I’m a fan of Scott Adams’ ‘Dilbert’ cartoons and I particularly like his view of HR people. One quotation goes something like ‘I hired a new director of Human Resources to handle the downsizing. I needed somebody who acts like a friend but secretly delights in the misery of all people.’ I know people regard the transformation of personnel departments in the 1980s into Human Resources departments regard this as a metaphor for a shift from paternalistic employers of the post-war corporatist era into Thatcherite sweatshops that regard humans as machines (or resources). All the while the managers (and HR people) proclaimed ‘people are our greatest asset’ (until they don’t want them when they become an expensive liability). I liked the Dilbert cartoon where the pointy-haired boss suddenly admitted that people weren’t the company’s greatest asset — they were sixth. When asked what was above people, he revealed it was carbon paper.
I guess most HR people go into the career with the best of motives but they must get pretty brutalised by the calls on them made by many managers. At the top level they are often drawn into highly secret board level plans to take an axe to the workforce (and to advise how to do it as cheaply and quickly as possible while remaining within the law) but at a lower level they will have to work to expedite the petty vindictive feuds of bad managers who decide to persecute someone they don’t like. In this case they’re between a rock and a hard place — incur the wrath of the manager if they don’t sack someone or join in with the bullying. No wonder they’re so keen to try and do the nice, fluffy things like dreaming up company-wide motivation programmes where employees (usually managers) are sent away to hotels for interminable Power Point presentations, after which they are given the opportunity to either drink themselves stupid in the free bar or engage in casual sex with each other (or both).
I think my somewhat cynical view of the typical relationship between employer and employee — or between the serfs and global capital — is showing through here! (This is a view, by the way, that has been confirmed by having done an MBA ). However, it’s allÂ great stuff for a character in a novel. Emma will work in HR and the requirement for her to go and stay over to organise these shindigs in country house hotels will allow a bit of freedom for James and may also give her an opportunity to get a bit of revenge in kind for what she suspects (wrongly, at least at first) her husband is up to with Kim.
I was able to give Emma a bit of thought as I happened to attend a workshop run by The Corporate Infrastructure Forum on ‘Involving the Business In IT’ (something that IT people, generally being more sensitive and reflective souls than other professions like accountants or lawyers or HR people, often sit around navel gazing about: ‘Why does no-one love us?’) This started with a presentation by a chirpy researcher (with a PhD) who’d been working on a project called ‘Sustainable Organisational Performance: What Really Makes the Difference’ for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which is the professional organisation that any self-respecting HR person belongs to (Emma will, of course). It’s all very admirable stuff, which will probably come as a revelation to many managers, about how happy and motivated employees will tend to work harder and so their employers will have consequently better businesses — aligning objectives, balancing short and long-term objectives, concentrating on the employees’ ‘locus of engagement’.
While the presenter didn’t look particularly how I imagine Emma, it gave me quite an opportunity to pick up on the vocabulary of the field, current thinking, even things like how she would use her hands to make points quite empathetically, as the speaker did. Overall, despite her faults, Emma will be professional, conscientious and good at her job — even if does involve delighting in all human misery. I had another thought, which I must add was entirely unrelated to the woman making the presentation, that Emma may have a fondness for having sex in public places — which will be good for a plot device and I think she’ll also be quite voracious. Also, it may help James introduce Kim (and the reader) to the geography of the village and its locality — I’m thinking of places like stone circles or iron age hill forts as Emma will also have a bit of a new-age side to her and like to tap into the energy of these places.