This post is by David Murphy
from Deus Ex Macchiato
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One of my favourite cartoon characters is the evil HR director Catbert, from the Dilbert series. Catbert epitomises the Machiavellian intrigues and Catch 22s that epitomise the HRarchy. The character would be funny if she wasn’t so accurate.
Catbert immediately to mind when I read a Netflix presentation on their corporate values (hat tip Felix Salmon – who seems to have subsequently deleted the longer laudatory post about these slides). To precis hugely, Netflix say that they want the best people, they reward them at the top of the market so that they don’t want to leave, and they get rid of the merely mediocre.
A moment’s inspection of course reveals this to be an utter crock, in best Catbert tradition. First, it assumes that the firm’s internal mechanisms can tell if a person is any good or not. Second it assumes that being good is invariant over time: if you are good today, you’ll be good tomorrow; and if not, not. And third it assumes that a company full of good people is somehow a good thing. All of these are false.
Appraisal mechanisms, 360 feedback (or 720 or whatever) and the like are fascinating and important (from a financial standpoint) games. But I have never come across ones that do not simply validate manager’s prejudices. They often bear essentially no relationship to job performance.
The second point is even more important. An employee can be useful in some situations and less so in others. They can sit around for ten years doing nothing much useful, then save the firm. Or they can make a reasonable contribution every year without ever being a star. They can (and in the case of star executives often do) perform wonderfully for years then suddenly screw up massively.
The most pervasive HR lie of all, though, is that somehow it is in the company’s interests to have ‘the best’ employees. Have you ever tried managing a team of star performers? It makes herding cats look easy. They get bored; they all want to know what their career progression is; they fight. I’d much rather have one or two good people and a leavening of average performers. More will get done.
Furthermore, firms need diversity. They need it for the simple business reason that conditions change. If you staff up to optimise for environment X, and then suddenly find you are operating in environment Y, then you are likely to fail. But if you have a bunch of reasonably OK people who are willing to put in a decent day’s work for a decent day’s pay, then they will probably change what they do to help you out. Their self worth is not tied up with being the best person in the world at their job, and so they will probably not get depressed and sulky when it turns out that they aren’t any more.
No, meritocracy is a very dangerous concept. It assumes you can identify the meritorious, and that it is in the firm’s interests to have more of them. The more I see of firms, the more convinced I am that neither of those two things is true. Hire some reasonable people. Pay them reasonably. But don’t whatever you do ever make the mistake of believing anything someone from HR tells you.