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  • My First Incoherent Rant!

    Posted by James R. Rummel on August 6th, 2005 (All posts by )

    The company I worked for seven years ago sold off their mainframes and outsourced the data processing they needed. Suddenly I found myself looking for work.

    This wasnít too bad in and of itself. Changes in technology mean that jobs sometimes become scarce in the marketplace, or even disappear altogether. I wasnít too worried because not only did I have over ten years of experience, but I had a good reference from everyone with whom I had ever worked. (Not only the supervisors, but also the people who were doing the same job.)

    It should have been a cakewalk, but I was in for a shock. What really frustrated me was the interview process. You see, none of the score-or-so companies that granted me an interview would allow me to meet with anyone who had anything to do with the job for which I was applying. Instead I found myself talking to people from the Human Resources division.

    Each interview conducted by a HR specialist was asinine in the extreme, without exception. They asked me such questions as ďIf you were a road, where would you lead?Ē and ďHow would working for this company fulfill you more?Ē I suppose I didnít give them the answers they wanted, because I was granted a second interview only twice.

    So something could have come from those second interviews, right? They would have if I had gotten past the HR people and talked to someone who actually worked in Data Processing. Instead I found myself sitting in front of more HR drones, except that the questions were even more idiotic. (ďDo you feel comfortable with the dominance that a supervisor has over those under her, like a pet owner to her pet?Ē)

    Data Processing is a closed profession, which means that you keep running into the same people over the years. And, like everyone no matter what their career, we like to talk shop. It was through this grapevine that I heard that most of the jobs I had been applying for had been given to 19-year-old kids with associate’s degrees, and most of those degrees were for non-technical subjects like art history. Experience, excellent references, a proven track record of good service stretching back more than a decade, and none of that mattered. It was like they didnít care if they hired someone who could do the job or not.

    Iím taking this walk down memory lane because of this article in Fast Company magazine. The author, Keith H. Hammonds, takes a much broader view than I have so far in this post. Heís interested in what Human Resources will do to make a company more profitable. The idea seems to be that HR is there in order to attract the best and the brightest and make their company more competitive. Hammonds spills a lot of ink to make the case that most HR professionals arenít doing their core jobs.

    It is very true that recruiting star performers is what HR should be doing when dealing with top executives or those with cutting-edge skills, and Iím sure that just about everyone who chose the HR job track would agree with me. But thatís not seen as their core function by the executives who make the decisions. Instead, having a Human Resources division is seen as a way to protect the company from wasteful and costly lawsuits. Hammonds discusses this briefly on Page 1, item 3. An excerptÖ

    “In the last two generations, government has created an immense thicket of labor regulations. Equal Employment Opportunity; Fair Labor Standards; Occupational Safety and Health; Family and Medical Leave; and the ever-popular ERISA. These are complex, serious issues requiring technical expertise, and HR has to apply reasonable caution.”

    Thereís been a transformation of both the importance and size of the Human Resources divisions at most US companies. The most common role they filled 20 years ago was seeing to things like medical benefits and retirement funds. Now they have their fingers in every aspect of the hiring process for most jobs, even if everyone in HR is profoundly ignorant of what the position being filled requires from an employee. The increased budget, and the greater importance of HR jobs in the executive hierarchy, results in efforts to protect that money and prestige.

    This is a difficult task, mainly because (letís face it) Human Resources is a parasite on the company. They donít produce anything or help recruit new customers. Itís tough to have a benchmark to measure performance when nothing concrete is ever accomplished. So the people in HR have created completely artificial goals that they can meet in an effort to prove that they are an asset instead of an expense.

    One way to protect their phony-baloney jobs is to choose new hires based on their education instead of their experience. The number of people with degrees earned after high school who join the company is something that makes executives sit up and pay attention. Any downsides, like dips in efficiency and high turnover rates from hiring unsuitable candidates, can be explained away as being a problem with the supervisors who have to train and deal with the new hires.

    Itís interesting to note that one of the many reasons that lawsuits against businesses proliferated was due to Affirmative Action legislation. Itís also interesting that some of the greatest defenders of AA are Americaís universities, the same universities that are necessary in order to gain a degree. And a degree, of course, is necessary if someone is looking to catch the attention of Human Resources and get a good job.

    I wouldnít go so far as to claim that this is all a scam, but it seems to me that the people who either have an academic career or a job in Human Resources have probably already connected the dots.

     

    51 Responses to “My First Incoherent Rant!”

    1. Jack Says:

      Number 1 rule in job searches: Avoid Human Resources

      The way to think of HR is as a barrier. There role is to screen people out, not in. If you can talk to the hiring manager directly, you have already accomplished the best possible scenario that you could have achieved through HR.

      My background is fairly eclectic and I am certain that HR would screen me out. So I deal with managers. Once they know they want to hire you HR is not an issue.

