Human Resources – Nanny Department or Inquisition Squad?

In my previous blog I was wondering if we should actually start calling Human Resources (HR) the Nanny Department but positive as this may sound, there is also a potentially darker side to this.

 

The Dark Side of HR

Dave Eggers in his book “The Circle” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Circle_(Eggers_novel)) shows most vividly how this darker side might look. It is not often that HR appears in a novel which is why we should look closer when it does. The heroine of the book first meets HR when she joins the company, when HR is all friendly and helps her to quickly get on board. But soon the heroine is breaking the written and unwritten rules and this is when she meets HR again who are asking her why she is not following the rules and if the Circle is indeed the right company for her.

To be sure: HR is not the watchdog that Dave Eggers portrays. But it does punish employees for unwanted behavior. Rules are, of course, necessary wherever people live and work together. And there have to be consequences if these rules are not followed. Bullies and their likes need to be sacked if they do not change. And who else should send them away but Human Resources? What Dave Eggers is referring to is one of the dangers that HR might have to encounter in the future because the control of people´s behavior has been at the heart of many company policies since the early days of the industrial revolution.

 

From New Lanark to „The Circle“

New Lanark in Scotland dates from the early days of the Industrial Revolution and is now a World Heritage Site that gets hundreds visitors every day (http://www.newlanark.org/). It is difficult to describe this place to anyone who has not seen it. It is a factory with a village attached. New Lanark had a church, it had shops, it had a school and a library. There was no need to leave New Lanark. Workers spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week there. Your boss and your colleagues would know whether you attended church or not because they were there as well. Due to the generous pension scheme your parents would live there as well.

To many visitors today New Lanark seems to be hell. To the founders it was paradise and though it lasted only a few decades, it was widely copied. Industrialists all over the world founded villages next to their company where they had total control of their workers. Dave Eggers company campus is a direct heir to New Lanark. In his book the employees do not have to leave the company campus. It got shops. All your friends are there, you can bring your family. New Lanark has heirs in real life, too, many of them in Silicon Valley. Google is currently extending the so-called Googleplex which, once completed, is going to offer care for children, three meals a day, rooms for resting, gardens, free transport. Everything is like New Lanark, except for the church.

Robert Owen, the founder of New Lanark, was a very religious man who wanted to create a kind of paradise. His mission was to reconcile the needs of his workers and his company and he was convinced he knew better than anyone else what was best for both. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, too, are keen to create a mission and vision for their company, both religious terms. Silicon Valley has better tools than religion to control and correct. At the moment it is not entirely clear in which direction this is going. If it goes in the same direction as shown by Dave Eggers, the companies will need a watch dog. And if it does, the nanny department might indeed become the inquisition squad described in “The Circle”.

Why we should give HR a new name

The other day a friend called to tell me that HR in his company was now also in charge of health topics. “Are you guys in charge of everything now?” he said. I fear we are.

The times of HR as being purely the pay roll department were over when it starting recruiting and dismissing employees. Now HR helps employees to become better in their role by providing training. HR is the one to help when you get bullied or sexually harassed by your colleagues or your boss. It supports you on health issues.

Your colleagues are arriving late at the meeting, are not prepared and regularly check their smart phone? HR helps you to create communication rules. HR is the one that you call when you do not like the food in your canteen. I know of HR departments who help their employees in financial matters. It is the department to organise your parking place, which books your travels. HR is also the CEO, the chief entertainment officer.

As employees are more and more referring to the HR department so are managers. Many managers dislike training new employees. Once recruited, employees are supposed to function immediately which is why HR is also in charge of on boarding. And if the on boarding is not fast enough, HR is also there to get people in line or to send them away.

So HR is really in charge of everything that employee and particularly managers do not want to do. Because these jobs are tiresome and unpopular. It is the dirty work that has to be done but nobody likes to do.

Should we then not  actually call HR the nanny department?