Defending The Indefensible

Posted on 8th June, 2009

You know the performance appraisal system sucks.

They know the performance appraisal system sucks.

But you pretend that it’s great. Why?

The Head of HR looked at me and murmured. The script handed down by Head Office was being followed, but with a knowing smile and all the enthusiasm of an atheist reciting the Lord’s Prayer. She knew that Head Office’s “reasoning” was incoherent, garbled and as intellectually vacuous as it was circuitous, but still she pressed on.

And that’s when it clicked. If - as I suspect - the body language and the tone were meant to be a signal to me (a coded “I think it’s bullshit too, but we both know I can’t say that”), then I realised that the scale of the problem that we have in HR is even greater than I thought.

I used to think that HR’s key problem was the calibre of the vast majority of people doing it. I now think that this is only partly the answer, and that if anything it’s actually the lesser of two stories.

Sure, if you think about the brilliant people you knew at school and university and consider how many of them went into HR, as opposed to say medicine, law, government, consulting, banking even, the number is very, very small. That’s not to say that there aren’t brilliant, bright, sophisticated HR people out there. There are, and they do a fantastic job delivering to their businesses everything that they need day in, day out. It’s just there’s not very many of them. And they are far outnumbered by the armies of automatons whose world revolves around process and well-intentioned but meaningless drivel about “human capital” and the like.

But we’ve known that for a long time. And we’ve smirked at them, we’ve chortled amongst ourselves at their Pooterish approach to life, we’ve rolled our eyes and sighed as the latest “urgent” missive is fired out of the HR bunkers, where – we are told over and again – it has all just been “manic” of late. We might even admit to having mimicked their quirky, clerky accents and the over-keen “haitch” in “HR”.

So, in a very unsatisfactory, intellectually snobbish, insidiously English and mercilessly class-based kind of way, we’ve dealt with them. We’ve “proved” that we’re superior, that they’re pointless, that they’re a waste of money but that, ultimately, and for as long as they can’t think, we can co-exist peacefully with them.

Now even if any of that was acceptable, which of course it is not – on any level – there is a bigger problem at work. And this problem is amply demonstrated by the exchange I set out above.

Because beyond the stellar, “one of us” - and “one in a million” - HR professionals, and beyond the hordes of also-rans, lurks a further type of person who is incredibly dangerous.

This is the person who has all the intelligence and nous of our stellar performer but who, unlike that person, not only refuses to speak out when the systems and functions over which she or he presides are lambasted, but actually goes so far as to defend them.

The damage that just one of these people can do to HR as a profession is so much more profound than anything that legions of clerks could come up with. That is to say nothing of the damage they do to themselves and their own reputations both inside their organisations and out.

I was once asked to effectively lie about the robustness of a client’s performance management system. I refused. My client was taken aback. Every other consultant had “fitted in”, as did all their HR people, and continued to promulgate a gross mistruth: that a system that everyone – particularly managers on the ground - knew was fundamentally flawed, was in fact “a really good idea”.

People aren’t stupid, they can’t – for example – be kidded that an appraisal from their manager matters if a) it happens after the decision of how much bonus they might get and b) can and will be second-guessed by central HR because of their nonsensical and slavish commitment to the ‘bell curve’ at every level.

And the problem is that unlike the clerks, we can’t snootily dismiss the people who perpetuate such madness. They’re bright, educated and qualified. We look to them to advise us and lead us in a terribly complex, sensitive sphere.

Above all else, we trust them.

But each time these duplicitous HR professionals tell hard-working managers and employees that the emperor has a beautiful set of new clothes, and each time those self-same managers and employees look up and see that – though they’re no experts – the emperor looks to them like he’s in his birthday suit, that trust will be drained away. It won’t happen overnight but over time the effects will be such that one day, the well of goodwill upon which all HR functions ultimately rely will have run dry.

HR continues to say that it wants to be heard, that it wants a seat at the top table. I think this is absolutely imperative - but is this the way to go about it?

My client told me it was about fitting in with what is possible in the current context.

I call it Defending The Indefensible.

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Comments (1)

Hi Nick, good read as usual.<br /><br />I\'ve recently posted on HR\'s spinelessness (and my participation in its collusion) here: http://strategic-hcm.blogspot.com/2009/06/hrs-spineless-response.html<br /><br />One more thing - you really need an RSS feed gadget on your blog.<br /><br />Best, Jon.