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Know Your Enemies, No. 1: The Human Resources Department
By IT Shambles

There are a few people in your life that you’re always pleased to see. A couple of mates who invariably lift the proceedings when they walk into the pub. Maybe your mum or your granddad, perhaps your life partner or even one of your kids. Your wife’s cousin who’s always throwing barbecues with an inexhaustible supply of Pringles, coleslaw, Lincolnshire sausages and bonhomie. Likewise in the professional sphere, there are certain folk who make the sun shine whenever they turn up. Could be the analyst who, refreshingly, genuinely understands software and always turns up with biscuits and home-made cake, or it could be the one member of the Board who seems actually to like his staff, can be trusted when he talks, and may not even be a flesh-eating reptilian alien from outer space.

Other workmates are less heartwarmingly uplifting. Most times, they’ll be somewhere on the continuum between bearable and annoying. One guy might be barely literate and lazy to the point of catatonia, but at least he doesn’t moan or make waves. Another woman is capable but slow, and painfully boring especially when droning on about her ailments. However, a few choice colleagues will be so unspeakably dire that dealing with them can only ever result in abject misery and suffering. In my own dismal history, I recall with chilling clarity an engineer who combined poor personal hygiene and a hair-trigger temper with a staggeringly poor grasp of even the basics of computer programming. For work purposes, he was King Midas in reverse; any routine he touched turned to shit, any project he joined would never see the light of day, or at least not while he was involved with it. Half a day of him hacking away at some unfortunate chunk of system and it would become an impenetrable thicket of incomprehensible spaghetti code. He’d then spend the next three months blundering in ever decreasing circles around the forest of garbled Java he’d created, slamming his keyboard on the desk, shouting, swearing, sweating profusely and cursing the original architects of the system he blamed for his predicament. Eventually we would tire of this and lead him gently away from the screen as he foamed at the mouth and strained at the restraints on his straightjacket. The job would then either get canned or passed on to an unassuming Northerner who would bin the mess, start again from scratch, and wrap the whole thing up neatly within a few days. By the by, I’d always hire Northerners given the option – they’re humble, they work hard, they don’t complain, and they operate at a pretty high level of ability for comparatively low pay(*). It’s the fear of being sent back up the A1 (a highway in England) that keeps ’em biddable. Remind them every now and then that the pits and steelworks all closed in the ’80s and they’ll be good for another 50 hours at the keyboard.

But I digress. My dim former colleague was a lone maverick, and his problems derived mostly from hapless incompetence rather than malice. What we shall deal with here today is mass institutional hideousness. There are whole departments in your workplace filled entirely with terrible people bent on the creation of havoc for you and every other sucker trying vainly to do worthwhile work. Everything they do, be it consciously or otherwise, will lead to ruination and heartache for someone else. It will be pointless, excruciating, badly organized, stultifyingly banal, intellectually unsound, viciously ruthless and / or brutally destructive, but in all likelihood a full house of all of the above. I refer in the first instance of course to Human Resources.

Ah, Human Resources. Even their title is appalling – as if human beings are some bulk commodity to be shipped around the world in containers, like blocks of frozen orange juice or beef carcasses. But of course that name precisely reflects the way they think. If some bunch of unfortunate proles are to be laid off and their jobs bundled off to the Philippines, well, they’re the team to Make It Happen. If they turn up, it’s always bad news. Even if they aren’t closing the office, someone’s going to get whacked, or there’s going to be some dreadful reorganization. Least worst, but still noxious, they’re rolling out some dim-witted Strategic Initiative – maybe we’re Living The Brand or perhaps instead working to Identify, Empower and Nurture Top Talent(**).

But before I go any further, are Human Resources really as comprehensively despised as I claim ? For once, in place of rabid, bilious opinion and unsupported invective, I can support my assertion with granite-hard facts backed by overwhelming statistical evidence gathered under rigorous experimental conditions. Well … to be honest, not entirely rigorous experimental conditions. Most of the field work was conducted in pubs, and some drink had been taken but I feel a certain amount of alcoholic blur was essential to ensure that the test subjects provided their most honest, unmediated, unfiltered responses. I give you “The Four Walls Thought Experiment”.