      I can see HR’s perspective to some degree. I used to hire people in situations where we had 100 resumes that all looked good on paper. You had to screen somehow. Usually we went with degree. In other cases, the company may have a good person in mind, but HR has to interview another ten to show that the right procedure was followed.

    2. Jonathan Says:

      Yeah, it’s a screening system. The problem is, not only does it screen out some (not all) people who should be screened out, it also screens out talented people who lack conventional credentials. And it often abuses them in the process.

    3. incognito Says:

      I’ve never worked for a company who had a “good” HR dept. As you say, all were parasites on the hard work of others. Take a walk down any HR row, ie the collection of offices or cubes that make up the HR dept, they aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. Talk to them, ask a simple question. Chances are they’ll try to pass the buck to someone else. That is if you are able to find one. Chances are they’re scurrying about from one “meeting” to another “meeting”. Not only are they inefficient, they are PC to the extreme. They know all the catch phrases that got them hired. The best interview process I’ve ever had was for a very good/efficient software company. I met with exactly 2 people before being given an offer. One was my direct supervisor, the next was his boss. Both were hip deep in my job responsibilities. I also went through a headhunter. I met with 0 HR personnel.

    4. Heather Says:

      Well, on the other hand with all this regulation, they’re also looking for people who won’t be to “difficult” to get rid of, if the situation demands it.

      Most of the people I’ve interviewed (not as HR screener, but working with a pretty good HR person, I’ll admit) have been recent college graduates with no directly meaningful experience, career changers looking for a break, or highly qualified people who would probably be pretty unhappy making 1/3rd to 1/2 of what they were previously making in what can be quite a stultifying environment. Why hire and train someone who’d probably be unhappy and looking to leave as soon as the market improves? That costs money also. Especially when most of them are lying to you about one thing or another (or at least covering something up)?

      And yes, those questions though can get really bizarre. I’ve seen what seemed like an *endless* string of candidates, and have been tempted to ask these types of questions just to liven up the interview or to make the person squirm. See how they react.

      The stock responses to interview questions (most likely cripped from the latest “How to get hired in 90 minutes or less” book) can get pretty dull pretty fast when you’ve interviewed 20 people. The trick for the applicant is to pre-script an answer that doesn’t sound like a stock answer. If trying to generate some answers about the candidate’s personality isn’t the reason for asking the question though, I’d think twice about wanting to work for that company. Could be they have issues.

    5. suzanne Says:

      Oh my. The attacks on HR here are pretty interesting. Unfortunately, the general consensus seems to be that HR is a bunch of parasites.

      I realize that those who are making these statements may have anecdotal reasons for doing so – but this disparagement is really not valid.

      As was mentioned in the lead, there are numerous laws that are mine fields for employers. And the job today of HR is to minimize the employer’s risk. I know. I advise employers on the mine fields of employment law.

      Managing that risk means vetting candidates with “inane questions” designed to see how one reacts to the unexcpected. In addition, employers must use standardized interview questions and ask the same questions of all applicants. If they do not, they can be subject to claims of discrimination. You can’t really tailor an interview to the candidate any more. At least not the intial interview. Even spending more time with one applicant than all the rest can be viewed as discrimination. (Lawsuits have been filed in just such cases.)

      You are blaming the wrong party here. Blame judicial activism or legislature run amok.

      “Inane questions” are asked to throw the applicant off balance and see how they react to unexpected situations. I think if makes perfect sense. When an applicant is thrown off balance and is met with something other than the standard “interview script” – they are much more candid in their behavior and reveal more about how they think, interact and deal with others. And when you must think about the possible termination of an individual when you hire them, you want to ensure that whomever you hire will fit the culture of the company and maximize the chance for a successful relationship.

      Perhaps if you appreciate the reasons why “inane” questions are asked and look at them as an opportunity to demonstrate your creative nature -you will get beyond the initial interview.

    6. Jonathan Says:

      Not getting sued trumps all other hiring considerations? Throwing applicants off balance is more important than finding out if they can do the job? I can understand a HR that goes through the motions, as the accountants do with SARBOX compliance, to minimize a company’s legal risk. But anecdotes I read about HR typically suggest that HR is frequently not just a neutral cost, but actively interferes with a company’s ability to make good hiring decisions. There is something wrong with the process when the screening system discourages good people and the conventional wisdom is that you have to find a way to bypass it.

    7. James R. Rummel Says:

      Perhaps if you appreciate the reasons why “inane” questions are asked and look at them as an opportunity to demonstrate your creative nature -you will get beyond the initial interview.

      Thank you kindly for the advice, Suzanne. But I’ve come to the conclusion that if Human Resources is given such authority in the hiring process that they can ignore the skills needed to perform the job every day, then that is a company where I don’t want to work.

      After all, if the job goes to the candidates which fit HR’s requirements instead of those of the position itself, then HR can also terminate a job without considering if the employee is actually an asset to the company.

