The G-men of HR are those who do G-jobs in HR. What are G-jobs? Peep at the title of the book referenced in the first note. Why not go with the B-job nomenclature? Because we wouldn’t like to settle for the alimentation of an alien animal when we can access a solid, indigenous and familiar ingredient from our own country.
A wizened ex-CEO of my acquaintance once teased me. "We never had so many people floating around in the Personnel Department in my time, Banaji". With a malicious gleam in his eye, he continued: "It’s no wonder employees, in general, consider HR lazy. I think that’s unfair. In the whole company, HR people work the hardest – at doing nothing!" Irritated as I was, I began to see how HR could be bringing such ridicule on itself: we do have more than our fair share of G-jobs and we seem intent on widening our lead. This column will look at the causes, consequences and cures for G-jobs in HR.
David Graeber wrote the book (literally) on 'Bullshit Jobs'1. Our base premise for G-jobs in HR will not depend on the broad socio-economic trends and the state of capitalism that Graeber uses but there are several valuable pointers we can gain from his seminal work.
Let’s start with a Working Definition: "A [G-job] is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though … the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case." All quotes in this section (unless separately referenced) are from Graeber’s book mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Graeber’s focus, of course, is not limited to HR but some of his observations could’ve been tailored for us. Take, for, example HR’s perceived immunity from downsizing. "When managers began trying to come up with scientific studies of the most time- and energy-efficient ways to deploy human labour, they never applied those same techniques to themselves – or if they did, the effect appears to have been the opposite of what they intended. As a result, the same period that saw the most ruthless application of speed-ups and downsizing in the blue-collar sector also brought a rapid multiplication of meaningless managerial and administrative posts in almost all large firms."
The book contains an amusing, though no less telling for that, typology of G-jobs:
- Flunky jobs or 'feudal retainers' exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important.
- Goon jobs are G-jobs with an aggressive or threatening element to them. They come closest to the characters of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with its attendant dystopian consequences. 2
- Duct tape jobs are there to patch up a glitch or fault in the system or organisation that ought not to have existed in the first place.
- Box-ticking jobs exist to allow an organisation to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing.
- Taskmaster jobs fall into two subcategories. Type 1 consists of unnecessary supervisors who only assign work to others that people could otherwise have allocated between themselves. While Type 1 taskmasters are merely useless, Type 2 taskmasters do actual harm. These are taskmasters whose primary role is to create G-tasks for others to do or even to create entirely new G-jobs.
- Imaginary friend jobs are intended "ostensibly to humanize an inhuman corporate environment but who, in fact, mainly force people to go through elaborate games of make-believe. … in office environments where everyone would probably be happier just being left alone."
- Flak-catching jobs are created to be "at the receiving end of often legitimate complaints but who are given that role precisely because they have absolutely no authority to do anything about them."
- Second-order bullshit jobs are not pointless "in and of themselves, but which are ultimately pointless because they are performed in support of a pointless enterprise."
A taxonomy worth remembering as we look more closely at G-jobs in HR.
Causes and costs of G-job concentrations in HR
Why does HR possess the lion’s (or at least cattle’s) share of G-jobs in most organisations? The root cause enabling G-men to flourish in HR is the impossibility (or cost-ineffectiveness) of non-vicarious measures of the core results expected from the function. Additionally, there are some other ways the G-concoction gets concentrated to make HR go from Good to G-rate.
Several HR leaders have high power needs that make them inveterate empire builders. These empires have to be evidenced by a growing number of HR factotums floating around and fattening their teams. Only Parkinsonian work can be created to fill that excess capacity – which is a more elegant, if somewhat antiquated, way of saying G-work rushes in where R-work (Real work) is too scarce to tread.
All G-work that fills vacuums is, of course, not time-passingly harmless. A contra instance is when a CEO expects HR to play the role of the 'heavy'. Several CHROs don’t rise to the bait but, those that do, pair with the CEO to carry two out of Greene’s '48 Laws of Power'.3 The CEO can keep his hands clean (Law 26) while his HR collaborator poses as a friend to peers while acting as a spy (Law 14). Another column has dealt in some detail with a few less obvious facets of office politics.4 For our present purpose, it only suffices to note that gangsterism added to a G-job makes it poisonous without reducing its essential uselessness.
