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Saturday, 23 May 2020

The death of the HR department

Back in 2017 Nicola Thorp turned up for a temp assignment at Price Waterhouse Cooper staffing the reception desk. She was sent home for wearing flat shoes; the company dress code clearly stated that women employees must wear 2 - 4 inch heels. And despite the press reactions - photos of shapely calves in stilettos from the Sun, outrage from the Guardian - it quickly blew over. Dress codes were and are a quite legal and enforceable power of company HR departments. And it doesn't end with what employees can wear to the office. In the past twenty years they have ended the City's lunchtime drinking culture. The pubs heaving with suited traders getting a couple of pints down their gullets are a thing of the past - the HR departments decreed that, on Health and Safety grounds, the company had a new no-alcohol policy. Any employee with alcohol in their bloodstream was deemed to be an unacceptable risk in the workplace.

Of course it extended even further. Not only must employees not smoke in the workplace, they must not smoke in the vicinity of the workplace or when they can be identified as employees of the company, whether during their paid hours or otherwise. When your DHL driver finishes his shift, he can still be disciplined for having a fag in his liveried overalls in a Tesco car park.

And then there's social media. The reason I started blogging under a pseudonym was counsel's opinion that had been circulated to us confirming that contractors, IR35ers and employees could all be compelled to desist from expressing any form of personal public opinion that could be linked to the company. There's no point in Joe Potato going on Twitter with the bio "Structural Engineer with Thames Water - opinions are my own". They're not. His opinions belong to his employer. Of course, Momentum activists working in the NHS don't have this problem, as the employer doesn't mind being linked with them, but an NHS worker openly declaring membership of the Brexit Party on Twitter will certainly face disciplinary action - not for the membership, but they'll dig into past posts to find one that violates company policy. Offence archaeology. This last pernicious smothering of personal political opinion by corporate HR departments has surely been the most distasteful use of commercial power.

HR litigation has been a rich seam of earnings for law firms, so much so that the workplace has become an incredibly high-risk legal environment. In the past decade cases have even sought to establish that normal human contacts in the workplace can be a cause for action; don't even think about smiling reassuringly at the new girl or joking about the Transport Manager's weight.

And Covid-19 might just have driven a tank through the whole bloody edifice of corporate HR control.

Are female employees of PwC working from home still expected to wear 4" heels when Zooming from their sofa? Can you swig from a can of cold lager in the garden on a steaming hot day while engaged on a work voice call? Can you smoke whilst constructing complex company spreadsheets on the kitchen table, or if you develop lung cancer can you sue the company for secondary smoke from your wife's fag in the workplace? Can you playfully jiggle your spouse's breasts on company time?

And as work itself changes away from permanent employment in a workplace, as will be inevitable, will the legal relationships between employee / contractor and employer become more equal? Will employees cease to be a 'resource' like iron ore or petroleum feed stock or power or produce and start to become sovereign partners, if unequal in financial size?

I started work having an office, a desk with an ashtray and a culture of the three-pint lunch, of Christmas parties that provided opportunity for Bacchanalian fornication. The job of the personnel department was to write the salary cheques. Most people met their partners at work, and their longest lasting friends, bonded over beer and fags and Christmas lunches. It's now the turn of the Puritan zealots from the HR departments who ruined it all to go. They won't be missed.

Update 9.53
I neglected to mention the effects of Covid on liability insurance premiums - general liability insurance, Directors & Officers insurance and Worker's Compensation insurance. In the end it won't be government legislation on distancing that kills the office workplace, but the unaffordability of the risk.


Span Ows said...

Our HR are prominent in informing one and all of any government changes in COVID rules. I am always amazed as well that whenever I visit the office (as little as possible) there was a constant stream of employees spilling their heart out in the HR office, sometimes 'both sides' with things becoming loud and heated. On one occasion I had to send a colleague to ask them to take it elsewhere as everyone in the boardroom could hear the row! Often wondered what - in anything at all - would ahppen if HR wasn't there. It's like food banks, there isn't really a need but put it there and they'll be a queue.

