The HR Secret Police?


What is the role of  HR in your company? Is it to hire people or is it to keep your company out of the hoosgow, so to speak?

Let’s be honest with ourselves.  HR is a necessary evil, like government.  In fact HR is the creature of government inside your company.  It’s sole purpose is to see that government’s demands are met, or at least placated. Note that I am not talking about laws because the way they are written, because  compliance with the laws is so complicated and disconnected with reality that compliance is impossible.  Which the recent flap about Donald Trump and illegal aliens working on his projects makes clear.

In most of these personnel issues there really isn’t any way out. Especially for companies that required a highly skilled workforce. It’s great to talk about diversity but a little harder to do when you are hiring say, machinists.  You have to draw from the talent pool that’s available, not the one you dream of. There’s no such thing as the perfect candidate or a purple squirrel.

The problem is that HR is bureaucratic by nature.  And as Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law Of Bureaucracy states, any bureaucracy will work for it’s own purposes rather than those of the organization that the bureaucracy is supposed to be supporting.

Once that happens like any bureaucracy, HR becomes a growing parasite.  And all too frequently that parasite starts to subvert the organization to it’s own purposes.  To the detriment of the organization and it’s purposes.

This manifests itself in many ways, but frequently HR harasses employees and wastes their time on trivial matters while ignoring real problems until the become unavoidable .  All too frequently abuse and bad work environments get ignored while having the wrong calendar is creating “hostile work environment” and gets you written up.

Then there’s the endless performance metric reviews that some companies use.  Back when Frank Taylor came up with performance metrics he was considering almost identical parts being machined.  It’s fairly easy to see if somebody’s being productive when the same things keep getting repeated over and over.  But how much does that have relevance in todays workplace?

Yet the performance appraisal process still behaves as if the repeated every day workplace still exist.  And HR insists all frequently that employees set goals for themselves, goals that are all too frequently rendered obsolete by events almost before they are set.  The result is employees that are dinged for goals that they didn’t have any more because their jobs changed and the goals were no longer relevant.  All that happens in the end is massive employee dissatisfaction.

Yet HR insists on keeping score as if a workplace is a game.  And maybe, for them it is.  Rate everybody and get rid of the people they don’t like.  Purge and reduce headcount.  And they’ve convinced management in these time that this is a good idea. Some of what happens is describe in this piece.

So why does a management system, so widely acknowledged as fundamentally flawed and so much a product of ancient history, live on in today’s modern workplace?

There are several reasons.  The principle one is that today’s crop of unimaginative HR managers and their consultant cronies don’t actually appear to have any better ideas.

“You can’t stop doing performance appraisals,” they scoff.  “It’s like playing a game without keeping score”- a statement which reveals how broken and outdated their thinking is.

Because work in the 21st century isn’t a game.

Sporting analogies have little relevance to today’s workplace.  Sportspeople train and practice for 95% of the time, in preparation for the 5% when they have to perform.  It’s the other way around in the world of work.  Success in the world of sport, even in team games, is largely defined by the brilliance of individuals.  In today’s collaborative workplace, virtuoso performances are far less critical to the overall productivity of the business and its supporting teams (although still important, of course: no-one wants a workplace full of “cultural fit” clones, do they?).

Another reason managers are reluctant to consign performance appraisals to the Welchasaur dustbin of history is that, well, we have to have some way of rewarding the good performers, don’t we?  And to help (or weed out) the bad ones?

So why persist with the divisive and arbitrary “rating” of employees, the vast majority who are motivated by professional pride as much as a pay-check?

The pernicious apogee of this thinking was, of course, the infamous Welchasaurus refinement of the performance appraisal that came to be known as “rank and yank”.

“Neutron Jack’s” rank and yank system rated workers on a three-step scale, based on a line manager’s assessment of his team member’s individual goals and performance, and then force-fitted to a “bell-curve”.  The top 15% were told they were “1s,” the middle 75% were designated “2s” and the bottom 10% were assigned “3s.”  And the bottom 10% got canned.  This process was rolled out every year.

