October 10, 2007

Hi, my name is David, and I'm a resource . . .

Posted in Ireland · 29 comments ·
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Recent surveys reveal that three out of four Irish workers believe their employers are showing less loyalty while at the same time, four out of five Irish workers are contemplating leaving their job. Trust between workers and bosses is not what it should be.

In an effort to combat this slide into indifference, every year companies all over the country hire a conference hotel — at great expense — to tell their employees they love them.

To see why trust has broken down, all you have to do is spend an hour or two at such an event because the increasingly popular team-building off-site sheds light on an important aspect of Irish working life.

Workers, many of whom spend their entire day dreaming of being somewhere else or playing Second Life, get together under the guidance of an over-enthusiastic human resources manager whose gushing management style comes directly from an MBA handbook.

The spread of this pseudo-science is not unlike the spread of a religion in the Dark Ages.

In the modern Ireland, corporate St Patricks armed with disturbingly similar symbols, explain the apparently inexplicable and reveal the true light via simple code.

So instead of the shamrock symbolising “three persons in the one God” we get “five steps to effective management” or “10 secrets to sales success” or “eight immutable rules of corporate reputation”. This guff, really St Patrick and the snakes for slow learners, has seeped into many Irish companies.

An example of this is the term “human resources”. When they were called personnel departments, at least they pretended you were a real living, feeling person.

Yes, you might not be as important as a manager in the accounts department but at least you were a step up from the filing cabinet.

When you went to personnel with personal issues like a death in the family, a holiday query or requesting to go on a spoof course, the idea that your entire worth was being assessed, costed, calculated and determined by a simple input/output equation was not signalled directly.

Sometime in the mid 1990s, the corporate world decided to dispense with the pretence of personnel.

Instead you became a resource, like the filing cabinet or the electricity that keeps the building lit — a human resource but a resource nonetheless. Hi, my name’s David, I’m a resource.

These days, human resource departments come up with initiatives, culled from gobbledygook textbooks, which are always company-wide, task-specific, people-centred, goal-orientated, growth-targeted, client-focussed, time-saving, knowledge-enhancing, audience-appropriate, team-building, earnings-driven, profit-sensitive, carbon-neutral, dim-witted bull-shit.

A recent conference was entitled something like ‘Knowledge Management — How to leverage know-how in a hostile environment’.

God knows what this means but that doesn’t matter.

The evening promised to be Glastonbury for people with quoted companies. It was all lights, dry-ice, Dad-rock and soggy canapés. At half past eight, the pushy PA took over proceedings. She’s got that scary look about her, you know that German anti-nuclear activist from the 1980s with angular glasses, spiky plum hair and a clip-board.

She’s Irish but has been in the US for three months so she said things like “ball-park”, “touch base” and “in the zone”.

She also had that annoying habit of saying, “ya know what” in response to every question she’s asked. For example:

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Ya know what? I won’t.”

After interminable talks about sales, motivation and blue-skies, the main act appeared in the guise of the right-on, I’m one of you, ordinary-guy CEO (even if he had stock options worth multiples of the salaries of everyone in the room).

Part of the corporate story is and always will be progress: you too can make it, reach for the stars, realise your potential.

Behind the scenes, ten minutes before the three hundred “workers”, (described grandiosely as “associates”) sat down to pay homage to the corporate Gods, the chief executive bounds in all chummy and practises his nonchalant, spur-of the moment, off-the-cuff, learned-off-by-heart speech.

He is media-trained to within an inch of his life, right down to the phoney pauses, drum-rolls and inserted gags.

The act opens with a blast of U2′s ‘Beautiful Day’, cue dry ice and a light show worthy of a mid-1980s prog-rock stadium gig.

The CEO takes the stage to thunderous applause, coffee-to-go in his hand. He says something entirely predictable like “Yikes, now this is scary”. The crowd laugh uproariously in synchronised Ceausescu-like fashion.

The CEO starts the verbal high-fives immediately, congratulating everyone for targets met and standards set. He refers to the head office as Redwood — an anodyne suburb of St Louis — saying how Redwood “respects” Dublin and reaffirming that the people are the company, without the people we’d be nothing.

He introduces us to a black receptionist from Illinois with Alicia Keyes braids by satellite link up.

“Dioneesha is the face of the company”, he smarms, “she’s been employee of the month six times and it’s hundreds of ordinary people like Dioneesha Wilkins who make this company great” — which is obviously why Dioneesha gets the bus to work.

He gives the crowd his life story — wrong side of the tracks, hard working mother, kitchen-table wisdom, and penny apples. It’s all standard rags to Ritz Carlton stuff delivered in that Jesus Christ Superstar, would-you-believe, evangelical CEO tempo.

