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HR Antipatterns at Startups
July 9, 2014 12:13 AM   Subscribe

The devaluation also stems from the underlying belief that HR is NOT a specialized function requiring domain knowledge and experience, but rather a "supplemental" part or outgrowth of other jobs. That HR serves merely to save the company from extreme situations or intervene when employee relations have broken down in a catastrophic way. That HR is a matter of filling in a checkbox, rather than worthy of the same care and nurturing as the technical areas of the business. That HR is just another "soft skill" largely irrelevant to the founding and building of technology. That "anyone can do it" and that the roles and responsibilities typically taken on by HR - and the problems it addresses - will magically be taken care of by the startup's "meritocratic" culture.
Shanley Kane talks about the lack of proper HR at many startups and why this is a problem.
posted by MartinWisse (65 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
New employees will naturally feel they have no chance of gaining an objective hearing.


The author isn't fooling anyone with such hints. HR does not exist to give employees objective hearings.

The devaluation also stems from the underlying belief that HR is NOT a specialized function requiring domain knowledge and experience

Or experience with actual HR.
posted by rr at 12:23 AM on July 9 [22 favorites]


Conflicted here as I hate HR as much as startup culture.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:25 AM on July 9 [21 favorites]


There's nothing a good HR person can screw up that a bad HR person can't screw up much, much worse. I've seen an HR person mismanage employee expectations almost to the point of tanking a whole company.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:27 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Oh, and part of HR's job seems to be communicatimg executive expectations to employees. HR personnel have limits fixing a problem if it is introduced at the executive level.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:31 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


The day that "HR" means anything other than "a corporation regarding humans doing labor for them as a resource any more fungible than finding a cheaper brand of copy paper to use" will be the day that I believe that HR is a resource that actually sides with employees in any meaningful battle against management.

(HR might be useful with disputes between all the lower-level employees, but that's all just workplace DRAMA to begin with.)
posted by hippybear at 12:33 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


The devaluation stems from the (correct in my opinion) belief that a lot of what HR does is pure nonsense and further that in a "start-up" (ie a small team) HR is just unnecessary.
posted by mary8nne at 12:40 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


My favorite interaction with HR was when, as a manager, I had a followup meeting about an employee I was being pressured to put on a PIP.

PIPs, despite the clever name ("performance improvement plan") are basically a way of gaming responsibility for termination.

Start the meeting with the Manager101 shit complement sandwich: complement first, then "concern" and then close with encouragement or a complement. In the PIP case, you start by telling the employee how valuable they are and how you want the best for them and how sometimes leaving a company can be the best thing that ever happens to someone (script provided by HR) and then present the two options: take a package or be put on a PIP. After all, this is all to help them be happier and more satisfied at their job, and clearly they are not satisfied.

The package is carefully arranged to be an apparent buffer against joblessness; take the modest prize behind door #1 or risk it with the PIP. You lose the package (and get fired) after you fail your PIP, which by the way basically everyone fails because you are directed by HR to make the PIP "challenging" which, if probed, they will not define.

The HR drone in various mandatory manager indoctrination classes was quite offended by the suggestion that PIPs are designed to be unachievable despite several of the attendees with over a decade of management experience at the company attesting to this truth.

Anyway, the employee had recently (as in, the day before) been diagnosed with a late stage life threatening case of cancer and would probably go on medical leave as soon as he began treatment. At the moment I said this, pretty much the instance the syllable left my lips, the drone announced that I should *immediately* PIP the employee without any delay. When I questioned whether this was humane, the answer was a flippant "I just came out of the termination of an underperformer who just had a heart attack, get over it."

It's not something you forget.

I have worked at startups and large companies. The *best* case is when HR is a ruthless organization designed to be an employee grinding machine: problem employee? just doesn't fit? here's the paperwork, get rid of them, whatever the circumstances. In that kind of scenario, you know where you stand and their behavior makes a sort of sense.

More typically, they are basically useless pretty much always, and mostly staffed by dregs: usually a mix of people of who are ruthless-but-not-very-bright climbers that frequently seek reward for their ruthlessness, control freaks, and those who love petty drama and were generally worthless, thoughtless cogs.

