HR robots to replace HR drones

One of my observations through my career has been that HR, in the main, is either a remote bureaucracy which might as well be staffed by Martians or a rather dim soul whose jaw hangs half open and does whatever management tells him or her. In the larger companies it’s been the former that prevailed, to the point many HR tasks were outsourced to an office in another country and everyday issues were governed by bulky procedures written by unknown authors who probably couldn’t say what the company does.

This probably doesn’t matter so much when it comes to stuff like contracts, payroll, and holidays but increasingly such personal matters as career progression, recruitment, and even appraisals are getting handled by people who don’t appear to have ever seen the operational side of the business. I’m of the opinion – which might be completely wrong – that businesses which outsource basic human management duties which used to be intrinsic to a line manager’s role are going to end up as bloated, unwieldy bureaucracies filled with unthinking drones who know all about the hierarchy’s latest wheeze but no idea how their activities contribute to the bottom line (assuming they do). As I’ve discussed on here before, I reckon smart, ambitious young folk will start avoiding the behemoths in favour of smaller, more nimble organisations – or they’ll start their own and work in the gig economy. My move into HR was in large part about bridging the gap between operations and HR in order to help a small company grow without creating a sprawling HR bureaucracy which sends anyone capable running for the exit.

I was therefore probably the wrong person to attend a presentation by an HR specialist in a major consulting firm, who wanted to tell us how automation, computers, and AI is going to revolutionise how companies manage their human resources. Now some of it is obvious, such as the aforementioned contracts, holiday approval, etc. and is ripe for automation. But I was rather surprised to see some of the functions which workers currently detest being handled by an HR drone who might as well be a robot are soon going to be done by an actual robot. One example he gave was a version of the MS-Word paperclip answering questions from an employee about their career aspirations and suggesting suitable training programmes. I can’t imagine any ambitious employee with an ounce of self-respect interacting with an automated chat bot to obtain career advice.

One of the biggest complaints I used to hear from my erstwhile colleagues was about the career management system. You’d be assigned someone who doesn’t know you and, if they’ve read your CV, doesn’t care about anything which occurred before you showed up on their doorstep. Most of the time they have no expertise in the positions they are trying to fill, nor the knowledge to appraise an individual’s skills. My career manager had worked her whole life as a translator before being put in charge of the careers of dozens of project engineers and managers. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter: in many large companies, particularly oil companies, the golden boys and girls are hand-picked early on and their careers carefully managed with plum postings while everyone else is just a pleb who gets slotted in wherever they fit, or don’t. For the vast majority “career management” is simply a charade to convince people they have a chance of promotion and recognition. This is why it’s managed by the cheapest person they can find, and it might as well be done by a robot. The same is true for annual appraisals: it’s blindingly obvious to everyone that managers and employees just go through the motions, and treat the whole thing as a painful admin exercise which must be completed before Christmas after which nothing changes. They are becoming increasingly automated, and eventually will be fully so. You can imagine what value an automated employee appraisal system adds, aside from ticking a compliance box that they get carried out. And if companies are going to automate recruitment, I can’t see it bringing an end to the laments of department managers who are kept out of the process and sent candidates that are hopelessly unsuited to the position.

I stuck my paw in the air and asked whether increasing the already giant chasm between flesh-and-blood workers and HR is a good idea and got an interesting response. Firstly I was told that companies aren’t stupid and they wouldn’t do anything which would harm their operations and upset their staff. That HR functions have already been taken away from line management and given to remote, sprawling bureaucracies ought to give lie to that statement. The second was that the move to automation and AI will free up HR resources to concentrate on those more important, human-related tasks. What those were we weren’t told, but I made the point that unless HR actually knows something about the job the workers do, freeing up resources won’t help. HR is not short of resources, they’re short of knowledge and competence. I’m not sure this remark went down very well.

I suspect what’s happening is this. The consultants have come up with very clever software which they’re now flogging to big companies, whose HR directors see a way to reduce costs, get rid of annoying admin tasks, and boost their prestige by being owners of a fancy IT system. Senior managers in big companies are suckers for big tech solutions, which is why there are fleets of high-end Porsches in the car parks of consulting companies. They’ll adopt this software and fire a few drones, but they won’t save costs. Firstly, many HR departments exist to provide jobs: a proper business review would have got rid of them regardless of technological progress. Secondly, the HR personnel who are now free of the admin burdens will turn their attention to more pressing matters – such as sexual harassment trainings and diversity workshops. I’m sure this will cheer the workforce up no-end.

