The most Dilbert-y of all entities within a corporate structure is the Human Resources Department. At least that’s been my experience. Readers Darwin’s S-list writes about his (her?) experience with HR departments, on the “Adventures In Disparate Impact” thread from yesterday:

I work at a company of at least comparable size to those being sued. During my time there, I’ve both interviewed for jobs and interviewed applicants for positions reporting to me. And it has a similar stance regarding prior criminal history, which I agree is too strict.

But the key thing to understand about companies of this size is how deeply risk averse their HR departments are. At my employer, all candidates interviewed for a position must be asked the exact same questions. Further, those questions have nothing to do with how the candidates’ experience and skills match the job requirements. Instead, they’re “behavioral history” inquiries wherein the applicant is asked “Tell me about a time you had to [work as a team, overcome an obstacle, pull together information from different resources, etc.], what did you do, and what was the result?” The smart applicants learn to work the process by asking the interviewers questions, which gives both parties a little more leeway to discuss matters of relevance.

We go even further in that we prevent employees from acting as a reference for either current or former employees. Anything that entails someone exercising judgment is looked upon as potential litigation exposure.

The irony is that while all of these safeguards are ostensibly designed to ensure that all applicants are on an even playing field, the end result is that by restricting the ability of hiring managers to learn more about applicants, it effectively encourages them to hire those they already know.

With respect to the present controversy about prior criminal history, the problem with the company instituting a 7, 10, or 15 year cut off is that doing so is arbitrary. Some lawyer or HR risk manager likely decided that doing that would itself expose the company to more potential liability. So, you bring in all of them.

It’s part of a broader trend of institutions not trusting their employees to use discretion in doing their jobs. In that, it’s of a piece with the elementary school principal who disciplines a kindergartner for biting his pop tart into the shape of a pistol and “threatening” others with it. If the principal tries to be reasonable about it and just tell the kid to stop, then the concern becomes how he’ll handle the next kid, has a toy gun, and the next with a pocket knife, and so on. If the cases differ too much, then plaintiff’s lawyers can make better cases.

Boy, is this ever true. In places I’ve worked before, the HR department, on advice from counsel, instructed managers never to give a bad reference to anybody. An employee might have been fired for very good cause, or resigned amid a difficult situation, but managers were strictly told never to speak ill of the fired employee when potential employers called to check references. If you can’t say something nice, then give a neutral statement. Anything else could open the company up for litigation.

Consider how difficult that makes the job of finding good people to work in your company. Consider how difficult that makes the task of finding another job if you’ve lost your previous one under circumstances that are complicated, but not that hard to explain. For example, let’s say that Bob quit his job at Acme Widgets and applied for a position at Jones Sprockets. The manager considering hiring Bob calls his old manager at Acme Widgets to find out some background on him. In a reasonable world, that manager would be able to say:

“Bob had a lot of potential, and is an intelligent man with a strong work ethic, but he never meshed with the team here because of certain personality conflicts. I understood it when he resigned, and was not sorry to see him go, because the situation here really was untenable. He couldn’t get along with a couple of key members of my team, both of whom are demanding and very particular. Others have had trouble with them too, and it’s an ongoing situation here at the office. I’m working on it. Most of this wasn’t Bob’s fault, but I have to say that if he were more patient, it might have worked out better. If you hire Bob, you will get an honest and talented employee, but that hire wouldn’t be without risks. Bob’s a quiet, methodical, responsible guy, but if you put him in a situation with co-workers who are argumentative by nature, it throws him off.”

That would give the future employer a real sense of Bob’s strengths and weaknesses. It could be that Bob, despite his weaknesses, would thrive in a different environment. But if the HR department constrained the manager from saying anything negative, all the manager could do would be either to be dishonest, or give a cryptic evaluation that plants suspicion in the potential employer’s mind: “What did Bob do at Acme Widgets? He’s a risky hire; let’s pass.”

In previous places I’ve worked, HR had policies requiring extensive documentation of an employee’s missteps — this, to provide a paper trail in case the employee was fired, because the paper trail would be useful in case of litigation. Avoiding litigation seemed to be the highest goal of the HR department. If you understood that Human Resources wasn’t about helping you, but rather was designed to manage the relationship between the company and its employees in a way to minimize the legal exposure for the company, then things became more clear. For example, we weren’t all going to mandatory diversity training because people had complained about discriminatory attitudes in the newsroom. We were going to it because if a disgruntled employee filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the company, the company’s lawyers could show that the company had taken reasonable actions to educate its employees about diversity, thus limiting its liability.

I’m not saying this is entirely unreasonable in our litigious society. But I am saying that it leads to entirely unreasonable effects, e.g., firing a 14-year employee because of a misdemeanor conviction.

 

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