Even when they're ruthless, well-oiled corporate machines, the best HR is as little HR as you can get away with while maintaining happy, healthy employees, which does not require "diversity plans" or pretend claims that HR supports employees. It involves haggling with the health insurance and doing honest comp comparisons (these generally outsourced to contractors because math).
posted by rr at 12:53 AM on July 9 [56 favorites]


I think the article would win over a lot more readers if the problem was framed as, HR does suck but if you're not going to use it in a startup you need a better system, rather than no system. And make an argument from there.
posted by polymodus at 1:00 AM on July 9 [11 favorites]


The obvious question here, is does MVC have a HR department; are they capable of protecting staff against the management and how are they different from every other startup everywhere?
posted by zoo at 1:02 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I have no doubt all this is true, but I don't think it's unique to start-ups (may be particularly acute there). I've often seen HR treated as a matter of secondary detail: the corporation decides what it wants to do and then hands the result over for HR to mop up the consequences - although the cost of the consequences may outweigh the benefits which motivated the original decision.

People have bad experiences with HR, but doesn't that serve to show the importance of getting it right? It's just an aspect of management, one which involves big risks if you do it badly or think you don't need it at all.
posted by Segundus at 1:07 AM on July 9 [8 favorites]


I've often seen HR treated as a matter of secondary detail: the corporation decides what it wants to do and then hands the result over for HR to mop up the consequences - although the cost of the consequences may outweigh the benefits which motivated the original decision.

People have bad experiences with HR, but doesn't that serve to show the importance of getting it right?


HR is not staffed by people who should be making corporation-level decisions. I have met a lot of HR people but I have never met one with an appropriate background. I am not even sure I have met one not basically befuddled by Excel.
posted by rr at 1:11 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Excel is an important HR skill?
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:24 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I've noticed that HR is a profession that is skewed heavily towards women, and I've frequently wondered if people--especially in male dominated technical fields--are quicker to brand HR professionals as idiots because they think of HR as some sort of unskilled "women's work." I've noticed a similar derision toward the work of teachers.

HR is truly a thankless job for many of these professionals, who have jobs that are difficult enough without dealing with the contempt of many of their coworkers.
posted by MoonOrb at 1:26 AM on July 9 [64 favorites]


I had a bad experience with HR once, and I know some other people who did too. I'm not sure what they do, but I bet it's easy. They must all be idiots, like librarians.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:13 AM on July 9 [35 favorites]


I like the thesis of this: there are HR-antipatterns, and they often manifest in start-ups.

The content and execution is often times shaky and sometimes hostile.

""Culture" is on the lips of every self-impressed, ego-bound man-child and his cabinet of college buddy executives as his company begins to grow. "

Well, maybe, sometimes. But I've also seen companies fail in culture to the point where the business failures could be related. Yes, avoid toxic cultures, but nurture creative and productive ones.

" In many cases, displays of excessive camaraderie and closeness between HR and certain employees lead to circumstances where other employees don't feel safe and comfortable going to HR. "

While this may be so, I also get the feeling like many HR folks take this to heart too much and try to ensure they are always hated by the employees. Which certainly can be achieved, which explains some vitriol that folks have for HR in this thread and elsewhere.

"Contributing significantly to this, of course, is the fact HR is often gendered as "female" or “women’s work” in a male-dominated industry, branded “non-technical” in an industry that privileges only programming."

Um, not sure that's the reason for much disdain. As pointed out above, HR works for the company, not for the employee, but in orgs I've been in HR certainly brands themselves as being employee advocates.

...

Personally, I think the prudent course is sort of midway... A tiny startup shouldn't worry all that much about HR (when you're under 10 people or so), a small startup should probably have a lawyer that understands employment law issues to ensure compliance, and as the company gets larger more HR positions make sense.

But I would imagine quality HR folks are in high demand, which means many startups can only find mediocre or worse HR folks - and they can really hurt an organization. With poor recruiting, a bad hiring process, abrubt or poorly handled firings, and all sorts of other things.

...

Finally, I think a good HR person is like a good sysadmin. If they are doing their job great you hardly notice them, and if you do you'd say good things. "oh yeah, the server is always up" :: "oh yeah, no one complains about our comp package/hiring process/relocation process/recruiting efforts". But even a mediocre sysadmin seems quite awful to users of the system: "The mail server was down for 6 hours last week/our website was down for 30 minutes yesterday/i couldn't print this stuff because the print server was down/whatever".
posted by el io at 2:16 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Mmm, seems to be a lot of ignorance and generalisations on parade in here. I'm not in HR, but I've worked for HR in a comms capacity. In some ways, I think HR shares some commonality with another frequently-hated corporate area I have also worked with and not for: marketing.

Both are generally the only areas of a business anywhere near approaching or exceeding gender equality; both have quite vague and broad areas of responsibilities; both perform a little bit of work that's highly visible, and a lot of work that's largely invisible to the average employee; both require an expertise that's generally far outside the majority of their businesses; both exercise a degree of control or authority over other areas of the business.

