Tuesday, February 28, 2006

I fought the law

Ah human resources, what a fine profession you are. HR is all about taking an interest in people - this is an important point, to be addressed later. Originally, this interest was in a time and motion context; basically sickness and holiday records. It was little more than a mundane admin process. Like all admin processes; it was a cost to the business; there is very little benefit apart from making sure that people weren't off work too much and didn't take too much holiday. When times are lean, big bosses drive costs out of their business by reducing the amount of admin cost it has to saddle. This made HR people vulnerable to redundancy as well as generally unvalued (and therefore poorly paid).

In an attempt to protect these people-beancounters, the professional discipline of Human Resources was invented. HR people did more than holidays and sickness, they brought direct value to the business by hiring and firing (more admin) and providing training and development structures. Now, training has a very linear relationship between a need and how that need is satisfied - can't use Excel? do some Excel training - again, not hard to do if you put your mind to it. Development, on the other hand, is like spiritual enlightenment; no one knows what it is, how you achieve it, but you're afraid if you don't have it you're missing something. It's like trying to heard cats... cats made of jelly. Development is the emperors new clothes of HR; Did you know that Waitrose staff can actually get trips to the cinema and theatre paid for by the partnership because its viewed as a "developmental opportunity"? Development is such a rampant and conveniently amorphous beast, if you don't provide "developmental opportunities" you're a bad company. Why should we believe this? Because it's on every job advert... adverts that are written by HR people. And so HR's self fulfilling prophecy is complete; we're important, because we say we're important.

Every company is now expected to have an HR function to show what a progressive company they are. If you're a small company it's unlikely that you can afford a properly trained HR person or justify employing them full time. This means the role inevitably falls to someone who has an interest in people (i.e. the fundamental pretence of HR); what they earn, what their problems are and so on. In other words, this is a perfect role for the office gossip.

Being a gossip of any kind is all about power; having something that others haven't got. If you hold something others haven't got, that gives you one degree of power, if you're mandated to have some control over people then power increases exponentially. A mandate to write HR rules that dictate peoples lives is manna from heaven for an office gossip.

So why am I telling you all this? well, working for a small company and being the first person in its history to need paternity leave means I've get first hand experience of the small company HR person in action. Our HR person was detailed with writing a paternity leave policy. I'm the only person this policy applies to because I'm the only man in the company of a realistic child bearing age who isn't gay.

HR Woman comes in to tell me the policy is written and it basically says I get 2 weeks at £100 a week - what is known as the statutory minimum allowance. Like all statutory rates they're basically set to give some protection from unscrupulous employers to sweat shop workers whilst protecting small businessmen from being bankrupted with onerous payments. I'm not a sweat shop worker and my employer is not on the brink of bankruptcy, therefore our policy should reflect the attitude of the company towards its employees. However HR Woman is not enlightened to such thinking, she sees that the policy should reflect her ability to wield her power over others. The more onerous the policy, the more powerful she is. The joy of telling me I was about to lose nearly half my monthly salary on her whim was unconfined. I began my challenge, I questioned why the company has taken on board a punitive policy when a. it's a financially sound company, b. we readily spunk the said amount on a hopeless procession of consultants (including, it turns out, a consultant who suggested the policy to her in the first place) and c. that my salary was all budgeted for and effectively a sunk cost... and d. and e. and f. and so on.

In challenging her legitimacy in having and applying this power over me she began to recoil; she smiled broadly, suggested I talk to our MD, shrugged her shoulders and said... "there's nothing I can do... it's the law". I composed myself, gathered my thoughts and told her that was "fucking rubbish" and that did she really think that it was illegal for the company to pay over the statutory minimum. She shrugged. Then I realised that maybe she wasn't talking about the law of the land, but the law of the HR person; what she was actually saying was "Sorry, I have to ignore your personal situation and apply a rigid regressive policy just to make you unhappy... it's my job" her smile, however, reminded me that the company was at least supportive of my overall development. And for this, at least, I am grateful.


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