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Has HR become Big Brother?

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger
Like Big Brother, in some US companies,  HR is always watching, always on the lookout for transgressions,  always seeking to control behaviour, often seeing what isn’t there but some out failing to notice the obvious injustices. The workplace is under constant surveillance and HR are the thought police on the lookout for inappropriate language and behaviour. Say the wrong thing and you could find yourself on an unconscious bias course or racial awareness training.
In the US popular t.v. shows often illustrate life in corporate America and a particular episode of The Good Fight came to mind as it illustrated this idea of HR as Big Brother.
The Good Fight is on Netflix and the series is set in a law firm. What’s different  about it is its topical ,political ( US politics ) and likes to confront ethical issues head on. In the new series the small African American Chicago based law firm that made its name by taking on cases of police brutally and its money by representing a small number of wealthy, if controversial, clients has been taken over by a very big national firm. Whilst this has saved the small firm from possible bankruptcy there is a feeling the take over was motivated by a desire to improve the national organisation’s image by getting more black faces on the corporate photo opportunities.

In one episode the main story illustrates the role of HR, corporate America HR. In a large staff meeting in the Chicago offices of the small firm the head of the firm told a story to illustrate the type of racist language which was considered acceptable not so long ago. He quoted the politician’s exact words which involved the use of the N word. At the time this did not appear to have upset or offended any of those present. However shortly afterwards we switch to a scene where a white women is interrogating a black member of staff across a table like one of those police dramas whilst two of her colleagues sit behind her taking notes. They are HR and they are investigating a complaint about the use of the N word by a senior manager. “Were  you present at the meeting”? “ Dld you hear the N word being used?” , “ Who said it?”, “How many times ? “ , “ Have you heard him use this word before?” And then to another member of staff,” anything you tell us is confidential, it won’t get back to the person.” We view  several interviews all come across as intimidating. Several interviewees say they took no offence and the word needs to be seen in context. HR are having none of it. The corporate policy is clear the work environment must be free from racism and racist language. The N word is not tolerated.

Shortly afterwards we see the whole staff group , with the exception of the senior managers,  participating in an awareness and sensitivity session run by HR. This  session involves being shown a number of work scenarios involving black staff and being asked rhetorical questions. “Do you think the person of colour in this scenario would feel uncomfortable?” Senior managers undertake the same sensitivity and awareness training but on their lap tops through a multiple question and answer program.

Clearly the shows producers are making a point about how some large organisations attempt to give the illusion of diversity and commitment to equality. However what struck me most powerfully was the way HR professionals were portrayed as intimidating bureaucrats, zealots  rigidly applying a policy in such away as to alienated staff, using compulsory “re education” sessions and the absurdity of a white trainer “ helping “ African Americans understand what it feels like to be black in the workplace.

This was such an exaggerated caricature of HR professionals that I couldn’t imagine viewers would see it as in any way like reality. And then I thought about all the times I have heard complaints about  political correctness, compulsory equality and diversity training, employees saying they are afraid to say what they thinking in case  they use the “wrong words” and references to the role of HR in policing E&D polices and I realised this was exactly how HR is viewed in some organisations in the UK.

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