen appointment, or (b) determining why there is DNA (to use the approved terminology from Law & Order: SVU) on the sofa in the employee break room
  • Launching a harassment investigation that turns out to be nothing more than grown-ass adults acting like they have the hormones of 10th graders in a love triangle (or a love dodecahedron)

And so much more. So. Much.More.

Hanging in the trenches takes guts; though there’s minimal glory.  Positioning oneself in the trenches requires moxxy, a sense of humor and a whole lot of compassion for the human experience. It’s where I fell in love with this crazy profession of human resources and where I’ve spent the bulk of my time.

And, now that I think about it, #TrenchHR doesn’t just belong on a t-shirt. We deserve a monument.

******* 

shout out to my friend Andrew Gadomksi who, once upon a time, gave me the inspiration for this blog post title (and I’ve been sitting on it ever since)  

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Your Mom Called (and she’s in HR)

HR mom

Many of us have fond opinions of mothers – whether those notions be based on personal experience or something fed to us via TV when we longed to be cozied up next to Claire Huxtable or Carol Brady at our own dinner table.  

The thought of “mother” brings to mind someone caring and nurturing. Someone who makes sure we take our vitamins, eat a good breakfast and do our homework. We like it when mom is cheerful, fun-loving and even downright silly.  And while mom may occasionally cramp our style, deep down we know that a good mother has to be stern and play the authoritarian when the situation warrants it.

  • “Put on a sweater, I’m cold.”
  • “No; I will not bring the homework you forgot to school. You should have put it in your backpack yourself.”
  • “I’m not going to tell you again.”
  • “I’m not running a taxi service.”
  • “Because I said so, that’s why!”

We love moms.

But we don’t want to work with them.

The HR Mom

Surveys regularly find that HR continues to be a female-dominated profession with representation hovering around 70% across the entirety of the HR workforce/profession. (and yes; approximately 65% are white). (Back in 2011, John Sumser let us know that HR is a 47-year- old white woman. She’s married, with kids and has pets that probably aren’t cats.”). 10 years later and all that appears to have happened is the average age has probably twitched up a bit.

And one of HR’s continuing problems is that there are lots of “moms” working in the field. NOT necessarily those who have children of their own but rather those who have decided they will ACT like a mother to the employees of their organization.

One would think that after decades (literally decades) of HR professionals desiring to be “strategic” and lamenting the fact that they are not taken seriously in their organizations, some of these mom-isms would disappear. But nope; there are regular chats, posts and discussions that could just as easily be taking place at the PTA meeting as in the HR office.

Over the last few months I have participated in discussions that provide lots of insight into how some HR practitioners feel the need to INSERT themselves into the types of situations that are either (a) placing HR in the role of caregiver and NOT strategic or business-critical in the least, or (b) reminiscent of an over-bearing and hovering mother intent on ‘”teaching a life lesson” to her offspring. To wit:

Topic: Companies providing menstrual products in employee restrooms.

  • Cossetting Mom: I keep supplies in my desk drawer in the HR office and employees who need a tampon or pad know they can come see me.
  • Harsh Mom: Nope. People need to be prepared for any emergency and make sure they bring their own supplies.

Topic: Workplace attire/dress codes

  • Cossetting Mom: I have pins and a sewing kit available and some clear nail polish if an employee needs to mend their pantyhose.
  • Harsh Mom: I expect people to dress professionally even while we’re working virtually; I wrote a dress code for Zoom meetings.

Topic: Attendance (sick, tardy, emergency)

  • Cossetting Mom: *** rare and almost non-existent ***
  • Harsh Mom 1: If someone’s start time is 9 AM, I expect them to be at work no later than 8:55 AM. They need to plan for bad traffic and potential road accidents; there’s no excuse. Time for a write-up and attendance points!
  • Harsh Mom 2: Sick? But they can go to shopping because another employee saw them at Walgreen’s? If they’re too sick to come to work, they’re too sick to go outside. I don’t believe they’re really sick.

Topic: Meetings/Parties/Events

  • Cossetting Mom: I need to come up with a theme, purchase and wrap gifts for employees, determine what games we can play, and coordinate the food for 100 employees.
  • Harsh Mom: No drinking, eating or vaping allowed while you’re on the 4 PM Zoom team call.

Topic: Morale and Culture

  • Cossetting Mom: I bake something every week to leave in the breakroom and we have candy for employees in the HR Department; they love coming to visit us!
  • Harsh Mom: When I want their opinion we ask for it with an engagement survey; random and anonymous employee complaints are not useful at all.

Sound familiar? If so it may be time to go to your room and think about what you did…

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When “Everyone” is an Online Celebrity

Six years ago, an eternity in HR years , there was a topic I presented via keynote and general sessions at several HR conferences around the country:  “Lessons from Hollywood: HR and Pop Culture.”

The gist of the content was that we, as HR professionals, are well-served when we realize how pop culture/”Hollywood” shapes the world of work, influence, organizational change and the entire HR agenda. Why is this important? Because human resources practitioners tend to become singularly focused on legislative or economic activities but fail (big time fail) to consider how OTHER factors impact the world of work.