The Four Walls Thought Experiment

There are four walls. You are standing about 20 yards away from each one. Lined up against the first is a bunch of estate agents; against the second, recruitment consultants. The third wall has a motley collection of taxi drivers, lawyers, merchant bankers and telesales operatives, while along the fourth a group of top flight Human Resources Officers are arranged. You have an assault rifle loaded with 30 rounds; for the sake of argument let us say a standard issue unmodified AK-74M, but other models are available. Any action you take in the next half an hour is free of legal consequence though it may in time weigh heavily on your conscience. What do you do?

I have been shocked, appalled and stunned at the responses I have received over the years to this purely theoretical moral dilemma(***). 80% of respondents instantly and without a single qualm or second thought snap off the safety and empty the magazine into the fourth wall. Some spray at random, some single out particular victims, some descend into the sickening and savagely pornographic detail of how they will inflict the most suffering on the greatest number of HR professionals given the time and ammunition available. I have had devout Christians, pinko liberal soft underbelly Guardian readers, pacifist Buddhists and strict vegans who could not even bring themselves to spay their cat dissolve into deranged dribbling bloodlust at the notion of being able to get even with The Man’s most hateable henchmen.

So why is this ? Well, most other potentially vile groups of people turn out in practice to have redeeming features. Taxi drivers in Lisbon, for example, seem to be the nicest people in the world. A recruitment consultant might get you a job. Estate agents and lawyers you only have to deal with once a decade or so, and you’ll never even meet a merchant banker. They might be terrible, but their terribleness is a fair distance away and only impinges on you occasionally or indirectly. The poor sod ringing you up to sell double glazing is stuck in a horrible job for rubbish money and all you have to do to get rid of him is put the phone down.

HR on the other hand is ubiquitous, unavoidable and right in your face. If you are an employee, as most of us are, they have to be grappled with continually. When you join, when you leave, for your annual review, if you are to get a promotion or a pay rise, if you want to claim expenses, if you need to sort out training, if you have a barney with someone, if you want to hire someone, if you want to help someone transition from within the organization in order to seek success elsewhere.

But lots of things are ubiquitous and not in any way repulsive: lampposts, cups of tea, mobile phones, sandwiches and Myleene Klass spring to mind. But those things are united by their performance of some mildly worthwhile task in a moderately pleasant fashion. When they are done with, we have no reason to think any more about them either for good or for ill. What HR are paid to do is not even vaguely agreeable: they are at bottom corporate hatchet men. Or more commonly, corporate hatchet women. No more and no less. They are there to enforce discipline, weed out defiance, punish backsliding and liquidate weakness. In other contexts and other times, they’d be known as the Nutting Squad, the Military Police or the NKVD. I may be exaggerating slightly. I have never personally had anyone from HR come round and smash my kneecaps into bloodied shards of bone with a pickaxe handle, yet the fundamental equivalence is sound.

So, as Rottweilers-in-Chief to the Senior Leadership team, executing those nasty jobs that the Big Chiefs don’t want to get their hands dirty with directly, HR are never going to be anyone’s best pals. But then, there are genuinely nasty jobs which have to be done. Factories, offices and departments will on occasion outlive their usefulness and must, sadly, be closed. Dodgy boys who haven’t been pulling their weight for years have to be dealt with, up to and including the point where they are handed their P45 as they are kicked arse backwards down the front steps. There are vital roles to be filled by people who are happy and able to do those hard and needful jobs without scruples or guilt. One could opine that such folk must have a moral compass so severely twisted that they can be no more than two stops away from sociopathy on the tramline of personality disorder. But then, on the other hand, one could equally note that with the ever-increasing specialization of the modern world, finding a cosy employment niche is as much about transforming your crippling personality defects into assets as it is of playing to your actual strengths.