      It’s lucky that I have a technical job since I can always find a position where the need to get things done is more important than dancing around the bureacratic maypole.

      It seems to me, however, that your comment misrepresents what I said in the original post. I never used the word “inane”, even though you keep putting qoutes around the word. Instead I referred to the interviews as “asinine”, and the questions I described as “idiotic”.

      James

    8. Billy Beck Says:

      So, Suzanne…

      What you’re basically explaining is that HR is the political commissar’s office in the corporate structure, now.

      Got it.

    9. Billy Beck Says:

      Rummel: my youngest brother is a razor-sharp pro who took a degree in accounting after a hitch in the U.S. Navy, where he’d worked at keeping accounts for nuclear submarines. At work for eight years at a firm whose work I will not describe, this guy had a stellar record of performance, the highlights of which included kick-ass success at dispatching drop-deadlines and innovating real advances in production, he attended a meeting at which he had to point out that some people were being very well-paid to produce results and simply failing. HR took a dim view of his “attitude” (i.e. — his statements of the plain facts), and summarily terminated his employment.

      He is able to just about laugh it off because he was instantly snapped-up up by another firm who knew what he was worth.

      But I have to tell you: the thing — the organizational dynamics and the personalities involved — was nearly Soviet in the details.

      Of course, it’s all nothing but anecdote, and I’m sure that I’m a kook for grasping the implications and projecting them across the whole American economy.

    10. Heather Says:

      But it’s not only the “hard skills” that land a job. After all, many people have them. That’s why professional jobs are now being outsourced to places like India (albeit with mixed results). The question is, can the person do the job, and will that person fit in with the current organization or cause a problem later.

      You can tell a lot about a company by way it conducts its interviews. There are inane questions that have a purpose, and some questions that are just useless. However, most interview questions are asked because the company had an issue in the past that necessitated the question.

      Jonathan, what’s to say that the line manager can’t make a bad hiring decision, whether on a candidate that HR sends along, or from a bum referral? In my limited experience, I’ve found that you can’t really bypass HR. Either you go through it at the front end, or the line manager deals with getting approval for getting you hired (ie, justifying a need for a slot, getting budgetary approval, or just dealing with the paperwork).

    11. Heather Says:

      One more thing. Another “conventional wisdom” is that employees are an asset to their company. That I think is not true. Employees are an expense and are more often than not treated like any other expense. A company makes its money by increasing revenue or keeping its expenses low. Hence you have companies that look for 22 year old college graduates with 10 years experience.

    12. David Foster Says:

      I’ve worked with many HR people who were very helpful. Also seen quite a few of the other kind.

      Line management should control the hiring process, and HR should be there to help. HR can provide valuable insight into candidates, often precisely because they are less enmeshed in the details of a specific job.

      But I don’t think HR should be screening out candidates based on initial interviews unless this is specifically requested by the line manager. (This practice might make sense, for instance, if you are hiring for 5 similar positions and are very time-constrained–and if you are confident that HR properly understands you criteria)

    13. James R. Rummel Says:

      Hence you have companies that look for 22 year old college graduates with 10 years experience.

      I would agree that hiring inexperienced people over myself would make sense if there was any room for negotiation in pay and benefits, but I’m afraid that this wasn’t the case. The compensation would be the same no matter who they hired, which is why choosing someone with no experience over someone with a proven track record can’t possibly be because the HR people had the company’s best interests at heart.

      James

    14. Craig R. Harmon Says:

      A factor not mentioned is money. Between you, with years of proven experience, and the 22 year old, with his ink-not-yet-dry A.A. degree, to hire you would have cost the company three times what hiring the other person costs. That doesn’t figure in the cost of training, much lower productivity, cost of errors caused by inexperience, etc. but, man, look at the salary savings that those HR people made for the company.

      Could corporations really be this stupid? Do I really need to answer?

    15. Craig R. Harmon Says:

      Okay, that’s what I get for commenting before reading all of the previous comments. Can I really be that stupid? Do I really need to answer that?

    16. Bob Says:

      As someone who worked (briefly) as director of personnel for a small non-profit, I can tell you that the need to “diversify” the workforce was priorities one through four on the list I was given. Could the person actually do the job they were being interviewed for didn’t come up till priority number five. But in fairness to the company, because most of their funding came from governmental agencies, they had little choice in the matter. I lasted almost 10 months and just couldn’t take it anymore. It was an asinine process, and I’m pretty sure it hasn’t improved any in the past 15 years.

    17. David Foster Says:

      A relevant story I read many years ago. A researcher hired a bunch of actors and fitted them out with resumes in electrical engineering and with a bit of EE jargon. He then sent them out for interviews, and also sent out a bunch of honest-to-goodness EEs.

      If the story was really correct, the actos got more job offers.

      It’s bad enough that this happened if the interviews were only with HR people, but if they also interviewed with the actual hiring line managers (who were probably EEs themselves) this result is positively spooky.

