Off Message: For your eyes only

For a deeply paranoid profession, short on confidence, lacking in ‘oomph’ and totally unsure of its standing in the business community, the news that the security services are dominating the headlines should come as something of a relief to HR.

For the ‘revelation’ that Labour MP Sadiq Khan and suspected terrorist Babar Ahmad were bugged while in discussion in the latter’s prison cell has put the actions of the security services under the spotlight like never before. Which means the HR community can rest easy following a stint in the spotlight after the Financial Times published a piece by Luke Johnson slamming the profession.

Johnson’s rant has been well defended on behalf of the profession by Personnel Today’s bloggers and the HR community at large, but the piece did have an element of strange-but-true about it, when he said: “Of course, senior executives understand that HR is powerful – a bit like Mossad or the CIA.” Presumably, due to the fact that it holds all the private data, the salary details, and so on, rather than the fact that it goes around assassinating people then denying it, like some wayward undercover agent.

Impossibly good looking

Now, if you believe what you see on the big screen, spies are a glamorous lot , with the likes of James Bond, The Bourne Identity/Conspiracy/Ultimatum, etc, all painting a stylish, sexed-up, devil-may-care life of fast cars, luxury yachts, and an endless supply of unfeasibly attractive men and women in designer outfits – an image that HR could not hope to match (apart from the impossibly stylish mob that turned up at the 2007 Personnel Today Awards).

Sadly, the reality for spies in the modern world is more akin to Richard Burton’s impressively drab portrayal in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, in which most of the action seemed to take place in a provincial library on a wet Thursday afternoon, or Michael Caine’s ‘acting’ highlight as the unwanted, and largely unwashed, spook Harry Palmer in the Ipcress File.

And while MPs and media types might be getting hot under the collar about a little light bugging activity, we all know that corporations spy on their workers all the time and that HR has a critical role to play in managing the potential for generating a climate of fear through the use of injudicious overt covert monitoring (, 25 August 2005).

Of course, in recent months the loss of mountains of data has thrown the importance of proper procedures into sharp relief, and as custodians of so much personal information, HR departments were cast as the baddies by association. But far from being the Dr No of the piece, HR is, perhaps, the one department that can keep a secret, and there are things that you can do to ensure confidential data stays confidential (Personnel Today, 15 January).

Official secrets

However, this does throw the not-obviously-linked professions of spying and HR together in a weird Kafka-esque clinch. For if we are to assume that the intelligence services actually possess the requisite amounts of grey matter, then clearly HR professionals – the guardians of so much secret information – would be top of their list for new recruits. And if Francis Bacon – the sixteenth/seventeenth century philosopher and not the 20th century painter of paranoid popes – is right, and knowledge does equal power, then HR would be taken far more seriously by the board and be rightly regarded as a leading light or a useful second in command rather than a shabby Third Man, lurking in the shadows.

Far from being pointless and useless, then, HR can consider itself the official keeper of secrets, and the ideal base material for the modern-day 007 – although perhaps without the tight-fitting shorts and badly tailored suits.

However, unlike our jet-setting fantasy chums, HR is rooted in reality. So while James Bond might expect a pen to fire a rocket-propelled grenade, the average HR honcho will be content if the biro works properly when they need to write something.

Spooky coincidence

Of course, the kind of person who would really excel as a spy would not look like Daniel Craig emerging from a tropical ocean – as demonstrated by wheel-him-out-yet-again former spy-for-rent David Shayler who always looks like he’s just stepped out of the rain, and is in serious need of a workout and a new cardigan.

By ‘spooky’ coincidence , the latest film by the ‘heir to Cubby Broccoli‘ throne Doug Liman, the director of the original Matt Damon vehicle The Bourne Identity, is called Jumper – possibly about an HR chief who gets bugged and tailed by MI6 and tries to pull the wool over their eyes by setting up a covert knitting circle.

But the similarities between HR and the spying fraternity were unveiled way back in 2005 when MI5 first broke cover and started advertising for operatives using the tag line ‘See all your best work go unnoticed’.

Do you agree with Tony? Or is he wide of the mark? E-mail your response to

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