(What happened when a team got hacked down to less than ten people?  Did managers start firing people’s body parts?  “Your brain, heart and lungs meet expectations but here’s the P45 for your liver…?”).

But it ain’t going to happen.  Because someone has advised her that what Yahoo’s downtrodden employees really need are rank and yank bucket ratings.

As a result, “talented Yahoos are refusing to work with other talented Yahoos for fear of landing in the wrong bucket (or worse, are actively undermining each other), managers are trading rankings like baseball cards to meet bucket quotas, and employees are arbitrarily placed inside bad buckets for hallway remarks or executives who said, ‘He just annoys me’ “.

Of course, this type of “performance appraisal” is really only about one thing.

Headcount reduction.

It’s a system devised by consultants for weak and lazy managers to hide behind when it comes to the nasty business of firing people.  It allows them to stick labels on people they don’t like and support it with a paper trail that leads their victims to the exit door.  It also ensures that as many productive employees as unproductive ones leave the company: talent will not hang around in the toxic environment that “yank and rank” generates.[bold added]

With rank and yank philosophies reigning the opportunity for corruption is enormous.  And people can get themselves yanked for reasons outside the workplace or simply because HR doesn’t want to deal with “controversy.”  Which makes the people with most visibility vulnerable to harassment and  having their lives damaged by things happening outside the workplace.

Geek Feminism bluntly declares that they alone decide what they believe is harassment, that they will not listen to or explain their justification, and that even if you are not in their space they will hunt you down and publish you as a subject of a harassment complaint.

They exempt themselves from their own standards and announce their willingness to proxy dox anyone if persuaded to do so on subjective grounds. There is no privacy for you: If you look privileged and someone makes up a story about you, you might get a concerned email from HR about something making the rounds on Twitter and causing a PR nightmare for your employer. Whether or not you actually did anything wrong won’t matter.

Hacker Eric S. Raymond noticed the manipulation at work and indicated that women at tech conferences were targeting male open source leaders with false allegations. Accusations have power, and the 2013 PyCon incident with Adria Richards proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

We need to acknowledge the problem. If you are not considered worthy of protection by ideological CoCs, then there are people out there that want you to at the very least lose your job. If they see you demonstrating even the most innocuous affection or humor, they will likely assume malice and retaliate, especially if you are the wrong color or sex. These are the same people who humiliated a scientist for landing on a comet because of a shirt he wore.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the outside accusers have willing accomplices in the hapless employee’s employer’s HR dept. just waiting for letters like this.

Now Mr. Mason is lucky in that both his accusers were so over the top and that his employer values what he is doing enough to not be too concerned about his making videos that are politically incorrect.  Others aren’t so luck.  Even prospective employees have to watch their step.

Posts like this are common on linkedin, with their subtle or not so subtle threats that employees and prospective employees that they will be under HR’s watchful eyes even when they are not in the workplace.  What the people in HR never seem to consider is what kind of message are they sending about the workplaces they are part of.

When employees are more worried about committing thought noncrimes than they are about doing their jobs well the jobs aren’t going to get done very well. Instead of a vibrant corporate culture full of innovative and engaged people you’ve created the corporate version of a Socialist state.

Which is when your best employees leave.  Or are forced out by the rank and yank policies of your HR Dept.  In any case what was once a great place to work starts to look like the place that people want to escape from.  with consequences that should be obvious.

Which brings us to the key question: “Is HR the corporate secret police.” The second question is who HR thinks it’s working for and why a company exists.

“Manipulating a corporation’s culture by human resources is becoming more common in recent years,” he says, suggesting HR has gotten way out of control. He quotes J. Craig Mundy, an HR executive at Ingersoll Rand:

“As HR leaders we feel ourselves to be near the pinnacle of the organization. The organization reports to us. It must meet our demands for information, documents, numbers.”

