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Feedback on “Socialism in Human Resources”

December 22, 2004

Below are some excerpts from a few of the many readers who wrote in about the article "Is Your Human Resources Department Unwittingly a ‘Socialist’ Institution?"


    Saying human services departments should spend most of their time helping the best performers get even better makes as little sense as saying doctors ought to spend most of their time checking on patients that don’t come to see them, to make sure they are well.

    Capitalism didn’t "win"; a blend of socialism and capitalism won. Otherwise we have to close our libraries, eliminate Social Security and put our municipal water supplies under private ownership. Neither pure socialism nor pure capitalism is worth a damn in the modern world.

--Tom Taber, employment and training coordinator, Orleans Co. Job Development Agency, Albion, New York


    I must say that I agree with most of the things that were stated in the article. John has hit on something that we all need to take into account. If HR is going to ever move into a more business role, then why haven't the HR trade journals that we all read feverishly figured it out?

    We see articles from CEOs and CFOs constantly stating that they want HR to be at the table with them, but I don't see articles informing us of how to read and understand an annual report, or how to create and manage a budget.

    If someone were smart at all of these HR organizations and trade journals, they would have a yearlong series starting in '05 on helping HR professionals be better business professionals, so they can get to the table and add value at all levels of the organization. Each month they should have an article that features a business attribute that is needed in business. Don't continue to talk about what we need to do, help us get there!

--Valencia Woodard, recruiting manager, U.S. Cotton, Cleveland


    I tend to agree with John Sullivan's general perception of the ‘socialist’ HR professional. Where I sense a degree of hypocrisy is that he has chosen a career as a college professor. Unless his university is far different than any I've encountered, he's going through daily life in one of the most ‘socialist’ environments on the planet. I'd like him explain how San Francisco State addresses pay-for-performance, non-tenure-based recognition/reward practices, and the other "capitalist" virtues he claims to admire.

--Greg Sheldon, regional vice president, Globoforce, Tacoma, Washington.


    Mr. Sullivan makes some very interesting points. And I agree with him--capitalism has won out over socialism. I would run my department just as he suggests if I didn’t have the threat of lawsuits and harassment claims hanging over my head and the head of my company.

    Lawsuits and harassment suits are expensive and cost the company money, which, in turn, affects the bottom-line profit of a company. When you lose a million-dollar harassment suit or you lose an unfair termination suit and have to pay the employee back wages for six to eight months or maybe a year, and then have to put the employee back to work, you start seeing why companies have second-chance programs and progressive-discipline programs.

    I’m wondering if he has ever heard of the EEOC, Title VII, Family Medical Leave Act and a host of other federal regulations that are the basis for most of these social programs that human resources departments must administer. These federal regulations were voted into law by liberal socialist Democrats in Washington, D.C. If we didn’t have these laws to worry about, I think Mr. Sullivan would see human resources departments run in a much different manner. I know I would run mine differently.

--Dave Neeb, human resources manager, Premier Industries, Harvey, Louisiana.


    You should have saved this for the April 1st issue. It reads like a sick parody of the worst excesses of business management and political philosophy--testosterone gone wild.

    Guess what? People are not a commodity. When you treat people like a commodity, you lose. Now, I don't mean the top executives will lose--they never lose. Jack Welch is a good example. He is a person of questionable morals and overweening ego. The culture of competition he fostered was sick.

    The truth is that the oversimplified Darwinian idea of "survival of the fittest" as applied to the business world is shallow and self-serving for those who like to dominate others. In the long run, a balance between competition and cooperation will produce the best results for the most people. And the idea of community--that we are all in this together—will eventually come back to center stage. This will be, of course, after we've finished the current orgy of wrecking the environment, impoverishing our people, destroying our meager safety net and giving all the evidence of being well on our way to being a Third World country.

    Yes, it's the Third World countries where there are a few rich people (the "top performers") and a whole lot of poor people (the "poor performers"). When there is no one to protect the innocent from the predatory, the whole society loses.

    Human resources practitioners (not the ones at the top--they've learned to talk the language of money) have an interest in people. Most people are average. With the right management, they can produce great things. Treating them like losers will produce a lot of losers. Some people excel at dominating others. I would say they need remedial help in being human beings. It all depends on what you value--many human resources people do not have the value system of King Midas (Remember his story? Great truth there.), and thank God for that.

--Susan Northcutt, HR Administrator II, Heraeus Tenevo, Buford, Georgia


    Wow! Professor Sullivan is wrong about capitalism having won. It is only ahead at the present time in the ongoing game and will fall back from its own abuses. Pure capitalism or pure socialism is bad, so it is best when there is a balancing of the two. Currently, capitalism is winning.

