Are HR managers selected because they are bullying sociopaths?

I have often wondered what sort of person becomes a human resources manager or corporate employment lawyer in New Zealand. Now, with the cases of Sean Plunkett and Jim Salinger in front of the ERA, coming on the heels of my own experiences, my beliefs are being confirmed. This is what I believe.

NZ HR managers are hired for their sociopathic and bullying tendencies. They are devoid of compassion, understanding and basic human decency. They take delight in the flaws and failures of others, and many are pathological liars (witness NIWA HR accusations against Dr. Salinger that he was “sparse with the truth” (i.e.a liar),  or, in my case, my employer’s HR toadies attempting to fabricate a case of prior warnings and incidents (there were none relevant to the case in question) and then accusing me of falsifying leave forms (which was not only irrelevant but which other administrator’s contradicted). In the Radio NZ case Plunket had no contractual restrictions on his writing a column elsewhere yet he was threatened with dismissal for doing so. It appears that a personality clash with his boss (which is what was really at the heart of my case) is the real issue, with the boss attempting to control Plunkett’s behaviour outside of his contractual obligations. Dr. Salinger and myself received no formal warnings prior to our respective (in my case legally unjustified and in his case surely unjustified) dismissals. In both of the latter cases, relatively minor breaches of protocol got us summarily dismissed without warning or attempts at compromise or conciliation. Basic notions of fairness would indicate that in all these cases the employer acted in bad faith and then vilified the employee to cover up their own lack of ethics and adherence to procedure. Basic understanding of democracy would reveal why this is not only unacceptable as a social practice, but in fact inimical to the democratic form. After all, New Zealand is supposedly a robust democracy, so its labour relations framework should be quite different from that of China, Singapore, Iran or Saudi Arabia. Alas, on the essentials, it is not.

In general, HR types and their hired employment lawyer guns basically use the strategy of character assassination and deep pocket spending to outlast and break down the employee (and, in some cases, his/her union). When settlements are reached, they often reflect employee financial constraints or psychological trauma regardless of the positive merits of their case (and in which, in the case of both NIWA and Radio NZ as well as mine, the legal fees and/or the (eventual) settlement offer of the employer were/will be paid by taxpayers).

In fact, I wonder when do defamation cases apply in employment disputes? How can HR managers knowingly and deliberately make blatantly false accusations of employee dishonesty and malfeasance in open hearings that are reported on by the press, and yet escape legal action against them for defamation or slander? In my case all of the accusations against me were proven false, and yet the stain on my reputation has remained ever since (and prevented my securing alternative employment in my profession). Although I have no doubts that Dr. Salinger and Mr. Plunkett will win their cases or receive settlements, I wonder if Dr. Salinger will be able to secure employment in his chosen field with another government agency or private firm in NZ ? (Mr. Plunkett has the advantage that he has not been fired so does not have to look for work). Where is the justice when an employee wins a case but is not allowed back into their field of work (and in my case forced to leave NZ), and/or where his/her character has been impugned in the pubic consciousness?

In any event, I have noted in the past that there is a sort of mean-spirited aspect to the NZ character, something that emerges in politics, the corporate world and in education (among other fields). I am now coming to the belief that not only do HR managers (and employment lawyers working for firms) epitomize these nasty traits, but in fact are hired precisely because of them. The reason? Given the structure of employment law in NZ, these traits serve a useful purpose for employers regardless of the costs inflicted on employees and those that chose to represent them.

PS: To be clear. I am not referring here to small business employers, who do not have the money to hire HR teams or corporate lawyers to do their dirty work (or at least dismiss their useless workers). The lack of litigation money and legal funds makes small business owners  more vulnerable to adverse ERA or Employment Court decisions,and therefore more cautious when approaching dismissals. The large corporates (state or private) have no such concerns, given that employment law favours the structurally powerful rather than fairness under the law.

21 thoughts on “Are HR managers selected because they are bullying sociopaths?

  1. I wouldn’t lump yourself in with Plunkett. He’s been doing some very dodgy things like charging people for media training who he’s then going to interview.

  2. Neil:

    That is where formal warnings would come in. Surely if he was violating his contract or behaving against the broader corporate ethics of his employer (to which all employees are bound), he would be warned to cease and desist. If he continued to do so he could then be justifiably fired.

  3. Having dealt at close quarters with Air New Zealand HR and legal I can tell you that’s exactly the case.

    These people are complete psychopaths, hired by senior management for their willingness to act like complete fuckwits, even break the law, in order to break down their employees and try to undermine the union.

    It’s not ability that gets you up the corporate ladder in a lot of these firms, it’s a willingness to act with utter ruthlessness in pursuit of your corporate masters’ interests.

  4. In my experience many good HR people – people who think they can make the workplace a better place through proper application of policies, processes and the law – inevitably get burnt off at the first brutal take-over or restructuring. They have got themselves to close to their workmates and the trauma of sacking their friends after a grostesque charade of following “due process” leaves them disillusioned in their chosen career.