Even more disturbing is that in name of “saving money” your HR department may just be gutting your you company of it’s most productive employees and preventing you getting new ones.  That’s because HR department are stuck in a younger is always better mode.

As HR morphed in the 1980s from “the people guys” to the “data about people guys,” it began to treat employees as “commoditized assets on a balance sheet to be acquired and discarded to suit changing fortunes … The rebranding of ‘personnel’ to ‘human resources’ signaled that employees were now resources to be managed like any other capital, such as finances, office equipment, and property. Like a copy machine, it suggested that humans were to be used as much as possible and discarded when they wore out or their usefulness came to an end.” (See “Big Data In HR: A Big Mistake?”)

And thus began what may be the most dangerous and telling undercurrent in corporate America today: a growing distrust among employees for HR. This is nowhere more evident than among older workers, who often find themselves suddenly laid off because—they claim—HR invokes all sorts of excuses to get rid of higher-paid workers in favor of younger, cheaper talent.

Here’s where Mundy’s HR power trip starts looking like a monster truck doing figure-eights all over corporate culture. Weathers reports that: “Employees claim that their managers excused themselves for giving less satisfactory reviews than in the past, saying they were acting under new performance guidelines set up by HR.”

Set up by HR. Has HR really become a kind of corporate secret police, doing the dirty work of the C-suite? Or is HR acting on its own? When HR takes the lead to get rid of older workers by judging them as “employees viewed as not adapting to change in the workplace,” the bowels of a corporation appear to be in serious distress. (See “4 HR Practices That Kill ROI.”)

Cueni-Cohen interviewed me for her article and pointed out that many older managers and executives have tired of HR’s suspicious guidelines—and they’re taking the initiative to leave on their own, taking their institutional knowledge with them. (The same Mercer survey reports that “63 percent of senior managers are seriously considering leaving their current roles.”) Doesn’t this exact a huge cost on employers—even while they’re trying to save money by dumping senior employees, Cueni-Cohen asked me.

By creating a fear based  corporate culture and systematically gutting the senior people who might push back HR dept. can consolidate their power and influence, at least as long as the company lasts.  That comes though, at a loss of corporate human capital and innovation.  There’s an old saying that you get what you pay for and with older workers that’s certainly the case.  In raw dollars and cent it may seem that those older workers are expensive.  It’s their experience though that represents a significant part of corporate capital.  It’s their experience that keeps project on time, makes things go smoothly and prevents very costly mistakes.  That’s what the HR departments are systematically gutting from companies.


These comments from a facebook group I’m in sort of tell the story of the sort of things that are going on.

I heard of a case a while back where an employee who was very good at her job was refused another role and told the reason was mediocrity didn’t suffice, or something to that effect – actual in role ability is ignored, only your ability to sell yourself counts. I tried for several professional and non-professional roles with that organization before giving up – I was wasting my time. Worse resumes are the easy component, here you have to submit pages of short essays detailing how you meet certain criteria, or you did. From what I’ve heard\observed the goal is to hire folk who are friends with upper management, or able to sell themselves well. Actual competency in the role is irrelevant with several selections being identified as lazy, incompetent, or moving on as soon as they get a ‘real job’. Few if any have a background let alone qualifications in the field. Of course upper management is also reportedly stripping away the power of middle management to actually control their operations so … x.x   You probably don’t want to hear me gripe about the subject though Very Happy   Offhand I’d say half the positions I got were ones where I interviewed with the manager\boss. It’s impossible to say how often HR simply binned my application before selecting interviewees, but I expect the figure would be depressing given each application takes hours if not days to write.

And more.

Me, I was contracting at a company and the managers decided the wanted
me full time. It was a done deal as far as they were concerned but I
still had to go through the “HR interview” process.

The person I “interviewed” with was leaving the company in a couple
of weeks. I’d spoken to her a number of times in the course of my job
so she knew I was competent for the role.

After the usual questions she announces that she doesn’t think I’ll be
a fit for the company. To say I was upset was a bit of an

I returned to the IT offices and went into my managers office. The IT
director was there as well, and I asked what the hell as going on and
told them what happened.