The one thing missing from this architecture was any solid link in knowledge and experience between HR and what the company actually does. Apparently workers were consulted by the designers of these systems, and I daresay in some cases this was done properly and good feedback obtained. But the whole thing looked to me like a top-down, Soviet-style project where clever people sit in a room and design a system to serve tens of thousands of people they’ve never met and couldn’t even describe, and they’ve done it so brilliantly it can be applied anywhere regardless of industry. And the difference between what this and what we have now is it removes every last trace of human contact and understanding. How will this turn out, do you think?

It’s rather ironic that the new era of human resource management, in which whole ranges of human behaviours, desires, and emotions are supposedly considered, is reckoned by experts to be best managed by an algorithm. I waved my paw in the air again and pointed out there’s somewhat of a contradiction between saying businesses must become more touchy-feely as Millennials join who want to feel special and valued from the outset, and mass-managing all personal issues with a robot. But someone piped up and said they were a Millennial and they didn’t care who processed their payroll. Which is true, but they might care who – or what – decides you can’t change department, alter your workload, or complain about how your boss communicates with you.

I daresay these automated HR systems will become the norm in large companies, increasing the gap between them and those outfits which actually do the productive work in any given industry. And they will be yet one more reason for smart, ambitious young people to avoid huge corporations and go somewhere smaller, or work for themselves.

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28 thoughts on “HR robots to replace HR drones

  1. My department in the company I work for once went 6 months without a dedicated HR person. No negative impact at all. For some reason though my suggestion that rather than find a new HR person they take whatever salary they were paying them and put it behind a bar every Friday after work, which would certainly have a more positive impact on the office environment, was frowned upon.

  2. “Sorry, we can’t allocate you core time for that task I absolutely insist you do because there isn’t a code in the system for it. We’ll just take it into account somehow at the end of the year”.

    Translation: the time you spend working on the compulsory task I’ve given you is your own.

    Seen it at a previous employer. It went down like a cup of cold sick.

    The thought of more and more management / HR aspects being subject to the top-down planning information problem is scary…

  3. I can’t think of any HR task that you would outsource. We get advice on industrial relations and critical points on employment law but nothing with HR.

    As I mentioned before we don’t have dedicated HR staff other than some HR clerks in the Mid-East. Having said that we recently acquired a Canadian firm that has an HR Manager. I knew of her when I investigated how rubbish she was when it came to visa advice for foreign workers in Canada just before we acquired them.

    Then on Friday I got an email from a guy that I recently recruited in Australia that is now working with them up there. He is getting his work permit sorted out by them for Canada and in the process, he got a snooty email from her saying that in Canada they don’t have superannuation (9.5% pension) and that workers insurance is deducted from your pay. She was basically telling him his pay has just dropped from what we had agreed to with him about a month earlier.

    I called him and said that the email appeared quite impersonal and he said that she had done it at the behest of the CEO, who may have his nose out of joint about the his package, fuck me, using an HR bird to fire your bullets, weak as piss and how bad a culture is that. Anyhow I told him that we will continue to pay his super in Oz and back charge the Canadians and that we will increase his package by the equivalent amount of the insurance deduction. My MD is there now, and he will be telling their CEO that. I can see that this arrangement will not work out well for them.

    By the way the dude she wrote to is the GM although under their system and his work permit he is now going to be called Vice President!

  4. “…career progression, recruitment, and even appraisals are getting handled by people who don’t appear to have ever seen the operational side of the business.

    …the golden boys and girls are hand-picked early on and their careers carefully managed with plum postings while everyone else is just a pleb who gets slotted in wherever they fit, or don’t”

    This perpetuates itself though. I had cause to interact with a big CEO recently. Ivy-league MD, couple of years at McKinsey, then straight into a VP position at a big co, gets rotated between top-level management positions “to gain experience”, gets hand picked to the board, and is now, while younger than Tim, CEO of one of the biggest companies in my sector. He can’t have much more than the first clue what the company actually does, and has obviously never got his hands dirty. For comparison, his predecessor but one had worked his way up from being a sales rep.

    “The consultants have come up with very clever software which they’re now flogging to big companies, whose HR directors see a way to reduce costs”

    Most companies still have not yet realised that the reasons the consultants sell them “bespoke” (it’s actually all the same but charged as if written for one client only) buggy software is so that they can clean up on the maintenance and upgrade costs. And the amount of downtime and make-work shitty management consultant-provided software causes is insane.

  5. then straight into a VP position at a big co, gets rotated between top-level management positions “to gain experience”, gets hand picked to the board, and is now, while younger than Tim, CEO of one of the biggest companies in my sector.

    At the other end of the scale, I’ve seen a number of guys who do a continual merry-go-round as CEO of big-company-slash-venture-fund-supported startups. Met a couple of those guys in my travails, their LinkedIn CV’s being 18 months here, 12mo there, 3 years somewhere else. Often with their own consulting firm on the side that they fall back on between “proper” gigs.

