SPECIAL FEATURE: by Shelley GareNews Weekly
Creativity suffocated by managerialism and HR
, November 13, 2010
Of all the airhead nonsense bequeathed to us in the past 40 years by the pincer movements of postmodernism on the left and economic rationalism on the right, managerialism has been the most insidious, undermining our companies, universities and public service departments.Have you ever seen the Russian film Burnt By The Sun, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov? It tells the story of a famous Russian colonel, a military hero of the Bolshevik revolution, who is living with his wife and small daughter at his dacha in 1936 when an apparatchik from Moscow comes to visit. What our hero, Colonel Kotov, doesn't know is that the times have moved. His heroism, and the courage and independence that fuelled it, is now a threat to Stalin and the central commissariat.
In the final scene, the hero is taken off in a small black car, back to Moscow, by the secret police. He still doesn't comprehend what is happening; he thinks his status and army record make him special and protected. Suddenly one of the officials, a small, insignificant man, punches him in the face, leaving him bleeding, shocked into semi-consciousness.
In that moment, the colonel - and we in the audience - understand. It's a new order. What has gone before matters no longer.
That's how I think of the rise of Human Resources and that paralysing term of the late 20th century, managerialism.
One moment, there was a pleasant, greying man in a cardigan in Personnel, dealing efficiently with everything from annual leave to hirings, doing it all with maybe one assistant, so that we, workers and bosses, could get on with our jobs.
The next minute, there were huge carpeted departments of Human Resources people, mostly young women with a slightly menacing air; young women who spend their days, briskly handing out forms to be filled in and brusquely telling us how to do our jobs. Interestingly, few of them in my experience ever seem to know quite how to do their own.
There are now over 41,000 HR managers employed in Australia, more than double the number in 2000. Around 90 per cent work full-time; they earn well above average salaries and unemployment is below average. The federal government's Job Outlook site predicts more strong growth.
But a survey by recruitment group OfficeTeam published in May showed that over half of the Australian employees who'd been in their jobs for two years were thinking of moving on, or already looking. Another survey, published late October by on-line site Smart Company,
revealed that 73 per cent of workers "want to work somewhere-else".
Given those figures, and that HR professionals are breeding like pod people, you might feel safe in saying that one thing HR can't
be doing is handling staff well. So what do
"The first thing any HR manager does is hire other HR people," says a legal academic with the University of Sydney who lectures in workplace law and didn't want to be named for professional reasons. "Then they build walls around their unit and hold meetings. HR these days is a legal risk management tool and we can trace the rise of HR to the rise in the laws on unfair dismissal and discrimination. But you'd have to wonder what came first. HR is a parasite and like any parasite, it starts to modify the host."
A university vice-chancellor laments the fact that nobody above cleaner level can ever be employed any more unless it is done through an outside recruitment consultancy so that everything is seen to be done by HR rules of fairness and legality. It takes longer. It costs huge amounts. It also keeps HR personnel in work and makes the HR manager an indispensable cog in the process.
Political correctness has also helped HR stamp its feet and make people do its bidding. There are umpteen procedures, regulations and team-playing exercises that are supposed to eliminate anything that smacks of sexual, racial, or whatever-else other discrimination.
The Sydney academic talks scathingly of turgid HR prose. She has had young HR students who were relieved to discover that studying workplace law was straightforward and simple compared to grappling with the thick theory books of HR with its "hifalutin" language. "Which," says the academic, "is like wrestling smoke. It doesn't really do anything."
In Australia, Britain and the United States, HR has embraced whole-heartedly the idea that a job candidate's worth can be told by psychometric testing. While some of these tests are for cognitive, mathematical and verbal skills, they are also used to measure aptitude and personality.
Psychometrics is now used by most major employers. That's odd because researchers acknowledge how difficult it has been to work out if psychometrics does actually pick the most productive employees. The literature is minimal and mostly critical, which means we have this enormous industry poised on one toe and balanced on ... what?
Publicising her book Bait and Switch,
about trying to get a white-collar job at age 44 in corporate America, well respected author Barbara Ehrenreich told Amazon.com: "What surprised me most, right from day one of my job search, was the surreal nature of the job-searching business. For example, everyone, from corporations to career coaches, relies heavily on 'personality tests' which have no scientific credibility or predictive value. One test revealed that I have a melancholy and envious nature and, for some reason, was unsuited to be a writer! And what does 'personality' have to do with getting the job done, anyway? There's far less emphasis on skills and experience than on whether you have the prescribed upbeat and likeable persona. I kept wondering: Is this any way to run a business?"