An HR team that was keen on doing the grotty stuff and did it well would be bloody useful. But there is no such thing. If you have worked in and managed people for a Shiny Plate Glass High Building type company, you will know this. HR will certainly be the people who inform you that two of your team must be offed. They will also be the ones who create the labyrinthine procedures by which this must be gone about. They will make you sit through endless Powerpoint slides telling you what you should and should not do, what you have to say, what you must under no circumstances commit to and what the eventual outcome has to be. But when it comes time to have a little chat with the unfortunate hysterical / enraged / vulnerable / embittered almost-ex-employee, HR to a man and woman will have done a sodding collective bunk. You will be walking into that featureless meeting room alone except for the poor sap who is about to have his or her professional life destroyed. If there are tears, if one word is misplaced, if possible grounds for constructive dismissal are given, if you get stabbed in the face with a sharpened biro, it is All Your Fault as you are the Responsible Line Manager. HR showed you the presentations, they lectured you extensively on the procedure, they furnished you with a complete set of dire warnings. It is not the role of HR professionals to do a line manager’s job; they are there simply to advise, to support, to guide and to provide oversight and governance. If after all of that help and wisdom, a line manager is still unable to cope with a Performance Management / Employee Egress Situation, well maybe that line manager should themselves be moving into a Conduct and Capability Review Scenario. If you’re lucky, they will wait on initiating that scenario until the bandages are off and you have at least 75% vision back in the injured eye.

But even if you do manage to carry out your orders to the letter and effect the sacking without any nervous breakdowns, knifings or lawsuits following as a direct consequence, for the consummate HR pen pusher this will not be enough. It will not strike them in any way as contradictory, idiotic or hypocritical when two months after they arm-twisted you into getting rid of a quarter of your people, they call up to discuss the poor morale in your team and the fact that you’ve considerably undershot the retention targets for the year. Tut, tut, tut, tut.

In terms of thoroughgoing unbearability then, our chums in HR really are ticking all of the boxes. Let us, in classical HR workshop style, summarize what we have established so far. HR are, in general and provably:

  1. Omnipresent – Tick !
  2. Cruel – Tick !
  3. Bureaucratic – Tick !
  4. Time-wasting – Tick !
  5. Patronizing – Tick !
  6. Unaccountable / Teflon-coated / slope-shouldered / shifty – Tick !
  7. Inconsistent – Tick !
  8. Thick – Tick !
  9. Effectively useless – Tick !

These nine check boxes on their own are more than enough to justify the homicidal rage which Human Resources provoke, but there is one final confirming trait which makes them almost infinitely abhorrent. Neatly again in classical HR style, we then have a handy list of ten gut-wrenchingly insufferable characteristics (****) of which this last cherry-on-cake-applying one is:

    Delusions of likeability – Tick !

You see, they want to be Loved. Beyond that they feel they deserve to be loved, as everything they are doing has everyone’s best interests at heart. They are working to protect and strengthen the business and the workforce really should recognise the value of the enormous contribution they have made.

This is the curse of 21st Century Soft-Centred Innocent Bloody Smoothie Capitalism. Business thugs will jump waste deep into the most venal, barbarous, cynical and self-serving action in a heartbeat, but as they wade through the filth, they will nonetheless try to convince themselves and the rest of us that they are doing The Right Thing for The Best Reasons, in order to maximize The Sum of Human Happiness or whatever. They will even expect to be applauded by their victims as they are stiffing them, as though those innocents ought to be able to see beyond the immediate stiffing into the Big Picture and the Greater Good beyond. Ghastly. Back in the good old 20th Century, profiteering plutocratic villains were content to be profiteering plutocratic villains. Slater-Walker, Sir Jammy Fishpaste, Tiny Rowland and the rest of the Mayfair Set were delighted to be universally loathed as callous amoral bastards driven only by power, money, and a savage animalistic lust to destroy their rivals and grind their bloody remains into bonemeal. They were happy to takeover, asset strip, sack, close down and cash out with the cackling glee of proper Victorian-style baddies and without a jot or scintilla of remorse. They didn’t give a shit if the proles wanted to see them dead – not one bit of it, they got off on it big time. What they really cared about was that their new yacht was bigger than Bob Maxwell’s and that they could now justify buying a private island in the Caribbean so as to have somewhere nice to moor it. The whole set up had the brutal simplicity of the jungle. The bosses hated the workers and would screw them for whatever they could get. The workers hated the bosses and would use organized labor muscle to get as much as could be got for the least possible effort in return. It was perfectly symmetrical, and, while we may have collectively destroyed manufacturing industry in Britain during the 1970s, at least there was no gooey folksy BS.