    18. Ashish Hanwadikar Says:

      I was hired by a major software company in India and during the induction phase I had to sit through a horrible group session conducted by one of the senior HR person. The topic was how to handle culture shock, i.e., one that is experienced when one goes to US as a part of offshoring contract.

      She gave us a questionaire to fill up consisting of various questions regarding our experiences dealing with persons of difficult culture. Then we were asked to stand up one by one and read our answers and discuss.

      This ofcourse, consumed a greater part of the session. At the end of the session nobody was wiser as to how to deal with culture shock. In fact, she did not even bother to define culture shock. Funnily, one bold person asked quite innocently how many times she had been outside of the country. Guess what was the answer: zero!

      Ain’t HR great?

    19. Heather Says:

      James,

      One quick comment to follow up on your last response: perhaps the HR department didn’t think you’d take the job. Or perhaps they thought you’d leave after finding yourself working with/carrying the load for all the other inexperienced teenagers they hired. Who knows. These decisions are most often imperfect.

      I don’t know that there is an answer to the issue. Hiring is an art, more than a science–there never is one definitive factor.

      Going back a bit to another aspect of this thread, I would think that turnover at a company is a definitely measurable benchmark for determining the value of an HR department or the the supervisory chain. If there’s a problem with turnover, does it really matter whether it’s the HR department or the supervisors? Perhaps it’s both, perhaps only one, but something needs to be fixed, and a good management would spend its time figuring it out.

      I’ll leave it at that.

    20. Lex Says:

      The essence of being an actor is making people believe temporarily that you are something or someone you are not. Not surprising that an actor who is any good, and had a chance to prepare, could pull this off. Of course, after two days on the job you’d know you’d been had.

      Here is a question for all our libertarian friends, which relates to an off-blog argument I had with Jonathan.

      If businesses face a competitive environment, and if hiring good people is important, then how come all our believers in market forces seem to think that there is a systematic defect in the way companies do their hiring, i.e. using HR departments which have the characteristics which are being complained about here. Is this a market failure? How can that be? Wouldn’t someone figure it out and gain a competitive advantage? Or is that however much applicants may find the practices of HR departments to be irritating, that by and large they do get optimal results? If a large element of our economy is this far out of whack, it demands an explanation. (BTW, I don’t think it is.)

    21. Billy Beck Says:

      Lex: to the extent that HR departments are fielding foul-balls from government mandates, then you’re looking at a sort of Gresham’s Law of employment ethics (applied values) at work. There is no “competitive advantage”, to that extent: everyone is facing the same bloody nonsense, and — to that extent — the nonsense is driving authentic values out of the market.

    22. lurker Says:

      HR is an instrument of management. Never make the mistake of assuming otherwise. Some companies are better managed than others; therefor, some HR departments will be better than others.

      The hiring process has turly been distorted due to lawsuits and government interference, but it’s clear that over the long term, companies hire the people that they deserve.

      The best company from manging this that I’ve ever worked for is GE. It is standard policy that the bottom 10% of performers are fired every year. This forces managers to sharpen their pencils and not ignore this vital aspect of their jobs. Since it is a company wide policy, the threat of lawsuits is reduced since removing poor performers or misfits has a standard procedure.

      The net affect is that everyone you work with is talented and smart. Duds are few and far bewtween.

    23. Lex Says:

      Billy, I understand that element of it. But since all must comply with the same laws, that just means that they are all optimizing under the same constraint, which is a wash competitively. James seems to be talking about is a more generalized perception that HR cares about the wrong things and is stupid for doing so. But are they really? Or, rephrased is there some utility to asking the questions James described as “idiotic”, for example?

    24. Billy Beck Says:

      Lex: regarding your final question, I certainly don’t think so. They’re not the kinds of questions I would ask.

      The “competitive wash” angle is a more important point, I think. To my mind, it’s not so important that comptetition is getting ground-off and flattened in the circumstances. What concerns me is the general drag on productivity.

    25. Lex Says:

      Billy, let’s say you are right and those weird touchy-feely questions have no utility. Why then are they so common? You always hear about people coming out of interviews scratching their heads about being asked such questions. Is this a pandemic of irrationality in a business setting? I always hesitate to conclude “they’re all idiots” when there are lot of people involved and money is at stake.

      My theory is that these questions are meant to elicit a more personal response, and this is hard to do under our current very defensive mindset. It is no longer possible to openly ask about anything pertaining to family, wife, kids, or anythinge else that could conceivably touch on anything private, racial, sexual, whatever. Still, potential employers have a serious need to get some sense of the personal character of the potential employee, and this kind of query is the hyper-defensive method they use to draw the person out and get them talking in more general or personal terms. I think also that if an applicant takes a defensive or dismissive tone in response, this can be taken as an unwillingness to deal with the occasional weird thing that comes up from coworkers, superiors, clients or customers, on their own terms. In other words it is a test of poise and tact. So, I think there is actually some rationality here. The proper response, I guess, would be to use the question as a chance to demonstrate some humor, self-confidence and capacity to process something coming out of left field.