DeeDee99 said...

I started my career working in the Personnel Dept of a heavily unionised major international company back in the late '70s. The Dept involved itself in recruitment, salary administration, internal transfers/promotions, pension provision; training union negotiations/relationship and not a great deal else.

The administration of the personnel functions was heavily influenced by the presence of strong, but in our case reasonable, union reps. The social culture Raedwald describes in his final paragraph, flourished - as did the local hostelries.

Then - and almost with the demise of unionism within the private sector - "Personnel Departments" morphed into Human Resources Depts and the focus changed; the employee lost his/her individuality and became simply a unit of labour. Management of individuals was de-personalised; instead the Employer was "personalised" with Company Visions; Company Values etc

There is a world of difference between a Personnel Dept and an HR Dept. HR Departments have been shrinking for years, since so many of the functions can be managed effectively via remote IT depts/providers. There is no need for an interpersonal relationship between HR and an individual.

The fallout from Wuhan Flu will simply exacerbate the demise of HR Depts. I predict that the dress code for employees WfH will be relaxed; as will their behaviour. But "policing" of their values/behaviour (speech, thought, actions) will be enhanced .... via IT.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's your Tory governments, which have brought in the employment "law", which makes employees little more than the chattels of their lords and masters.

A simple Act could make it so that an employee's own time was actually theirs, and that they were free to express any opinion without sanction from their employer, as more civilised countries have.

The employer can always rely upon libel and defamation law if they say anything damagingly untrue.

terence patrick hewett said...

I work on my own account and I never as a matter of policy ever name the academic institutions, companies and professional institutions with which I associate. I always post under my own name and if anyone objects, they can get f......

Mark said...

Would the fatherland ban on burning an "EU" flag extend to photoshopping an image and putting it on soshal meeja, do you think?

I suspect almost certainly.

It's not just "our" tories, it's not just employers and it's certainly not just this country as, of course, you well know.

DiscoveredJoys said...

I used to run a Personnel Dept (in a branch of a large business) while it was still mostly administrative. One problem that I saw was that you could issue a 'guidance' about when to consider taking action over, say, multiple small sick absences but the clerks involved applied it as an iron rule whether it was sensible or not. Perhaps why Human Remains now come across as Puritan Enforcers.

On the other hand we did sack an employee who behaved badly during his own time - but he was observed doing it and driving away in a liveried vehicle...

Sebastian Weetabix said...

HR departments are merely a system of indoor relief for otherwise unemployable middle class women, many of whom seem to be called Karen.

Anonymous said...


Just as Debbies seem to be overweight and in the Finance Department.

Smoking Scot said...

Salaries, appraisal system, job descriptions, recruitment, compliance, mediation, advising, walking the job and running interference when told by a senior bod to "fire the bastard". Kick in meetings, networking and listening to every kind of whinge imaginable and I, plus my staff of two, were fair puggled by the end of the day.

Nor did the phone calls stop at the office. I eventually got an answer machine. No one bar friends and useful got the mobile number.

1,230 staff when I took over as Personel Manager. 7 years later we were down to 980 - and I had been re titled as HR Manager - very much against my wish. Only 3 cases referred to mediation and only one had to get a payout in excess of his due entitlement.

I got rid of my land line when I moved on and never replaced it.

John Brown said...

Yes, today’s pandemic may eventually change the dynamic between the employer and the employee as much as the medieval plagues that wiped out feudalism.

To be sure HR departments will be unable to control the actions of their home workers and especially when their bosses realise that if you don’t need these home workers to ever come into an office you might as well employ much cheaper workers located in areas or even countries where the living costs and salaries are much lower.

Dave_G said...

All HR ever achieved was to create a disconnect between the employer and the employed in much the same way as banking 'rules' broke the bond between lender and borrower.

Everyone and everything is now treated according to 'machine code' that never takes into account the actual 'human' aspect of the individual arrangement - making the term Human Resource a mockery of what humanity is all about.

Don Cox said...

"HR departments are merely a system of indoor relief for otherwise unemployable middle class women, many of whom seem to be called Karen."

