So tell us about yourself.
Human Resource Culture and personal discomfort
Back when I was first entering the workforce, trying to get experience in places where even the entry-level jobs required prior experience, I remember being surprised to see that the local video stores didn’t have “interviews.” They had “auditions.”
If you wanted to work at Blockbuster or VideoEzy, you had to “audition” for the coveted role of retail assistant, helping people to find a copy of Rocky 3 or The Sound of Music. I was so intimidated by the concept of an audition that I never applied for any of those jobs. Just as well, really, because video stores didn’t have much longer to live after all. But my point is this: at the time, I thought my discomfort had nothing to do with the organisation.
I thought the problem was me.
Later in my working life, during a stint of long term unemployment (the term meant any period of unemployment longer than 6 weeks), I was referred to a professional jobseeking service to teach me how to conduct myself during job interviews. The agency was worried about me: as a quiet introvert, they worried that the reason I wasn’t getting through interviews successfully was because I lacked sufficient extraversion. They allocated a professional salesperson to go out and “sell me” to potential employers.
It landed me a retail job. I was put on as a “core” casual for a year and a half, which meant that I had little control over my own roster, but that I was given first preference over “non-core” casuals whenever a shift was budgeted. Casual work was uncomfortable for me because every shift was essentially a trial shift for the next; your performance in one determines whether you will get another. It was like being in a job interview that never ended.
Working as a Casual Retail Assistant was often described by my manager as a superior situation to full time or part time work because I was not only paid a higher rate, but I also had the “freedom to choose” my own hours. “You casuals have it so lucky,” she used to say, “You get huge paychecks and days off whenever you want.”
Whenever we want…?
The reality of casual work — and casual employment — is very different to this. I worked out pretty quickly that a casual who refuses a shift is considered an ingrate, and will be taught a lesson one way or another — usually by being refused future shifts. This is not always the manager’s fault; organisational pain snowballs as it descends through the power structure so that by the time it reaches casuals, it’s massive. But middle managers are often in unfair situations where they experience vindictiveness from above, become afraid of it, and terrorise the people below them out of self-preservation.
And what does this mean for the freedom of the casual worker? It means it’s contingent on the mood of the manager; a casual can do whatever they want…as long as the manager doesn’t mind. Remember, the manager is paid to mind.
Fake rostering benefits aside, it’s also clear that the financial benefits of casual work are oversold. Casual budgets are always the first cut, do not afford paid leave of any kind, and can dry up in an instant. I know that while I worked as a casual, I was never able to get comfortable, nor was I really able to make any financial plans. I lived a lifestyle that matched my work structure: fitful, desperate, anxious.
Again I assumed that my discomfort had nothing to do with the organisation, and everything to do with my own personal weaknesses. To put this in the language of Human Resource Culture: I lacked the necessary skill set to negotiate appropriately with a professional environment.
As my career progressed, ascending into administration, I did acquire both full time and part time work, and part of those jobs entailed continuous performance review through a cycle of formalised interviews and metric reporting. Somehow, I managed to outlast a number of different performance review systems, each sold to the organisation by Human Resource Officers as a way of increasing productivity by “keeping a conversation going.” The systems themselves took quite some investment, yet they were quickly adapted, creolised or flat out abandoned across different departments.
There was a personal irony in this for me, because I had, by now, started to come alive to the existence of a Human Resource Culture — a way of deliberately making employees anxious, agitated, intimidated and docile. I had started to notice the features of a Human Resource Culture: the hiring of assessors, the enforcement of abstract language, the veneering of personal vendettas with “professional” language in order to punish or dispense with problem employees. The irony was that just as I was becoming inured to the vicissitudes of that culture, I found myself working for a manager whose satisfaction with my personal performance was inversely proportional to the satisfaction of my clients. It’s a pity, I was almost comfortable at work.
But again, I assumed this had nothing to do with the organisation, and everything to do with my personal weaknesses.
Now that I’m approaching 40, I’m starting to consider that a lot of my discomfort is not a genetic abnormality, or a failure of parenting or education. And the reason I’m reallocating the blame for the pain has to do with the sheer number of other people who have been thrown off balance by interviews and performance evaluations. More than this: people who enter organisations with confidence become timid and unsettled by corporate culture.
We use the term “white ant” to describe the ways that a bully can exploit a professional system to intimidate and antagonise someone. I like this termite metaphor because it gives an accurate sense of the ways in which a person can feel hollowed out, eroded, weakened. But the problem with the metaphor is that it allocates blame to a “villain” rather than a system.
I’m suggesting that bullies use “white ant” tactics as their preferred method of attack because such tactics are consonant with Human Resource Culture. I’m also suggesting that when an employee feels undermined or thrown into doubt, it’s because of a Human Resource Culture that deliberately aims to unsettle employees so that maximum productivity can be extracted from them.