    26. David Foster Says:

      Lex…actually, I think a skilled interviewer would not be fooled by the actors. He would get enough of an interactive discussion going to find out if the guy actually knew something..for example, by talking about a current problem he’s facing and asking the candidate for his thoughts on how it might be handled.

      If the candidate flat-out refuses to respond, saying it’s “inappropriate” or that he would need more time to think about it, that is not a good sign.

    27. Lex Says:

      David, I don’t dispute that if people had been on the ball the actors should not have gotten through. However, good actors can be uncannily good. In fact, they can be really strange people who are able to plunge into their bogus identities to an extraordinary degree. So, it does not surprise me that somebody managed to pull this off. It also shows how much we rely on people being basically honest most of the time. Also, the interviewer would not have much reason to think someone who was totally unqualified would even want a job that they would immediately be found to be incompetent to do. And this all reminds me of the very good and under-rated movie Catch Me If You Can — where an ice-cold con man was able to get hired as a pilot and a surgeon with no qualifications. It happens.

    28. Mitch Says:

      HR has really not done much for me, either in hiring or being hired. In hiring, I found I got better results by bringing prospective hires to meet the people already in the unit. A couple of hours and everyone knew whether it was a good fit or not. Similarly, I got better jobs by going directly to the person I wanted to work for. Sometimes I had done contract work for the target employer, and HR was pretty much confined to filling out forms.

      Even the reference checks that HR does are meaningless. You can get better information by calling a friend at one of the candidate’s former employers. That’s how I found out that an otherwise reasonable pick had obtained salary numbers, run some photocopies, and spread them all over the company.

    29. Billy Beck Says:

      “Why then are they so common?”

      It’s The Endarkenment, Lex.

      I’m tellin’ ya: that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

    30. incognito Says:

      If businesses face a competitive environment, and if hiring good people is important, then how come all our believers in market forces seem to think that there is a systematic defect in the way companies do their hiring, i.e. using HR departments which have the characteristics which are being complained about here. Is this a market failure? How can that be? Wouldn’t someone figure it out and gain a competitive advantage? Or is that however much applicants may find the practices of HR departments to be irritating, that by and large they do get optimal results? If a large element of our economy is this far out of whack, it demands an explanation. (BTW, I don’t think it is.)

      Good questions Lex. I think market forces are at work. Headhunters and placement firms are examples. From the applicant side, they have a high incentive for their candidates to get the job. From the employer side, if a particular headhunter consistently gets you bad employees, you will stop using them. My view of the hiring world may be a bit skewed however since Iíve been in Silicon Valley for the last few years, where the average shelf life of an employee, good or bad, is about 1 year.

      Outside of the hiring picture, I think HR will continue to move in the direction of being outsourced. There are companies that will take over your HR functions for the right price. For big companies, many of the traditional HR jobs are ripe for moving to India.

      I think the main reason companies in the US by and large get optimal results, is that itís still relatively easy to fire people. Almost all companies and employees work on a voluntary basis (I think ďat willĒ is the correct term?). All companies that Iíve worked for state that you can be fired at any time. Even top executives with golden parachute contracts can be fired at any time, albeit with a very soft landing. If we start to tighten the firing laws further, then we would run into the danger of becoming like Europe or Japan. But even in Japan and Europe, there is a growing trend to use contractors, who can be fired at any time.

    31. James R. Rummel Says:

      …perhaps the HR department didn’t think you’d take the job. Or perhaps they thought you’d leave after finding yourself working with/carrying the load for all the other inexperienced teenagers they hired.

      Let’s not forget that I applied for more than 20 jobs, and the experience was eerily similar. I find it difficult to believe that the HR department in every single company decided before the interview that I was unsuitable. It seems more plausible that it’s simply a case of bureacratic inertia.

      But let’s assume for one minute that your claim is correct. If this is the case, then the logical conclusion to be drawn is that HR is little more than a way for companies to practice discrimination while minimizing the risk of lawsuits.

      James

    32. James R. Rummel Says:

      Billy, let’s say you are right and those weird touchy-feely questions have no utility. Why then are they so common? You always hear about people coming out of interviews scratching their heads about being asked such questions. Is this a pandemic of irrationality in a business setting?

      I’ve always seen it as a way for people in HR to try and protect their increased budgets and importance in the corporate world.

      Suzanne pointed out that the main function of Human Resources today is to protect the company from lawsuits, which is why they have to interview a certain number of people and ask them all the same questions. This deflects any accusation of favoritism.

      But the people in HR would certainly want to show that they are more then just clerks that interview prospective employees. (I certainly would.) I’m willing to bet that they’ve claimed that they can find out all kind of things about an applicant through the interview process.

      Why would I think this? Mainly because some of those questions I was asked sound remarkably similar to those little word games they pass out in Psychology 200.