I've worked with completely useless HR people, and some of the smartest people I've worked with in my career have been HR people. I've seen HR people showing up for a pay cheque and nothing else; I've seen HR people deeply invested in their roles and making concrete improvements to the lives of employees, and their organisations.

Funny, how generalisations about an entire profession and vast swathe of people tend to be kinda shallow and ignorant.

I note the haters have not noticed the internal inconsistency to the argument: 'HR are totally useless in every way and a complete waste of time!". (Successful) Companies are not in the business of pissing too much money down the toilet - if all those productivity, org culture and workplace programs were a complete waste of time, and Joe or Jane Manager could perform any HR responsibility better and cheaper, that they would spend money on that shit?

Perhaps a few incensed commenters here would be better off asking what HR can do for organisations, than bemoaning the fact their brief moments of contact with the field have been unsatisfying.
posted by smoke at 3:43 AM on July 9 [20 favorites]


Who pays HR? The employer. That should tell you everything you need to know about where their loyalties lie when the chips are down.
posted by um at 3:45 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Who pays employees? The employer. That doesn't tell you a thing about loyalty.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:49 AM on July 9 [17 favorites]


will be the day that I believe that HR is a resource that actually sides with employees in any meaningful battle against management.

Yeah that's what a union is for, not a HR department. It'll be highly fucking entertaining to watch if "startup sulture" ever has to learn that lesson.
posted by Jimbob at 4:01 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


Employees actually are surprisingly loyal, I've found. It's when they feel they're getting screwed over that the goodwill tends to dissipate.

But anyway, consider this instead. If an employer actually cared about the employees having their interests represented (as opposed to simply having people to make sure the company has its ass covered) then all they have to do is invite the union into the workplace. They don't even have to pay anything!
posted by um at 4:02 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Is outsourcing HR a thing? Because that seems like it would solve a lot of problems for these companies.
posted by fermezporte at 4:22 AM on July 9


Most of the companies I've worked for, HR was fairly benign and just kept to themselves and managed the benefits packages (vacation, medical, etc.)

The HR at my current company is a former low-level admin who got herself promoted by kissing up to one of the former owners (former family-owned company). She has no training in HR, no degree in anything, and is a horrible person. Favoritism abounds, nepotism abounds (two of her children work here) and she's on a huge power trip.

It's mind-boggling to me that the CEO, when he started here several years ago, didn't immediately insist on replacing her with someone who has actual HR qualifications. She is a liability and it's only a matter of time.

I dream of the day that she does something wrong and it results in a lawsuit. The shit-show that ensues will be glorious.
posted by Fleebnork at 4:53 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


When I started my last office job (at a tech startup) they had an actual, trained, professional HR person. And, she was actually pretty good at what she did, often going to bat for employees. Management quickly sacked her after about a year and handed HR duties to a part-time secretary who answered directly to the CEO. Meeting with HR very quickly came to mean only one thing...Your ass is fired.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:55 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


I work for a huge organization and trying to get someone in HR to talk to you is about as easy as getting a customer service rep for the cable company on the phone. They want you to do everything through the HR website but it's so badly designed that you can't figure out how to do anything.
posted by octothorpe at 4:57 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


The problem with HR in most organizations is that they act as gatekeepers for jobs they know nothing about. Someone, somewhere has typically inserted a requirement in most job postings that is completely unrelated to the actual job, and HR will frequently not budge on these requirements for any reason.

When you're constantly interfering with the ability of managers to hire the right employees, you deserve all of the derision you get.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:32 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


No IT company I've worked for had HR. For better or worse.

Prior to IT, I was in hospitality, retail, warehouses, factories, and construction. And in those fields, HR were ALWAYS condescending, class-conscious bastards.

In one instance, I had to download the hospitality award (minimum wage for hospitality industry in this state in Australia), print it out, and threaten to take it to the ombudsman if the hotel staff weren't immediately paid the appropriate wage. Other staff had already spent a month being 'counselled' that they were on the right wage whenever they'd inquired about the low wage they'd been receiving. Failure of the union, too, really... though the union wasn't the one docking pay illegally.

When a manager outside of HR heard about it, he shit himself, and IMMEDIATELY made sure that the hotel paid back all the wages in full - rather than risk fines or a lawsuit. In this case, it wasn't even the actual hotel management who were trying to save a few bucks. Just a member of HR who was incompetent at reading pay scales, and really didn't like the foreign, working-class staff trying to politely let her know she wasn't doing her job properly.