Less lethal G-jobs multiply when HR becomes the locus of stone age systems trying to cajole patch-work processes to work. Huge amounts of G-work plaster are needed to keep such Rube Goldberg HR systems from falling apart. A particularly pointless G-activity is the attempt to inspect the quality of HR work instead of designing a self-correcting system from the ground up using the latest technology and methods. Then there are the ethically questionable G-roles for 'managing' the authorities because non-compliances and safety hazards haven’t been eliminated. IR jobs are notorious for getting filled with G-work arising from handling chronic grievances because others (e.g. timekeeping and payroll) give the lowest priority to automating or replacing systems that cause employee unhappiness.
One of the reasons even negligible investment needed for HR systems gets shoved into the postponable category, year after year, is that it’s not exciting to talk about at the convention, conference or cocktail circuit. On the other hand, creating a dedicated diversity or ethics position literally overflows with conversation potential. In some organisations, such roles are truly valued and valuable. On the other hand, if they sprout up just to match with the Jainses company next door, they are likely to be G-manured and G-filled G-generators.
Trophy (and other) G-jobs create ripples of G-activity in all directions. Possibly the most lethal of these are unending swarms of 'spartoi'5 demanded by CEO / CHRO pet projects that become talent graveyards (see below). A less egregious, though equally wasteful, the ripple effect is G-training (whether manned in-house or outsourced) that incurs huge costs for ephemeral benefits. An earlier column details some of the more glaring G-training practices.6
Pride of G-sweepstakes place must surely go to the HR G-roles who organize outings and entertainment (replete with sports celebrities or movie stars) under the fond hope that a year full of employee mistreatment 'paap' can be washed clean by the annual award-night 'hajj'. These are the equivalent of the spectacles staged by shaky Roman emperors to keep the population of the city content. 7
Far greater in proportion and much less pleasant in execution are those HR G-jobs that have to face unfriendly employee fire on a day-to-day basis. Whether the policy causing fury was taken past them or whether it was implemented despite their objections makes no difference. HR Business Partners facing irate managers and employees over policies they had no hand in crafting become G-fodder. There is no extra charge for the ulcers they acquire along the way.
Some of the best HR talents is spared the withering fire that meets G-roles on the front lines. However, they don’t get off entirely G-free. If they are spotted as prize HR talent, they may get allocated to special initiatives the CEO and CHRO are pushing at the time. Such high-stake work has been the making of many an HR leader. However, should the project turn out to be ill-conceived fluff, regardless of the potential of the persons allotted and the high profile of the task, in the ultimate analysis, it will just add G-work? High-quality people cannot save strategically flawed or badly planned missions from failing or themselves from becoming G-men in the process. A more frequent and insidious way in which entire G-sections are created in HR departments is through the over-engineering of the function.
As Clayton Christensen pointed out, the temptation to offer more and more sophisticated products for which the customer no longer sees the utility at the price that complexity costs, spells doom.8 A previous column provided one way in which frugal HR can mitigate this problem.9 Till an organisation takes such ice-cold shrinkage baths, however, the ranks of its HR are likely to continue bursting with G-men of high competence and sincerity, delivering G-products that are of little interest to their internal customers.
The perceptive reader will have noticed that, though Graeber’s treatise was written without HR specifically in focus, every one of his B-job classifications finds a parallel G-job type in HR. The correspondence goes a long way to explaining why HR tends to be the G-job torchbearer in many organisations.
Making HR G-free
Attractive as I find Graeber’s UBI-linked global solutions, they are neither possible nor necessary for cleaning the G-ills of HR. The ideas given below may also not benefit all HR departments. The best CHROs never permit G-jobs to be created or continued. On the other hand, there are those who positively revel in imagining and installing more and more G-jobs. This section is useless for both of these categories. Perhaps those who want to launch a G-cleanup (after succeeding as a G-creator) will benefit the most from these suggestions.