In previous centuries they would have been employed as cooks, ladies' maids, or general servants. Domestic service jobs have gone, as have farm labouring jobs, and Parkinson's Law has taken up the slack.

Don Cox

Anonymous said...

I don't think a pandemic will change this particular dynamic because it's not a one-off and we've had them before. The irreversible change comes with AI when intelligent machines assume the roll their programmers intended: to reproduce themselves and achieve dominance through superiority. AI learns. AI adapts. AI overcomes. There will come a time when machines look upon humans as unnecessary. Without context humans become abstract and machines have not time for philosophy = end of HR departments, or indeed any department.


Bq said...

It was, I believe, Geoffrey Howe, who killed off the luncheon voucher. The subsidised canteens and workers cafes.
Old Nine Elms Royal Mail sorting office in Clapham, had a canteen built to serve six hundred breakfasts at a time. To get their postmen and women in and out onto the rounds.

By the time I took over that catering and temp drivers contract, in the late 1980s, the canteen, was still there, but permanently closed. Despite them having the same numbers on site, that they had had years before when it was open.

There had been a loophole in the tax code. Food cooked and consumed within an employer’s building, and it’s associated costs, was a tax deductible expense. Food and drink consumed outside the premises was not.
( some entertainment allowance remained. But it was not the 100% that the internal catering permitted.)

So employees gained the benefit of the company giving them a benefit for money that would otherwise go to the chancellor.
Philip Green used to have a regular Butler attend the weekly directors conferences and after meeting lunches at the Oxford Street HQ. It was a very good deal all round.

The banks and accounting houses had particularly good restaurants. Where even a lowly receptionist could eat a three course, fine dining lunch, with wine, for not much more than the cost of a McDonalds.

The tax exemption went. And so did all those canteens.

Same with the office party. An annual business entertainment expense. Tax exempt.
Chairman’s choice wether to hand over the money to Nigel Lawson, with nothing in return. Or spend it on a lavish, Oxfordshire ball at some stately home, that your clients, guests, friends, suppliers, local dignitaries and employees would talk about got the rest of the year.

Two of the meanest tax grabs. That changed our work-social lives, for the worse, forever.

Greg T said...

R - you have just told us all why Trades Unions certainly were necessary:
Your quote: Will employees cease to be a 'resource' like iron ore or petroleum feed stock or power or produce and start to become sovereign partners, if unequal in financial size?
End quote.
Note - I said were. WHether they will be in the new future is another question.
Better ask that dangerous left-winger ( Because he was a Shop Steward ) Norman Tebbitt, I suppose.....

Span Owls
"It's like food banks, there isn't really a need but put it there and they'll be a queue."
I have contributed ( Home-grown surplus Allotment food - no money cahnging hads ) to said banks & I've seen the "customers" - it's pathetic & it should not happen, but it does.

Actually MOST union representation was like that - but the morphing into "Human Remains" has, I'm told, been appalling.
Well said that man.

jim said...

Once worked for an outfit that did 'graphology'. I wondered why and asked one of the nicer poison-elles why, wasn't it a load of bollocks? Oh, we don't care about the graphology, that's just a way of weeding out thousands of applications - most go straight in the bin and if anyone kicks up a fuss we just say 'your handwriting doesn't fit'. Credible deniability.

Interesting to see Priti putting the block on incoming Frogs et al, so no surprise, the Frogs put the block on us. Any hope of a holiday out the window and much gnashing of teeth from airlines etc. But why, we haven't given a sh*t so far, so why now when everyone is looking for a way out of this mess?

Probably tied up with Brexit game playing. Back in March when Boris was dithering over lockdown he got a gypsy's warning from Macron. Do it yourself or we will. Now in the midst of smoke and mirrors over Dommy and the June date for Brexit we have a bit more of the needle match.

Meanwhile Boris has asked his minions to look into opening up shipping capacity in alternatives to Dover. Won't be quick or cheap, we've been there before. Bags of fun to come while we holiday at Windowsill Bay.