The NYT and Sarah Jeong

A story doing the rounds over the last couple of days concerned the New York Times hiring an Asian-American woman by the name of Sarah Jeong to their editorial board. Jeong, who is usually pictured with bright red hair, is 30 years old and a graduate of both Berkeley and Harvard.

The trouble began when eagle-eyed Twitter users discovered Jeong had serious hang-ups about white people and wasn’t shy of airing them. For example:

And that’s just a tiny sample, her Twitter history going back years is littered with this stuff.

It wasn’t long before a mob formed demanding she be fired. However, a portion of this mob was made up of people who would ordinarily not want her sacked, but in a world where left-wing mobs can get people (e.g. Kevin Williamson) fired on what seems like a weekly basis, they decided to adopt their enemy’s tactics. The NYT was having none of it though, and issued this statement:

Now this is pretty pathetic: as the many examples of Jeong’s tweets show, she was not “responding to harassment” and it is doubtful she regrets her behaviour (as if that was enough to stop a right-winger being lynched). However, I believe the NYT was right to stand behind her, only not for the silly reasons they give in that statement. What they should have said was this:

“We were of course fully aware of Sarah Jeong’s opinions expressed on Twitter – we are not complete morons, we do check this stuff. However, we see no reason to believe why such opinions make her unfit to serve on our editorial board, indeed we think they’re a sign she’ll fit right in. Therefore, she will assume her post as intended.”

This would have the advantage of being absolutely true, and be a sign that the NYT management are at least prepared to stand by their decisions. Rather than howl with outrage at her appointment, people should just take it as a clear indication of what sort of outfit the NYT is and afford it a commensurate degree of respect. Firing Jeong won’t solve anything, the problem is she was hired in the first place; she’s merely a symptom of a much deeper malaise.

Sarah Jeong is an over-privileged idiot who sounds for all the world like she’s bitter over her high school crush taking a white girl to the prom instead of her. If she’s 30 now, I doubt she’ll ever grow up. But it was the NYT‘s decision to hire her in full knowledge of who she was, and they should either stand by that or the people responsible resign.

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Margaret Hodge receives the standard HR treatment

Having seen her ignorant, hypocritical, and opportunistic grandstanding in the kangaroo court known as the Public Accounts Committee, I have no sympathy for the situation in which Margaret Hodge now finds herself with the Labour Party. It is, however, worth looking at. Here’s an extract from the letter she received from the Labour Party:

Note that the details of the allegations are not identified in the letter, but she is warned any future behaviour of a similar nature will result in further disciplinary action. This doesn’t surprise me: a feature of disciplinary processes in modern organisations is a lack of details. Both managers and HR prefer woolly terms such as “abusive conduct” in lieu of details because it gives them greater flexibility in the process and hamstrings the employee’s defence. It is also highly unethical and, quite likely, illegal so the best thing an employee can do when faced with a letter like this is to lawyer up. Unsurprisingly, this is what Hodge has done; here’s an extract from the response:

Indeed. But the worst aspect of what the Labour Party are doing is something very common in HR disciplinary procedures. The language of the letter implies all they have is an allegation, nothing is known, and minds shall remain open while an investigation takes place and the truth determined. However, it is almost certain that the management know exactly what happened, they have formed a narrative (which may or may not match what actually happened), and determined the outcome already. HR is merely told to follow a process which leads to that outcome and, HR being what they are in most organisations, just do what they’re told legality and ethics be damned.

The thing to understand when faced with a letter like this – or even an “informal chat” – is that you think you’re on Stage 1 of a fair and open process, whereas the management are on Stage Finale of a process that’s anything but. You’ll be there thinking you’ll have an opportunity to mount a defence in due course, but before you know it the process has whipped past you without you even realising it. Remember that quick chat your boss had with you in the corridor about a possible HR issue? Yeah, that ticks the box saying the matter was fully discussed with your hierarchy. And the time you asked for details, and they said they’d “get back to you later”? That was the meeting you should have walked out of, because on your record it says you offered no explanation for your behaviour when given the opportunity. The way to deal with this is exactly as Hodge has done: throw a large monkey-wrench in the works and bring the whole process crashing to a halt.

