Let the Devil Wear Black - Memoirs of an analyst

James F. Linden - Writer ...
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The Infallibility of Personnel Managers: Cognitive Bias? Personality Disorder?

Chapter 9

A personnel manager is normally thought of as the person who chooses you — or somebody else — to do a particular job and largely, that is what they do. They are the company’s personnel–firewall — a potential employee’s first point of contact. However, there is another side to what they do — they are also responsible for getting rid of people.

The employee — encounter of the first kind — getting in...

We first encounter any particular personnel manager when we apply for a job and as a result, largely of what we did to get that job, we hold them with, or certainly display, a certain amount of respect. We dress smartly for them; we are polite to them; we do as we are told and we jump through any number of arbitrary hoops in order to gain valuable employment from them.

In the personnel manager’s universe, they are the creator of people’s worlds.

So, we have been successful in getting the job and assuming that there was at least a minimum of other applicants for there to be some competition, we have been picked out from the rest because those that don’t jump through those hoops wouldn’t have got the job no matter how well qualified for it they were.

In short, we have to be good at two things in order to get the job — in descending order of importance:

  1. being subservient to the personnel manager; and,
  2. being the right person for the job.

This filtering process has a profound effect — one of unnatural selection amongst the employee population. You end up with a situation where the people who are employed by the company are all those who learned how to be subservient to the personnel manager.

Looking at it from the other side of the desk, the personnel manager can get you to do anything and if that job is important enough to you, you will always comply. I once heard that one question asked to job applicants was; ‘If you were an island, what song would you sing?’

The personnel manager is respected automatically by people who have gained useful, valuable employment.

The employee — encounter of the second kind — trying not to get out...

Normally, you would eventually find a job with another company or simply retire, without ever encountering the personnel department again — unless your new job was within the company, of course. However, there is a dark side.

Sometimes, people do things that are outside the range of acceptable behaviour for the company and they need to be straightened out about it, or if that isn’t going to work, got rid of.

In the personnel manager’s universe, they are the destroyer of people’s worlds.

That, of course, is assuming that they actually did it. That is assuming that it actually happened. This is when you might have your encounter of the second kind.

If things go as they should in any reasonable system, facts need to be established and then, if something did happen and they have the correct person, they need appropriate action taking against them.

One thing that does happen is that someone who has never had this happen to them before, is taken out of their normal working environment and suspended with the threat of being sacked if they communicate with any of the people that they see at work. All of this coming from the personnel manager makes it very frightening because the consequences are potentially so catastrophic.

Employees become automatically compliant under the fear of losing their income and reputation thus their house and their friends. In an instant, they they have been isolated; and under duress, are compelled to behave in a way that precludes being able to defend themselves in any useful manner.

Normally — one would like to assume, although the more I hear about these things, the more the assumption is called into question — the correct decision is eventually taken following a proper investigation and some form of appropriate, proportional corrective action is taken.

In addition, something about the decision is written down to explain it all to those who weren’t there. Being written on company paper by the person with whom all of this preconditioned respect is focussed upon, these decisions are usually taken as read — again, normally, you would assume that things have been done correctly and justly.

So, the perpetrator has done wrong and has been punished. It is official. Everything written down is believed, automatically, by an overly credulous readership. Everybody believes in British Justice and this is British and everybody accepts it as justice so it must be right. Right?

Thus, the personnel manager can do no wrong — he is infallible.

Whilst good, honest people do the personnel manager’s job, all can be trusted — largely. However, not everybody is equal. At any given time, there will be managers drifting in and out of jobs, none spending any particularly longer time in them than any other.

There will be some people who will stick with a job that they find comfy — a job that gives them what they need, a job where the required environment for their personality traits matches up with what the role offers them. Once they are there, they are likely to defend their position and it will be difficult to remove them — if anybody realises that there is anything wrong in the first place, that is.

Attracted personality–type...

On one occasion, in an A–level physics class, I was sitting on a stool in one of the physics laboratories, waiting for our teacher to come back into the class so that we could carry on with the lesson. He was standing just outside the door, having a conversation with the deputy headmaster. The kid sitting next to me — let’s call him ‘Michael’ — suddenly jabbed me really hard in the leg with a sharp pencil.

“Ouch!” I said.

“Shush,” he hissed back, adding, “Be quiet or you’ll get me into trouble.”

At the time, I was astounded by this behaviour , however, this is typical of the distorted mindset of a bully.

This cognitive bias endorses an act of causing pain, or ‘punishment,’ to a selected victim in order to suppress the bully’s low self–esteem. Subconsciously, the bully knows that if the victim draws unwanted attention to the act, the anticipated consequences will lower their self–esteem even more. Thus a greater punishment, or at least the threat of such, is automatically endorsed in an attempt to suppress the potential consequences of the first act. Thus, over time, it escalates.

The strength of this strategy is the victim’s willingness to keep quiet with reinforcement necessitating only fear of worse pain.

So, regardless of the personality of the personnel manager, the job provides an environment where:

  • employees are unquestioningly subservient;
  • employees are compliant when under duress; and
  • credulity about anything that is written down is automatic for those who weren’t there.

The personnel manager has absolute power.

The bully feels most comfortable in an environment where:

  • there is unquestioning subservience;
  • people are compliant when under duress; and
  • anything said becomes the accepted version of what happened.

The icing on the cake is that the human resources director is placed in a position where they are able to create people’s worlds by rewarding them with valuable employment, thus raising their self–esteem — bullies are humans as well.

However, in order to get to such a position of authority, they have had to control people’s reactions and effectively control how they express their thoughts as well.

In their other role, they are able to destroy people’s worlds and, by having absolute power, they have the means and the opportunity to behave both capriciously and vindictively — bullies have the motive as well. In addition, they are able to do other managers ‘favours’ if they so wish and nobody else within the company is in a position to question anything. By extending the human resources department’s remit in that way, they are also extending their control over other areas of the business thus protecting themselves further.

In short, they control both the mind and matter of everybody in their universe, they are both the creator and the destroyer of all worlds — they are the supreme being.

aitadyoneni bhootatahni sarvahneetyupadhahraya
aham kritsnasya jagatah prabhavah pralyastathah.
Beware that all beings are manifestations of these two energies of Mine -
I am both the creator and the destroyer of all worlds.
Shri Krishna in the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita - Chapter 7 Verse 6.

Have a bully as the personnel manager and they will soon realise that they are god.

It is very easy to see how somebody with the correct personality–type could fit into a role that provided themselves with a comfortable environment and how they would be reluctant to move away from such a job.

The cure for this is to make sure that people in such roles are never in them for too long. Rotate your managers’ jobs so that at regular intervals, they get to have a different job at their level of seniority.

It is necessarily in the fundamental, escalating nature of these things that complacency becomes complicity.

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