When I started my career in HR, the function was still shaking off its Personnel and IR parentage. We felt we were embarked on a mission to create a totally new way to lead people and manage organizations. Though somewhat moderated by reality, my rose-tinted view continued for a while more till it gradually dawned on me that there were some tyrannical HR Heads who, day after day, were knocking the enthusiasm and spirit out of large swathes of the workforce. I then realized that if we look at HR from the outside in, it is not always the fairytale castle we imagine, with us as knights in shining armor. To ordinary employees in several organizations, the HR domain seemed like a dragon’s lair and Smaug was the least pejorative epithet they could direct at its senior-most occupant.
So the Asterisk in the sub-title of this column is not to be confused with the creation of Goscinny and Uderzo. It is just a gentler way of referring to the terminology popularized by Robert Sutton.1 Of course, only a small minority of HR Heads is Asterisks. This column provides an Asterisk classification for identifying these with the hope that it prevents at least a few present and potential HR leaders from moving in that direction. If some of the descriptions sound harsh to the point of being vengeful, that should only add to the deterrence value2 of the message I am trying to convey to HR jerks, who have brought misery to so many employees and disrepute to the profession.
Before we start the taxonomy properly, it may be useful to share what I mean by an Asterisk. The hallmark of an Asterisk is that s/he leaves subordinates, peers and most people with whom s/he interacts "feeling oppressed, demeaned, disrespected or de-energized"3. In the case of an HR Head, the engagement levels of the entire management team and of all employees can get pulverized by Asterisk antics in a remarkably short time. Not many engagement surveys are designed to identify this engagement eliminator but nothing else can explain the huge improvement in scores that occur sometimes when just an HR Head is changed.
The Duplicitous Dodger Asterisk (DD*)
The DD* could also stand for the Delayed Detonation Asterisk. S/he doesn’t make the employee feel bad when the false claim or promise is being made. It is only when the person discovers that s/he has been cheated that the feeling of outrage and hurt sets in. And because HR still holds an image in people’s minds as an honest broker between the organization and themselves, the sense of betrayal is even greater.
If an HR Head is only going to amplify and implement the CEO’s views and suggestions, some of them are bound to lead to employee disaffection, legal transgressions or worse
Most HR Heads who fib, do it out of compulsion rather than by choice. My message to them is: when the temptation to close the deal with a star candidate the CEO wants badly or to get that cribbing manager out of your room gets too high, resist it. Nothing can be more lethal to an HR professional than the loss of credibility. It is 80 percent of our stock-in-trade. And your reputation as a glib and duplicitous talker will follow you, no matter how many jobs you change. I recently came across a commencement address Robert Mueller delivered back in 2013. This extract from it needs to be memorized and recalled by every HR manager when the desire to pull a fast one arises: "You are only as good as your word. You can be smart, aggressive, articulate, and indeed persuasive, but if you are not honest, your reputation will suffer, and once lost, a good reputation can never be regained."4
There is, however, a far more virulent strain of the DD* than the Teach-the-Horse-to-Fly variant, so wonderfully recaptured by Paulo Coelho5. The more dangerous version is the type who bluffs, not just to defer the day of reckoning, but adds a huge measure of deceit, scheming and manipulation6 so as to pursue an agenda of personal advancement or (more rarely) functional one-upmanship. I am not going to pretend that a degree of political nous is unimportant for an HR leader. The question is whether it is minimally exercised so as to be aware of threats and to progress organizationally agreed goals or it becomes the core competency of the HR Head and is directed towards selfish ends. The latter choice can vitiate the entire atmosphere of the organization, with cabals forming under (and sometimes against) the CEO that tear teamwork to tatters. Once again, individual employees may not realize it when they are being used or may even accept that there are occasions when organizational life demands they be merely 'means'7. However, the realization of having been a pawn or victim inevitably dawns and the anger and mistrust directed at the politicking HR head tars seven generations of successors with the same brush.
The Cuckoo-of-Passage Asterisk (CoP*)
In February this year, an article in the business press spoke with little-concealed admiration about HR Heads with short tenures and quoted several 'experts' who attributed the phenomenon to the rising demand for top-notch HR leaders.8 I am afraid that’s a very partial view of the musical chairs games HR people play.