A fresh incumbent CHRO (whether internally chosen or an external recruit) usually gets an opportunity to review and recast the results and resources of the entire HR organisation only once in her or his tenure and that can’t be to be too long after assuming charge. To get into the right frame of mind for this task it would be useful to re-read the Hammer blow delivered decades back in 'Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate.'10 As Hammer puts it: "It is time to stop paving the cow paths. Instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over." This is the time to identify (even if elimination takes place in a phased manner) HR initiatives, activities and roles that are to be consigned to Davy Jones' Locker (DJL).
One simple way to find G-jobs is to look for sections and roles that are not making a direct contribution to enhancing aggregate employee happiness11 either through the Design of jobs12, their Durability or the Development of people in present/future job competencies. The further jobs get from this reliable foundation, the likelier they are to be G-fluffed and become candidates for elimination. In addition, a minimal number of jobs contributing to governance and control may also need to be retained.
An even simpler G-task sniffer is to ask the HR staff themselves after briefing them about the characteristics of G-jobs. Apart from the direct contribution HR, people make to the business (e.g. recruitment), they should have at least half their KRAs dedicated to Championing, Contacting / Communicating with employees and Creating innovative solutions to benefit employees or the business. The rest are likely to be GRAs and should be given one-way DJL tickets. People can be surprisingly frank about the G-work in their portfolios if they are assured they will be retained and given alternative work that utilizes their talents.
A far more radical way to conduct a G-elimination exercise would be to subject major HR initiatives and activities to the 'agnipariksha' of an employee referendum. In its full form, this would require a level of corporate democracy that few organisations have attained. For the time being, a few supplementary questions in the periodic engagement survey should raise sufficient danger signals for a perceptive CHRO to action.
Can individuals escape From Their G-aram hell?
Unfortunately, the G-problem does not give much scope for non-systemic solutions. If the CHRO is a G-creating type, the chances of avoiding a GRA-filled department are limited. A watchful CEO and a vigilant, HR-involved Board can contain the Samson weapon wielded by such CHROs. Beyond a point, however, only by putting the CHRO to pasture can more G-waste be prevented. In the meantime, prudent G-mired individuals can only request transfers to happiness creating jobs of the kind mentioned in the previous section. Bolder spirits, who demand an end to all G-waste in HR are likely to meet the fate Cohen sings about:
They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within.13
Perhaps the brave will have better luck in Manhattan or Berlin.
1) David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work, and What We Can Do About It, Penguin; 2019.
2) Randy Hodson, Vincent J Roscigno, Andrew Martin and Steven H Lopez, The ascension of Kafkaesque bureaucracy in private sector organizations, Human Relations, September 2013.
3) Robert Greene, The 48 Laws Of Power (The Modern Machiavellian), Profile Books, 2000.
4) Visty Banaji, The Dogs of (Office) War, People Matters, People Matters, 25 February 2022, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/the-road-less-travelled-32878).
5) Stephen Fry, Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, Penguin, 2018.
6) Visty Banaji, Draining the (training) swamp, People Matters, 24 August 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/draining-the-training-swamp-26744).
7) Juvenal (Trans A S Kline), Satires, X, 81, Poetry in Translation, 2011.
8) Clayton Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Harvard Business Review Press; 1997.
9) Visty Banaji, Minimal HR for maximal effect, People Matters, 12 January 2017, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/minimal-hr-for-maximal-effect-14817).
10) Michael Hammer, Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate, Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1990.
11) Visty Banaji, HR’s business should be happiness raising, People Matters, 24 September 2019, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/culture/hrs-business-should-be-happiness-raising-23175?media_type=article&subcat=life-at-work&title=hrs-business-should-be-happiness-raising&id=23175).
12) Visty Banaji, ‘If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do’, People Matters, 24 June 2021, (https://www.peoplematters.in/blog/life-at-work/if-you-want-people-to-do-a-good-job-give-them-a-good-job-to-do-29771).
13) Leonard Cohen, First We Take Manhattan, Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1988.