Back in the 1970s, Dirty Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, didn’t think much of being transferred to personnel from a front-line detective job. Told that he’d be less likely to cause trouble in the HR back office, he replied: “Personnel? That’s for assholes.” And it hasn’t got a lot better since.
One school of thought that says the growing prominence of HR on TV, in shows as culturally diverse as the BBC’s Holby City and the award-winning Channel 4 comedy Green Wing, is a positive sign – an end to years of professional anonymity.
But look more closely at the characters involved and it suggests that, among scriptwriters at least, HR is still very suspect indeed.
From the alcoholic and possibly psychotic surgeon-turned-HR rep Stuart McEloy – who on a recent episode of Holby City sliced his former girlfriend’s face with a scalpel he happened to have handy – to the equally alcoholic and nymphomanic Joanna Yardley Clore, HR director at Green Wing’s fictional East Hampton Hospital Trust, programme-makers don’t appear to rate the job very highly.
“A lot of research goes on in hospitals as the scripts for Holby are developed,” says the show’s publicist Ian Johnson, “and we pride ourselves on examining the roles we feature, and their interplay with other roles, well before the relevant scenes are shot.
“I can only assume that what you might see as the negative role of HR in the show has come out of that same research, but I can’t give you chapter and verse on how these characters actually came about.”
Not good enough, says Mark Preston, head of medical HR at Great Ormond Street Hospital, who believes that TV’s understanding of HR’s role in the modern health service is woefully inadequate.
“I don’t tend to watch the medical dramas much anymore, not only because I get enough of that at work, but also because their outdated portrayal of HR makes me very annoyed.
“Week after week, HR is the fall-guy for every job cut or penny-pinching by hospital management and to say that the function is resented and reviled by all the frontline medical characters would be an understatement,” he says.
“It’s good that they call us HR, not personnel nowadays, and maybe it’s good that we’ve come out of the woodwork at last, but the scriptwriters’ lack of understanding of the strategic role of HR in the NHS makes them look at least 20 years out of date.”
Although Green Wing has no less than two prominent HR characters – HR director Joanna and staff liaison officer Sue White – scenes of them fulfilling a professional role are strangely absent.
More prone to hitting the bottle and bleaching her moustache than filling out staff appraisal forms, Joanna neither sacks nor interviews.
The Channel 4 publicity describes Sue, meanwhile, as having a suit “from a fatal road traffic accident”.
Yet to the show’s creator and producer, Victoria Pile, having a wealth of HR representatives on telly “is a tribute to the growing prominence of the profession”.
She says: “Many people are uncomfortable with the thought of being spied on and observed by people managers, but in Joanna and Sue, we’re exploring the comedic foibles of women of a certain age, not having a dig at HR.”
“Lawyers, policemen and medics have been done to death in British TV and as writers, we are always looking for new jobs to explore.”
Some scriptwriters appear to glory in representing HR professionals as evil and manipulative, but others portray them as pointless and sad. There’s also a third stereotype that combines a bit of both.
One of the new characters on Holby City, for example, is the head of HR – a small, anxious-looking woman who clutches clipboards and colludes with management to make the medics’ lives more difficult.
Mocked by doctors who know that they have a ‘real job’ to perform, her portrayal of an anal, process-driven bureaucrat with nothing better to do than hand out pointless questionnaires makes her a classic HR cliché, says Vicki Gallagher, manager of manpower planning at John Lewis.
“We’re used to being portrayed as relentless pen-pushers who delight in sacking people, rather than add value to the business, and yes, it does make me want to scream sometimes,” she says.
“I realise that all TV drama needs an element of caricature, but I think that the standing of HR is actually being damaged by this sort of negative and inaccurate portrayal, even if some of the characters are very funny.”
Rob Blevin, external affairs manager at the CIPD, says HR shouldn’t get too paranoid: “I would argue that the understanding of the business world generally is pretty poor in TV fiction, so why should it be any different when it comes to HR?” he says.
“To be effective, TV probably needs to rely on crude caricatures that audiences can recognise and while it can be irritating to always be portrayed as the bean-counting, rule-obsessed profession, we all know that programme makers take an equally dim view of engineers, accountants, PR people and of course journalists, so it isn’t as if we are alone.”
He adds: “Assuming that most scriptwriters don’t read Personnel Today on a regular basis, it is fair to say that many of their HR characters are probably based on personal experience, rather than in-depth research.
“Many sections of the media are prone to dismissing anything even vaguely corporate as flim-flammery of the highest order and totally irrelevant to them personally.”
So what’s to be done? Does it matter that HR is made to look silly or malevolent on TV, and what could be done anyway?
Not all professions, particularly those suffering skills shortages, are prepared to show such understanding of the artistic problems in the making of TV hits. The engineering sector, for example, is taking a stand.
Concerned that engineers are invariably portrayed as little more than underpaid oily rags – like Kevin Webster, the garage mechanic in ITV soap Coronation Street – the Engineering and Technology Board has held discussions with scriptwriters over the possibility of injecting more positive engineering role models into TV drama.
Could this be a future route for HR? Preston would be keen for the CIPD to put the record straight, perhaps via a script consultancy role whenever a new HR role emerges, but Blevin is doubtful.
“To make a fictional programme about what HR does, or to portray it more positively and accurately via a character in a soap, the role that HR performs would have to be turned into really good drama.”
“I’m not sure that what HR does every day in terms of adding value to the UK economy would make really gripping TV,” he concludes.