In the first place, several of the HR Heads who have swollen the count of new-job-takers have actually been shown the door from their previous ones. Frequently, it is when the accumulated bluffs of DD*s catch up with them that they become CoP*s. Even where the change is a genuine progression, short tenures negatively impact the effectiveness of HR leaders. After all, the stock of goodwill and credibility HR Heads accumulate with their CEOs, business partners, and employees, in general, takes years to build. Precisely because people have burnt their fingers (and, sometimes, their careers) with the BS dished out to them by DD*s, they wait for the promises and claims made by HR Heads to turn into reality before they bestow their trust. When HR Heads jump ship, the trust counter is reset to zero and the arduous task of reacquiring it in a new environment must start from scratch before any results can be delivered.
In their eagerness to be business partners, HR leaders sometimes forget that they are also the guardians of the company’s values and its legal responsibilities relating to people along with its employees
Neither of these criticisms makes birds-of-passage HR heads fully qualified jerks. Their entry into the Asterisk roll call of honor is assured only by what they do as cuckoos inside the host organization’s nest. In their brief time with corporates, the CoP*s wreak havoc on the organization’s morale, culture and unique processes, sometimes built over decades. A CHRO I know very closely had the heartbreak of seeing some of the most beneficial and pioneering processes he had set up being first discredited and then dismantled by one of the CoP*s who succeeded him. The successor’s disastrous impact on morale is best captured by some 'verbatims' from a WhatsApp group of alumni from that organization:
"…. all come in with double or triple salaries at the expense of homegrown talent. They have no loyalty to the organization and leave within two years after killing the internal talent and ruining the company forever."
"… The logic of downgrading local talent by saying 'you did not go out because nobody wants you' started with our … HR head from [XYZ]. And that changed the DNA of the Org. Not respecting local talent and disregard to loyalty will drag this once great organization to an extreme low."
"According to the HR head who came from [XYZ] …, loyalty has no value. According to him, all those who spent their lifetime building this organization were people who were not wanted outside. Their contribution has no value."
There were many more posts in the same vein but not a single contra voice in the alumni group. How is that for Asterisking on a mass scale? Making an entire employee population feel unwanted, humiliated and de-energized? Will reading these heart-rending 'verbatims' make at least some of us take a vow not to belittle our new-found colleagues so viciously before we fly off to invade a new nest?
The Rigid Rulebook Asterisk (RR*)
"Because the HR department went on mechanically every day, keeping this wonderful, all-sufficient wheel of rules and regulations, ‘How not to do it’, in motion. Because the HR department was down upon any ill-advised manager who was going to do it, or who appeared to be by any surprising accident in remote danger of doing it, with an email, and a memorandum, and a letter of instructions that extinguished him." To what proportion of employees would this be an accurate description of their HR department? Half? Three-fourths? As you’ve already guessed, I am not the author of this passage. Bar the italicized words, which are my replacements, this is how Charles Dickens painted a bureaucratic department (the Circumlocution Office)9 160 years back.
Most HR Heads who fib, do it out of compulsion rather than by choice. But, nothing can be more lethal to an HR professional than the loss of credibility. It is 80 percent of our stock-in-trade
Thankfully, the Rule Nazi10 HR Head who gives birth to such an 'it can’t be done' atmosphere is a lot rarer now than was the case a few decades ago. I remember when I first took on a corporate HR Head role, there were three stalwarts reporting to me, all very upright and dedicated but firmly of the belief that the company rulebook had been brought down with the tablets of stone from Mount Sinai11. It took years of persuasion to persuade them that people policies are simply time-saving heuristics for speeding reaction times and empowering line managers to give relatively uniform responses. All policies eventually outlive their usefulness and the ideal situation would be what CK Prahlad termed as N = 112.
While there are just a few remnant RR*s scattered across the private sector landscape, there are at least three situations where RR*s can pack a sting that is lethal to employee engagement. In the first place, there are public sector units and Government departments (with some remarkable exceptions) where the function’s name may have been changed from Personnel to HR but it still stands for 'Hum Rukaengey'. Second come the situations, usually in SMEs and NGOs, when inexperienced HR Heads, usually with just administration experience, are allowed to exercise more than normal authority because the CEO too has little clue about HR. Third are the scenarios when an RR* reports to an old-school CEO who believes HR’s job is to deny benefits to employees, often with a view to making the CEO’s largesse in giving concessions all the more conspicuous. RR*s placed in this third type of situation frequently develop CEO glorification into a fine art and are then well on the way to becoming MA*s.
