Why Is Catbert the Evil HR Director?

Why do we have so much difficulty believing in a huggable people person running Human Resources?

 Scott Adams’ Dilbert character Catbert is totally believable as the ‘Evil HR Director’. But why?

Were People people ever huggable?

I first started work when corporations had ‘Personnel Officers’.  I remember the first one I ever met was indeed actually interested in you and made me feel comfortable.

But before that, in 1970, Robert Townsend had written his book ‘Up The Organization’. It’s A to Z format has an entry under ‘P’ for ‘Personnel (People vs)’ which started with “Fire the whole personnel department”.  I had read his book and it stuck in my mind. (I have an autographed copy now).

Nevertheless, instead of taking Townsend’s advice, the world moved in the opposite direction and created the even more impersonal ‘Human Resources’ department.  So, the Personnel Officer now became a Human Resources manager. Soon she hung a note on her locked HR dept door that said something like “Go Away. I am never going to be in when you want to see me”. 

Not long after, I quit my corporate job to take a Sabbatical and wonder what life was all about.  All aspects of life, but life in a corporation in particular.

When I came back from a remote island in the south Atlantic, I didn’t have specific answers, but I did have some questions:

Why do you need an HR director?

To make sure you have the quality and quantity of employees you need, plus to administer all the regulations around employment.

Why are there regulations around employment?

Because employers can’t be trusted to treat their employees fairly and employees can’t be trusted to do their jobs without policing.

Why can’t the employer be trusted?

Because their job is to maximize profits for the shareholders, not for the employees.  So they will tend to cut corners if they can get away with it.

Why can’t employees be trusted?

Because some are doing it just for what they can get.

Why does management think of shareholders first and employees second?

Because that is their main responsibility.

Why do shareholders think they should have priority?

Because that is the way the system has been set up and reinforced.

…and you can go on.

Let’s stop there with the thought that the ‘system’ is the problem.  Not Catbert.

The system needs to change.  Certainly there are other ways of doing things that bear in mind all those questions and answers above.

It’s tough changing systems. Nonetheless, some enlightened bosses take a different view.  Richard Branson famously said that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers.  Since your revenue depends on customers, taking care of your employees will take care of revenues and hence the shareholders.

But this is only a part solution.

We are talking about a change to the system.  So, we must talk about the ‘system’ that the corporation exists within.

Part of that system is the community around the corporation’s physical presence.

Henry Mintzberg goes deeper. We should put the corporation in the context of the society in which it exists.  This is because it draws ‘resource’ from that environment and has an ‘impact’ on the community around them.  It is not ‘fair’ to consider the corporation in isolation.  In particular, he advocates for rebalancing in favor of the ‘Plural Society’: the part that is not Private and not Public.

At Remodel International, we take another approach. Its roots are in Acumen Academy’s ‘Human Centered Design’ program with Jacqueline Novogratz’s ‘Path of Moral Leadership’ ideas as a guide. We call it the Impact-ology Wheel.  In essence, it is about creating a self-motivating ‘wheel’ that drives itself without a boss whipping it ahead.  This is the transformation:

Unbossing transformation

Meanwhile, the corporate world has come up with another job title:

“Chief of Staff, Growth” with responsibilities for the performance and growth of the company’s Commercial, Human Resources, and Research & Development teams.

Suspicious as I always am of any job title with more than 2 words in it, I wonder what this really is all about.  Has Catbert got a new gig? Comments?

In any case, isn’t time to turn the tide?

Remember that just before the tsunami comes in, the tide goes out.