Off message: In this life… one thing counts

As the chill winds of recession blow across the nation, and the banking system is exposed as a Dickensian world of dubious practices populated by urchins and wastrels, no-good miscreants and double-dealing charlatans from the pages of Oliver!, HR could be forgiven for thinking that all the job losses were all its fault (, 20 October 2008). After all, for any person being made redundant, it’s entirely probable that it is only the second time they will have come into contact with the mysterious beings of personnel.

Yet even as the government bends over backwards to join HR in its guise as Nancy (‘as long as ‘e needs me’) to the City’s Bill Sykes, is HR (taking on the role of Bullseye the battered dog, obviously) quite as to blame as it clearly thinks it is? And as HR jobs go down the shute (Personnel Today, 20 January), will HR be able to reinvent itself in time to see the shoots of recovery peeping through the silage in which we are all supposed to be mired?

Will the world as we know it recover in time to face up to the possibility that there is an even greater meltdown occurring at either end of the earth that will render the global economic ‘meltdown’ somewhat meaningless?

Of course, the drip-drip-drip of the world’s glaciers are a long-term issue and, therefore, far too distant-to-be-bothered-with, than the more immediate drip-drip-drip effect of the world’s media, the gossips at the school gate, the man in the pub, and the other man with his dog who have talked ourselves into this mess.

Fools, glorious fools

But is this just another case of the tail wagging the dog as described only 168 years ago by Charles Dickens’ good friend Charles Mackay in the legendary Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, which should be required reading for all HR professionals.

This classic tome explains how, after some small seeds of doubt have been planted, the notion that things are extremely bad and that we should all PANIC NOW grows exponentially until it grips the entire known world and throws everyone into a complete state of confusion.

Paradoxically, the only thing that tends to break a nation out of this paralysis, is a real disaster – something like Hurricane Katrina or a tsunami.

This raises several questions, not least of which is why tsunamis don’t get named.The other questions all relate to the human ability to soldier on and make the best of a bad job, as it were.

Being one of the more introspective, self-harming kind of functions – and after last week’s front page, many in the profession may already be lining up the arsenic and razor blades – HR clearly feels the pain more than most. But rather than wallowing in self-pity and taking all the flak, perhaps HR should start pointing the finger, like other professions, and start laying the blame at somebody else’s door – ie, the bankers (‘Whose fault is it anyway?’, Off message, Personnel Today, 9 June 2008). After all, the bankers are all busy blaming one another and pretty much every other industry sector is blaming the banks for not releasing that tiny bit of extra cash that would have seen their failing business over the little hump that has now turned into Mount Everest.

Bank for sale

But just as the government commits even more public cash to bailing out the institutions that allegedly got us here, as many commentators are now beginning to realise, it isn’t the institutions that are to blame, but the very nature of the beast.

Corporate capitalism is a cyclical monster and it’s in its nature to go boom, then bust, then boom, then bust, until the end of time – or until the world wakes up and realises what a shockingly stupid way of running the world it really is. And just how barmy it all is was brought home to me last Monday when I caught a glimpse of a ‘reality share dealing’ TV programme Million Dollar Traders, in which ordinary folk are plucked off the street to see if they could do better than the ‘professional’ traders.

Reviewing the situation

As prime-time viewing goes, watching someone stare at a computer screen and then panning around to watch the expression on their face as they do it is a riveting prospect (and one you can actually repeat for yourself at your desk by simply turning off your computer and looking at your reflection on the blank screen).

But what caught my attention in this classic piece of 21st century TV dross, was the fact that a novice trader who didn’t want to buy shares at the wrong price, seemingly quite sensibly waiting for a better moment to strike, was told that this tactic was, very, very wrong, because if everyone did that, the stockmarket would grind to a halt and we would all die. Trading for trading’s sake, it seems, is required behaviour.

Yet we all know that people who work in the world’s stockmarkets are the greediest bunch of idiots you’re ever likely to come across and that they’re only doing it to make lots of filthy lucre for themselves. So hats off to the schedulers, as the timing of this programme, in what could be the world’s biggest recession, is tantamount to genius.

Every downturn has an upside, however, and a recession is an even better time to bury bad news than 11 September 2001 – as suggested by former government ‘spinster’ Jo Moore way back at the start of the century. And badly run institutions, high street shops and even government departments are taking this opportunity to bury the bad stuff under the cloak of recessionary respectability.

So while it’s not actually all HR’s fault – although if organisations really are as overloaded with unnecessary people as is suggested by the stream of job cuts, then some in HR must be culpable – it does prove one very big truth for anyone in the business of managing people. As Dickens’ one true HR director famously intones in Lionel Bart’s musical version of Oliver!:

In this life, one thing counts

In the bank, large amounts.

Judging by the banks’ mad rush not to lend any money and their equally suicidal enthusiasm for letting their ‘number one assets’ go in their hordes, I’m guessing Fagin was talking about cash, not people. So perhaps those in HR with guilty consciences really should be ‘reviewing the situation’.

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