      James

    33. Ken Says:

      One more thing. Another “conventional wisdom” is that employees are an asset to their company. That I think is not true. Employees are an expense and are more often than not treated like any other expense. A company makes its money by increasing revenue or keeping its expenses low.”

      And who is charged with actually doing that? The employees. Those who pull it off in one way or another are net assets.

      “Billy, I understand that element of it. But since all must comply with the same laws, that just means that they are all optimizing under the same constraint, which is a wash competitively. ”

      It’s not a wash, competitively. It would be an amazing coincidence if optimizing profit under current labor law also optimized profit in a competitive free market. Generally, the former involves activity that creates no wealth but prevents it from being taken away by our present masters, while the latter would emphasize wealth-creating and wealth-protecting activity and thus leave most of us wealthier overall.

      In short, activities that offer competitive advantage when competing to please bureaucrats are rarely the activities that offer competitive advantage when competing to please customers. When the bureaucrats interfere, customers end up less pleased. And, one way or another, we’re all customers of a variety of people, so we all end up less pleased.

    34. RickR Says:

      I went to an interview at company “R” that had 3 Engineers, and 1 HR represenative. The HR quack kept asking the touchy-feely garbage questions, and the Engineers would ask real-world engineering questions. The bad part is, every time I would answer an engineer, the HR freak would interrupt with a pyscho-babble comment about feelings about the project or the supervisor that assigned it to me or such other crap. The engineering people were fit to be tied, I think they would have strangled her if they could have pulled it off. I walked out of there feeling like everything I said had been so screwed around, I would have never got the job anyway. And I didn’t.

      My revenge was the fact I took the job at company “D” of the guy who tapped danced his way in there at company “R”. He had just been fired for slacking off & stealing at “D” and they hired him at “R”. Perfect huh?

    35. Lex Says:

      “…a wash competitively. ” Ken, I mean that every company is facing the same constraints under the labor laws. So that is not an explanation for this HR activity that everyone says is stupid, or why more people don’t do it a different way if it is so stupid.

    36. Jonathan Says:

      No way is it a wash. Some companies handle HR and other mandated functions better than do other companies, as is true for every business function. The companies that handle it better have a competitive advantage.

      Read the article James links to. Clueless HR people who don’t understand their company’s business are not universal but they are frequent enough to be a cliche. As an issue, this is a bit like discussing the press, where there are some competent, open-minded journalists and a lot of others who are either incompetent or have axes to grind or both. Press people often respond defensively to criticism, dismissing people who present first-hand observations about press failings as malcontents or hacks. Yet press defenders fail adequately to address the overarching question of why so many people from so many backgrounds make the same criticisms of the press year after year. HR defenders do the same thing, essentially arguing that HR critics don’t get it or are malcontents rationalizing their own inadequacies as job candidates. Yet the defenders fail to recognize that when complaints about the system are pervasive, even from successful job seekers, that fact in itself indicates that there is a problem with the system.

      But as I wrote above, the better companies understand these issues and use them to competitive advantage.

    37. Jonathan Says:

      BTW, the notion that employees are an expense betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of where productivity comes from. Employees are people and people are not interchangeable cogs in a machine. If you as an employer invest in the right technology and provide the right incentives, your employees’ productivity can be dramatically higher than employee productivity at competing companies, and this becomes increasingly true with technological advances. Also, in knowledge-based businesses some employees within the same company may be orders of magnitude more productive than others, given a thoughtful incentive structure. The companies that do best are the ones that figure out how to attract the best people, give them the latest technology to work with and give them incentives to do their best. Of course, if you do that you might end up paying a programmer or production employee more than a VP, or giving some employees much bigger bonuses than others, and that might contradict HR pay guidelines that are based on industry averages.

    38. Dave Says:

      ‘”Inane questions” are asked to throw the applicant off balance and see how they react to unexpected situations. I think if makes perfect sense. When an applicant is thrown off balance and is met with something other than the standard “interview script” – they are much more candid in their behavior and reveal more about how they think, interact and deal with others. And when you must think about the possible termination of an individual when you hire them, you want to ensure that whomever you hire will fit the culture of the company and maximize the chance for a successful relationship.’ – suzanne on August 7, 2005 02:56 AM

      As a manager in a fortune 500 company, who has had all the training in “Behavioral Interviewing”, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong on this. “Inane questions” (your comment, not James’) have no place in the interviewing process. Asking questions like “How would you handle a conflict (insert conflict subject here) between two people who report to you” is something I want to know. Asking questions like “Do you feel comfortable with the dominance that a supervisor has over those under her, like a pet owner to her pet?” is pointless. Moreover, questions like this do more to illustrate the lack of seriousness that an organization places in it’s hiring process. James is right to walk away from these companies.