They were not amused and went down to the HR department to have a few
words with their director. The HR person who was leaving in 10 days
was told to pack up and leave that afternoon.
(IT and HR never got along in that company)

Then there was the story a friend of mine told me about a friend of

That guy worked at Cisco for 20 years designing the hardware and
writing the code that makes the routers work. He left the company, (I
don’t recall why), and started the job search.

He applied to 2 companies. At the first one he met the HR drone who
asked him about his Cisco certs, or lack there of. He had never
bothered with them since he helped write the test questions in the
first place. He could set up a network in a coma, he was that good.

HR drone tells him that he wont’ be a good fit since he doesn’t seem
qualified to her/him.

He goes to interview at the second company and they realized what a
find he was and gave him an offer within a day.

A few months later he bumps into the manager of the IT department at
the first company. Manager mentions what a mess they have with their
network. The friend makes a few suggestions and the lightbulb goes off
for the manager.

He asked why this guy didn’t apply to his company. When he was told
that the engineer did and was rejected by the HR department, the
manager exploded. From what I understand that one went right up to the
CEO and the HR department was ripped to shreds.

HR departments will have all  sorts mumbo jumbo numbers and “analytics” to justify what they are doing.  HR departments love psychobabble and phony statistics because that way they don’t have  to deal with people as individuals.  And they don’t have to admit their own inadequacies.

And those inadequacies are legion.  In the hiring realm HR seems determined to waste resources on ATS systems that weed out the qualified but not perfect while indulging in purple squirrel hunts in shallow talent pools and positions go unfilled for months and even years.  On the internal side the organization becomes more concerned with being politically correct and ever more dysfunctional.

If you are a  CEO, you need to be concerned about just what is happening in HR.  Your HR leader is like Grima Wormtongue.  You can never be sure who he’s really working for. he may seem to be working for you while working against you in a myriad of subtle little ways.  You need to be concerned about just what effect those hiring policies and codes of conduct are having on your company and it’s people.  You need to be very concerned about how performance reviews and layoffs are affecting morale and engagement. Finally, you need to ensure that HR has a standard of performance in getting people hired that  allows the company to grow and flourish in a changing environment.

Ensuring that the company can flourish and grow. In the end that’s the only thing that matters. If HR can’t or won’t help with that, maybe it’s time to “fire human resources.”

When the flow of thinking goes like this:


The company president’s response: “I can’t undercut my HR guy.” Why not? He just undercut you.

Things are already in deep trouble. Once the habit starts of letting people make decisions for you that may not be in your best interest, there’s no real way out. The fact seems to be  that HR fails in it’s key functions, recruiting and retention.

Instead HR depts. have become more like a secret police inside the corporation , spreading fear and distrust wherever they  touch, spying on employees and pursuing nonexistent problems in the name of political correctness. Once the damage is done all that’s left is a dysfunctional ossified shell that can no longer respond to reality or grow and flourish, just coasting along until the inevitable end.


For more on the dysfunctional economy click Here or on the tag below.



  1. Jeb Kinnison · February 2, 2016

    The point that HR has become an outpost of government-style bureaucracy working against the interests of the company needs to be spread far and wide. Under pressure from diversity activists, they’re dismantling the meritocracy that made Silicon Valley the center of the technology world.


  2. Keith Glass · February 2, 2016

    I worked at a place that absolutely didn’t care about your technical performance, but only about the amount of business development effort you put in, over and above the job you were paid for. Oh, and trivial issues. I had gone through a bad stomach bug, and for a few days afterwards, had truly atrocious flatulence.

    I got call in for “counseling” over it. Even showing the HR type the pill bottle and the list of side effects, that listed “may cause severe flatulence”, they asked if I could discontinue the medication, apparently because Farting was not in the Preferred Image of the Firm. . . .


  3. Pingback: The Ongoing War For Diversity In Engineering | The Arts Mechanical
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