When HR Heads jump ship, the trust counter is reset to zero and the arduous task of reacquiring it in a new environment must start from scratch before any results can be delivered
The Master’s Amplifying Asterisk (MA*)
"Of course we can lay off the permanent workers in this section and replace them with contract employees, sir. In fact, we can do it for the whole shop and double the savings." This was the (reported) response a senior HR Head gave to his CEO’s almost hesitant suggestion about 'contractualizing' part of the company’s operations. Should some of the blame for the violence which overtook that unit not be laid at this CHRO’s door?
In their eagerness to be business partners, HR leaders sometimes forget that they are also the guardians of the company’s employees’ interests, its values and its legal responsibilities relating to people. If an HR Head is only going to amplify and implement the CEO’s views and suggestions, some of them are bound to lead to employee disaffection, legal transgressions or worse. While the originator of the Asterisk idea in these cases may be the CEO, by abdicating the HR Head’s role as an independent professional and willingly becoming spineless, s/he becomes a worthy recipient of the Asterisk suffix. The presence of an MA* turns particularly lethal for the fortunes of a company and of its employees when the pairing CEO is an expat or promoter scion whose lack of local experience or competence is combined with an overabundance of confidence.13
The Four HR-men of the Asterisk
Let’s do a quick recapitulation of the Asterisks we have uncovered. Their tongues provide the easiest means of distinguishing one species from another. The DD* speaks with a forked tongue and acquires power through deception and plotting. The CoP* wields a vicious tongue to destroy past legacies and intimidate less aggressive employees 14 for the short time s/he is in the organization. The RR* believes his tongue is reciting the gospel and, hence, is unchallengeable. The MA* possesses Nipper’s15 tongue, both for lapping up his master’s words and articulating his voice.
Why did I choose these four specifically out of the dozen or more garden varieties of HR Head Asterisks? Because they constitute the majority and are most susceptible to treatment if identified early enough. And this is important not because there are too many Asterisks in the HR community – fortunately, their number is small. But even one or two Asterisks are too many16 because they and the stories that circulate about them are responsible for the ridicule and distaste that HR professionals encounter in the corporate world17. As the Chinese say, HR doesn’t need "hài qún zh m" (a horse that brings trouble to its herd).
- Robert I. Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, Business Plus, 2007.
- Eric Jaffe, The Complicated Psychology of Revenge, Association for Psychological Science, Observer, October 2011.
- Robert I. Sutton, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt, Penguin UK, 2017.
- Robert S. Mueller, Prepared remarks for the 2013 William & Mary Commencement ceremony, 12 May 2013.
- Paulo Coelho, Teaching the horse to fly, 9 July 2007.
- Adrian Furnham, Steven C. Richards, and Delroy L. Paulhus, The Dark Triad of personality: A 10-year review, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Vol. 7(3):199, March 2013.
- Samuel Kerstein, Treating Others Merely As Means, Utilitas, Vol. 21, No. 2, June 2009.
- Saumya Bhattacharya and Sreeradha D Basu, India Inc has a new headache: Short stints by HR heads, Economic Times, 9 February 2018.
- Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, Book 1, Chapter 10, 1857.
- Heidi Grant, Signs You Might Be a Toxic Colleague, Harvard Business Review, 2 March 2016
- King James Bible, Exodus, Chapter 32:15.
- C. K. Prahalad and M. S. Krishnan, The New Age of Innovation: Driving Co-Created Value Through Global Networks, McGraw-Hill Education; 2008.
- David Shariatmadari, Interview: Daniel Kahneman: ‘What would I eliminate if I had a magic wand? Overconfidence’, The Guardian, 18 Jul 2015.
- Christian Jarrett, The Neuroscience of Being a Selfish Jerk, The Cut, 19 August 2015.
- John Kelly, Finding where, oh where Nipper has gone, Washington Post, 8 November 2009.
- Will Felps, Terence R. Mitchell, and Eliza Byington, How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups, Research in Organizational Behavior, Volume 27, 175–222, 2006.
- Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen D. Vohs, Bad Is Stronger Than Good, Review of General Psychology, Vol. 5. No. 4. 323-370, 2001.