So I discussed the need for constant environmental scanning (via the PESTEL model) and reminded my HR comrades to pay particular attention to pop culture – movies, music, literature, art, politics, design, fashion, consumer trends and even slang and memes – because those are the things that signal shifting or emerging ideas, perspective and attitudes.

Six years ago, signals could be easily picked up regarding things like gig work and the evolving definition of “family” and savvy HR leaders, even those in fly-over country, were picking up on the swiftly rolling tide.

Another trend I discussed was the rise of what I call “look at me (me! me! me!)” culture which was, admittedly, somewhat in its infancy circa 2015 when examples I refenced included the “discovery” of Justin Bieber and how Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton were launched into the influencer-sphere via their sex tapes.  While we had been living with reality TV for some time by then this was well before the omnipresence of Instagram influencers making serious bank by giving make-up tips or grifters of every stripe “monetizing” their YouTube channels by spewing crackpot conspiracy theories.

Yet, even then, we could see the rise of the concept that “everyone” can be a star.  

And in those somewhat-innocent days, the exhortation was for HR practitioners to take advantage of this shift. We began, in earnest, to plead with HR to think of how their employees could be evangelists and brand ambassadors. We promoted having a plan for employees to widely share company-branded content or job openings via their personal social media channels.

Oh sure – the rise of micro-celebrities led us down some dark paths as restaurant employees posted videos of themselves bathing in the kitchen sink. And every now and again there would be a clip or tweet posted by someone of a bit more nefarious nature that prefaced a somewhat-public termination from employment.

And for the last few weeks, as we’ve been inundated with a tsunami of self-posted pictures and videos of Americans surging at the US Capital, it became abundantly clear that FAR TOO MANY PEOPLE believe that EVERYONE ELSE wants to listen to/see their shit.  

We’ve moved well beyond duck-faced Instagram selfies and masturbatory humble-bragging on LinkedIn. We’ve surpassed the desire of seemingly everyone to start a podcast. It’s more than just one rando employee – and TikTok star!!! – posting paint-mixing videos.

I’m not surprised at all.

But if everyone is a self-appointed celebrity in 2021…who’s in the audience?  

*****

image: “All right Mr. Demille. I’m ready for my close-up.”

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Racism: When HR is Part of the Problem

HR professionals are the architects of the employee experience. They’re the ones responsible for ensuring their workplaces are free from unlawful discrimination and racism. They’re charged with nurturing a culture that promotes diversity, inclusion and equity.  In challenging times, when people are confused and hurting and taking to the streets to protest for issues of basic human rights, employees rely on their HR team to communicate and reassure.

Numerous HR professionals are excellent at doing these things.

Others are doomed to fail miserably. 

Why? Because, unfortunately, there are far too many HR practitioners who themselves exhibit a profound lack of either understanding or care and who, to put it bluntly, are racists themselves.

Over the last several years alone I have heard the following

  • “I treat everyone the same; I don’t see color.” – OK; we can work with this one to some degree via education and conversation. Unfortunately, it was followed up (by the white, privileged HR Director) with “there is no such thing as white privilege.”
  • A local HR Director was interested in serving on a board of directors. When discussing roles and committees, including D&I, she explicitly stated, “I don’t believe in diversity; that’s all made up.”  
  • “This is a fun place. And none of ‘those people’ come here.” – spoken by an HR leader/SHRM leader to an out-of-town (white) guest who had traveled to speak at a state SHRM event.
  • “I’m not prejudiced; we had a Black housekeeper who practically raised me. She was like part of the family” – in the category of things that are Southern and problematic; see “The Help”
  • When discussing the hiring process at her company an HR practitioner said “Well, you know she’s Black so guess the only people she will ever hire?” 
  • “I don’t go to that store in that part of town; it’s too “dark” there if you know what I mean.” HR Director, 2020

Oh these HR folks aren’t using the n-word in public but they’re awfully good at using code words and euphemisms like “them” and “those people.” They realize they’re crossing a line though; you can tell that when they ‘whisper’ the offending word. 

And, of course, lots of racist white people figure they can read-the-room. They’re out having a few cocktails with HR peers or sitting at a table with other white people at a SHRM meeting and they assume everyone thinks the same as they do. There’s no holding back. They open the door on their ugly souls. 

So what to do? 

  • We must, if we work in HR, call out our HR colleagues when they say things that are hurtful, inappropriate and racist. 
  • We must continue to elevate the voices and contributions of our BIPOC colleagues EVERY DAY; not just on ‘certain days’ of the year. 

We can do better.

We have to do better. 

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Turnover, Retention and the Crusade to Assign “Responsibility”

Ask most any HR Leader “what’s your biggest pain point?” and I guarantee that retention/turnover will be up there amongst the top 3 answers. Quite often this answer is partnered up with its companion “recruiting/hiring” since, of course, they share space for all eternity on the organizational mobius strip. 

Depending upon one’s company, the responsibility for lowering turnover/increasing employee retention may be a shared goal (as it should be) or may belong to a specific department: usually HR. 

