Nurse Mildred Ratched (a prime candidate for a HR name if ever there was one) from the magnificent ”One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” represented to me a terrifying depiction of an institutionalised caricature fully immersed inside the walls of a mental institution. Up against the anti-hero McMurphy (played by the supreme Jack Nicholson) she pitted her wits on a man seeking to avoid a hard prison stretch by pretending to be mad.
Now I am sure HR interims will get the analogy of McMurphy well. For starters, they can continually enjoy the challenges the short term assignment throws at them without the worry of institutionalizing themselves. They can hide inside the corporate entity without concern for being found. But best of all they can avoid the medication and like the chief in the movie know that one day they can smother their temporary persona and throw a water cooler through the window running off into the distance untainted. But like me do they ever stop and reflect on the poor inmates of the corporate HR lunatic asylum they leave behind.
Now let me be clear. These fine people, like those in the movie, are fairly harmless souls but a byproduct of their drugged state has led to a general malaise in our profession which now threatens our very existence. The corporate HR lifer, fed a diet of daily medication in the shape of bespoke corporate goodies, has left the profession worse off as a result, produced moments of crisis, facing an uncertain future and hindered by countless organisations so drugged up they see no wrong in the way they are servicing their businesses.
For starters, it is clear that the HR inmates are obsessed with the cult of the personality instead of the value of the business and its commercial drivers. Their prime value to the organisation is based on the people they know and the relationships they form, not business outcomes and reliable fact base analysis. From the Nurse Ratched’s above, their value proposition at the outset is pre-ordained – “get to know the client”, “raise your profile” and “learn the process (code for the hardwired cultural norms that often reflect the peculiarities of that organisation) first”. Assimilate, assimilate, assimilate. Take the medication. The nurse Ratched’s look out for signs of deviating from this norm with a beady eye crush any signs of it with a searing look and the words “there’s a lot of noise around you”. This is an early warning sign that pushes the inmate back into line. More medication.
So how does all this manifest itself as symptoms of our current malaise as a profession ? Do you recognise the following symptoms below :
- Disruptive elements in the outside world around technology and talent pass them by. The ecosystem is purely and simply the internal organisation. The HRD (i.e Ratched), comforted by their cosy relationship with the other inmates on the board, deliver over and over the holy trinity of hiring, firing and some form of ancient performance management ritual year in, year out. Without Question. Secretly they know it doesn’t work. It’s outdated. It’s inefficient and drives little value but what the heck, the client doesn’t have much greater expectations and when he does we hire in an HR interim or one of the big four to do something valuable – at an enormous cost.
- Personality and hunch overrules everything. Data, with a shrug of the shoulders, is always backward looking and the expectation levels from the client are so low that they’ll never question lots of unconnected activities from the HR department loosely allowing things to happen. Learning products roll off the assembly line like the closing scene of Bruce Forsyth’s generation game. The HR inmates obsess over participation levels and with lots of flailing and flapping seek to make a massive jump to concluding that engagement (and for them it’s equally a product) is on the up via some soulless annual employee survey.
- Routine means that nobody questions the bad money decisions. Our future success as a business is dictated by a HRD with little insight into the world of Talent Acquisition, for they never go there on their career path, and the spreadsheet-laden inmates in recruitment pump out volume hires in a structure that has confined them to a service delivery role of transaction and repeatable activities. The poor recruiter sits staring at the shapely figure of marketing, hoping that one day they’ll pluck up the courage to whisk them away to a moonlit future where customer and candidate brand frolic all day long in the summer sands.
- Innovation and external ideas are as dangerous as a hedgehog in a condom factory. The inmates ensure that it is squeezed into endless committees, beaten to death by all-inclusive workshops and generally strangled by the inertia of a community content to keep the boat steady and not try anything new. Or valuable. McMurphy suffered from it and the HR interim will know the limits of going too far near it for fear of reprisals.
- Social HR is redundant. In fact so redundant in some organisations that the sites are banned and discouraged in a way that would make the Chinese blush.
- The CIPD becomes more and more irrelevant as they convince themselves that being a world expert in the organisations’ tangled web of relative and absolute performance ratings that make no sense, suggest you’ve reached expert status in your profession.
- The gene pool, being as weak as a pint of American lager, means the top talent is the person most able to be as corporately pleasing to the eye as possible and who has been there forever. And male. And white. And middle class. He’ll never leave. He’ll rise to the top and keep the whole thing going and be rewarded handsomely with even larger doses of medication than before.
A byproduct of too much medication are comfort zones. The lack of commercialism isn’t challenged by the business and a form of collusion kicks in. In a passive aggressive manner, the inability to move the business on gets taken from the HR agenda whilst they snooze. Trying to escape is futile for many. Years go by and the medication gets stronger. The ability to resist conformity grows weaker. Assimilation has taken root and as you look round the presence of the other long term inmates provides a degree of false comfort. The CIPD membership gets cancelled and the odd visit from the HR recruitment consultant tells you that you are better off staying where you are than going anywhere else.
But then the inevitable happens. Something you know must happen but you are powerless to stop. Nurse Ratched tells you that you must make way for younger inmates. You are forced out into a world that is alien, with concepts that you’ve never heard of before. Your outplacement counsellor does his best by making your transition look and feel like your old institution and lets you turn up wearing your old suit for familiarity. But your medication has left you totally unprepared for the outside world and you’re equipped for nothing more than an advisory role at the CIPD J
All over the corporate HR city these stories are real and repeatable. A huge reason why I enjoy the HR interims is that their lifeblood to survival requires them to be current and to challenge themselves in a competitive landscape. The ones who don’t just wither and die. There is a lot of good talent out there but I do dismay at the poor state of many of our corporate HR organisations whose own inertia and navel gazing is killing the profession stone dead.
McMurphy sought to escape his life at the institution but was ultimately foiled at the last minute by Nurse Ratched, who lobotomized him. The Chief set him free with the ultimate act in the film, before crashing through the window and running off to freedom with the sound of the inmates ringing in his ears.
Are you a corporate HR inmate ? Have you the symptoms of too much medication? Don’t be afraid. Help is out there. There are qualified people in the social HR space willing to talk to you in 140 characters or find a HR interim in the directory who has escaped this life and is now willing to offer tangible support. For the love of zeus, the future of Peter Cheese and the HR profession itself, end this barbaric practice once and for all.
Until next time.