Human Resource Culture is an extractivist ideology. In the same way that we extract petroleum from the ground (leaving holes) or extract meat from animals (leaving offcuts), we try to extract ideas and efforts from employees (leaving anxiety). There’s a continuity here: the idea that we can take and tame living material and turn it into money with which a ruling class can purchase freedom of choice. There’s also an idea of scarcity here, something the powerful have but the powerless are denied: comfort and confidence. More than this perhaps: the manager is allowed to experience and express their full humanity, but the worker is only allowed partial, suppressed, contingent, humanity.
Finally, I have to wonder: what if Human Resource Culture, so self-congratulatory in its efforts to achieve social justice, is actually just a continuity of a plundering colonial mentality — to move into an area, extract its wealth, and move on. Except it’s not land that’s being plundered here, it’s people.
This is all very gloomy stuff. But I wanted to write about this because I have a message of hope: that your workplace discomfort has nothing to do with a weakness of character, but is in fact a sign that you’re a “good worker” — that your stress is strategic, and means you’re doing the work you were hired to do.
You may have already put some considerable time into changing yourself to fit the system: learned how to feel and think “professionally”; how to take your victimisation less personally; how to relax more “effectively”; how to deal with persistent rumination that keeps you awake at night. And I endorse all of these things to assist your survival and your health. Self-help can have a political knock-on effect when it motivates us to change unhealthy systems.
But when it doesn’t, self-help becomes a substitute for political action, and ensures your survival while others flounder. The next generation of employees enter the workforce, experience the same victimisation, and learn how to be more “resilient” in the face of a needless adversity. The other problem with self-help — a notoriously white and bourgeois ideology — is that it ignores how unhealthy systems affect oppressed groups disproportionately. While Human Resource Culture often attempts to acknowledge social inequities, its very essence exploits those inequities. The sense of “imposter syndrome” so intrinsic to women, people of colour, LGBTI, the disabled and the aged, aren’t eradicated within the workplace: they’re mined. Because of the “bootstraps” narrative, oppressed and marginalised employees will often be more anxious, more obsessive, more “productive” than their straight white young male counterparts.
Is there another way to run workplaces that doesn’t require discomfort in order to function?
I suspect a better way of running organisational culture might be to allocate comfort and confidence evenly across all levels of employment. Even across disparities in remuneration, there should be equity of confidence. Across social inequities, additional confidence should be allocated to the marginalised in order to provide an equal playing field. The aim here is not to resolve humanity so that it can be put aside during working hours, but to become more supple in working with it. That means being prepared for employees who are emotional, relational, uneven creatures who perform at their best only when they feel valued. The old method of trying to apply rubrics, not to describe people, but to shape them, should cease. I’d like to see recruitment practices and evaluation practices that directly address how people are feeling, how they want to work, and what they need to make them comfortable.
In other words, we need to find new ways of treating humans as something other than resources from which to “extract” maximum yield.
There are economic incentives to do so. People show more loyalty, more innovation, more happiness, more co-operation, and more honesty when they feel valued and seen. Quite simply, they will stick around and do the work happily if they feel accepted in the group. Minimizing staff turnover saves money on recruitment costs, on bureaucratic human resource bloat, on the need for reparative public relations to counteract the testimonials of disgruntled former employees. Too many employers forget that employment itself is an intensive mode of customer service, and that managers should treat employees with the same dignity with which we treat customers: mindful of satisfaction, mindful of equality. A dissatisfied customer might tell 7 other people, but a dissatisfied employee will tell everybody for the rest of their lives.
There are also practical incentives to treat staff well, the foremost of which is that it stops you from creating corporate monsters. As delightful as the fiction of the ambitious “professional” is, corporations that treat people as vendible resources find themselves being treated exactly the same way. Employees use sales techniques to deal with recruitment, then use sales techniques on their managers, and once they have extracted the maximum yield for their career, they move on, often without having improved the company at all. The fiction of “self-interest” has been exposed as an alibi for the insulation of white male privilege; it is their self-interest that they have really vaunted. A practical outcome of allocated comfort and confidence at all levels of an organisation is the reduction in social inequities, far beyond tokenism, towards the class mobility of women, people of colour, LGBTI, the disabled and the aged. I am talking about a full scale infiltration of the middle and upper classes.
Because it’s clear that our discomfort is being used to keep us down.
I hope you’ll forgive me for being meandering in this piece, I think I need to draw my ideas together a little more tightly. Before I go, I guess you’ll have noticed that, despite my Leftist leanings, I stopped short of advocating an abandonment of hierarchies altogether.
I do believe in vertical hierarchies in the workplace; in fact, I believe in strong management with clear delegation, rewards and response costs. I’ve seen co-operatives and “group projects” flounder too often to believe in anything other than a clean and comfortable chain of command.
And yet I almost feel that the Human Resource Departments of most organisations could be dispensed with entirely, and their functions absorbed by finance, by individual departments, and even by individual employees. Or if a Human Resource Department were to remain, I feel that they should be used to counteract the existing Human Resource Culture of extracting maximum productivity at minimum cost. Perhaps a future Human Resource Department — which might just be called “staffing” or “Human Services” — could perform more pastoral, and fewer surveillance, duties.
That sounds like somewhere we could all do some really good work.