Human Resources: The Fifth Column that blocks economic recovery

Human Resources: The Fifth Column that blocks economic recovery

WASHINGTON, December 8, 2014 – When Spanish Fascists drove on Madrid in 1936, there were four columns of troops approaching from all directions. But Emilio Mola, the general commanding the operation said to a journalist that there was a “fifth column” made of all the secret loyalists (or traitors, depending on your political point of view) within Madrid who could be counted on to sabotage essential Republican strong points, join the attack, or simply damage morale.

The Great Recession that resulted from the destruction of billions of dollars of OPM (Other People’s Money) by criminally negligent financial institutions has had a peculiar recovery. Peculiar because damn few people have been hired.


I propose that there is a “fifth column” acting in direct opposition to the best interests of the American economy and they are buried deep within the corporate structure of virtually every corporation. Of course, I’m referring to the Human Resources Department and those who work there.

If, for some strange reason, you want to find someone in a company who has no clue what the company actually does, simply locate the nearest HR manager. It’s not just that they don’t know whether you produce widgets or quantum computers or television programs, they really don’t care.

They will move to another company faster than you can say “three weeks vacation.”

Remember, these are the gatekeepers to your work force and they are hiring the workers who will mean success or failure in the years ahead. I guarantee that HR-approved candidates will be the worst possible people to hire.


Because the HR people, who don’t have any other criterion to measure qualifications, will simply hire people like themselves. That is not a Good Thing.

Take the average graduating class.

The brainiacs are going to go to…? Yes, law, finance, or high-tech.

The bright and flexible liberal arts students who can adapt to changing trends and see future possibilities…? Well, they’ll go to any high-tech firm smart enough to hire them, to publishing or media, or possibly write poetry.

Where do the dumbest students go? The ones who not only have, at best, mediocre grades at colleges you’ve never heard of but are also completely bereft of “smarts”—that intangible ability to quickly grasp a problem and solve it in some new and unforeseen way.

Yes, they will become either high school college admissions counselors or Human Resources professionals.

It’s like the Naval Criminal Investigative Service—the real one, not that fiction you see on television. When a bright, patriotic intelligence candidate arrives in Washington, the best are snapped up by the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service and on down the line.

The worst become National Zoo Police and if they can’t hack that, they join the NCIS. The only reason you don’t hear more about the horrors of these fleet flatfoots is that they have plenty of time for vengeance and, if you complain, you’ll find yourself mired in investigations for the next decade or so.

I spoke to one of the US Embassy Marines who was wrongly accused of giving secrets to his Soviet girlfriend and he said, the NCIS only asked whether he was gay. Over and over. He said, “I don’t think that’s what’s supposed to be going on here.”

I’m sorry, I got side tracked.

So, you have a group of people who are completely incapable of doing the job of the worst employee you have. Why are they there?

Because their sole skill is convincing managers that they are essential. In this, they remind me of sociologists. Now, in my callow youth, I graduated with a degree in Sociology but only because the Department Head was so conflicted by the 60s that he approved any course list I brought by. I took English, Political Science, Computers, Electrical Engineering, and the absolute minimum of sociology.


Because it didn’t take long to figure out that it wasn’t a real discipline at all but a movement of people who made things up—usually things with long names—to support their pre-existing political ideals. (If you wonder where all the Bolsheviks and Trotskyites of the 60s went, check your local Sociology Department.)

HR professionals are much the same. They make up rules, conduct studies, and invent “facts” in as dense and impenetrable a language as possible and regulate them carefully so that the reality of running a business or making a profit never intrudes.

I once said “Hello” to the HR person in the office next to me and she said, dreamily, “Quality is really all about sine waves.” I can’t even imagine what that meant and she couldn’t explain it.

Their list of essentials for finding a good job include an elevator speech, an answer to “what’s your worst failing?” and a perfect cover letter. Do you notice what’s missing in that list? Any relevant courses or experience in whatever-the-hell the company actually does. (Of course, as I pointed out earlier, HR has no idea what they do so…)

I once had a horrible experience with a cult I referred to as the “Job Search Ninjas.” I had been brought in to a job search class as an example of success because I was a freelance television producer and writer. I didn’t think of that as success—that’s just what you do in my business to keep your kids from starving.

The other “success story” was a computer engineer reduced to selling Toyotas.

What struck me was all the men around the table were working on reducing their 60 second elevator speech, which had already become a 30 second capsule, down to 15 seconds of what sounded oddly like a mosquito whine. Every damn one of them came up to me at some point in the evening and hit me with his little line.

It was like the cargo cults that grew up in the Pacific Islands after World War 2. Isolated tribes who had seen supplies float down from airplanes made elaborate shrines to airplanes and prayed that more supplies would appear. After resisting the urge to smack these people, I had to explain that I didn’t have any damn jobs and I couldn’t create one no matter how spell-binding their magic mantra.

Who would hire someone who stepped up to you on an elevator and said something that sounded like the old Joe Isuzu fast-talk commercials? Well, an HR professional probably would.

“Why are manholes round?”

