The enemy within

Watch your back – they’re all out to get you. Jane Lewis
profiles the enemies of HR and outlines their modus operandi. Be afraid, be
very afraid. And watch out for…

Has it occurred to you more frequently of late that you are surrounded by
enemies? You may think you are well liked at work; perhaps you actually are.
But the growing power of HR within many companies – and the accompanying burst
of self-esteem in the profession – have had the effect of bringing more baddies
out of the woodwork than ever before. And the more they hear organisations like
the CIPD banging on about the ‘measurable and provable’ links between effective
people management and the bottom line, the more vicious they seem to get.

What began as a sniggering campaign – the pen-pushing petty-mindedness of
personnel managers, their tendency to ‘bleat’ and ‘moan’, their presumptuous
request for boardroom recognition, etc – has now boiled into a full-scale

In January, Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College
London, published research that claimed to explode the myth of the personnel

"Most people in HR have little knowledge about business," he
wrote. Indeed, "many don’t know much about HR either" and for many
Personnel Today is the only source of knowledge, he added. Yet they have the
temerity to complain about their lack of recognition.

Now it could be that, in sad HR fashion, I have been watching one too many
costume dramas, but it strikes me that HR’s current standing in the corporate
world is like that of the governess in a Victorian household: neither properly
above stairs, nor yet below, and the subject of contempt from both sides.

All good melodramas have their villains and here we attempt to list some of
the dark forces attempting to deflect our plucky heroine from her rightful
purpose. Some are openly malevolent, others lurk in dusty corners and seek to
lure you in; all are downright dangerous if allowed to continue unchallenged.

Jane Eyre eventually won her man (and her rightful position at the head of
the dining table) by means of inherent virtue and steadfast self-sacrifice.
Judging from this line-up of villains, you, dear reader, may have to play
dirtier. But be of good cheer. The fact that you have got to them at all shows
you must have been doing something right.

The wrecker
Villain rating: 9

Why so villainous?

Because these boardroom supremos are out to annihilate HR. They are thus the
Arch Enemy.

How did they become so dangerous?

Some have utopian ideas about creating a workers’ paradise free from the
restrictive handcuffs of HR. Others have woken up to the fact that people mean
profits (and therefore more power within their organisation) and are determined
to add the department to their own mini-empire before someone else does. A
third group can legitimately argue they were forced into a coup by the
ineptitude of their existing HR department.

Any examples?

Yes, the list is beginning to get worryingly long. The most extreme example
is Ricardo Semler who, having inherited his father’s Brazilian manufacturing
company, fired every executive and abolished its entire management structure at
a stroke. Under the new regime, workers set their own hours and manage the
daily running of the company. You may think scrapping formal management is a
recipe for disaster, but it has certainly worked for Semler, who has restored a
loss-making operation to profit.

Closer to home, the most apocalyptic example is Microsoft UK, whose finance
director Steve Harvey scrapped the ‘unproductive island of HR’ after a lengthy
period of frustration. He now incorporates all aspects of people management
within his own remit as ‘director of people, profits and loyalty’.

How to fight back

The key thing is to grab the CEO’s attention with mesmerising examples of
the added value HR brings, as well as cautionary tales of companies that lost
their shirts when they tampered with the established management system. You
could also warn darkly of your expertise in unfair dismissal tribunals (see
Tribunal Menace, opposite). But the best defence is to abolish the HR
department yourself, substituting it for something suitably trendy, before
anyone else gets the chance.

The bodysnatcher
Villain rating: 7

Why so villainous?

The bodysnatcher (aka headhunter, or talent scout from a rival firm) is out
to strip you of your best assets just when you need them most. They are also a
danger to your mental health: you dissolve into paranoia every time the phone
rings and come close to breaking point each time a valued employee requests a
closed door meeting.

How did they become so dangerous?

Bodysnatchers have always been an irritation, but they graduated to full
menace status during the tech boom and – thanks to the prevailing skills
shortage in many sectors – haven’t looked back since.

Like good generals, they make a point of studying the enemy. If you work for
a public company you can be certain they will start circling like vultures the
minute your share-price wobbles. Don’t forget that once they’ve achieved one
successful hit from your company, they gain a tactical edge from useful inside
information. Thereafter, there’s no stopping them. You could be sucked dry.

Any good examples?

Loads. The main feature of new-style bodysnatching is the lengths that
aggressors are prepared to go to in pursuit of your people. Professional
snatchers offer a good deal more than a higher salary, stock options or the
chance to wear shorts in the office. Their main secret is to make the hoped-for
recruit feel like they’re at the centre of the universe. And they strike
whenever they get the chance. Nortel Networks regularly sent recruiters to
baseball games, bike races and rock concerts. Its main telecomms rival Lucent
specialised in quick hire job fairs: candidates were interviewed, drug-tested
and hired the same day.

How to fight back

At the height of the boom, old-style corporates tried to fight back by
hiking salaries by up to 50 per cent (pretty effective) and introducing casual
dress codes to induce a funky atmosphere (resoundingly ineffective). But the
main reason so many companies were vulnerable was that they hadn’t framed a
formal retention strategy. Here are some options to consider:

Follow Disney’s example and give managers the authority to award salary
increases on the spot.

Encourage high-fliers to stay by allocating them personal career mentors,
who could double-up as 24-hour bodyguards.

Headhunt the bodysnatcher.

The city suit
Villain rating: 8

Why so villainous?

Because they dismiss you as a whinging hanky-wringer whose holier-than-thou
concerns about the well-being of employees just get in the way of deals.