I've at least 10 more incidents like this I've observed. No wonder startups don't trust HR. I don't either, and I doubt most workers who've transitioned from blue collar work would. And I don't know what the solution is, because obviously they perform some necessary functions.
posted by Sedition at 5:34 AM on July 9


I am puzzled by this trend, because it seems like a problem that can be turned around on employers very directly. HR exists to protect the company from liability; in theory, your HR person is there to make sure that everyone is following relevant employment laws. If someone isn't, it really sucks for the person getting the raw end of the deal, but the stakes are really high--the Tinder cofounder has had a completely inexcusably awful experience, but I would be very surprised if she didn't walk away with a seven-figure settlement from it. California isn't known for being especially hostile to underlings in employment lawsuits. A few multi-million dollar settlements ought to wipe the smug grins off of VC manchildren in the Valley.
posted by Mayor West at 5:50 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I hope I'm not the only one noticing that a lot of the comments about "What HR is for" or "What sucks about HR" focus on just one slice of what a full-spectrum HR department does and ignore all the other stuff.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:56 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


In my very first job, a startup, I did a lot of interviewing. I was out to lunch with a candidate (who was very good) and a fellow employee (who was not the greatest). They were both older gentlemen, and for small talk the employee asks the candidate "so, how many kids do you have"? I believe the answer is 2 or 3, I forget at this point since it's been over ten years, but what he actually answered was "Hey, you can't ask that, and I'm just going to quietly pretend that you didn't". Which is a great answer from someone whose interview is going well. But what if it wasn't? Who's job is it to fix that shit storm and make it so that the company doesn't get screwed? The answer is HR. Who's job is it to train employees not to do that shit in the first place? Also HR.
posted by Phredward at 5:57 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I don't think there's any conspiracy going on to hide the truly wonderful stories about experiences with HR. If the thread ends up with a bunch of complaints about HR, then I suspect it's because lots of people have things to complain about with HR.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:00 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


I was an HR manager in my old company for 3 years. It was a regular part of the development program that line managers took this rotation and we were seeded in amongst HR professionals. Without exception, all of the operations managers emerged from this stint as better managers, with more empathy and understanding for their employees.

Yes, I could trade war stories about egregious behaviour by managers, HR and employees, but for the most part, we were a good organisation with the ear of management and generally did a good job at looking after our staff.
posted by arcticseal at 6:06 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


HR is a resource that actually sides with employees in any meaningful battle against management.

I've never understood this belief. HR can most definitely have a positive effect on employees (if done right), in terms of things like training and making certain that the employer meets its mandatory obligations. But, in conflicts, HR's job is to minimize legal exposure for the employer---making certain that nothing done is illegal, allowing a former employee to sue for constructive dismissal, say.

Yeah that's what a union is for, not a HR department.

Indeed. HR isn't a replacement for union representation at all. In a non-unionized shop, an employee has to resort to individual legal representation, which gives a huge resource and access to information asymmetry to the company.

Here's a recent example of that: a phone company in Canada behaving badly.

Part 1
Part 2

That's why employees need unions, even, especially in high tech companies.
posted by bonehead at 6:17 AM on July 9 [8 favorites]


I am a PIP survivor. During the meeting I was asked if I even wanted to be in [this] industry. I stayed there five more years and have not left the industry. It was part turn around on me, part changing bosses (the one they had above us at the time was not well suited, IMHO), part shifting me me volunteering to be shifted to another work assignment attacking the process at a different point of entry. The work assignment was seen as "grunt work" but I brought it into the 21st century by providing an innovative integrated workflow and providing training to colleagues around the world to allow us to provide 24/7 coverage for emergencies.

I've had great HR and crap HR. But I've had good friends in HR as well and it's not as easy as filling out forms and filing paperwork.

But I agree we need unions if we as workers want actual sincere representation. HR ultimately works for the company, not you, but a good HR dept can actually work with you without screwing the company over, either.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 6:24 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Chiming in: I've also had good HR, and bad HR.

My current "not-quite-a-startup" company hired an HR person right after I came on board. She's definitely improved the company for the better.


Sidenote: Contractors are the ones who really get screwed in this arena. If you've got a client who is outright abusive to you, you have literally no recourse, unless your company feels that it's worthwhile to pull you off of the project or lose the client.

There are many other messed-up things about contracting (most of them HR-related), but this was the one that kept me up at night. There was literally nobody at my firm that I felt comfortable talking to about any issues that I was having in the workplace.

posted by schmod at 6:41 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Hey folks I'm the entire HR department at a startup and I th--
posted by shakespeherian at 7:01 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


It's mind-boggling to me that the CEO, when he started here several years ago, didn't immediately insist on replacing her with someone who has actual HR qualifications.

