The Dark Side of Human Resource Management
Once upon a time in the United States, the motto was “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” Times have changed. Today, the proposition is more akin to “Where you start is most likely where you will finish.” Social mobility has calcified to no small extent in this country. Indeed, a recent study found that socio-economic mobility in the UK is superior to mobility in the U.S.
90% of the US population hasn’t seen an increase in earnings in 22 years. The vast majority of Americans have not enjoyed an increase in household buying power since 1972. Meanwhile during these past decades, there have been profound increases in employee productivity for a variety of reasons, technological and otherwise, including the growing illegal practice of working employees “off the clock” without providing them due compensation. These productivity improvements have helped aggrandize wealth at the top, to be sure.
However, my purpose in citing these realities is not polemical. I do not seek to convert you to some liberal/progressive agenda. Actually, the trends described above are, in my estimation, largely immutable and I am not one to tilt at windmills. When the die is cast, I relax and accept. No, my purpose instead is to provide context for a recent conversation I had with a young friend of mine who is just getting his career underway. He was in the process of considering a job offer from a well-known and respected private company and leaving the relative comfort of his current position with a quasi-public employer.
I stressed to him the importance of remembering that he needs to be interviewing “the company” every bit as much as the company is interviewing him. I then dusted the cobwebs from an ancient and now-disreputable concept once known as “work-life balance.”
I previewed the discussion with personal recollections from yesteryear. Back in the 1970s, the gallows humor in my chosen profession of management consulting was that “if you haven’t had your first heart attack by age 30, you’re not really serious about your career.” Later in a public accounting and consulting environment, you knew that people would look away and shun you if your 4-week numbers were bad, but that they would give you a hearty hello and hail-fellow-well-met if your numbers were up. (As Sam Goldwyn once said, “Deep down I’m very superficial.”) That same, now-defunct, organization administered a personality test to the employees to determine their respective “need for belonging.” The higher your need for belonging, the easier it is to exercise impactful social control over the number of hours you work and, to a lesser extent, the results that you achieve. We want more employees with a high need for belonging: We know that fear of loss is a key driver of human behavior and if fear of separation from the group can be leveraged, we can cause people to work themselves right into the ground, losing sight of their best personal interests.
Indeed, the exercise of social control in the workplace was exactly what I wanted my young friend to interrogate before accepting the job offer. There have been recent articles in the New York Times and elsewhere concerning unrelenting work pressures in particular companies, which shall remain unnamed, and the degree to which these pressures create lasting emotional and physical damage. My personal favorite was the new father who sought a day off for the birth of his first child; he was told that if he took the day off, he need not come back. Bottom line? The nature and extent of these pressures is considerably more intense, more Dickensian, than in my career heyday. Another something for which I am grateful.
Rather than shunning an employee in the hallway, now we can use social media to target employees who are not conforming adequately to ever-rising standards of both elapsed hours worked and results achieved. We now institute programs where employees can “snitch” their complaints to the boss above the boss about a particular employee, camouflaged as a streamlined system for “delivering compliments on exemplary colleagues’ performance.”
Quite insidiously, a company may have a formal package of exquisite benefits, such as parental leave, annual leave, etc., which is useful during the employee recruitment phase. However, the informal culture may be one that grimaces and discourages the actual use of such leave as may be theoretically available. Indeed, actual use of annual leave in the United States is significantly lower than employee usage in other developed countries.
It’s difficult for a prospective employee to discern the actual contours of the everyday culture from the outside, but asking key questions in several different ways to several different people can be extremely helpful in ferreting out the truth. In addition, the extent that the company uses an iterative set of 3-5 separate employment interviews can serve as a red flag. This increasingly common practice is a way of ensuring that the new employee can be inculcated with the true operative values of the culture. Are you going to “fit in” and succumb appropriately to the dominant order, which has been established? Less charitably, will you be able to conform as a “Stepford Employee” if you are actually hired? In all fairness, these hard-pressed employees want to ensure that the new employee will pick up her end of the board; otherwise they will be expected to work even longer and harder than they do currently to compensate for a “bad choice,” a modern rate-buster, as it were.
So as we all know, things are not always as they appear. In an effort to get a seat at the adult C-suite table in corporate America, HR folks can be eager to show how they can build a culture in which work-life balance appears to be a formal component of the company workplace for recruitment advantage, while simultaneously and surreptitiously growing the informal pressure-cooked environment where anyone serious about their career will need to abandon the quaint notion of a personal life, or else get voted off the island. It’s the dark side of human resource management. As I said to my young friend, Caveat Emptor!