Worse, they encourage your CEO and financial director to take the same line
by treating them to tickets for Twickenham, the opera or a bumper night out at
Spearmint Rhino and generally dazzling them with City glamour. This means you
get no say in negotiations for mergers and acquisitions (though inevitably it
will be up to you to clean up the ensuing mess) and your dreams of a seat on
the board go up in smoke.

Perhaps the worst blow that the City Suits inflict is to transmit their
obsession with shareholder value, at the expense of everything else, to your
company’s senior management. The usual consequence is that you lose your
treasure chest of talent in a vicious round of downsizing.

How did they become so dangerous?

Having spent the better part of the last century ignoring HR completely, the
arrival of the service economy has forced the Suits to concede that people may
be important after all. Their fury about being proved wrong is what is fuelling
their mighty antipathy. They loathe the idea that "personnel" has
pretensions to grandeur.

Any good examples?

Sadly too numerous to list. But to quote one senior JP Morgan hand:
"These people are a nightmare. I refuse to deal with them."

How to fight back

A tricky one this: the Suits have already grown impervious to claims that
people management affects the bottom line and will certainly demand you show
them proof in figures (which you probably haven’t got).

Somehow you must gain their respect in a language they understand. Take a
leaf from the book of Logica’s HR director and insist on a £7.2m salary.

The tribunal menace
Villain rating: 6

Why so villainous?

Because even the most ethical, squeaky-clean operation can fall victim to
the serial tribunal plaintiff with the fanatical gleam in their eye. And when
they target you, you can forget about doing any other work for months, such is
the legal and bureaucratic quagmire you’ll be in.

And then there’s the issue of dirty laundry: it’s common practice for
litigants to air as much as possible. One minute they’re suing for unfair
dismissal, the next they’re alleging that senior colleagues take coke in the

How did they become so dangerous?

The easy answer is to blame the tribunal system/equal opportunities legislation/sexual
harassment laws, but that would be a dangerous cop-out – we all need those
laws. The simple truth about most vexatious litigants is they were born that

Any good examples?

One of the most tenacious examples in recent years is Natasha Sivanandan, a
former race relations adviser at Brent, who has spent lengthy tranches of her
career suing everyone from the BBC, through Enfield Council, to the Hackney
Action for Racial Equality for race discrimination (the latter risks bankruptcy
at her hands) and now works full-time on her back-log of cases. Even her
father, Ambalavner, a distinguished writer on racial affairs and director of
the Institute of Racial Relations, has criticised her "constant"
claims of victimisation. She says: "I am successful because I am a race
advisor and I know the law."

How to fight back

An extreme way would be to put an embargo on all firing and hiring (really
vexatious litigants tend to sue every time they are rejected for a job), but
this is clearly a non-option. With the legal system apparently powerless to
stop serial claimants, your only hope lies in not encountering one.

The eurocrat
Villain rating: 5

Why so villainous?

The chances are that many of you will disagree with this entry. And it’s
true we could just as easily have chosen the opposite work/life system promoted
by Uncle Sam (if only to highlight the nightmare of ‘rank and yank’, ‘hug a
colleague’ and those piddling holiday entitlements Americans seem happy to
settle for). But even the most ardent Europhile has to concede that much of
what is coming out of Brussels is an HR nightmare. Even before you get onto the
subject of what it costs UK companies to comply with the mass of new
directives, consider what they’re doing to your prospects. Just as you thought
you could come over all strategic, you get shoved back into admin hell.

How did they become so dangerous?

Because the EU replaced Louis XIV’s famous pronouncement ‘L’«état c’est moi’
with a new slogan, ‘La bureaucratie c’est tout’.

Any good examples?

Where do you want to begin? Try the forthcoming directive on employee
consultation, in which employees of all but the smallest companies will have to
be consulted in all major strategy decisions. It is as close to a nightmare as
it gets.

Essentially, you are being asked to incorporate legislation modelled on
early 20th century German work councils into the 21st century Anglo-Saxon model
we know and love. For more examples consult the Daily Telegraph.

How to fight back

Turn the situation to your advantage by becoming expert in the loopholes of
EU social law (although there aren’t many). Alternatively, join Dixons’ founder
Stanley Kalms manning the barricades in Whitehall. Point out the poor state of
most European economies compared to the thrusting UK lion.

The charmer
Villain rating: 2

Why so villainous?

The company charmer usually takes the form of a charismatic line manager,
renowned for an earthy sense of humour and the conviction that your aim of
transforming the organisation along more people-centric lines is a ludicrous
waste of time (and money).

In fact, given that they tend to run their departments as private fiefdoms,
they are against change of any sort.

Typical ploys are to laugh at your efforts to inculcate values, go behind
your back in the recruitment process, make up rude words to the corporate
anthem, and do everything possible to circumvent policy and good practice. If
it suits them, they steal your good ideas.

The worse thing is that they’re frequently unsackable: they make more money
than anyone else, their staff adore them and they’re the CEO’s main sounding

How did they become so dangerous?

Charmers are dangerous beasts when cornered and they see HR in general, and
progressive initiatives like knowledge management programmes in particular, as
personal threats and inconveniences.

Any good examples?

Loads. In one US manufacturing company matters came to a head when a senior
manager, irritated by a new 360 degree management initiative, bellowed
obscenities and threw his lunch-tray at the HR vice-president.

How to fight back

Fight them on their own terms by establishing your own charismatic
power-base. Alternatively, pretend to succumb to their charms: many are highly
susceptible to flattery.

Send them on an anger management course or, better still, to the Brecon
Beacons for an impossible-to-survive management survival course.

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