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HR and the ‘Art of Oppression’

“It is generally the case with figures of authority that when the masses start laughing at you, you are through.”

Those in positions of authority, including HR pros, would do well to remember this quote. It comes from an article in the Economist discussing recent developments in language policy and enforcement in the Canadian province of Quebec. For those of you who are not Canadian, allow me to briefly contextualize:

Quebec, a French colony that was subsequently conquered by the English (thus being included as part of Canada’s confederation), has grown increasingly resolute in their efforts to protect the French language’s prevalence and usage within their province. Recently, an Italian restaurant owner in Montreal revealed that the office responsible for enforcing French language policy in Quebec-  l’Office québécois de la langue française – had sent him a letter demanding that he change his menu to replace Italian words like ‘pasta’ with French ones. The media has had a bit of a field day with this, and dug up a few more ‘extreme’ examples of this type of highly enthusiastic application of authority, leading the Minister in charge of this enforcement to resign.

 HR’s Heavy Hand

The quote reminded me of a surreal story I’d recently heard from a friend, who related that his sweet tooth was often stymied by the overly vigilant Health & Safety committee in his (exceptionally safe) office. Apparently, they had issued strong objections to the bowl of M&M’s he typically has on his desk, since the candies are not individually wrapped, presenting a hygiene concern. No, a spoon will not do. The candies must go. Sad face…I love that when I told him I wanted to include his story in a blog post he sent me this picture:


Hilarious, right? Except that it’s not. It’s an (admittedly extreme) example of an affliction common to the HR profession that has serious consequences for our organizations. HR people – it’s time for us to own up to this problem. Say it with me: ‘Hello, my name is HR, and I’m an enforcement addict.’

The ‘Art of Oppression’

A recent article on presented me with the perfect term for this unfortunate predilection: it quotes Bruce Poon Tip, founder of a Toronto-based adventure-travel company, who has done away with his 1.500 employee company’s HR department, saying that it seemed like nothing more than the ‘art of oppression’.

I know that you’ve seen this type of over-vigilant policy enforcement before. I have…heck, I’ve even been party to it at times. But why does this happen? I know that many of us would like to think that we’re often unwillingly asked to play the heavy in our organizations:

“HR said no.”

“I would, but HR won’t let me.”

It’s like the ‘fun’ parent saying “I’d totally let you get a puppy and take it jet-skiing in Guatemala, but you know how your father is…”

But honestly, this situation can’t really become standard operating procedure without our permission (whether it’s explicit or not), and unfortunately many of us HR folks seem perfectly happy to give it. Yes, there are many organizations in which managers are only too happy to foist ‘policy enforcement’ onto HR. But there are also many organizations in which HR is an enthusiastic participant in the enforcement game. In fact, it’s not uncommon to come across HR folks who are gleefully evangelical about dishing out ‘No’s’. Is it a reaction to the ambiguity inherent in much of our other work, a misguided effort to feel powerful and purposeful within our org’s, or is it part of HR’s deeper identity?

They’re All Laughing At You…

I’m not sure if any of these explanations apply, but I know that I don’t like this story line. Are there laws we need to follow as individuals and organizations? Yes, of course. Is compliance always going to figure into HR’s repertoire? Probably. But I’m so sick of hearing about HR’s role as ‘enabler, advisor, partner’ while so many employee’s experience of HR is as the ‘profession of no’. Being responsible for compliance with employment legislation is a serious responsibility to bear, but it should not result in a clenched fist instead of an open hand, or a focus on enforcement above common sense. And if it does, you can be sure that they’re all laughing at you…

Image credit: D. Sharon Pruitt via Flickr Creative Commons

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane, great post. I have been fortunate to grow up in HR departments that did a pretty good job of placing the responsibility for saying yes or no on the operational management. When I stepped into healthcare, it blew my mind how HR so willingly accepted the role of enforcer, all in the name of “patient safety”. The M&M bowl is such a perfect example and indicative of how HR handled all issues…you can’t do it because it isn’t safe for the patient morphed into plain ole “you can’t do it”.

    Having come from an HR team that at least tried to fend off that role, I was shocked at how this HR team had allowed themselves to be laughed at, and didn’t even realize it was happening. A perfect example – at a town hall meeting, the managers present complained to the CEO that they couldn’t do what the CEO was asking – get the right people on the bus (or more aptly, the wrong people off the bus) because HR wouldn’t let them. Okay – yes this is a standard HR dilemma but this HR team met to brainstorm how to respond to these complaints by determining that the men in the department should be required to wear coat and tie, because they would look more professional and therefore be more credible. A couple of us who tried to go back to the issue – managers who felt unempowered and didn’t know why – were waived off as the rest patted themselves on the back and left to tell “the men”.

    I’m not there anymore….

    April 15, 2013
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