    The problem with human resources is the "human" part. Those pesky human beings with their problems and weaknesses. Why can't they all be intelligent, healthy, hardworking, dedicated capitalists whose only reason to exist is to further the profit of the company. Don't you worry, professor. The capitalists have found a way to convince Americans to vote for their politicians who are dismantling protections for the "little guy" put in place over the last century. Soon the human resources departments won't have to obey those socialistic anti-profit labor laws. The Republicans will see to that. Then they will come to your university and you can point out all of the left-leaning socialist-thinking professors who are corrupting the minds of our youth so they can be fired. That tenure thing is a really bad idea, but you probably know that.

    Your article will strike a nerve. I predict that with any luck you will soon be portrayed by the conservative talk show gang as a persecuted voice in the wilderness of socialist academia as you come under attack from those ignorant, misguided human resource professionals.

--Mike Burba, University of Cincinnati


    First, many companies have union contracts that dictate how employees should be handled. In my experience, most unions are socialistic in practice. Therefore, the policies they dictate to the companies that employ their union workers will reflect this.

    Second, more often than not it is the worst employees that bring lawsuits against the company. These employees try and find some outside source to excuse their poor performance. So, to avoid these lawsuits, HR departments often give these poor performers every chance possible to improve. In addition, conforming to labor law makes it nearly impossible to not spend extra effort to bring these employees performance up to acceptable standards.

    Third, part of human resources is to ensure (high) employee morale. A happy employee is a productive employee. Many unproductive or poor-performing employees are simply having a tough personal time. Given some support, many of these employees turn around and improve. Often what they need is that wake-up call in the form of a first warning to get the help they need. I’ve seen this happen more often than not. In fact, I’ve seen poor performers, given the right encouragement and support, become truly good performers. If we take a capitalistic approach and simply ignore them, we can and often will lose something that could be cultivated into a truly valuable resource.

    Finally, there are other factors that should be considered other than performance. This includes attitude, aptitude and the ability to work within a team. One employee may not be a top performer; but that same employee may be a morale booster helping other employees become top performers. Tell me, does that employee have less value than a top performer?

--Patricia S. Christiansen, HR manager, Image Technology, Palo Alto, California


    I was quite offended by John Sullivan's stance in the article "Is Your Human Resources Dept. Unwittingly a ‘Socialist’ Institution?" I have been in human resources for the past 10 years since I got my MBA. I am educated on business management and although I do enjoy being able to help people, my first priority is helping my organization be productive and helping management reach their objectives. And most of the other HR people I know are likewise well-educated and part of "management." Sure, HR publications talk about soft issues, but you also see many articles on HR being a strategic partner and HR metrics.

    And if HR people were not focused on paying for performance, then why is so much written about performance appraisals? I don't know of any company offhand that does not pay for performance (in the private sector).

    And the very idea that layoffs are good for the organization is so naive I can’t believe you would print it. Sure, layoffs are a good way to cull out the poor performers--if you have a management team that isn't strong enough to develop or fire those people. But layoffs are extremely harmful to the morale of the remaining staff, including the top performers. Companies that are known in town for layoffs cannot attract and retain the star employees. It also impacts your customers' perception of your company, which affects the bottom line. It’s HR's job to help develop or get rid of poor performers, and it’s also our job to try to staff to avoid layoffs (although in many industries that is simply not possible).

    This John Sullivan must have talked with a small handful of managers who don't like their HR people. He has obviously not gotten a full measure of the HR world. I have worked in retail, banking, telecommunications and manufacturing, and in all cases the HR people have been focused on managing the business, performance and abiding the laws. I found his opinions to not at all represent the HR people I have known, and it was downright insulting to the profession.

--Amy Esry, human resources manager, Widen Enterprises, Madison, Wisconsin


    The article isn’t without merits, but its tone is rather hard-edged and uncompromising. A purely capitalistic approach would no more work than a purely socialistic approach. … A wise blending can help maintain productivity of top performers and support and inspire those who contribute in their own right. A pure focus on capitalism inspires corporate greed and corruption. (Just look at the history of the struggle in America between corporations’ and workers’ right. Left unchecked, the corporation would commit all sorts of atrocities in the name of capitalism and profit.) In fact, if applying the advice of this article, the corporate entity would appear more nationalistic than anything else.

    And the offshoring reference (about people opposed to it) as being socialistic and not capitalistic is idiotic. Offshoring takes way from the economic health of the local and national economies that help support the resources (the employees, the environment, the supplies, etc.) of the corporation. Offshoring is not capitalism; it is corporate greed in its purest form, and it is a very short-termed approach.

    America is not great only because of capitalism. It is great because of opportunity, freedom and democracy (with a little socialism thrown in, believe it or not). For a corporation to stand outside of that based on capitalism alone is a slap to all hardworking Americans and the reason we keep seeing them in court.

--Scott Byorum, director of business development, Nationwide Real Estate Tax Service, Santa Rosa, California


    John Sullivan's criticisms of socialistic human resource departments make me wonder how widespread this problem is. And if a CEO is business-minded and his HR department isn't, whose job is it to set the ship aright?