      -Dave

    39. Lex Says:

      Dave, I believe you that these kinds of questions have no place and a well-run company wouldn’t do it. Stipulated. So, why do so many businesses do this kind of thing? Why did it catch on? Why do so many continue to do it?

      We like to talk around this blog about how markets are efficient and free enterprise is so great. And it is. Then how come this foolishness is endemic? If companies that do this kind of thing really do perform worse, why do they persist in doing it?

      Billy says it’s “the Endarkenment”. Maybe. But why doesn’t competitive pressure make companies stop doing this if it is a bad idea?

    40. Jonathan Says:

      Markets aren’t efficient. It’s just that the alternatives to markets are usually less efficient.

    41. James R. Rummel Says:

      As a manager in a fortune 500 company,….

      ( jokemode ) Any openings in your MIS division? ( /jokemode )

      James

    42. Lex Says:

      The Fast Company article is good. I just read it. I don’t think it identified a problme with a solution. The pay and prestige of being an HR person are rock bottom. The business community has let it become a ghetto because it does not matter if it is a ghetto. Non-star employees are fungible, or near enough, and getting all the compliance paperwork and building a file for litigation purposes are routine bureaucratic functions that would actually suffer if there were any creativity employed. Given the constraints, the HR regime that is commonplace is probably optimal.

    43. Billy Beck Says:

      Les — “Why doesn’t competitive pressure make companies stop doing this if it is a bad idea?”

      The essential answer to that question is in my previous answer to an earlier question. In a bit more detail: it’s because thinking is being bred out of the culture. We are, here, talking about The Rise of The StoopidPeeple.

      They’re simply too bloody dim to realize that it’s a bad idea.

    44. James R. Rummel Says:

      So, why do so many businesses do this kind of thing? Why did it catch on? Why do so many continue to do it?

      One of the first questions posed to undergraduates taking a low-level anthropology course is, “Why do silverback gorillas have fangs?

      This is a good question, since gorillas are vegetarians and don’t need teeth that are adapted to tear and rend flesh. It would be more effecient if there weren’t any canines, since the body wouldn’t have to expend energy to grow them and the mouth would be better suited to chewing up the vegetable matter that makes up the animal’s diet. But there they are.

      There’s also the question as to why prominant canines are dependent on the sex of the animal, since females have small and stunted canines while the males have these enormous pointy daggers in their mouths. Looks like a fine example of how evolution isn’t as efficient as the biologists claim.

      The utility of prominent canines becomes clear when one studies gorilla behavior. Those teeth are used to determine the status of a male in the group. The bigger the teeth, the better the chances of becoming the dominant male and reproducing.

      So the answer is that the canines have no utility when the gorilla interacts with the outside world! They are, in fact, a waste and a disadvantage if one only looks at it from that angle. But examine at how the animals interact with each other, in a closed social group where the most important thing is status, and it makes perfect sense.

      Everyone who reads this blog is pretty smart, so I’m going to stop hitting everyone over the head with the big Message Mallet. Besides, for some reason I have this urge to brush my teeth while staring into the mirror and I can’t do that while blogging.

      James

    45. Lex Says:

      Billy, I think you are onto something. But I am not sure it is a trend so much as an ongoing condition. The point is that, on average, people are average, with some above and some below average with regard to various attributes. The economy has to employ them all. There are niches where people who simply do not have the drive can find a roost for themselves. I had a post about Michael Barone’s notion of Hard America and Soft America here which talked about this. Any job can be well done by someone smart and driven with good stamina. We will always be doomed to seeing all kinds of pretty important things being done pretty badly because the number of people who are capable of doing anything well is far smaller than the all the possible jobs they could do. And the number of jobs that can be done in mediocre fashion, rather than not at all, without bringing the economy to a halt, is remarkably high.

    46. Billy Beck Says:

      I would point out, Lex, that there is, indeed, a trend, and I would cite the fact that there was once a time when the term “human resources” simply would not have entered the head of anyone in America. That’s because the equivocation of something so special as human beings with, say, rocks to be dug out of the ground, would have hit them as starkly and manifestly ridiculous.

      I’m in search of a data-point, Lex: how old are you?

      I ask this question often in certain contexts, and also often meet with protests of impertinence. I’ll tell you my premise: I am convinced that the “trend[s]” are so long-term that many people have a very difficult time seeing them beyond the context of their very own life experience. The truth: I suspect that’s what’s going on with your outlook on this. I could easily be wrong. I will refer to the point of my first paragraph, however. If I’m wrong about you, I say you’re an exception.

    47. Lex Says:

      42. No problem. I don’t want to deny anyone a data point that might be illuminating.

      Agreed that the terminology of “HR” and much of the associated BS is new. I also agree that much of that is defensive and about regulatory compliance and preemptive activity to forestall or prevail in litigation. So there is a trend there, yes.