Which is crap.

When Stan in the Distribution Center resigns it’s not due to the interactions he had with Karen in the HR Department or Sherrie in Recruiting. (Recruiters are another group that tend to have their performance measured, inaccurately, on turnover numbers). It’s quite likely that Stan didn’t even resign because of his direct supervisor or department manager. Oh I know; every speaker at every HR conference for the last 2 decades has posted a slide with the seemingly profound words “people leave managers…not companies!” (And then they act like they are the first person to ever say this and all the attendees furiously scribble these seemingly transformative words in their notebooks). 

I detest that pablum statement. Are there horrible, toxic and downright inept managers out there that drive people away from organizations? Of course there are. But people do leave companies; I certainly have. People may have the best manager in the world BUT that manager’s hands may be tied by the company. 

People quit, resign, mentally check out, get fired and just plain stop-showing-up for a variety of reasons. And yes; while some people get fired for an egregious act wherein they may go out in a blaze of glory, there are sufficient numbers of people who are terminated for performance because, well, they just stopped trying or caring.

NONE OF THIS IS THE FAULT OF THE HR DEPARTMENT. Heck, I would argue, again, that quite a bit of it is not even the fault of the person’s manager.

The reasons why people leave their jobs can be classified, fairly simply, into either PUSH or PULL factors.

Push factors are those over which the organization has control. This includes factors such as overall company culture, pay and benefits, working conditions, trust (or lack of trust) in leadership, and opportunities (or lack thereof) for development or career progression. Push factors may also include the annoying co-worker in the next cubicle, the lack of up-to-date technology one has to do their job, and the company’s propensity to rule via death-by-a-thousand-cuts-HR-policies. 

Pull factors are those things that are outside of your organization (and outside of your control). These factors include family responsibilities (a move, family care issues), personal decisions (returning to school), commute and travel issues, and personal/family finances that necessitate a change.

Some may argue that the siren call of a competitor (they pay more! they have free snacks in the breakroom!) is a PULL factor. In the vast majority of cases I disagree; the number of regular employees (i.e. not top tech talent, the superstar marketing professional, etc.) who are recruited (sourced, called, woo’ed) for another job is pretty slim. But even if it does happen, there is some underlying PUSH factor that leads the person to go through an interview and application process beyond simple curiosity. 

They want to leave. And NOTHING you can do is going to get them to change their mind. 

So what IS the role of Human Resources?

HR’s responsibility is to recognize and understand the reasons why people leave the organization, identify the problem areas, and develop solutions to lesson the impact (financial and otherwise). This requires gathering data (exit interviews anyone?) and synthesizing it, appropriately, to provide some real multi-layered answers. 

There are areas, fully in the control of HR, where adjustments can be made:

  • Attraction and recruiting initiatives lay the foundation for retaining talent and HR/TA needs to get this shit right. The “employer brand” should be real and truthful; there should be no sugar-coating of what the day-to-day reality of working at the company is like. Never (ever) should applicants be promised one thing to get them in the door and then the organization delivers an employment experience that is entirely different  
  • HR, with some heavy-lifting from managers, manages the onboarding experience from the time-of-offer to a date well after the newbie employees start. HR should dive deep to ensure onboarding includes sufficient aspects of cultural assimilation, socialization and opportunities for relationship building (in addition to all the “how do you DO your actual job”) 
  • HR staff should work with managers, and equip them with the training, time and resources, so they can provide a high-feedback/high-touch work environment. Do some supervisor/manager training? Sure. But back that up with the time and money to let them do-what-you-hired-them-to-do.

In addition, there are certainly other areas where HR professionals can have an impact on some of the PUSH factors including offering pay and benefits that are competitive and at appropriate levels and ensuring development opportunities truly exist (and aren’t just paid lip service on the company career site). HR professionals should also do some soul-searching and find ways to ‘lighten up’ on the draconian, bureaucratic HR policies and procedures that provide much of the fodder for the “I hate HR” crowd. 

Easier said than done of course. Depending upon ones’ level in the organizational hierarchy (i.e. any layer below the CHRO) and/or the size of the organization it can be a downright futile exercise. Karen the HRBP covering a small region for an enterprise with 50,000 employees unfortunately doesn’t have much input into the drafting of the corporate HR policies or defining the compensation philosophy. (YET SHE IS STILL TOLD SHE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR TURNOVER!) 

Here’s the deal though…

So often, when lectured by a CEO/Owner/Big Shot VP that she is responsible for lowering turnover, Karen in HR (as mentioned above) who is sitting out at a regional site and has no real power to make deep and abiding organizational changes, will do a bunch of “activities.” She’ll hand out water bottles with the company logo, order in pizza, and kick off an Employee of the Month award. 

But no one’s going to stay just because they might – one day – win the “Employee of the Month” award and receive a $25 gift card and their name on a plaque hung in the breakroom.

The Push/Pull factors are still there.

*********

How much do I like this diving into this topic? So much that I’ll be speaking about it at the Talent Success Conference in September. 

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