If the CEO's attitudes about HR and the people who work in it are anything like a lot of what's expressed in this thread, it shouldn't be mind-boggling. He (and a lot of us) don't expect anything good from HR and we don't expect them to be useful or competent, so when they're not, we just roll our eyes and go "Well, what do you expect?" We think everyone who works in HR is incompetent, and so low expectations are in place for hiring. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

The best HR departments are like public health departments: the work they do means Bad Things happens rarely and are taken care of quickly, so the rest of us never really have to feel those effects and we have the luxury of thinking that no work has to be done in order to keep bad things from happening.
posted by rtha at 7:06 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


The really hilarious part about all these people bashing HR is that it's exactly how a lot of people view IT.

But hey man, I'm sure these startup folks are super smart so they're just disrupting the old paradigm and they're gonna demolish HR!
posted by kmz at 7:14 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


which does not require "diversity plans"

Nice, just snuck that right in there...
posted by kmz at 7:15 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I've been in IT since I was 18, coming up on 20 years now. I've worked in everything from construction to pure tech, and I can't say that I've encountered a single HR department that I would consider functional or effective.

At the best side of the spectrum-- and this was for a brand name company that makes a successful OS and some other consumer products-- HR was a mere annoyance. We did the paperwork, all of the interviewing, and for the most part, were left alone. In two isolated events HR had to be involved, and it was mostly just a ton of paperwork.

At the other end of the spectrum are what I call the 'active' HR departments-- you know, the bimonthly mandatory company 'culture' events and PIP processes and online scoring and metrics tools, the whole boat.

I tend to agree with the rather cynical viewpoint that HR departments exist to limit liability. The thin veneer of 'we're really here as your partners to build a rich and rewarding career...' is always vaguely insulting. I think it's an area of business that isn't 'solved' yet, not by a long a shot. In the meantime, we'll keep having mandated Myers-Briggs typology tests and databases of job descriptions pass for what HR could be.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:15 AM on July 9


It's an interesting thesis but unfortunately it's undermined by a complete lack of evidence.
posted by ElKevbo at 7:31 AM on July 9


Polymodus: HR does suck but if you're not going to use it in a startup you need a better system, rather than no system. And make an argument from there.


My favorite line is that “HR is like the cops.” They are not your friends, they are not working for you because you are a special snowflake, they are ultimately working to keep a system running smoothly. Stuff must be very effed before you call them in. But without HR employment in aggregate would probably be even more dangerous.

Anecdata ahead…

I’ve known 4 people who went to HR for conflict & harassment resolution. In every case it ended with their unceremonious dumping but with a thicket of legal protections favoring the employer. This isn't just in IT, this was for big blue-plate employers like the power company and a local nonprofit. (I could add myself as a fifth anecdatum here, I had a benefits/leave conflict at a dotcom yeeeears ago that was eventually resolved with a cut to my paycheck.)

El io: I think a good HR person is like a good sysadmin. If they are doing their job great you hardly notice them

This. Much of what HR does is invisible and technical. (Have you ever tried shopping for health insurance?) A competent HR department means level compensation with clear paths for promotion/entry/exit etc. And, like having cops on hand at the state fair, their mere presence keeps hijinks to a minimum. Which is maybe Shanley’s point?
posted by axoplasm at 7:41 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


the Tinder cofounder has had a completely inexcusably awful experience, but I would be very surprised if she didn't walk away with a seven-figure settlement from it. California isn't known for being especially hostile to underlings in employment lawsuits. A few multi-million dollar settlements ought to wipe the smug grins off of VC manchildren in the Valley.

But it's not like HR is some magic bullet. HR is never going to be able to successfully dictate to "co-founders" to settle squabbles between them. The fool at Tinder would have cost his company that money regardless of HR. And the role of competent HR, now, would be to try and minimize payout to the woman who was wronged.

They were both older gentlemen, and for small talk the employee asks the candidate "so, how many kids do you have"? I believe the answer is 2 or 3, I forget at this point since it's been over ten years, but what he actually answered was "Hey, you can't ask that, and I'm just going to quietly pretend that you didn't"

But, truthfully, most people don't want to work with that guy. It's not that most people care what his answer is. It's that he's now "guy who gets prickly at ordinary small talk." The best thing HR could do is to find some other plausible excuse to be rid of him.
posted by tyllwin at 7:45 AM on July 9


we'll keep having mandated Myers-Briggs typology tests and databases of job descriptions pass for what HR could be.