From the 80s onwards, with your Bransons and your Jobses and your Googles and all of those bearded West Coast beatnik business types, it’s no longer enough to own a massive boat with a helipad and a midget submarine and three swimming pools. No, like some damn fool Absolute Monarch from the 17th century, the new breed of top banana now want to be adored by their serfs and courtiers as well. As Business Tsars lead, so their most dribblingly eager Human Resources lap dogs follow. Of course the iron discipline, kneecappings, backstabbings and defenestrations are as common and necessary as ever they were, but we now must have them covered with a yard-thick layer of soft lilac touchy feely nonsense. And as with all Big Lies it isn’t just that the target audience of saps must swallow it, those delivering the bilge repeat it so zealously and so often that they end up believing the nonsense even more fervently themselves.

Wouldn’t it be great if just once an HR department spontaneously decided to own up to its true nature. If I were in charge, I’d start with a change of name: Staff Services. SS for short. With the new name, we’d have a new dress code – out with the tired old high-class trolley-dolly -executive relief consultant clobber they normally sport, and in with the new – starker, kinkier and far more blatantly aggressive.

Full length leather trench coats obligatory of course, along with heel-clickable jackboots and a swagger stick. Dual lightning flash insignia optional, but personally I’d go the whole hog right down to the Death’s Head cap badge. In for a pfennig, in for a Reichsmark …

Once title and uniform were in place, honesty in word and deed would organically follow. If this HR detachment turned up at your workplace (always in a motorcade with armed motor cycle outriders) everyone would know it was going to be a Bad Day for some poor buggers. Edicts would be enforced rather than namby-pamby initiatives getting rolled out, and there would be no twaddle along the lines of “yearning to be all we can be as we evolve toward global best practice.” No, no, no, no, no. If anyone dared to ask for an explanation, it would always be because the Supreme Leadership had demanded that it be made so in order to stiffen morale and terrify any malingering potential saboteurs into compliance. One could even begin to respect a Human Resources department that set their stall out with such refreshing vigour and sincerity.

But no, that will never be. On they will go, with their delusions of benevolence, utility and adequacy, launching bright new dim-witted programs designed to drive employee engagement up to Himalayan heights, which will have no beneficial effect whatsoever but will instead increase levels of incredulous cynicism, teeth-grinding boredom and generalized employee despair. This month they will be Opening The Door To Progression, next month they’ll be Coaching Sustainable Commitment, the month after that Identifying Talent, Promoting Quality and Standardizing on the Superlative. There is no escape. The best that can be done is to remain calm and preserve decency and the stiff upper lip as madness, destruction and stupidity rage around you. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake is the perfect role model in this regard.

(*) With apologies to any readers who are in or of the North. It must be awful for you. Some of my closest friends, and even family, are Northerners.

(**) I am afraid I am slipping into both buzzwordish jargonese and Inappropriate Mid-Sentence Capitalisation. It seems to be impossible to write about HR without picking up their bad habits. I’ve just outsourced the wife to Romania too, as it goes.

(***) Please note that I am not advocating the mass murder of HR consultants, or merchant bankers, or even corporate tax lawyers. Quite a few of the buggers do want a bloody good punch up the flump, mind.

(****) Having produced a list of ten objectionable features, I feel obliged to come up with a snappy mnemonic using their initial letters. That’s what a real HR person would do, so that key learnings could be carried forward into day to day business as usual operations. But with “OCBTPUITED” to work with, the best I can offer is “Butt Copied”. Sorry.

IT Shambles is a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-of-the-road middle manager who plies his trade in the mid-Anglia region. Read more on his blog.

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