    Invariably completely ineffectual, but I reckon they’re mostly just there as the fall guys for those pulling the strings – if it works, there’s $$$ to be had, if not, cut that guy loose and go back to the investors for another round of funding.

    Re. bespoke software – NOOOOO! The amount of time, effort and money I’ve seen wasted on such things is astounding….

  6. gets rotated between top-level management positions “to gain experience”,

    Translation: keeps getting moved sideways before cocking up anything major.

  7. We do outsource visas, not sure if that is in the HR bag. We use a well know international firm for this, the McDonalds of visas and right now I am thinking that we will be getting our Canadian mob to use them as well. We are planning to bring in poms for most of the construction roles on the projects that we are lined up for.

  8. I’ll tell you one thing a good HR IT system would do. Not force the “customer” to enter the same data multiple times in similar forms and definitely not for said serf to enter almost the same data every year.

    I’ve got friends who work in big companies and those are their number 1 complaints after the “self serve” on boarding process that seems to be the new trend. This is where you the new sucker have to gather all the data and enter it into HRs stupid system when they should, in theory, have most, if not all, of it already.

    The little company I work for outsourced most of the tax and benefits signon/paerwork etc to a HR service that did in fact correctly do most of this. I mean there was occasional grit in the process but almost all of it could indeed be done by reviewing the data already entered and clicking “OK”. When it came to updates the following year it was literally “has anything changed?” followed by “you need to accept this change to your health insurace T&Cs” and that was it.

  9. As you’ve alluded to, the purpose of most HR departments is to employ marginal workers, so automating their tasks is a bit like running in place, but faster. New work will have to be created.

    These fabricated tasks will continue to diverge from actual business processes until the proles finally notice they are paying for – or living in – an adult daycare. I think you will find a surprisingly large number of people already realize this is going on, but are too comfortable to make waves.

  10. using an HR bird to fire your bullets, weak as piss and how bad a culture is that.

    Welcome to Canada.

    I’m looking forward to regular updates from you as you slowly realize how coldly hostile this country is to anyone trying to do business here. And good luck getting your Aussies into the country to work if they’re white.

  11. “The second was that the move to automation and AI will free up HR resources to concentrate on those more important, human-related tasks. ”

    I assume they mean the HR resources who were already let go because the entire point of the new system was to make them unneeded and thus save their pay?

    (Sorry, they’d never let that go unused as a selling point of the original system just so they could later hype the system as enabling the attainment of previously-unimportant goals.)

  12. I never even heard of a career development officer before. I guess I’m in the wrong career.

    Having just “up”graded to Windows 10, I am freshly skeptical that the tech companies are going to deliver on the promise of the bold new super-productive future.

    Now there’s an industry ripe for some fresh young upstarts to make a killing.

  13. HR basically exists to make sure companies tick all boxes when it comes to employment law, to avoid getting sued. It’s a protection thing.

    As for career progression, in large organisations there are two types. There’s the sort of promotion where you actually need someone who is technically capable, because immediate damage happens if they aren’t. This type of promotion usually stops at upper middle management, competent people don’t have to stop there, but the returns to actual ability and understanding rapidly diminish.

    To get into senior management/exec ranks they need patronage. Ability and tacit understanding is not so crucial as decisions made may destroy the organisation, just not immediately, anything likely to cause immediate damage should be routed to an underling who understands what they are doing. If the senior manager/exec knows what they are doing it’s a brucey bonus, if they don’t it doesn’t matter, the ‘managerialist’ approach treats the business does as a black box administered by generic techniques.

    Rotating senior managers/execs through posting for ‘for experience’ is mainly done to boost CVs so their patron can elevate them if/when opportunity to put one of their clients in place emerges. It also helps to diffuse accountability and protect both client and patron. Because they should be kept away from anything causing immediate damage the decisions they actually make may take quarters or even years to work through, so shit can be blame on predecessors (who don’t care as they’re on their next posting), and anything positive can be claimed by anyone who can make tenuous claim to involvement.

  14. @MJW. Spot on. I made it to upper middle management. The gulf in competence between my peers and those more senor was vast. Patronage doesn’t last forever though. A golden boy can be dropped in a heartbeat if needed to further something the sponsor wants. But they often find a new sponsor and a new springboard is built. The amount of bullshit spouted is staggering and those who call it out, like Tim or me, rise no further in large organisations.

    My cynicism comes with age through experience not from any ill will.

