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Doubleplusungood HR*

Iain Henderson

Faculty Blog

Journalist James Gingell, writing in the highly respected UK newspaper The Guardian, has recently compared the language used by Human Resources (HR) to that which George Orwell accused totalitarians of using to excuse and enable political repression.  Orwell of course was the author of the classic dystopia ‘1984’.

Gingell wrote:

‘ …. I think there’s no denying that had he been alive today, Orwell – the great opponent and satirist of totalitarianism – would have deplored the bureaucratic repression of HR. He would have hated their blind loyalty to power, their unquestioning faithfulness to process, their abhorrence of anything or anyone deviating from the mean  …. In particular, Orwell would have utterly despised the language that HR people use .... (HR)  deliberately misuses language as a sort of low-tech mind control to avert our eyes from office atrocities and keep us fixed on our inboxes. Thus mass sackings are wrapped up in cowardly sophistry and called rightsizings, individuals are offboarded to the jobcentre and the few hardy souls left are consoled by their membership of a more streamlined organisation.'

As we can see Gingell, like Orwell, focuses on the actual use of language.

‘Orwell would have despised the passive constructions that are the HR department’s default setting. Want some flexibility in your contract? HR says company policy is unable to support that. Forgotten to accede to some arbitrary and impractical office rule? HR says we are minded to ask everyone to remember that it is essential to comply by rule X …. The passive construction is also designed to give the sense that it’s not HR speaking, but that they are the conduit for a higher-up and incontestable power. It’s designed to be both authoritative and banal, so that we torpidly accept it  ….  It’s deeply, deeply oppressive  ….'

He goes on:

‘… Company restructures and key performance indicators make no sense in the abstract, merely serving to demotivate the workforce, sap confidence and obstruct productivity. So are they actually cleverly designed parodies of Stalin’s purges and the cult of Stakhanovism?   …. Could the industry’s name itself – human resources – be an Orwellian slight? A wink-wink label designed to conjure up images of the pigs of Animal Farm harvesting the life force of their lackeys? I’m only half joking.’

Human Resources are used to unpopularity and being described as ‘doing management’s dirty work’  when it comes to handling redundancies  or pay negotiations with  trade unions, but I haven’t seen them accused of being willing stooges for totalitarian repression and even seeking to narrow the range of human thought before.

In their defence HR managers might point out that many of Gingell’s examples are those of general ‘management speak’ rather than the exclusive province of HR departments, but that doesn’t answer his general argument that organisations deliberately use (or misuse) language to oppress and control their employees.

What do you think?  Is your organisation really Stalinist? Do you use euphemisms to avoid the unpleasant truth about the consequences of your management decisions?

If you conscience is bothering you, Gingell, again following Orwell, offers an antidote – good plain English.

You can read his full article here.

Maybe you think he goes too far.  Still it’s a thought that Orwell apparently was inspired to create his Ministry of Truth in ‘1984’, at least partly, by the bureaucratic features of the BBC, where he worked during the Second World War.

* ‘Doubleplusungood HR’ -  Orwellian Newspeak for ‘very bad HR’.