Death by HR: The Birth and Evolution of the HR Department

Death by HR

Death by HR

A hundred years ago, employment and recruiting were handled by individual managers—both private-sector workers and government employees were recruited, and served at the pleasure of those managers above them. Arbitrary, abusive, or corrupt practices were common, and managers were relatively free to use their position to benefit themselves or indulge their prejudices at the expense of the enterprise.

Industrial and labor relations as a field got its start around 1900. Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) explored what he termed “scientific management,” which others later referred to “Taylorism.” He strove to improve economic efficiency in manufacturing jobs by breaking down manufacturing processes into discrete steps, timing them and splitting them up in an assembly line to quantify and speed up each worker’s part of the process. This is the doctrine that gave us “mindless” factory work—the same small step done over and over by one worker, then the work moving on to the next worker for an additional step, before finally arriving completed at the end of the line, as perfected by Henry Ford in the assembly line for the Model T. The assembly line relied on the availability of standardized parts, and standardized the labor steps to assemble them so that no overall skill was required and employees could also be viewed as largely interchangeable cogs.

Taylorism in Dilbert -- Scott Adams

Taylorism in Dilbert — Scott Adams

As organizations grew and labor laws and unions as countervailing forces became important, companies developed personnel departments specializing in recruiting new employees and deciding pay and benefits questions. The “human resources management” field grew up as a specialization of the knowledge required to manage large numbers of employees under the many new legal and political constraints, and protection of the company or organization from lawsuits, union troubles, or government punishment became critical. The abbreviation HR for Human Resources was the new name for the Personnel Department on steroids, responsible for keeping lower-level managers out of trouble when making hiring, firing, and pay decisions. While team managers still had considerable input in deciding who to hire and fire and how much to pay them, they were required to work within guidelines provided by law, regulations, and an increasingly remote HR department. The immediate concerns of managers about team fit and competence were then subject to new constraints of state and federal regulation, and in unionized and civil service workplaces, overriding hiring managers’ prejudices but also overriding their local knowledge.

There had always been good and bad employers, and depending on the competitive environment and level of skill (and difficulty of replacing) of a class of employees, they could be either well-treated and secure, or poorly-treated and arbitrarily harassed and fired for reasons we would now consider improper, like race or sex. Recourse was reputational—in a many-employer city, larger employers who treated workers poorly would discover only desperate or naive people would apply for their jobs. Newcomers would take jobs with bad employers but then transition to better ones as they gained experience, if business was growing.

The new framework of unions, labor laws, and internal HR worked to establish a minimum standard for worker treatment. Bigoted or abusive managers could find their own jobs endangered as bad behavior was brought to the attention of upper management and resulted in negative consequences for the organization. But it also drove obviously improper behavior and motivations for hiring and firing decisions underground—a sophisticated bigot or sexual harasser in a hiring manager’s role could still get away with hidden discrimination.

It can be hard to determine how much credit to assign new labor laws and unions for the improvement in labor conditions in the era from 1900 to the 1970s, when today’s HR came into prominence. As in most social movements, the laws and organizations evolved together, and enlightened businesses were often reforming their own behavior in advance of the law and union pressure, recognizing that a stable and happy labor force made them more profitable and productive. As a recent example, private companies led the way to providing partner benefits for gay employees, far in advance of any legal requirements to do so. By the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling establishing same-sex marriage as a civil right throughout the country (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015), most major corporations provided such benefits.

Today the legal landscape for employers is so complex and regulations so easy to violate unknowingly that even the smallest companies have an HR department or outsource the function to a specialized contractor (though there are exceptions, and a recent movement toward eliminating them.) The HR department is tasked with reducing the risk to the organization of leaving hiring, firing, and compensation policies in the hands of local managers, and as a risk-avoiding function they typically are overly cautious and reliant on metrics like credentials, performance evaluations, and written applications to make decisions. Since HR is not intimately familiar with the makeup of specific teams and the complex skills required for maximum effectiveness in some positions, prescreened applicant pools provided by HR will typically have some excellent potential employees disqualified by their crude filters, and overall organizational goals like presenting good diversity numbers for regulators may lead to neglect of local goals like hiring the best performer for a particular position.

HR departments are intended to project corporate goals into team personnel decisions, but are more usefully viewed as internalized guards against hazards to the enterprise from lawsuits and regulatory punishments. Big corporations now spend heavily on lobbying, political contributions, and legal assistance, but most HR spending is also “protection money,” a cost of doing business in a highly-regulated environment. And upper-level management attention to HR functions tends to be an afterthought, with many HR departments staffed by people unfamiliar with the company’s business and with little incentive to increase productivity. When ass-covering is your primary activity, product or service innovation and quality have a lower priority. HR functionaries are roughly analogous to the commissars or political officers of Communist regimes, a separate hierarchy of spies to report on and control internal units. The interests of managers and HR can diverge drastically, with HR coming to be viewed as the enemy within, to be avoided and routed around. One high-tech team manager wrote, “How can you tell HR is lying? Their lips are moving.”

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


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The Great Progressive Stagnation vs. Dynamism
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action is Crippling America
Death by HR: The End of Merit in Civil Service
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Death by HR: History and Practice of Affirmative Action and the EEOC
Civil Service: Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Dream
Bootleggers and Baptists
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Justice Dept. Extortion
Corrupt Feedback Loops, Goldman Sachs: More Justice Dept. Extortion
Death by HR: The Birth and Evolution of the HR Department
Death by HR: The Simple Model of Project Labor
Levellers and Redistributionists: The Feudal Underpinnings of Socialism
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
Trump World: Looking Backward
Minimum Wage: The Parable of the Ladder
Selective Outrage
Culture Wars: Co-Existence Through Limited Government
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
The Morality of Glamour

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Affirmative Action: Chinese, Indian-Origin Citizens in Malaysia Oppressed
Affirmative Action: Caste Reservation in India
Diversity Hires: Pressure on High Tech<a
Title IX Totalitarianism is Gender-Neutral
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism

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Fear is the Mindkiller
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Selective Outrage
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The Death of “Wired”: Hugo Awards Edition
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US Military: From No Standing Armies to Permanent Global Power
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