A British research paper on psychometric testing (Alison Wolf and Andrew Jenkins, June 2002) says that high levels of such testing obviously benefit HR departments. The tests can only be used and interpreted by trained staff who tend to be in HR [or are outside consultants contacted by HR]. They then end up having a substantial input into the decision-making.
Many people, including me, worry that psychometrics simply weeds out people who might prove "difficult" or "questioning". One recruiter tells a conference that "organisational fit" is increasingly seen as the most important selection decision factor for Australian employers. Good organisational fit can just mean pliable, and worse, that an organisation will end up with a staff of clones. Clones policed by HR.
After my original essay on the triumph of airheadism appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine
, a Queensland reader who worked in IT e-mailed his theory about HR.
"It was part of that whole up-titling thing [in the Seventies] when secretaries were becoming PAs," he remembered. "HR gathered more and more power over manpower decisions while line management got less. Industry at the time was faced with this wave of sociology and psychology graduates and they were all looking for employment."
* * * * *
You can be sure that wherever a company boasts a lusty, strapping HR department, there too will you find managerialism showing its muscle. The presence of the former is a reliable indicator of the latter.
Managerialism is often not about work at all but about the appearance of work. Process. Mantras. Managerialism dresses itself up in jargon and double-speak and woof-woof language as well as expensive clothes and Blackberries. It does a good job of looking much smarter and cleverer than it is.
When PricewaterhouseCoopers investigated the $360 million foreign exchange currency scandal at the National Australia Bank and reported in early 2004, it found in the bank's culture "that there was an excessive focus on process, documentation and procedure manuals rather than on understanding the substance of issues, taking responsibility and resolving matters". ("Investigation into foreign exchange losses at the National Australia Bank", report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, March 12, 2004).
Web-logger and economist John Quiggin spells out how companies under the influence of managerialism work: "The main features of managerialist policy are incessant organisational restructuring, sharpening of incentives, and expansion in the number, power and remuneration of senior managers, with a corresponding downgrading of the role of skilled workers, and particularly of professionals." (John Quiggin, "Word for Wednesday: Managerialism (definition)", July 2, 2003).
I had watched, in my own business, media, 26-year-old marketing managers talking over the top of editors. I had started noticing a hang-dog look on all sorts of people who used to think their creative efforts or their skills and experience meant they mattered to their bosses.
Slowly and surely, these people who had once helped create companies (or publishers or a university or a government department's reputation) started losing their status and power. Their work took staff, time, rigour and resources, and because they knew their stuff, they had an annoying habit of being wet blankets about whiz-bang, cost-cutting schemes that promised easy bonanzas.
The new darlings are those who used to be in support or advisory roles; the accountants and financial officers who could cut staff and/or costs and whose positions, always strong, became stronger as the markets, concentrating on short-term share value, responded. As the fortunes of R&D and the denizens of what is loosely called the shop-floor sank, those of accounting, marketing, corporate communications, finance, legal and human resources all rose.
"Line" people have been turned into the pointy bit of an inverse pyramid and a culture of expertise has been turned into a cult of managerialism, which only means the professionals and creators have to work harder and harder to support the clumsy edifice above them.
But managerialism and its sidekick, HR, are now as much a feature of our landscape as cockroach outbreaks. They have infiltrated organisations, universities and our language and thinking the way legionnaire's disease goes through air-conditioning systems. At the same time, CEO salaries have soared to 75 times, 100 times, the average salary.
It's power and money and the promise of both that drive this new and dangerous airheadism. No wonder it has so many recruits willing to turn a blind eye.
I can't resist a postscript. The Job Outlook site quoted earlier, with its bullish predictions for HR, had this intriguing note: "The industries employing Human Resource Managers have below average employment growth prospects."
Hello?Shelley Gare is a well-respected Australian editor and widely-published writer who specialises in commentary on our modern life. This is an edited and updated extract from her bestselling book, The Triumph of the Airheads and the Retreat from Commonsense, which is available for sale from News Weekly Books (see this webpage).