    They just quietly leave and do something else.

    What is left is the sociopathatic apparachik, the kind of personality found thriving in every Soviet bureaucracy or secret police office there has ever been. This person is usually devoid of humour, common sense, or empathy, and you are left with the uneasy feeling they would happily sprinkle the Zyclon B if it was in the Corporate mission statement.

    If these sociopaths are the creatures of their handlers, what does that say of the mindset of New Zealand’s managerial elites?

  5. What on earth makes you think the sociopaths are limited to New Zealand. These are people who did not do practical degrees and then discovered the only way to get a paying job was to follow the path Tom paints. Good people leave the business, the remainder discover they have power and are prepared to (mis)use it.

    haha captcha – 13 exists

  6. Phil:

    I am sure this pathology exists elsewhere but was prompted by the cases mentioned in light of my own experience. I also was motivated by the growing belief that NZ employment law and ERA protocols facilitate character assassination of employees by employers in the ERA and Employment Court without fear of subsequent legal action for defamation or lying under oath.

    Ps–what is a “captcha?” And what does “13 exists” mean?

  7. Pablo – captcha is the anti spam device in your comments. There are always 2 supposedly randomly joined words but there frequently seems to be an existential link between them that seems funny to me. Or an algorithm programmer with a wry sense of humour that appeals to me.

    as for 13 exists – I read it as bad luck is real. Which seems appropriate to your situation of having to deal with HR

    I just got “Westminster bedpan” on the post where Lew and I were having a tussle about political standards.

    Just my strange sense of humour is all. If you want to see your own captchas try logging in to kiwipolitico as a stranger

  8. So what produces such sociopaths? Our education? Our upbringing? Is it linked to individualist neo-liberal policies of our country and others? Does it go further even than this?


  9. Phil: Thanks, I had no idea.

    Tim: Excellent questions. I believe that the turn to (feral) market driven economics is at the root of the syndrome. In the old days firms looked at workers as family, or at least as a long-term investment that was to be nurtured and preserved. Corporate loyalty was paramount (my father was a GM executive for 45 years, the only company he ever worked for, and he insisted on only buying GM products in the areas they were produced (cars, whiteware, insurance)). After the advent of Rogernomics, the labor market turn was to view workers as chattels, commodities, non-durables—basically, disposable property. Precarious labour market conditions accentuated the trend, as workers worked for less and had less say in the production process in order to save their jobs. This decreased worker solidarity, coupled with an ample pool of surplus labor helped promote what I have called in my scholarly work the “atomization” of the working classes: everyone is out for themselves.

    Unions have mitigated the trend somewhat, but between their subservience to Labour and its acceptance of market-driven edicts and the corrosive impact of labor market “flexibilization” on union memberships, their influence has diminished to the point of merely defending the status quo.

    Under such conditions, corporates no longer see their employees as people but as input factor costs. Should the employee challenge corporate prerogatives, be it in firms, government agencies or academia, then any excuse suffices to get rid of them less they infect the more complacent employees. Minor transgressions become fireable offenses. Onerous work conditions lead to constructive dismissals. The point is to reaffirm the market hierarchies where bosses rule and workers obey. The days of worker input in, or contestation of, the political-economic status quo are long gone.

    In such a context hiring sociopathic bullies in HR and as corporate employment lawyers is a natural recourse and makes perfect corporate sense. It is not just about firing people, but conveying a message via the way in which people are fired. There no longer is any room for basic pity, sympathy and compensatory redress. Now is the time of teaching lessons to other would-be usurpers through ruthless application of corporate dominance using legal funding and character assassination as the main disciplinary tools. NZ employment law facilitates the process, and is therefore complicit in the subjugation of the majority of wage earners to the tyranny of the corporate-managerial elite.

    I could go on, but I hope that you get the general picture.

    One last note regarding Phil’s comment about competence in the selection of HR officers. My experience was that the corporate lawyer representing my employer compensated for her lack of competence with unbelievable personal nastiness, to the point that I pitied the thought of being her children or partner. In fact, after yet another round of defamatory invective, I recall asking her if she still kissed her mother with that (foul) mouth. She is paid handsomely by a major Auckland law firm to be that way.

  10. In such a context hiring sociopathic bullies in HR and as corporate employment lawyers is a natural recourse and makes perfect corporate sense. It is not just about firing people, but conveying a message via the way in which people are fired.

    The only way to get around these people is the unpleasant strategy of subtly inculcating in them the belief that they may well suffer horribly if they continue to push you. That actually sometimes works.

  11. “She is paid handsomely by a major Auckland law firm to be that way.”

    Edit: I had a longer comment here but thought better of it. I’ll leave it at saying that, in my time working in corporate law, incompetence was the last thing to be tolerated, and major law firms absolutely don’t make a habit of paying for it.

