above the line HR

There are two basic approaches to Human Resources: above the line and below the line. The line has nothing to do with ethics, transparency, or straightforwardness. The line is simply the no man’s land between the two philosophies. The line represents: Things Are Ok.

If we talk about health and wellness, some consider a lack of disease to be healthy. Others insist that health and wellness is something more than not being sick: it’s vitality, energy, radiant well-being. The line between the two represents being ok. The first approach fixes things if they drop below the line – illness or injury – the second sees the line of being ok as a starting point and strives to move far beyond the line to increase wellness.

HR can be viewed the same way. One approach exists to prevent things from breaking (don’t get sued!) and fix them when they do. It’s a reactive approach that assumes that as long as the company is compliant with laws and regulations – as long as it doesn’t get “sick” – HR has done its job well.

The above the line approach sees this as the starting point. Yes, you should keep it legal and prevent leaders and employees from doing terminally stupid things – but that’s the bare minimum expectation. Above the line HR does more than prevents illness, it sees the opportunity to help the company excel much like a trainer helps athletes improve. A trainer doesn’t just keep the athlete from being sick, they push to create maximum wellness and physical performance. The trainer can’t do it for the athlete, but brings knowledge, process, and discipline to the athlete’s efforts. AND maximizing physical performance also means super disciplined nutrition, preventative care, and top notch medical attention – all of which prevent illness and injury. The above the line approach naturally addresses below the line concerns because it can’t improve performance unless it prevents and mitigates health setbacks.

Above the line HR is the same way. To help the company (athlete) get the most performance, it has to be really sharp and proactive about making decisions and taking actions and providing the training, tools, and processes that minimize the need for below the line approaches. For example, few, if any, “illegal” interview questions provide any information that leads to identifying high performance employees, so why ask them? Performance is performance whether it’s male, female, white, black, yellow, blue, or green, in a wheelchair, left handed, believes in nine gods or none at all, etc., etc., etc. Kneejerk management decisions that often get companies in trouble are avoided, prevented, or mitigated not just to prevent trouble but because stupid decisions get in the way of people being at their best and hurt the engagement and commitment of the most talented employees (the ones you want to keep around). The athlete may go against the trainer’s advice, but does so balancing the potential consequences rather than out of ignorance or narrow perspective. Likewise, HR can’t make business decisions for leaders but can do everything in its power to ensure leaders are making informed and (hopefully) better decisions.

Who has a bigger impact on your personal vitality – the doctor you see only when sick or the physical trainer and nutritionist you consult with regularly? If HR is not “at the table” (sorry, I hate that expression), chances are it’s because they are viewed as the doctor that only gets visited after the fact to cure illness and injury. Staying below the line ensures minimum influence and impact.

Two approaches. One keeps the company from not getting sick, the other pushes for maximum health and performance. One prevents bad, the other strives to create the most good possible. They are similar in wanting to protect the company’s health but very different in philosophy, approach, and outcomes.

Above the line, below the line. What thinks you?


  1. Much prefer ‘above the line’ HR. Unfortunately so many business owners focus only on ‘below the line’ issues. So restrictive and nowhere near as much fun.


    1. Hi Louise, thanks for visiting and commenting.

      Yes, many business folk (HR included in that bunch) are short-sighted, resisting change, only fixing what is broken instead of building what could be great. It’s really the difference between finding how to be amazing vs how to be just enough.

      I take solace in W. Edwards Deming’s famous line, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”


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