Wait, there are companies that still use the MBTI? Jesus. Do they ask your sign, too?
posted by Itaxpica at 7:51 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I'm noticing a lot of comments about HR here that remind me of how conservatives talk about/treat the government, which is to say, staff it badly, cut the budget, talk about how unimportant it is and how little value it has, and then blame it when it can't fulfill important functions. Yeah, HR can be super, SUPER shitty, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have a utility and that doesn't mean an HR department has to suck. I really do think that, given support and resources and the chance to hire actually quality people, HR departments can make a big difference, especially for people like women and minorities who aren't always treated fairly in workplace cultures. Instead, we get this idea that everyone KNOWS HR sucks so no one gives HR the opportunity to do anything other than suck when really I think that, done well, it could be a hugely important ally for workers. Bad HR, a department that's trying to fire people and protect executives at the expense of the company, can be the symptom of a bad workplace culture instead of the cause.

There ARE good HR people out there who will work towards what's best for employees, but if we keep pushing them out or belittling them or taking away their power then HR is going to end up being just dregs and that takes away a really important layer of protection and support for employees.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:15 AM on July 9 [16 favorites]


Mrs. Pterodactyl, it looks a lot like folks complaining about HR are doing so from the perspective of general employees. Who really aren't in a position to fund HR better, recruit better people for it, or make it any kind of an ally for workers. IME it does what senior management wants, and as that translates into allying with workers, well, shit in one hand and wish in the other.
posted by The Gaffer at 8:23 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I see that point, and it's totally fair, but I guess what I meant with my government analogy is more that the people who benefit from having weak or venal HR, e.g. executives, have succeeded in convincing employees that HR is not in their best interests to the point where employees believe that HR is necessarily a problem for them instead of a possible source of support so now the people who would benefit from having strong HR departments (actual workers) have turned against them completely and want to destroy instead of reforming them. That said, it does suck that yeah, the vast majority of us have absolutely no power there.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:29 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I was reading this post when I got an email from my company's HR department, explaining why they are going to screw me over again. I have had plenty of disputes with managers that had no recourse except HR, for example, a manager threatened to fire me for going to a doctor's appointment. She insisted that we schedule appointments before 8AM or after 5PM. That manager does not live in the real world.

I recognize that part of HR's job is to defend the company from liability, but they also have the primary duty of hiring and retaining valuable employees. You can't simultaneously treat employees as an asset AND a liability. This sort of pressure from the top makes managers paranoid and aggravates their tendency to inflame every minor labor issue. The usual result is a condescending rant from my managers, something like "You know there are a dozen people who we could hire for your job and won't take time off for frivolous reasons." Well no there aren't, you had trouble filling this job slot, and you hired a dozen temps who quit after one day because they wouldn't put up with this crap from managers. And those attitudes are exactly why managers make mistakes that cause liability for the company.

Ultimately, the source of this continual griefing is the typical power imbalances between labor and management. I describe it as the Eloi vs. the Morlocks. The company turned most of its work into temp jobs, to avoid paying benefits, while the managers and executives enjoy luxurious benefits well above the industry standard. The Eloi work in newly remodeled offices, architectural showpieces that appear on the cover of the Annual Report, while we Morlocks work in windowless offices in the basement. I literally spent the last month trying to do algebra in my head while listening to jackhammers of workmen remodeling the floor above our basement offices. Another showpiece Eloi office is being created, while our Morlock office conditions continue to deteriorate to the point it is nearly impossible to do our jobs.

So the problems of the Morlocks are inconceivable to the Eloi. For example, I once complained that the janitors only empty our garbage cans about every two weeks, and some people toss banana peels in the garbage where they rot and create a sanitation problem. Result: the basement is full of fruit flies. The Eloi manager said that was impossible, her garbage can gets emptied every night. I showed her the red bumps on my arms where the flies bit me. You should have seen the look of shock on her face.

I mentioned this disparity in work conditions to an HR manager, I know she works over in the Crystal Palace. I said she seemed to be having trouble believing my descriptions of our working conditions, since her work conditions are so vastly superior to mine. She yelled at me and said she was outraged, since she worked her way up the company over 20 years, starting with positions like mine, so she knows what it is like. Yeah, that was back when none of these jobs were temp work, and the company paid benefits because that was the social contract between labor and management. But I held my tongue about her glorious career history, and instead, I explained that the typical experience of a temp worker like me is collaborating with other coworkers about how to maximize our state benefits like Medicaid, Food Stamps, unemployment compensation, General Assistance, etc. to supplement our meager income. This is what you would expect to hear about from a company like WalMart, not our prestigious non-profit institution that really could afford to pay a decent wage. Upon hearing this, the HR manager screamed at me and hung up.