The chinos are slightly loose, pushed down by the paunch. He has an open-necked pink aertex with an ad for the world’s top selling incontinence drug on the sleeve. He looks like an overweight caddy. You know he has a copy of ‘Foreigner 4′. There’s a hint of a mullet.

All the talk is of winners, going the extra mile, digging deep, listening, the “go-to-guy”, being counted, respecting the opposition, the importance of Number 1, merit, co-operation, potential, uniqueness, diversity, systems, integration, serving the company, fulfilling your work, respecting yourself. When you put it all together, it’s about nothing and everything.

With this sort of corporate codswallop, is it any wonder so many of us feel restless?


  1. Dan Hayes

    David & Co.:

    This business role model is only one of the many sins inflicted on the world that America has to answer for.

    But it is definitely one of the BIG ones.

    Dan

  2. Joe

    David,

    Couldn’t agree more. I console myself however that as an Ameropean nation, dependent on American Capital and consequently american companies and their corporate cultures, such a living hell is to be zoned out when possible and laughed at over a few pints later in the evening when the aforementioned CEO is legless on the dance floor trying to get it on with Jacinta from reception.

  3. Andrew

    This reminds me of a quote I read a while ago, possibly one of those demotivational posters: “Remember that you are unique. Just like everybody else.”

  4. ChicagoMick

    David,

    Again this is great social observation and very cleverly written as usual. You are great at stating the problem and have the luxury of taking the observer/journalist/writer role. You are the “travel writer” of the industrial landscape. Bill Bryson and Pete McCarthy with Blazers on. All very entertaining. Please do take a trip to Public Service Land and I am sure we will have a right laugh there too.

    Now that said, sure you can slag off the CEO, the Receptionist, the UPS guy etc, but this article leaves me a little empty. There is a well meaning workforce all over the world, and those with ambitions to get the best out of themselves should think it just as that. I am not sure what other path the majority of workers can take after education, without access to capital, other than hit the corporate land? The lack of unconditional mentoring in worklife is a big issue.

    Now that you have defined a few problems – lets hear your solutions to changing the culture of a workforce and a management system that goes all the way back to Wall Street. What can you say about changing the culture of a workforce?

    A little positive motivational speech from you about motivating change in Corporate Ireland/USA/World would be nice to read. Take it back to education, and promote the entrepreneur, and free young people’s fear of leaving the corporate and public nests. Getting fired once in a while may also be very liberating. Some positive stories from start-up and small company land will be welcome. Find us some folk with balanced lifestyles and who think they have found happiness and then lets work back to the corporate machine and rescue a few tired souls.

    Michael…..working in a very small company.

  5. Damien

    A favourite of ours to play at the terrifying quarterly town halls is bullsh1t bingo…
    “Drive the business”
    “Strengthen the franchise”
    “We have a great story to tell”
    “Rubbers hitting the road”
    “I’m excited about the next year”
    “Best in class”
    “the new operations center of excellence”

    Followed by hilarious party sanctioned QA session with regions dialling in and inevitable brown nosing from whatever young turk has been transferred to the Siberia branch:”How do you see the branch fitting into the global expansion plans for Megacorp”. This year’s business head wil then reply with “is one of my favourite cities, I remember last time I was there I enjoyed a with . is essential to our future plans”

  6. Damien

    “Siberia is one of my favourite cities, I remember last time I was there I enjoyed a (miscellanioues local delicacy) with (senior Americian transferred to Godforsaken region) is essential to our future plans”

  7. David

    David,

    I have been enjoying your numerous articles and have found the above article to be the most amusing to date, which some may find surprising as I work as a HR Manager!! I agree with the essence of what you are saying about the “7 steps to everything approach” being a nonsence, it does nothing more than offer workers false kindness and false hope. However I still feel HR plays a pivotol role in business today but isn’t utilised in the proper manner. The problem a lot of people have with HR is that everyone thinks they can do it – I mean who doesn’t think they are a “people person”! The major flaws some practitioners have is their lack of candor with employees at the appraisal stage and throughout the year. At the end of the day workers are a companys key resource and like all of us need to be mentored/coached to fullfill their potential to become leaders in their own right and drive a company forward. I believe in Jack Welch’s “pastor / parent” view of HR i.e. you listen attentively to your employees ideas, concerns, desires etc. but you also discipline them when they are falling short. I feel there is greater honesty and respect to this approach among all staff and the results greatly surpass companies who effectively patronize their workers with ” 7 steps” nonsense.