  12. Pablo: Hmm yes, the ‘atomization’ is the key issue here. It breeds and facilitates such inhuman practice in people. Cheers for the post.

  13. Eddie:

    My employer paid $300-500K in legal fees and associated costs. It paid out a very handsome settlement (for NZ) after the dismissal was found to be unjustified by the ERA. They did so rather than go to Court and contest our appeal of the ERA decision on non reinstatement. During the entire time the lawyer was consistently spanked by my private barrister on substantive matters of law and procedure, to which her response was invariably to cast aspersions on my character and motivations. She showed little comprehension of the gross irregularities in the employer’s case and her interpretation of precedent was at the level of a 1st year law student.

    Perhaps her ad hominum approach was what she was hired to do, given that she was saddled with an unwinnable case on the merits. But in a sense she may have won a partial victory because, to be honest, although my hand was forced by exogenous factors, I would have preferred to go to the Employment Court and fought for unconditional reinstatement. In that sense, her bullying produced a desired outcome for the employer even though they were legally found to be at fault.

  14. I have little to add in the form of analysis and elaboration, but as a former employee of Massey University, I have to say that this has certainly been my experience. The HR manager in the Wellington campus was quite open about her biases and apparently quite consciously saw it as a job requirement. Fortunately I had a good union advocate and I kept extensive files myself, so that when it came to the crunch, she said something that translates from her more pretentious language as “Oh shit.”

    They can be sociopathic bullies, but they can also be stupid, as I found out – and this one was definitely not very bright.

    That’s what I suggest: keep good files on your employer. If you’re being bullied, document it and date it. Handwritten notes can be legally useful, as are saved emails. Just set up a folder and start filling it. It’s sad, but I think that has to be common sense in the modern workplace.

  15. I’d like to add too that this HR manager was acting to defend a department head who had a long record of bullying, slander and abuse and who had been the cause of a great deal of embarrassment and expense over the years. Even central HR, I heard through the grapevine, was, to put it mildly, somewhat frustrated with this department head. They’ve since been moved to a position where they can do no harm, but they’ve been protected while I lost my job, and due to health problems arising from my treatment, was unable to work for a year afterwards.

    The HR toad certainly saw it as their job to protect the institution – and they defined the institution as the senior management only. Sometimes you can use that instinct to your advantage if you make it clear that they will end up in court and the case will be publicised. Then they will make a large payout and that was my one consolation: the fact that I was able, effectively, to blackmail them.

    Again: keep a file.

  16. I see the reason for the type of people companies look to employ as HR managers as being virtually the opposite as you do Pablo. Employment legislation has become so intimidating for employers that they’ve turned to using these types of people as a solution.

    In the past if an employer felt a problem existed it used to be an understanding could be reached with a quiet shopfloor discussion. These days if a problem arises, an employer has to reach for the formal reprimand, and if there’s a fear that the employee won’t work out long term, there’s an incentive to do it earlier because the dismissal process can be so drawn out.
    But then you end up with employees who feel they’ve been dealt with in a harsh formal manner, rather than with a friendly informal approach, end result, the strict procedural requirements of employment legislation has damaged employer-employee relations, and as I said, employers have turned to using these types of people as a form of protection.

    A similar situation has developed in residential tenanting in which landlords have turned to using rental managers, and the stricter the manager, the more security the landlord feels he has. A landlord dare not approach a tenant himself about some minor concern in case he puts a foot wrong, so he sends in the hard-ass rental manager.

  17. Thanks Andrew.

    That is an interesting perspective worth considering. I guess I just wonder why HR types tend to be so nasty, rather than killing (or firing) ’em with kindness. Do certain personality types (bullies and sociopaths) tend to HR, and it is only now that a mix of legislation and corporate darwinism allow them full reign to their impulses?

  18. I guess so, obviously people look for jobs they enjoy, or can make enjoyable. So if firing people is in the job description, if you can get away with it, do it in the way that’s the most fun. :-(

  19. Reading all the comments above I have to agree with most of it.The biggest thing that disturbs me more than anything is the fact that nothing really has been done to tackle the problem of bullying. People who bully come from disfunctional families & they pick on targets that have come from good stock. If the behaviour is left to fester it will become like a cancer that continues destroy. The work place is the most obvious and ideal situation for this to happen because we spend a most of our waking hours there.

  20. Pingback: Kiwipolitico » Blog Archive » Deeply subversive

  21. Your heading above about HR Managers dosen’t go on and include management + middle management. Six years ago I was constructivly fired from a large printing company, not given a reduntant payout but exiting after a 13 year superanuation with the same position. After 47 years in a trade that I excelled in the super allowed me to get into a contract courier position because the dismissal from the print industry was taken to Employement Authority and left me with no references. The managers are snakes in suits, I knew that more than six years ago, today it is just the same if not worse. If they want to get rid of you, into days atmosphere they isolate you in your job so you either leave, or you become so rattled they then have good ammunition to fire you.

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