Well I suppose I should not have expected anything different. I first met this HR person when she gave a PowerPoint presentation that all employees were required to attend. She said that the company was implementing cost cutting measures, with the goal of saving $3 Million per year, which would be "directly reinvested in ourselves." This money would be put back into benefits for employees, but those benefits are not available to temps like me. For example, the company hired a licensed massage therapist to go to each building on our campus and give free 15 minute massages to full time employees. It should not surprise you that the company did not hire the massage therapist as a full time position, they hired two half-time employees, to avoid paying benefits.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:40 AM on July 9 [8 favorites]


Good HR people are hard to find. Most go into HR because they want to help people, and along the way they turn into either disempowered bureaucrats (the ones who don't advance), or ruthless sociopaths (the ones who do). It's especially difficult in unionized environments, because there union reps do the bulk of defending employee interests, which over time pushes HR into solely acting on behalf of management rather than balancing between the interests of both.

But in my experience the only thing worse than having HR is not having it. And that's what the author is writing about: the negative effects of not having HR, specifically on minority groups. And there she is absolutely right.

An older colleague once told me that rules are the friend of the disadvantaged, and my experiences and observations say he's correct. Without HR, there is no-one to say "she has seven years of development experience and he has three: why are you saying he's more technical," or "we need to do something about that one guy, staff are telling me he's creepy/scary" or "if we don't advertise our jobs more widely, we will continue to only hire people's college buddies," or "our data show that the black and women engineers get paid less and none has ever been promoted: we should figure out why that's happening and try to fix it." (All real examples, by the way. I have seen good HR as well as bad.)

It's true that HR often sucks. But without HR, there is nobody except the CEO who is mandated to think about the organization's overall recruitment, compensation, assessment and promotions practices -- to look for patterns, solve problems, and try to ensure things are fair. That's why HR matters.
posted by Susan PG at 9:26 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


A competent HR staff also keeps their company out of court and out of the newspaper.

While this is a somewhat cynical view, this tends to be a "net positive" sort of thing in jurisdictions that have good employment laws and regulations.

Also don't forget that corporate HR were one of the first groups to hop onto the LGBT rights bandwagon. Turns out, discrimination is pretty bad for businesses and their employees.
posted by schmod at 10:02 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


This article is not written for the vast majority of us, because the vast majority of people (even on an well-educated, more-class-privileged-than-median site like Metafilter) aren't running businesses.

Unfortunately, we're stuck discussing this article instead of one actually addressed to us. Which is to say, one titled "Unionization Antipatterns at Startups."
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:18 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


It's true that HR often sucks. But without HR, there is nobody except the CEO who is mandated to think about the organization's overall recruitment, compensation, assessment and promotions practices -- to look for patterns, solve problems, and try to ensure things are fair. That's why HR matters.

To elaborate: There is in fact another category of organization that's responsible for thinking about recruitment, compensation, assessment, and promotion, looking for patterns, solving problems, and trying to ensure things are fair. Because this category of organization is (at least occasionally) responsible to workers rather than to capital, this category of organization has been systematically suppressed throughout the United States.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:22 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I work in software. A company typically follows one of these two paths when they first show interest in me: 1.) HR person calls, basically asks me how I qualify for each item on the job description so he/she can decide if I'm qualified or pass that info on to the hiring manager to decide, or 2.) they skip that process; HR just arranges a phone screen with the hiring manager.

One startup scheduled a phone screen with their do-everything person: HR, recruiting, office manager, etc. During our phone conversation, she displayed many of the behaviors described in this article: she asked me random questions about my profession based on her very limited understanding of it; every other word out of her mouth was 'culture', etc. She also asked me what I do in my spare time and it was clear she was expecting me to say something that showed how passionate I am about software.

The phone screen was awful, but it gave me a very good idea of the maturity of that company and what they value--enough information for me to decline to go farther for that position.
posted by tippiedog at 11:16 AM on July 9


But, truthfully, most people don't want to work with that guy. It's not that most people care what his answer is. It's that he's now "guy who gets prickly at ordinary small talk." The best thing HR could do is to find some other plausible excuse to be rid of him.

For anyone wondering what "not a culture fit" is code for, here it is in plain English. "Stand up for your rights in a rather nonaggressive manner? Not the culture we want to promote, sorry."
posted by TypographicalError at 11:40 AM on July 9 [13 favorites]


It's especially difficult in unionized environments, because there union reps do the bulk of defending employee interests, which over time pushes HR into solely acting on behalf of management rather than balancing between the interests of both.

To believe that HR is there to "defend employee interests" is a massive misunderstanding of what HR does in a company. It is there to manage personnel issues for the company. It's client is only senior management. To blame HR's failings on the presence of an employee union is, to my view, appallingly corporatist. Unions exist because of the policies HR is there to enforce.