    David

  8. Dermot

    [quote]Getting fired once in a while may also be very liberating.[/quote] Mick, I think you need to go back to Chicago for even thinking that. Are you for real!

  9. Dermot

    The most cringeworthy of the Americanised Corporate guff remarks, has to be the gift from my own brother who for the sake of anonymity I’ll call Mental Michael (an oily mortgage broker no less), who once said (with the total self-belief of an evangelist on coke), “That guy… He’s the kind of guy who listens to W.I.I.FM Radio! What’s In It For Me!” At that point, I felt sick.

  10. MK

    Hi again David,

    I agree with your observations – Welcome to the world of corporate B-S, which is not only a US problem but is endemic across many businesses around the globe, European, US, Asian, etc. It is far from a new phenomenon though and I would hazard a guess that you have come across it from when you first entered the ‘corporate’ workforce. I know I have and that is 20 years ago, and it was not new then.

    > The crowd laugh uproariously in synchronised Ceausescu-like fashion.

    An apt metaphor with the link to Ceausescu. Its funny how 99% of the workers will still attend these types of events, and will only ‘give out’ about them or as someone said laugh about them in the pub afterwards when there is no-one with any authority listening. People are afraid to speak-up and call a spade a spade, as in bull-shit. Like the residents of Romania, many stay quiet, until a survey reveals something like 80% dissatisfaction. But businesses then benchmark against others to find out that thay are doing okay as there is 80% dissatisfaction elsewhere!

    In terms of a solution, well, there arent any when the capitalism system is to the fore. Workers dont have rights, they are a column in a spreadsheet, a resource to be used. It will remain thus in any business whilst they are a resource, and just like the ‘soothing music’ played in lifts, shops, and on call-centre waiting lines, these gee-up-for-the-troops type of sessions, internal newsletters where there is ONLY good news, etc, is just that, a poor attempt at keeping the resources ‘happy’.

    They dont call it the rat-race for nothing ….

    Read Dilbert for a good take on these types of things ….

    -MK

  11. Molloy

    These things are painfully bad alright. Problem is the American company I used to work for used to provide alot of free booze. I’ll sit through 20 productivity powerpoint presentations if there’s free booze.

  12. Geoff

    You have all your ducks in a row on this one, Dave, at this point in time.

  13. SpinstaSista

    Does anybody else see parallels between how corporations communicate with their workers (sorry, resources), and how churches communicate with their congregations? Think about it – the church was the original global corporation which demanded total commitment and devotion from its members, and promised punishment or rewards according to how its members behaved.

    Nowadays being fired from your job is tantamount to excommunication. The practice of bribery and corruption could be equated to the practice of 14th century merchants giving money to the church as a means of paying off their sins in this life.

    On your knees everyone, all bow down to the great god Mammon!

  14. DDS

    Not to mention bullying, which is rife in not only the corporate world, but in small companies too. I am prevented from discussing who, when and where, but (and I have to add) it may be apparent that I was bullied for the best part of two and a half years by my immediate bosses (apparently). And what was done about it? Well, you could say that when I left, the company (a large Irish bank that shall remain both faceless and nameless, apparently) bought my silence, but I couldn’t possibly say that. I’m sure you understand. You could (apparently) say that the senior managers not only (apparently) advocated this treatment, but were possibly behind it. Of course I couldn’t possibly say that. And you could even (apparently) add that the so-called Head of Human ‘Resources’ or their staff (apparently) did little or nothing to help and merely paid lip-service to ‘the company line’. Of course… I couldn’t possibly say that. And there were several such other cases of bullying (apparently) going on in that very building at the time (so I was told) and my case was just the tip of a very large iceberg in the industry from the corporate boardroom to the satellite branches in our high streets. It’s going on under everyones noses and nothing gets done about it. In the meantime, the fallout is growing rapidly.

    So much for the ‘personal’ in ‘Personnel’. Where will these companies be when their ‘resources’ eventually leave in droves. You only need to speak with any recruitment consultant to find out just how rapidly the list of disgruntled staff is growing. Tragically, the problem is, while many people say they do want to get out, that they do intend to leave, and many do go as far as registering with agencies, most of us unfortunately put up with it, until the damage is done.

    Not that those in the positions of middle-managerial power really give a damn. Perhaps it is they who should go off for those ‘tongue in the cheek-of-an-arse’ seminars… and maybe, with a bit of luck, they’ll stay there.