The second you start to cooperate, you lend legitimacy to the process being used to destroy you, and if you don’t protest loudly and vigorously management and HR can claim afterwards that you never complained. Hodge has done the right thing here, and I suspect Labour are now staring down the barrel of a humiliating climbdown, perhaps with a hefty bill for damages attached.

The real scandal here is how common these unprofessional Kafkaesque tactics are used as standard by modern managers, endorsed by ineffectual HR departments. All it takes is one or two savvy employees to work out what’s going on, and the company is in serious trouble. This is why organisations should prioritise appointing principled managers supported by a robust HR department, and worry less about hounding employees for not being sufficiently on-message.

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A Typical Job Advert

A reader sends me a job advert for an “HR Business Partner” which is worth fisking. For a start, what is a “business partner”? Is this a fancy title for someone working in what is often laughably called a support service?

Act as a Strategic Partner to 2 major portfolios with circa 200 staff

Act as a what? I think what they’re trying to say is they’ll provide HR services to about 200 staff working across 2 areas of operations.

Be a leader of HR Initiatives developed in conjunction with supporting Centre’s of Excellence

Provide HR services while taking into consideration other support services. “Centre’s of Excellence” indeed.

Opportunities for promotion and development within a company that is rapidly growing

Really? How high can an HR Business Partner rise?

As Senior HR Business Partner, you will be responsible for supporting, shaping and driving our ambitious organisational strategy through your business portfolios.

So now it’s a Senior HR Business Partner, so they weren’t lying about those promotions after all. And if this is the person’s role, it raises the question of what the managers of those business portfolios are doing. Isn’t it their job to implement company policy through their organisations?

You will act as a true strategic partner influencing and supporting leader’s decisions that have an impact on people, processes and business operations.

“True strategic partner”. Presumably there are false strategic partners on the loose in this outfit. Now meddling in leaders’ decisions might not be a bad idea from an HR perspective, but it has little to do with strategy.

We operate under a strong HR Framework, which encompasses being a strategic partner, a talent developer, employee advocate and an HR functional expert.

I can see what they’re trying to say here, but it’s written terribly. Who is we?

Across your two portfolios, Supply Chain and Quality you will be expected to;

Provide expertise to functional HR responsibilities. This includes ER, talent development, portfolio management and HR processes and procedures whilst managing day-to-day issues that arise.

Okay fine, but surely the candidate needs to know something about Supply Chain and Quality to properly deliver this service? How can they engage in talent management if they don’t know what the employees are doing? So far, there is nothing in the job description which even mentions the industry this job will be in. Presumably they don’t think it’s relevant.

Have a strong grasp on strategic consultation; ensuring leaders create and implement plans to improve organisational effectiveness and change management processes through our framework.

This is gobbledegook. Who are these “leaders”? Why not call them managers? And what change management processes are they on about? Are these leaders currently aware of them?

Drive the design of our current & future workforce that will ensure talent vitality and prosperity across your business portfolios.

You mean hire the right people?

You will be responsible for ensuring we have workforce plans in place that will enable us to achieve our growth aspirations and work with Centre of Excellence in the wider HR team to achieve optimal results.

And what, specifically, does that entail? What actual, measurable tasks is this person supposed to carry out? This is less a job description than a list of desirable outcomes.

Actively monitor, shape and drive a positive change through employee engagement. Coach leaders to develop their skills…

Okay, fine.

…and ensure you are advocating for diversity and inclusion within the workforce.

I’m sure the leaders will just love that.

You will be the SME and the leader’s advisor when it comes to dealing with discrimination, harassment, conflict and poor performance.

SME? Small-medium enterprise?

To set you up for success in this position we believe you need to have the following skills and experience;

A minimum of 5 years’ experience working in a Business Partner Position in a large complex organisation

Note there is no requirement to have any industry knowledge whatsoever.

