Saturday, September 13, 2014

When HR Was Personnel

Work is something all of us are engaged in, whether it's in our homes or in an office and to get to do that "work" we had to jump through the many hoops presented to us by human resources personnel. But I recall when HR (sound like some kind of reality in that context) was Personnel and we dutifully presented our minds and bodies to that office for evaluation.

Before the change in nomenclature, getting hired could be a rather homey affair or an incredibly rigorous one as corporations sought to weed out the unhealthy or ill-suited for their work force. Some required complete physicals with hours of medical testing, including blood draws. Not everyone performing these draws was especially adept even though they did many, many of them each week. One particular draw led me to quickly understand that there may be a dominant arm for draw selection. Eight tries on two arms was sufficient to get that into my feverish brain.

One day of psychological/education testing was also required at another firm which was run like a CIA facility with security clearances required.  I had no idea they did work for the government and that was why everyone had to have a thorough background check, plus be issued a specific security tag to be worn at all times. They tested everything from grammar usage to math and well beyond and only those with the highest scores were then selected for one of their grueling, "Why do you want to work here?" sessions.

Other businesses didn't have Personnel offices at all. One family-owned large dress pattern company utilized the skills of the secretary to the president of the firm. It was her task to inquire as to your method of birth control, your religion and if you thought you'd find a husband in the office. All of these are now verboten thanks to actions prohibiting this type of invasive fishing expedition. Of course, just living in the wrong area might get you disqualified as the thinking was you might not make it to work on time or at all in a severe storm. As in dating situations, you were deemed "geographically undesirable."  How things have changed now that employees live more than 50 miles away from some jobs and others float to different locations as the corporation leases cubicles for them. Everything has become transient and impermanent. There is no longer a space of one's own (to paraphrase Virginia Wolfe).

A major and quite huge family-held firm also didn't have a Personnel department. You were hired because you either were recommended by someone who worked there or you were related to someone who worked there. In many senses, it was a family company where generations of family members were brought into the fold.

Jobs were not advertised, employment agencies were not utilized and the entire structure was built on a somewhat capricious sense of who should get what benefits. Not everyone got benefits and only a select few received pensions. Everything was ultra-secret and no discussions of anything to do with employment were tolerated.

How times have changed. Someone I knew who had been working for an Internet-based corporation was suddenly asked to sign a release for a background check. This was rather odd since this person had already worked there for many years. What was more curious was the fact that the release did not have an expiration date, meaning it was good in perpetuity. So, any time they wanted to dip into an employee's (oh, forgive me, a contractor's) private information, they had you give them carte blanch to do so.  More and more, people are not employees in the former sense but paid contractors who are hired for specific projects and left to wonder if they'd have a job in six months. A new fear has entered the work force.

Does all of this seem a bit strange and Orwellian to you? Does to me. Corporations expect a certain degree of dedication and loyalty and yet it doesn't seem to be a two-way street. Perhaps they need to go back and look at the Hawthorn Effect to see where they need to make some changes. Or the work of Rudolf Moos on environments and the effect they have on individuals as well as research in community psychology.

As we've recently seen, the MBA may not be the be-all and end-all it was thought to be in corporate management.  Degrees are now being refocused on the MBA/MSW to account for the more human aspects of work and management of personnel--or should I say "human resources?"

People are people and they are as the waves in the ocean, ever changing, yet remaining much the same. Attempting to corral them into a finite set of rules via algorithms may seem really cool, but is it best for all involved? I wonder.