Human Resources Sucks


This post is the twenty-seventh part of a ramble-rant about the software business. The current posts in this series are:

This post is about how I feel about Human Resources, which is…

Human Resources Sucks

I mean that in the best possible way. And, I don’t mean the people who make their living doing Human Resources jobs. People do not suck. The idea sucks. Why do I say that? I have these reasons:

  • The term “Human Resources” is dehumanizing.
  • Human Resources flattens.
  • Human Resources is a motivation sink.

HR is Dehumanizing

Calling a two-word phrase “dehumanizing” in which one of the words is “human” is saying something. The problem is the other word. “Resources” doesn’t really belong in a two-word phrase with the word “human”. People are their own category; separate and apart from resources.

Resources are things, and perhaps time. But not humans – not people. What can you do with a resource? You can replace them easily. I am married to a person who bakes. Christy (Blog | @ChristyLeonard) is an awesome cook and baker. She uses resources to bake; namely cookie-cutters, rolling pins, and fancy work-mats that keep her ingredients dry, maleable, and otherwise ingredient-ly.

She can easily replace a cookie cutter if it breaks or, hypothetically, one of the children uses it to make mud pies in the garden and leaves it there over the winter to be discovered when it’s hit by a tiller blade in the spring. Hypothetically. But people are not cookie cutters. It hurts when someone leaves a team – especially if that team has reached the Kick-Butt stage. Finding another person is hard enough. Finding someone who fits? Extremely difficult.

The term “resources” is confusing at best and just plain wrong at worst. It reinforces the MBAthink that you can unplug a person when they “go bad” and plug in a new one. This is the thinking that pervades the myth of “savings” with off-cashflowingshoring. It fuels the race to the bottom.

HR is attempting something useful: Provide business continuity.

HR Flattens

Returning to a baking metaphor, Human Resources rolls us all out according to the same qualifications. In the strictest sense, we’re all measured against a set of criteria that is itself subject to the requirements of an hour, day, week, month, quarter, or project. The qualifications don’t just shift – they always shift. Add to that some mix of litmus tests – “bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience” – and you have a recipe for meh.

What HR is trying to do is admirable: Apply scientific principles to human behavior to ascertain who is the best fit for a team.

HR is a Motivation Sink

Some argue reward is the goal of performance management. There are two things to consider about reward – two areas that are difficult to balance and easy to mess up (with tragic results):

  1. Reward doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
  2. Reward isn’t just about money.

Let’s take those in reverse order.

Not Just Money

Some business people read that and got all excited. You think “Andy is going to tell me the magic formula to pay my folks as little as possible and still get the maximum of work out of them!” Let me stop you right here. If you had any inkling of that thought, then – just for you – reward is all about money. You need to pay your people more. How do I know this? Because if you had that reaction you’re a stingy boss who has little business managing a team. That’s how I know. Pay is like oxygen: it’s not a problem unless there isn’t enough. If you want the absolute mediocre performance out of your team, pay them the industry average. The converse applies: If you’re paying the industry average (or a smidgen less because times are tough and you believe they need this job), you are getting that for which you are paying.

“But Andy, I’ve heard your presentation on Managing Teams and you reference all these studies that say money won’t motivate people to do more.” You’re correct. And there are people standing outside of every business school on the planet shouting that theme before you get into class on Day One. Here’s what business schools understand: The upside for motivating people with money is asymptotic. As the monetary reward increases linearly, performance increases in ever-smaller increments. That’s a limit on the upside for financial reward.

Here’s what business schools are missing: The downside effects of not-enough-pay are not simply the inverse – it’s a pivot of the asymptote. Demotivating someone by not paying them enough is a surefire way to send them on a quest to see just how little effort they can put in each day before they hit a point management recognizes. Underpaid employees become a management nightmare – consuming the manager’s time as they are forced into either constant monitoring or firing that employee and then embarking on the search for another hapless victim to underpay employee. If you do the math, it’s often less expensive to simply pay the employee who knows the business processes, holds institutional knowledge, has built relationships within the enterprise, and understands your customers than any other option.

Once pay is satisfactory, there are other ways to reward employees. But not before pay is satisfactory.

“What other ways, Andy?” I’m glad you asked! Training is one example. I saw this tweet during the PASS Summit 2010 (I wish I could find the original…):

“What if we train our people and they leave?” What if you DON’T train them and they STAY?

Salient, wouldn’t you agree? Training is required for technical people to remain current. Technology is changing at an ever-increasing pace. Training your employees communicates “I care about your career.” Demonstrating that will engender loyalty. Will all employees that you train stay with your company? Heck no. And that’s unrealistic. But more of them will stay, and (bonus!) they’ll know more and do more and better work.

Now, you wouldn’t bother training resources. Resources are simply cogs that are replaceable. Not training employees communicates to them loud and clear: “We’d train you if we were going to keep you around or cared about you as an individual.” A good friend just changed jobs because the new company guaranteed he could attend the PASS Summit each year. He was at his old job several years, was available to support deployments and production all hours of the night, and is as honest as they come. Losing him will cost his old company a lot more than the $2,000 or so bucks it would’ve cost to send him to the Summit each year. But it’s no biggee right? He’s just a Resource.

Flex-time and working remotely are other ways to reward employees. Both require management trust and respect their teams. For some, this is asking too much. Resources don’t have lives outside of work. People have lives. And families. And hobbies. And just other stuff that they would enjoy doing. Shocking, but also true.

Reward Isn’t Isolated

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could silo life? If every action didn’t have an equal and opposite reaction? I have to admit, that would come in handy sometimes. But the universe isn’t wired that way. Decisions and policies may start with the intent of surgical precision, but nature abhors a vacuum and many become the foundation of institutionalization.