Able to think critically and use diagnostic & Intervention tools to assess & achieve higher organisational performance

I assume they mean poring over diversity statistics and sending out endless employee surveys.

Strong business acumen, understands how businesses, teams and individuals operate

How are they going to do that if all they’ve ever done is HR?

Have an undergraduate degree in Human Resources Management / Organisational Development / Psychology or business related subjects

Heh.

Quickly able to establish rapport and credibility amongst the business leaders

Despite having no knowledge of the operations or even the industry.

I’ve read this job description several times and I’m still none the wiser what the person is actually supposed to do. Will they be conducting interviews, writing procedures, drawing up organisation charts, creating skills matrices, developing training programmes, and participating in the operational decision-making? I have no idea, and nor does the person who wrote the advert. This is normal.

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A New Direction

So, having decided the oil industry wasn’t for me, what to do next? My professional skill, insofar as I have one, is a project engineer or manager, basically someone who can organise, communicate, and coordinate a bunch of specialists to get stuff done. Although doing this well brings considerable added value to any organisation, I was faced with two problems if I attempted to take these skills into another industry (or even stay in oil and gas):

1. Project management positions are to some degree prestigious, hence they are granted to the favoured sons of the upper management regardless of whether they have the necessary skills and competence. There are exceptions, but it would be hard for me to break into a new industry and convince someone to give me a decent project manager role.

2. Project engineers tend to have to report to incompetent project managers, and you end up doing menial admin work on behalf of the dolt above you who is good pals with someone in the higher echelons. Also, project engineers tend to be badly paid because few recognise the importance of the role; you’re basically a dogsbody to be blamed when things go wrong. Depending on where you are, this can also apply to project managers. I was once in an interview for a project management position which reported into a technical manager. I asked what the technical manager’s job was, and was told he was responsible for the project execution. In other words, it was some loafer in HQ who wanted to tell the project manager how to run the project. Micromanagement and non-accountability is absolutely rife everywhere these days.

What I needed to find was a job that:

1. Came with good working conditions, i.e. if the pay was not great you’re at least somewhere without green in the flag and you can drink the tapwater.

2. Was a role that was growing, i.e. there are plenty of them about and, even better, the numbers are increasing.

3. Was a role that sat near the top of any hierarchy so, unlike project engineers who lie near the bottom, you’d not be handed shit-burgers every day.

4. Was generally badly done and if anyone halfway competent showed up, they’d immediately stand out.

So what role encompasses all of that? Why, Human Resource Management, of course!

Has the laughter died down? Have you all quite finished? Right, allow me to continue. HR is something that does need to be done properly, but almost all of the time isn’t. The principle reasons for this is as follows. What used to fall under the responsibility of middle management has been handed off to an HR department. This suits the middle management because the last thing a modern manager wants is responsibility, and it gives them a handy excuse at to why “nothing can be done” because “it’s an HR decision”. In theory, a centralised HR department is supposed to handle those responsibilities more efficiently than middle managers, but in practice they often don’t get handled at all. HR departments have grown increasingly remote from the middle management and most would have little to no idea what an actual worker did or why. Often HR doesn’t even sit in the same continent, let alone country, as those who generate the value in a company, yet they are tasked with producing policies and procedures which govern the minutiae of their working lives.

Everywhere I’ve worked without exception there has been an unbridgeable gulf between the HR department and those who carry out the company operations. On the rare occasions they meet, they’re talking completely different languages. In many instances, the HR department works chiefly as the propaganda organ of the senior management. Whatever they think they’re doing, it isn’t human resource management. The reason for this is the sort of people who are good at projects and operations have no interest in HR, and almost nobody working in HR went there intentionally: they ended up there because they were too useless to do anything else, or they saw it as a way to occupy a comfy chair in an air-conditioned office having got a 2:2 in Modern Literature and Psychology from the University of Glamorgan. Perhaps two or three times in my career I’ve encountered a genuine HR professional who studied for it specifically, and it’s like coming across Christiano Ronaldo playing football for the local pub. There is a drastic shortage of these people, and they’re worth their weight in gold.