  15. No offence Dave, but I think you’re way off the mark on this article.

    I’ve worked in several American corporations and I can safely say that the corporate clap-trap just washes over
    90% of the Irish staff. Indeed, the vast majority of us cringe when we’re forced into dealing with over-zealous and pepped up Yanks who live and breathe the corporation. In general, we just get on with our jobs and when the Microsoft Outlook invite comes in, to attend some CEO/Head-Manager web conference, it’s promptly ignored.

    The benefits of working for the corporation vastly outweigh the above minor inconveniences. Better pay, excellent pension and health insurance entitlements, bonuses, further education/study time, etc. Not to mention the fact that you’re working in a meritocracy, so at least you’re rewarded for the work you put in. In most cases, you’ll also get good experience and having an old corporation always looks good on a c.v!

    Carrigaline (Corporate whore, and not too disappointed about it)

  16. Just wanted to complement you on this excellent post David! I for one hear the term “resource” being applied to me and my colleagues on a daily basis by management at the various companies where I have worked (I work in software), and personally I have always found this term to be offensive.

  17. DDS

    Meritocracy is really the voice of idealism, not a commonality, or even a reality for the most part (but then so was communism and look where that ended). The corporate bull-shit of what someone may believe in meritocracy, could potentially be seen as the voice of the brain-washed, or maybe it’s just more de-Humanised Resources claptrap. Who knows, but of course we are all entitled to fredom of speech, at least from outside the office. Yet, as far as working within those walls of corporate existence, it becomes a freedom of thought at best and, unfortunatley, at most. For the majority, the so-called meritocracy only exists for those who kneel and kiss the god’s anus’ the hardest. And that’s hardly a meritocratic way of conducting business is it. But that’s where you’ll find your commonality. Obsequiousness is ridiculously rewarded, while honourable rewards for merit are mostly ignored and often punished. And that’s speaking from experience.

    So much for the joys of security in the corporate climate. For my part, I’ll forgoe the so-called security of being a ‘resource’ for the true pleasure of being able to look in the mirror and knowing that I’m still a human being and proud to say it.

    No offence.

  18. seamus

    David,
    RF Hoxie’s (1917) stated that “the interests of employers and the workers are generally opposed”. It appears that this view is similar today. If you accept this is true and HR is nonsensical, then what is your suggestion? The problem as far as I can determine is not that HR doesnt work but won’t work when sections of policy are cherry picked. Either full HR policy with management approval and involvment is implimented or not at all. The top 10 employers in Ireland and U.K. have all implimented full HR theoretical policies and are commonly listed as the best places to work.

  19. john

    an excellent article, spot on. Its also funny when this new terminology comes in everyone pretends they have been using all the time and it is not just the new jargon from cupertino, its also funny the way the old jargon that everyone was using 3 years ago is quietly dropped never to be used again except of course in public service land who have just started using it. Its funny to hear provincial ministers talking about “going forward” and the “line minister” etc.

  20. DDS said,

    on October 12th, 2007 at 1:20 am

    “Meritocracy is really the voice of idealism, not a commonality, or even a reality for the most part (but then so was communism and look where that ended). The corporate bull-shit of what someone may believe in meritocracy, could potentially be seen as the voice of the brain-washed, or maybe it’s just more de-Humanised Resources claptrap.”

    What a load of tosh!

    Any organisation, whether it be Mom and Pop’s Local Nail Making Factory right up to Microsoft, is run as a meritocracy! If you perform well, you get rewarded; if you don’t perform, you stay where you are or get fired.

    “For the majority, the so-called meritocracy only exists for those who kneel and kiss the god’s anus’ the hardest. And that’s hardly a meritocratic way of conducting business is it. But that’s where you’ll find your commonality. Obsequiousness is ridiculously rewarded, while honourable rewards for merit are mostly ignored and often punished.”

    That could be true in any work place, but in my experience, it only happens in the vast minority of cases in corporations. While being a lick-ass helps your chances at career progression, it’s not a mutually exclusive route to getting there.

    “No offence.”

    None taken, for I find my job extremely stimulating and have learned more doing it in two months than five years of college.

  21. Philip Murtagh

    Spot on article. I hope there is a follow up. You stated the problem. Now what? Personally, I think this represents the basis of most of the decline we a seeing in MNCs for the last umpteen years.