This is the most famous of the stupid questions that HR interviewers at Google used to weed out the best and brightest.

Sadly, Google eventually did a study to see if there was relationship between these questions (how many golfballs can fit in a school bus?) and the long term success of the people hired. Guess what. Not only was there no correlation with the idiots who could answer the tough questions, there was no correlation with entrance interviews or anything else in the HR manual and success in the company whatsoever.

Other studies have proven that the entire HR entrance process has no relevance to hiring the sort of people you depend on to get things done.

Here is where the “fifth column” concept comes in.

This recession has been marked by two things: companies that have found it more profitable to take their money into the rigged casino of the stock market than actually make anything, and an incredible number of qualified applicants.

By the time anyone actually gets an interview, the HR drone has read several thousand resumes and knows, simply KNOWS, that the perfect candidate is going to come in any minute. The terrible result of this is that, not only do they reject the almost-perfect candidates they have, if they do find someone who can walk on water while juggling manhole covers (oh, they’re round so they won’t fall in, duh), they’ll have run around the company and inflated the image of this prodigy to the point that, when he or she arrives, they are an inevitable disappointment.

So, HR moves to the next step and that’s useless interviews. With so many people out of work, they have to be seen as busy as beavers. It’s easy, you throw an ad up on a couple of hundred websites with a single click, busily scan the incoming resumes—at six a minute—to eliminate the qualified, and then interview the remainder. Don’t think I’m making this up.

I’ve gone on at least 4 interviews in this recession where there was no job offered—they just wanted to talk.

I have to confess, the urge to leap across the desk and throttle the bastard was often extremely difficult to resist.
In the end, anyone actually hired through HR will be incompetent at best. In my profession—television news and writing—everyone knows that undergraduate Journalism is a pretty lame major and that Communications is what football players and beauty pageant contestants take. Hey, it was easy money for colleges and universities after Woodward and Bernstein made reporting sexy—it’s not like medicine or science where you have to buy all those expensive machines, a college would just take the old Speech Department, hire a burnout from some newspaper (there are always a good supply of us—I mean, them) and go to town.

I once had a kid apply who had taken a year-long course in Non-Verbal Communication. I asked what the final exam was like and she shrugged.

That’s writing and stuff, you say, but what about the hard sciences, engineering, and computer coding? Isn’t HR picking the best and the brightest for those fields?

Uh, no.

First, as I’ve said, since the HR person couldn’t have passed any one of those courses with a Cliff’s Notes, a tutor, and a book with all the answers, he or she has no clue who would be qualified. What’s really troubling is how they reject the most qualified.

Who do you want working for you? Someone who has a broad range of experience, perhaps some time trying to run a startup, or time spent looking into other industries for disruptive technology (love that meaningless term). Or would you prefer a candidate who only took a single set of courses in school, only had job experience in that one field, and had never thought outside a box in his or her little life?

Well, you would pick the first candidate but I’ll guarantee you that the HR Department will only send you the second. Complexity disturbs them; they worry if a candidate has run their own company or if a code monkey has gotten certified as a network engineer. It makes them nervous because it can’t be quantified and checked off on their endless list of qualifications

Yes, I notice this because no one in HR has EVER passed my resume through in 35 years because I’ve done too many things. I lost a job a while ago because the title was Foreign Desk Editor and, although I’d done the same work for years, I’d never had that exact title. Then they said I talked too much—I was trying to explain how I’d worked with international reporters for years and was completely qualified but that takes fast-talking.

So here is the sad reality of America’s future.

Since HR professionals are buried in every company that survived the recession like the Soviet sleeper agents you see on The Americans, they either haven’t hired anyone new at all and simply shoved more work on fewer people or they’ve gone out and found copies of themselves.

The really smart graduates either start a company and don’t graduate at all, they head for the gold fields of finance where they are guaranteed to pick up loose millions tending to the whims of the wealthy, or they lose all self-respect and apply to Law School.

The companies that will make up the economy after the recession will be composed of true “human resources”—replaceable golems who have superb skills in office politics and no ability to identify and conquer whatever problems will actually make the company succeed. With the growing bubble in school loans (and you don’t think that bubble will burst? I’ll bet you bought a house in the 1990s), smart, educated graduates will become few and far between and American companies will be reduced to producing Model T’s while the rest of the world builds Teslas. (Or Teslas that work, anyway).

But don’t worry about it.

There is one job that HR professionals are really really good at. Firing people. Downsizing until there is no one left but those essential folks in the HR department where they spend their time watching each other’s PowerPoints about sine waves.

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Terry Irving
Terry Irving is an American four-time Emmy award-winning writer and producer. He has won three Peabody Awards, three DuPont Awards and has been a producer, editor or writer with ABC, CNN, Fox and MSNBC. He was in Washington DC in 1973 for a few weeks until deciding on career where he ended up riding a classic BMW R50/2 for ABC News during Watergate. Carrying that news film was the beginning of a 40-year long career that has included producing Emmy Award-winning television news, writing everything from magazine articles to standup comedy and developing many of the earliest forms of online media. Follow Terry on Twitter @TerryIrving; On Facebook or at his website