Friday, February 19, 2010

The day everyone's been waiting for - when HR managers revert to being personnel officers

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, February 16.)

THE CURMUDGEON has a theory that every decade can be defined by the occupational or professional group that was in the ascendancy at the time.

The 1950s was the decade of the sheep farmer, who wallowed in wealth generated by demand for wool to keep troops warm in Korea. That was when townies told jokes about farmers ordering new Rolls-Royces with glass partitions behind the front seat so their dogs couldn’t lick them while they were driving.

The sixties was the decade of the construction engineer, when motorways and overpasses spread unchecked over the landscape and tunnellers blasted holes through mountains to create hydro-power schemes. (Environment Court? No such thing. Maori land claims? Get away.)

In the seventies the media discovered academics, and you couldn’t turn on your radio or TV set without hearing a political scientist, sociologist or economist pontificating to a nodding journalist. It took time before we realised that universities only produced a better-educated idiot.

The eighties was the decade of the financial wide-boys – the spivs, sharks and Flash Harrys who stayed cold-eyed and sober while the rest of the country got drunk on financial deregulation. By the time we woke up with the inevitable hangover, they’d cleaned everyone out and scarpered in their executive jets.

In the nineties it was the turn of the consultant, when people who’d been sacked in public service restructurings went out on their own and managed to persuade their former employers to re-engage them at five times more money than they’d been earning before. Goodbye Hallensteins cardigan and 10-trip train ticket; hello Working Style suit and BMW.

And the noughties? Make no mistake – this was the decade of the human resources department. Cleverly picking up on Mao Zedong’s idea of permanent revolution, HR managers ensured that the organisations which employed them were kept in a constant state of disruption and uncertainty, merrily disestablishing old jobs and creating new ones, then watching everyone fight over them.

The cost to the economy, in terms of time and energy wasted by endless re-organisation while real work got left undone, is anyone’s guess. But the real brilliance of the HR revolution was that it kept people so anxious and distracted that no one thought to ask an obvious question: do we really need HR departments?

If the Curmudgeon’s theory holds true, however, 2010 may mark a turning point. This newspaper recently reported the very significant information that staff at Capital and Coast District Health had been told of a proposal to shed 49 management and administration roles – including the entire human resources unit. Does this mean that HR managers are about to be devoured by the very revolution they set in motion?

I look forward to the day when they revert to being known as personnel officers and occupy poky little offices with filing cabinets recording the date of birth of each employee and a calendar showing when the next long-service gold watch is due to be handed out.

* * *

DOES TVNZ have any further to fall? Put another way, does it still have any credibility to lose?

Its priorities were tellingly exposed when, on the evening of Prime Minister John Key’s speech at the opening of Parliament, TV One’s Close Up cancelled an interview with Mr Key in favour of an “exclusive” with Robin Brooke, the former All Black who disgraced himself at a Fiji resort on New Year’s Eve.

Mr Key’s speech was the first major political set piece of the year. It finally gave voters a clue to where this government might be heading after more than a year of treading water.

There were important questions to be asked. Mr Key was primed and ready. But at 4.30 in the afternoon his media minders were advised he was no longer wanted.

Close Up had a much bigger fish to fry. Why burden viewers with an interview about New Zealand’s economic future when there’s an ex-All Black prepared to make a craven apology in front of the nation for drunkenly groping a 15-year-old girl’s bum?

Obviously, this was so compelling it couldn’t wait. It had all the ingredients tabloid television loves: scandal, celebrity and a public display of shame.

What a pity Brooke couldn’t be induced to break down and sob with remorse. Perhaps the Close Up team would then have collected a bonus.

This was arguably a private matter that should have been dealt with privately. Trouble is, media intrusion into private lives is now so entrenched in popular culture that people submit to it without question. Viewers become accomplices in a circus in which everyone is demeaned – participants and viewers alike.

The entire item was imbued with a familiar moralistic sanctimony. In medieval society they had the stocks. These days we’ve got Close Up.

* * *

YOU JUST know, when you see a newspaper item headed “Bomb joke backfires”, that two immutable truths are about to be confirmed yet again.

The first is that airport security officers are genetically programmed to have no sense of humour and even less discretionary common sense, and therefore regard every jocular reference to ticking bombs as a serious threat calling for immediate arrest.

The second immutable truth is that there’s always a tourist – invariably male and often Australian, as in the latest case last week at Hamilton Airport – who still hasn’t grasped the first one.


kassto said...

The Key vs Robin Brooke thing is just appalling. A complete joke. I'm tempted to write to TVNZ and tell them they have so lost any credibility newswise that I'm never watching them again. But since I don't watch TV news anyway...

Vaughan said...
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