The analogy of HR to a police force is a good one: they're there to enforce management policies and make certain things run smoothly. There are asshole, power-mad cops, and there are good ones who believe in community-based policing. Ultimately though, all cops have to enforce the law written by the government. If the people suffer from unjust laws, or employees under prejudicial and uncaring HR policies, it may be the cops and HR who take the heat, but the people on top ultimately responsible.

So managment needs a (loyal) opposition. Thus, unions. But don't blame the unions because HR is a tool of bad owners.
posted by bonehead at 12:02 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


In my very first job, a startup, I did a lot of interviewing. I was out to lunch with a candidate (who was very good) and a fellow employee (who was not the greatest). They were both older gentlemen, and for small talk the employee asks the candidate "so, how many kids do you have"? I believe the answer is 2 or 3, I forget at this point since it's been over ten years, but what he actually answered was "Hey, you can't ask that, and I'm just going to quietly pretend that you didn't".

I'm actually really confused by this on a couple of levels. Obviously it's a really bad idea for potential employers to ask about certain things, but is it actually illegal ("can't ask that" as opposed to "probably shouldn't")? Also, is familial status actually a protected class from an employment perspective (not just a Title VIII/housing one)? I'm not asking to a pedantic dick, but rather because I'm in the middle of a job search and this would be really nice to know.
posted by dorque at 12:10 PM on July 9


The HR person at my org is pretty irrelevant and unhelpful and is also not shy about sharing her fairly oppressive neocon/republican viewpoints with us so we just pretend she doesn't exist.

also at our last staff meeting we voted unanimously to settle all interstaff grievances via the holmgang

meeting attendees were me, my dog, and my boss who was napping off a gross case of the flu
posted by elizardbits at 12:31 PM on July 9


You Can't Tip a Buick: "This article is not written for the vast majority of us, because the vast majority of people (even on an well-educated, more-class-privileged-than-median site like Metafilter) aren't running businesses."

I think it's fair to say that this article isn't directed at the people running the businesses, or it wouldn't call them "man-children" and constantly insult them. I'm actually unclear about who this article is directed at. It feels mostly like a rant, screaming into the void.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:29 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: like a rant, screaming into the void.
posted by MoonOrb at 1:31 PM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Hey, dorque. There is nothing that is actually illegal to ask in a job interview, at least in North America. What's illegal is to behave in a discriminatory fashion to people on the basis of them being in a protected class, which might include being a woman, disabled, non-white, lesbian or gay, or 40+ (plus or minus other categories depending where you live). Companies that care about minimizing their risk of behaving in a discriminatory fashion, or of getting sued for behaving in a discriminatory fashion, discourage their interviewers from asking personal questions, so that they can minimize the likelihood of something coming back later and saying they were e.g. denied a job or a promotion based on stuff like "because we assumed you were planning to get pregnant" or "because we figured you were too old to learn new skills" or whatever.

tl;dr, nothing is illegal to ask, but being asked personal questions can be a flag that the company doesn't have its shit together.
posted by Susan PG at 1:44 PM on July 9


Oh and also your family status doesn't put you in a protected class anywhere, AFAIK. Except insofar as talking about it might reveal your membership in a protected class, like if you are a man married to another man, or if you have adult kids and are therefore likely over 40.
posted by Susan PG at 1:47 PM on July 9


Oh and also your family status doesn't put you in a protected class anywhere, AFAIK. Except insofar as talking about it might reveal your membership in a protected class, like if you are a man married to another man, or if you have adult kids and are therefore likely over 40.

This varies by state law. In Washington, for example, discrimination based on marital status is unlawful.
posted by MoonOrb at 1:55 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


In Australia, it's illegal to ask discriminatory questions, such as:

- Are you married?
- Do you have kids?
- What country are you from?
etc.

posted by Sedition at 4:18 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Also, in many states, it's still legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Being gay is absolutely not a protected class the way sex or race are.
posted by rtha at 7:09 PM on July 9


Sedition I'm not entirely sure that business insider article is about Australia. Question 8 - Do you drink socially refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
posted by poxandplague at 3:15 AM on July 10


A competent HR staff also keeps their company out of court and out of the newspaper.

I wonder how true either of those statements is. I think the "keeping out of court" idea is more of a threat than anything else...how many cases actually make it to court? I actually do not know, but I've seldom seen an HR person booked for legal proceedings...I can't imagine that it happens very often.

The newspaper is another one. Worst case scenario is your company lands on a "f'd company" type tumblr or gets some neg on glassdoor, but the only recent news article I've read related to HR was that guy from Timber...I don't even remember his name. Again, anecdotal...one would think that most of this stuff is uninteresting to the general public, and not newsworthy.
posted by Chuffy at 3:45 PM on July 11


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