Professional Useless People
Think...Toby on The Office
Warning: If you work in or care about someone who works in an HR department, I recommend you skip this one. If you don’t, oh well, I warned you.
The Office is one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time. While the show had weak ratings during its initial run (it seems like there were cancelation discussions after every early season), the show has endured and reached a vastly wider audience after moving to Netflix and now Peacock. Endure is probably not the appropriate word…entering the zeitgeist would be more suitable phrasing. The show rarely comes up in conversation with someone who hasn’t seen a least a few episodes, and equally as common, people who have watched the entire series multiple times. But why?
In large part, it’s because many of the characters are caricatures of the personalities we all know at our own offices- the cool guy, the clueless boss, the social climber, and, of course, the Human Resource guy, who in Office-land is Toby Flenderson.
Toby is the Eeyore of the office. Throwing wet blankets on fun times is used as a weapon at other times and is generally someone no one wants to be around because they actually pity him. While other people are selling, managing, shipping, or doing other productive things at Dunder-Mifflin, Toby is essentially a professional useless person. So why does this character resonate with those of us who have spent time in corporate America? Because it’s true. So how did we get to the point where people with so little business value wield so much influence in our corporations today? To understand that, let’s go back to the beginning.
If we rewind the clock to pre-Industrial Revolution times, most workers supported the local agricultural economy of land owners, whether it be a Feudal lord, their own land, or within another system. In any case, for those who lived outside the cities (the vast majority), the people primarily existed on goods produced locally. There wasn’t much “hiring” since the workforce came mainly from the local community. There were some migrant workers sprinkled in, but since transportation was challenging and dangerous, it was not widespread. This started to change during the Industrial Revolution.
During this period, machinery was developed, production of goods started to be centralized, the factory was invented, and overall industrialization occurred. Eventually, natural migration didn’t produce enough workers for the factories, so they began actively recruiting. Training and organizing the influx of new employees and finding workers became challenging. Later, unions began cropping up at factories, leading to strikes and lock-outs. Business owners started to believe all these labor changes needed specialized support. In 1901, National Cash Register started what is believed to be the first department dedicated to this function, which they dubbed the “Personnel Administration.”
The Personnel Administration gave way to the department we know today as Human Resources (HR). For various reasons (mainly due to government regulations such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964), the scope of HRs responsibilities expanded to include regulation compliance, worker assessment, and employee engagement. So the job was recruiting workers, training them, and ensuring all the papers were filed in the proper drawers (I’m kidding, of course…but not really). Not the most exciting job, but keeping paperwork tidy is essential.
I’ll jump over a mess of other stuff because I think you all get the point. Fast forward to today, and in many companies, HR departments are called “Strategic Business Partners.” HR has become its own specialized discipline, with nearly all MBA programs offering degrees in it and many companies employing executive-level positions like Chief People Officer or Executive Vice-President of Human Resources. So how and why did we get from a department of paper pushers who were a necessary evil to a department of paper pushers where executives make over $300,000 per year on average?
Before I go there, I need to challenge the headline of my own post. HR departments are instrumental to the operations of a corporation, just not for the employees but rather for management. This is the “too long; didn’t read” version of my story; executives love HR because it allows them to put their corporate bullshit through a wash cycle of professional employee manipulators. To go deeper, these are the real reasons HR exists:
They represent the company’s best interests while positioning themselves as representing the employee.
They are responsible for taking corporate policy decisions which are detrimental to employees and put lipstick on the pig.
They dress up pre-determined corporate policy and present it to the employees as if it were done for their benefit.
They work for the company executives, not the employee
Now, do you see why they make $300k? By the very nature of their roles, they are duplicitous and can never be trusted. Ever. If you disagree with me, you haven’t worked in corporate America long enough, or you work in HR.
You may think I am being unreasonably cruel to our Strategic Business Partner brethren, but they will often admit they are just pushing paperwork. The second all-time most upvoted post on the subreddit r/humanresources is this:
So yes, the community agrees…they have no power; they just “pushed the paperwork through.” I don’t control your raise; your boss does. I don’t own the job description; the hiring manager does.
But what about the most upvoted? Ah, let’s have a look (highlights mine):
Don’t you see? You might be a paper pusher, but you are a HEROIC paper pusher. You’re pushing that paper…but pushing it with GRIT and spending extra hours doing it! So the HR department is staffed not only by useless, untrustworthy people but by people who luxuriate in their futility. Where do I sign-up?
The truth is that HR people are NOT business people. If they were, they would have, you know, gone into the business side of the business. HR people primarily wanted to go into social work or teaching but didn’t like the potential paycheck. And, they are the woke. Oh, so I woke.
Most companies have a Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DIE - see what I did there?) initiative. This is to ensure companies have the right amount of people with all the right immutable characteristics. Do they want original ideas? No way…how could HR count that? But counting Hispanic vs. black vs. white or women vs. men or gay vs. straight vs. bi vs. trans vs. cis vs. pan vs. demi vs. two-spirit vs. all the other letters? Now we’re talking because come review time, HR can prove their impact by showing they hired the correct number of gender-queer and AAPI people (don’t know what AAPI is? Look it up, normie!). That’s how they know they’re being good Strategic Business Partners!
Another hobby horse of the HR department is the generation gap. HR people talk incessantly about how whatever generation is coming out of school this year is incomprehensibly different from the one before. Baby Boomers bore nothing in common with Gen X, who is totally different from Millenials, who are utterly unique to Gen Z and the only people who could discern and translate these significant but very intricate differences between the generations? You guessed it…our Strategic Business Partner!
They claim that Gen Z is unique because they care so much about what their companies stand for and so deeply care about ethics. Oh really? Quick quiz for everyone…when was this said?
Anyone who is not a republican at twenty casts doubt on the generosity of his soul, but he who, after thirty years, perseveres, casts doubt on the soundness of his mind.
A version of this is attributed to Winston Churchill, but according to Quote Investigator, it was written by French politician Anselme Polycarpe Batbie in 1872! So one of two things is at play here: either all of Gen Z was born initially in the mid-19th century and reincarnated circa 1997, or the generations aren’t that different from one another, and young people who have few responsibilities in life are idealistic, but once they get responsibilities, they become more practical. Our Strategic Business Partners are counting on the former to be true because if it is the latter, how can they justify their jobs?
I know that’s all a bit harsh (ok, maybe more than a bit), but I’ve worked with many Strategic Business Partners in my day and liked most of them. They aren’t bad people, and I am sure most got into the job with honest intentions; it’s just that they are the frog in the pot, which was boiled very slowly, only rather than being boiled in water, they were boiled in bullshit. They’ve now based their life’s work on a system in which their role is as a corporate spin doctor. Well, most people despise those people in politics; why wouldn’t they also despise them in the corporate world?
But my real disdain for the HR department comes down to this…you watched Toby on The Office and told yourself, “yeah, that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.” Sad.