  22. John Dooley

    Very good article and I think you will find that this type of “new age” nonsense has been going on a lot longer than the Celtic tiger years. I have worked for two major U.S corporations for the past 28 years and have gone through more types of “team buliding” and corporate, nebulous nonsense than you could count.
    The real maddening thing about this is that real needs and real issues are being over looked to pay for this stuff and people are stunted in their development and opportunities because of it.
    Focussed, relevant and highly tailored training and development, “mentoring” as you call it, is the way forward but a totally meritocratic pay regime, as practiced by most U.S corporations, will not encourage its effective practice. Just like capitalism, nobody in a overly competitive environment is going to develop colleagues or subordinates. More likely they will seek to undermine their efforts unless kept in check by an effective management.
    Bullying, as mentioned in the comments here, is another aspect which is more often directed by the more qualified against the less qualified and by those with power against those without. There is a crying need for training in how to deal in a practical way with bullies and aggressive behaviour and this is often neglected in favour of the nebulous nensense mentioned before and is a great loss as bullying not only dehumanises people but can expose a corporation to losses due to staff turnover, legal action and damage to reputation etc.Confident, well founded employees in a well run corporation should have no problem raising the waste of money issue inherent in some meetings and other nebulous “courses”.

  23. Josh M

    David
    You seem to have overlooked the attitudes of the Irish worker. After 3 years in this country in association with a multinational company, my observation is that the majority of Irish workers are abysmally lazy and have extremely sloppy attitudes towards their work. They arrive late, wearing clothes that often look slept in, leave early on any excuse and will most likely take the next day off. Whatever little work they may have actually finished, will invariably contain numerous errors.
    They may be “educated” but certainly not motivated—unless there is booze or sports involved.
    It may have been a different story with earlier generations but this one is in a sorry state.

  24. Conn

    If you want to see a good example of a crowd in ‘synchronised Ceausescu-like fashion’, check out the opening scene in Robert Greenwald’s film, ‘Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost.’….it starts with the Wal-Mart CEO, Lee Scott addressing the crowd, and it is seriously scary…..the employees (or associates) are almost evangelical in their response…

  25. Dan Hayes

    You think group-think oppression is bad in Ireland? Just wait until you get your doses of diversity training (presupposing that it hasn’t arrived yet). There the velvet gloves will be unsheathed to reveal the iron fists of the Diversity Commisars. And the benighted middle-manager wannabees will be thought that it is unthinkable to even think any counter-diversity thoughts. Big Brother is alive and well and coming soon to a country near you (actually your country suckers).

  26. MK

    DDS> (Bullying) – It’s going on under everyones noses and nothing gets done about it. In the meantime, the fallout is growing rapidly.

    I think you have raised a very important additional point to this discussion. The mantra that emanates from the HR function and management, the ‘party’ line, does have a very dangerous side affect. Its true that in the main many can ignore it and treat it that something that they just have to get through, grin and bear it, etc. However, its ‘dark’ underside is that such methods are used for nefarious bad teatment of employees, used as a weapon in the internal battlements of a corporation, and indeed small companies. The workplace is a battlefield and many actions, such as bullying and putting people in ‘untenable’ positions, are in fact illegal, but Ireland like a lot of counties doesnt have sufficient controls to prevent it or dissuade it from happening. The usual choice is that people can just move on to a new employer, but many dont and it reaffirms the causes and the chance of it happening again in the same organisation. It doesnt happen everywhere or I have no idea if it does in the majority of business, but it does happen, and only the very miniscule tip of the iceberg gets reported.

    One thing I would add is that middle-managers, indeed top management, can and do get ‘bullied’ just as much. Its not a case of ‘us and them’. Indeed, like the playground and child bullying situations, those that are bullied learn it and then some use it themselves, perpetuating the bad cycle.

    Carrigaline> Any organisation, whether it be Mom and Pop’s Local Nail Making Factory right up to Microsoft, is run as a meritocracy.

    I dont think this is at all reflective of the truth. Businesses do NOT reward everyone fairly. Are you saying that human’s have perfected business management and reward work and effort perfectly yet every other aspect of society has faults and flaws??? You are either born as an ostrich with your head in the sand or else are blinkered. I would think that 99% of people do not believe that workplaces are a completely fair system.

    MK

  27. Vandala

    Nice touch with the “Foreigner 4″, David!

  28. Eitzel

    From the ridiculous ‘delightling the customer’ to the far more sinister ‘friendly fire’ the U.S has used these oxymorons to beguile and often downright lie to people in a marketing friendly way.

    The key is to look past the nonsense and see with your own eyes, as you have strived to do here. We all have to go through these sessions, Irish bosses conform to the corporate line, as their U.S bosses demand, will this change? I doubt it..

    However, I dont think anyone is going to change this rubbish, this is far more engrained than just a fad , for people who seek relief (and lets face it, we all do) check out http://www.despair.com, checking this on a monday gets me through the week,

  29. twinireland

    Yeah thats life!
    anyway David what is your view on the possibility of a interest free economy?
    can it work, and why?
    If not, why not?

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