  15. On HR management, Mr Mullin is managing Champagne Socialist Patrick “Elitest” Stewart rather well

    How I laughed when I read:

    Patrick Stewart criticised the lack of affordable homes on the proposed site at Enstone Airfield, calling it ‘elitist’

    After plans for museum were resubmitted, Mr Mullin said this week: ‘This will provide significant cash for affordable housing, traffic calming, community buses and a much-needed school car park in Great Tew.’

    Excellent troll Mr Mullin. Patrick Stewart et al over to you.

    If only May deployed similar tactics on EU.

  16. “The second was that the move to automation and AI will free up HR resources to concentrate on those more important, human-related tasks. ”

    Can I suggest this was a completely truthful answer, although, completely camouflaging the truth at the same time.

    That move to automation does free them to spend the time to concentrate on “those more important, human-related tasks”; those tasks being advancing the HR persons career and salary by ass kissing the senior management and board, while staying as far away as possible from the plebs in sector 7G.

  17. “And good luck getting your Aussies into the country to work if they’re white.”

    He was the only one that we intended to get in, and yes he is a white Aussie originally from Yorkshire. One universal economic truth is that you cannot export an Aussie workforce whether it be labour, semi of fully skilled or managerial to other international markets, we are too rich for that nowadays and the pay levels that we command cannot be met anywhere else in the world. That GM was easily on twice as much as the CEO of the target company up there, which is one of the reasons that the poor bastard had his nose out of joint.

    We are looking at throwing a lifeline to and importing a lot of lads from the socially blighted northern England economic wastelands, and yes they will be non-tertiary educated whites. That part of the world pioneered our current construction specialty that is now in high demand in all of the developing countries, a generation ago, so it will be interesting to see how we go. I don’t think that any of the local seal bashers would be up to it, which is where we now come in across the world.

    Thankfully we have no plans to bring any Chinese IT staff into Canada.

  18. At the last company I worked for (6,000+ employees across Canada) the HR Department consisted of a VP, HR, a Director, HR, a Manager, HR, a Relocation and Recruitment Manager, 5 regional HR Managers, 2 Recruitment Co-ordinators, and 5 regional HR Admin Assistants. ALL FEMAILS.

    “The same is true for annual appraisals: it’s blindingly obvious to everyone that managers and employees just go through the motions, and treat the whole thing as a painful admin exercise which must be completed before Christmas after which nothing changes.”

    Lawd, ain’t that the truth! With the exception in my company, where two years after an annual bonus scheme was introduced (partially tied to an employee’s annual performance rating) Managers were informed by HR that they could no longer rate employees as “outstanding”.

  19. Bardon, all identified as female (winning!). And all were hetero (as far as I know). Upper echelon were late forties/mid fifties, then going lower down the ranks: late thirties/mid forties, late twenties/mid thirties etc. You get the drift. And yes, there were some good lookers amongst them (I’m assuming that is what your question meant?)

  20. Cheers Fay, I think I need to confront my Canadian HR staff issue head on, when I eventually go up there.

  21. “And the difference between what this and what we have now is it removes every last trace of human contact and understanding. How will this turn out, do you think?”

    It will still leave at least on slot for a FEMAIL VP, and all big corps are very interested in getting more of those types of VP.
    Within a few years (a couple might be two optimistic), a robot system for filling out the required forms will have most of the bugs worked out.

    Managers will continue to need pull, and most potential patrons will continue to have already chosen their own golden boy / girl, so much of the upper future VPs will already have been selected for, barring big re-orgs.

    Re-orgs can help let the org reduce the harm of the wrong goldens, and help reduce the power of the ineffective; tho they can also hide the failures to get good results.

    Finally, I can imagine that robot HR might well ask for and consider MORE info from the actual hiring manager, than current human HR.

    It also occurs to me that edu-indoctrinated graduates need mid-management jobs to stay in the middle class. Getting bigger and bigger companies might be a way to do that, with more VPs of huge companies than CEOs of big companies — where the visibility of mistakes is more clear.

  22. I think I need to confront my Canadian HR staff issue head on, when I eventually go up there.

    [pops popcorn]

  23. I have to agree with MJW. HR isn’t there to look after the employee – it’s there to protect the company. When they appear in court they can say that they fulfilled their duty to avoid sexual harassment or racism, to protect data, to stop corruption etc. “What more could they have done, Judge”?

    In that regard, it’s just another compliance department. And it doesn’t change anything. At best, the new grads buy into it but anyone over 30 treats the exercise with cynicism. It’s not don’t do it – it’s don’t get caught.

    Echoing Tim’s comment about career progression, When I worked for a different blue chip a decade or more ago, I was in a division that had originally been an acquisition. I was told by a senior bod in the main company that whilst I might get modest promotions, I didn’t stand a chance of getting to a high level because I hadn’t followed the standard route of the high flyers.

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