Now the advantage I have is I am genuinely interested in HR management, these  days far more so than the technical stuff. I am sure part of this is having seen so much of it done badly while realising it should really not be that difficult. I’ve seen travel policies where one section contradicts the other, career managers who didn’t know the person whose career they were supposedly managing, untrained managers stepping on legal landmines wherever they trod, and CVs of competent people filtered out by HR while completely unsuitable candidates get the nod. Across the four branches of HR – policy, legal, training, and recruitment – I’ve seen little but blithering incompetence. All are subjects I’ve somehow become interested in, particularly those elements which are to do with personalities and human behaviours. I also take a keen interest in administration being done well, and if I have any skill it’s probably that; get your admin right and everything else becomes much easier. It also helps that I can write clearly and accurately, especially when it comes to reports, procedures, and emails.

Now I know I’d not last five minutes in an HR department of a major corporation, but I reckon I could bring considerable value to a small company. Consider a startup of 4-5 people, managed by the founders, who now need to expand to 20 people and assign someone to Bulgaria for 6 months where the factory for their prototype is being made. They’re going to need HR policies, but who writes them? Who’s going to set the housing policy in Bulgaria, and manage any visitors? They also need a finance manager; how do they recruit him? These are things the founders will have little interest in, and will either wing it or get some outside help. There are plenty of HR consultancies to whom you can outsource things like travel and accommodation policies, and the resulting documents are useful if the people to whom they supposedly apply want a good laugh. This is because HR consultancies are staffed with the sort of people who end up in HR, not people who know what an engineer or technician’s job involves. The company could also hire someone, perhaps a nice young lady with a few years experience working in the HR department of another company somewhere and she could ensure all employees are fully briefed on the diversity policy and the importance of ensuring all eleven managers sign off their expenses before they can be processed.

So here’s where I come in. I’m that rare beast who has an engineering degree, a lot of operations and project experience, and an interest in getting HR done properly and willing to do it myself. The trouble is, no company would hire me in an HR role: I have no experience outside winging it in various positions, and me waving my hands around saying “It’s common sense, innit?” isn’t going to convince anyone. What I need if I want to land an HR job in a small tech company is a course which will provide me with the complete and structured knowledge to do the job.

To that end I started looking for Masters or MBA courses in Human Resource Management. I dismissed the US business schools out of hand on the grounds I didn’t want to pay a king’s ransom to listen to Marxist harridans tell me I’m a rapist. I considered the UK but thought London would be expensive to live in and perhaps also filled with demented leftists, and it took under two minutes to write off Manchester Business School. So I looked at Geneva, for two reasons. The first is the Swiss tend to be quite sensible folk, serious about business, and their schools good (although very expensive). The second is I have an apartment in Annecy just 45 minutes away by car, meaning I don’t need to fork out for accommodation.

So I applied to an MBA in Human Resources Management at the EU Business School in Geneva and got accepted (the essay I submitted with my application was this one). The course begins in October and lasts a year, with lectures taking place between 6pm and 9pm each weekday evening. This is obviously to allow people to work while studying, but helps me in two ways. Firstly the commute will be much easier, going against the traffic, and secondly it leaves the day free for blogging and writing books.

At the end of the course I’ll probably look for a position in a company in Geneva; I am hoping my industry experience will make up for my lack of direct experience in an HR role. A small company might not need anyone full-time, but that’s okay; I can either work part time or in a dual role, running projects or operations as well. Having proper HR capability should also open the door to general management roles too; previous companies I’ve worked for would have paid handsomely for a general manager who could manage the HR himself. Long-term, I might even go into freelance HR consultancy, but that’s a way off yet.

So that’s the plan, folks. I’ll be in Paris until end August when my gardening leave finishes, in September I’ll move to Annecy, and in October it’s back to school.

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