      But the hiring labor on a commodity basis is as old as the hills, for many kinds of jobs.
      There is a scene in the (pretty good) movie Cinderella Man, set in the 30s, where there is a crowd of guys at the dock each day trying to get work unloading ships. Out of the crowd, the foreman points to five or six men. The rest are out of luck for the day. Not a lot of respect for human uniqueness going on. Celine’s depiction of getting a job at the Ford plant in Detroit in the 1920s is about the bulk hiring of labor, as well. A friend was telling me the other day about visiting a guy up in the hills in East Tennessee. There were a bunch of Mayan guys clearing some brush. These guys were from Yucatan or something and didn’t even speak Spanish. There was a guy who’d drop them off in the morning, and give their instructions. The whole crew was something like $200 for the day. No need for a human resources department, since it was a one-time, cash-only transaction.

      There will always be some of that going on.

    48. Billy Beck Says:

      Lex — thank you for answering my question. The answer is not dispositive in any way, and that happens sometimes.

      The speciality that I implied has to do with any given individual’s fitness for the actual work. What makes the HR approach so insipid and impertinent is that this is simply not what they’re concerned with, in the main. And yes, all kinds of factors — the union “line-up”, for instance — have in the past also neglected “fitness for the actual work”, but at least they weren’t parading their bigotries around in a guise of progress.

    49. dick Says:

      I think that one of the factors that is being ignored is that HR is working for the whole company. When it comes to hiring clerks and secretaries, the requirements are pretty commonly known to the HR staff and they can probably handle that part of it well. However, when it comes to hiring engineers or DP people, HR is totally at a loss as to what the requirements mean and how the people would fit within the organization.

      When you are forced to go through HR even to get an interview, then you end up with an HR department that is all-powerful and in many cases power-mad. That HR department will not find the best fits of the technical positions because they don’t know the jobs. That does not stop them asking these asinine questions to act as thought they know what they are doing. End result is that the line department gets screwed by having to interview the choices of the HR department rather than the choices the line department would prefer to interview.

      When you combine that power with the requirements of the federal and state legislation on diversity and AA, you have a real mess on your hands. HR will try to dazzle you with BS on the legislation and the benefits they handle but that does not get your job done and does not get your the best people.

      I went to a department head for a DP job years ago. He was looking to hire for one salary and I wanted one 20% higher. I finally told him that he should look around at what he could find at his rate and then figure how much of his time would be spent looking over the shoulder of that hire versus hiring someone like me with 15 years experience and a lot of experience as a self-starter. He came back to me a couple of weeks later and met my salary demands. Later, after I had worked for him for a couple of years, he told me that I was the only employee he had that he never had to check up on. He always knew what I was doing and he also always knew if I needed something or if I needed him to talk to another department head. As a result he never had to worry about me and could spend his time doing his job. I just said that I guessed I was worth the difference in salary then and he totally agreed.

      If you take that situation and then imagine trying to go through HR to get that kind of result, you will see why HR is a total loss for technical positions. They really end up causing more bad hires and bad situations than they solve. I learned then that I never ever ever went through HR to get a job. If I had to do so, then the job would be something other than what they talked about or the people I would have to work with would be incompetent. To be fair this is not totally HR’s fault. The problem is the same as the media and the military now. The media has no clue how the military work but they try to report it anyhow. HR has no clue how DP really works but they try to act as though they do and end up screwing the pooch.

    50. Chris Says:

      What I really enjoy is when they keep hiring HR people that are straight out of college and the average IT worker in the company knows more about the benefits/vacation policies than the HR people do.

      Someone mentioned power mad HR departments and that pretty much sums it up in my experience. HR people often try to get new policies in place to enforce things they FEEL are correct rather than what is legally required or already in the company policies. The worst case I’ve ever seen personally? A group of us software developers were discussing using some of our training days for a particular series of seminars/classes…perfectly acceptable within company guidelines and had been done many times before. The new HR assistant pipes up in the lunch room “Oh..I don’t think that’s permitted …blah blah..”. The company has about 100 people and the guy who was #3 at the company and the most senior software guy replies that it is perfectly permissable and been done before..the girl does one of those annoying head tilts(meaning “I am pretending to listen to your point of view but I want to be right too badly…”) and says something like “yeah..I’m not sure about that..” in a Lumberg-from-office-space sort of tone and proceeds to look up the requirements and personally works to get policies changed to what she thought or felt they should be rather than enforcing the policies the company had over the next week or so. She failed miserably as the actual head of HR had a brain and wasn’t a power freak.

      One thing I’ve wondered… Why are the vast majority of HR people I’ve dealt with humorless, bordering on bitter women?

    51. incognito Says:

      “One thing I’ve wondered… Why are the vast majority of HR people I’ve dealt with humorless, bordering on bitter women?”

      Because to get an HR job you have to be able to think and speak PC. These tend to be the ultra liberals. Companies tend to hire women for HR jobs because I think there may be subconscious decisions by the powers that be that women are more suitable due to appearance/empathy with people/etc. Put the two together, and voila, you have feminists.