Perhaps in an ideal world performance drives pay, which in turn drives more performance, which drives more pay. We simply don’t live in that world. The world we inhabit is one where people “play” for the love of the game – especially in technology. the best we can do as technical managers is simply get out of their way.

Technical management should not graph like square waves – it should be a low-frequency, minimal-amplitude sine wave. Management should not jerk the tiller this way and that, there should be a steady hand making gentle corrections to the course as they steer.

Management is an art.



Andy Leonard

Christian, husband, dad, grandpa, Data Philosopher, Data Engineer, Azure Data Factory, SSIS, and Biml guy. I was cloud before cloud was cool. :{>

7 thoughts on “Human Resources Sucks

  1. I’ve seen how sometimes HR staff are too busy dealing with policies and handbooks so they don’t have time to deal with the people.
    I work with clients who’s main resource is their people, some internal, some external. For that reason the important things like making sure people are qualified to do their jobs and have uptodate  safety training etc is handled by the operational department not HR.
    It would be interesting to see if this model means that their HR departments can deal with their peoples’ higher level needs, unfortunately I never get to see that activity.

  2. I’ve seen how HR policies like EO are discussed and written about in company websites and literature, according to law. But then HR employs an off-shore team of entirely males. Probably because of varied attitudes towards women in the workforce in some locations of the world. Seems to me, no one wants to discuss why the offshore team does not meet the companies EO guidelines. Therefore, I am not very impressed by globalization, HR policies, and corporate compliance. Fortunately, the HR staff still gets promotions and bonuses given these hidden flaws.

  3. Wikipedia on "Resource":
    A resource is any physical or virtual entity of limited availability that needs to be consumed to obtain a benefit from it. In most cases, commercial or even non-commerial factors require resource allocation through resource management.
    It is interesting how someone took the word and decided it fits to people…

  4. Another gem Andy!
    //"What if we train our people and they leave?" What if you DON’T train them and they STAY?//
    Wonderful quote!
    The only caveat I’ll add is that… if you train people, somehow let them use what they learned in some kind of purposeful outlet.
    Not complete rewrites of everything, but new projects could use a little "what kind of technology do we have NOW to develop this project?"
    And not "What have we done for past 20 years, year after year with no deviation." or even worse "I’m an ex-developer turned manager, and we can only develop projects with practices that were prevalent (up to) the day I stopped being a developer.  PS and don’t ever illude to the idea that I’m not a great developer, even if its been 5 years or more since I last developed.".
    "And PPS, you are only going to earn as much as I did when I was a developer, and you should be happy with that for eternity."
    And sometimes when you allow people to introduce new ideas to the team, refactor some existing projects or prototype some new things, the company/development team can be become more efficient(?), more productive(?), more reliable(?) or other benefits.  Wow, those TRAINING session(s) you paid for… could bring ~new~ ideas/methods to the table…it’s craziness I tell you.
    In fact, my first Andy-led discussion was because of this.  I attended a SSIS presentation at Sql Saturday in Charlotte in order to try and get rid of/get beyond some home brewed DataMoving solution(s).
    Unfortunately, SSIS violated the "That’s not how we’ve done it around these parts since Sql Server 6.5, so "no" to that idea."
    Live and learn.  It takes the difficult to mature us (alot of the time if not most of the time) I believe.
    Now, everything I’ve written should also take … the Best of Breed (anti pattern) and maybe "Fools Rush In" anti-pattern (maybe other anti patterns?) …into account.  You can’t chase everything under the sun.  But with "always-chasing" as one extreme, and "never budge" at the other, there’s a healthy place in the middle.
    Rock on!

  5. Our HR department is an absolute joke.  It consists of one lady who doesn’t return calls, brushes everything under the rug and continually sides with an idiot lower manager with no real clout in the company. .And they love to waste valuable company time with demoralizing  and worthless "team building" exercises that only succeed in driving people further apart.  Here’s a clue: if you’re respected as a manager who values and respects your employees, you don’t need team building quilting and popcorn parties. The American workplace has become an absolute joke in the last decade or so.  Have you looked at some of the asinine job ads some of these HR people post on line?  I’ve seen $8.00 an hour 2-page job ads asking for the world  (college degree not required but preferred), and jobs where the HR Department can’t decide who it is they want to hire: secretary with computer programming experience and ISO savvy; must be willing to do some light cleaning on the side. Get rid of the clueless in-house HR department, fire the useless, often psychotic middle managers, and hire good employees who can sail unsupervised for you. There are successful businesses out there that have done just that. I know, I’ve worked for one.

  6. everybody knows that HR sucks. Less jobs in this crisis ridden world means more and more of these HR parasites having more and more power while being less and less competent.
    They are not only useless but they are the most unproductive and therefore the most expensive employees in a company.
    99% have no skills, no competency in any trade and 90% of them have not a clue about people, even though they often have studied pseudo sciences like psychology.
    HR people pollute the ecosystem of healthy enterprise until they have helped recruiting so many incompetent employees (including friends and family) that the company has become hopelessly sick.
    As a CEO, I would fire the entire HR department, ask them to go polish their nails and surf on facebook, linkedin and google at home if they want, but not with the money of my shareholders !
    Recruitment was and should be done by operative and skilled people (sales people should recruit sales people, accountants recruit accountants, etc…). It was the case in the past, when corporate bullshit wasn’t the norm.
    As more and more executives realize, we don’t need HR. At least not for recruitment.

  7. Great article on the scourge that is HR.  They are out of touch with reality and only serve as buffers to management and litigation deterrents.  It’s demotivating to see corporations hire HR executives who draw exorbitant paychecks while telling employees they are aiming to reduce salaries to the 50th percentile average of the industry standard.

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