    I've seen too many people in charge of other people who have no skills at all for the tasks they're appointed to do. I don't know about ROI, but I do know these handpicked candidates are often the favorite son, daughter or golfing pal of the CEO. Maybe these are the people HR wants to protect other employees from. Or could they be the weak sisters that Sullivan is talking about? Or do they get a pass if a business-minded, business-degreed CEO handpicked them for the job?

    Perhaps Sullivan should look harder at managers who refuse to deal with poor performers instead of focusing his microscope on HR departments. Surely managers have more influence over employee performance than HR does.

    By the way, I am one of those freelance journalists who writes about those mushy topics like "social issues, obesity, housing issues and even concerns for a happy retirement." For ROI reasons, I write only by assignment, and I haven't asked my editors why they want those stories. But maybe it's because some of these are issues that workers like to read about, along with the subjects of hiring effectively, the most efficient way of getting poor performers out the door, and training issues. And no, my degree is not in business, but in journalism. In spite of that, I was a manager once in a business that required hiring and working with all types of people at different stages of emotional and professional development. We called it a diverse workforce. I always thought the capitalistic structure not only benefited from it but was strong enough to make room for it.

--Barbara Elmore, business owner, Waco, Texas


    Yes, I guess we are social workers of a sort because we care if our employees can balance work and personal issues--so they can continue to be productive. We do not consider people disposable, and we want our supervisors to do their jobs in addressing issues rather than passing on crises.

--Karen Pavlinski, human resource manager, Lynntech, College Station, Texas


    People programs, in any company, do not begin with human resources; they begin with the people at the top, including the executive board. People policies are determined at this top level and given to the human resources team to implement within legal limits.

    I agree that high performers should receive the attention they deserve and poor performers should step up or out. Yet, when the top brass are not willing to put that stake in the ground, blame should not go to the human resources team but to the governance boards and CEOs. For example, in the merger of Compaq and Hewlett-Packard, many high performers found themselves in the wrong job at the wrong time. Many high performers took these positions because they were asked to by higher-ups; the brass knew who would get the job done right. Yet, when the budget ax fell after the merger, these programs were cut. It didn't matter what level you were or what your performance was; if you were on the list, there was no further discussion.

    Hewlett-Packard dismissed a lot of high performers through their workforce-reduction program because the board wasn't willing to look at the value of the performer--just the budget dollars for a job no longer needed. Yes, HP gave an "opportunity" to find another position in the company, but with little to no hiring going on, there weren't many options. So high performers left while lower performers sat in their cubes hoping to fly low enough on the radar screen not to be selected next. There are still a lot of high performers at HP, but had the board put the right people programs in place, it would be tilted toward many more high performers rather than the mediocre.

--Kristine Werner, HR consultant, Meridian Concepts, Phoenix


    The substance of John Sullivan's article is correct. But using the term "socialist" to describe a permissive, employee-centered workplace culture is way off the mark. Sullivan knows that the term "socialist" applies to the practice of socialism, which is a social, political system in which the means of production and distribution of goods are owned and controlled by the whole community. To use the term to describe a workplace or a human resources culture is not just inaccurate, but intentionally misleading.

    The term I prefer and use when speaking to employers or doing training with human resource people is "touchy-feely." I recommend an adult-centered workplace culture rather than a child-centered workplace culture.

--Jim Collison, president, Employers of America, Mason City, Iowa


    John Sullivan's excellent article makes a point that is long overdue. HR publications and organizations have, in fact, dedicated far too much time and space trying to convince business leaders that addressing social issues will benefit the bottom line. Furthermore, HR departments have relegated themselves to a position of employee advocate and/or compliance officer--unable to add real value to the business--instead of using their expertise and resources to help the core business generate revenue. Even many of the measures of HR effectiveness focus more on reducing HR costs and becoming better at doing HR stuff than on building workplace capacity to improve profitability.

    Although I strongly agree with the author's premise and many of his examples, I believe that he weakens his argument when he mistakenly equates human assets with equipment and technology assets. Among the many differences is that our accounting systems reward investments in equipment and technology while punishing investments in people.

    Hard assets are generally treated as long-term investments, not hastily abandoned for short-term financial reporting demands. Human assets, in contrast, are treated as short-term, highly liquid assets, or like machinery to be rented and discarded as needed. Equipment and technology assets have much more predictable rates of return unaffected by human traits, whereas people are extremely complex and unpredictable day to day, year to year and person to person. People productivity is greatly influenced by the environment (i.e. organization culture). Management practices, organization architecture and support service groups--yes, even HR policies--have a profound impact on personal choice for accountability and motivation to produce.

    As a result, human assets often turn the worst piece of equipment into the highest-producing machine. On the other hand, they sometimes make the most efficient machine the poorest producer on the floor. Simply lining them up like widget machines alongside production equipment is hardly an effective way to assess the value of human assets. Decades of research supports the notion that human assets are, in fact, different and need to be treated such that their value can be fully realized to the benefit of the business.

    I agree with Mr. Sullivan that HR departments are too socialistic and stretch too hard to make a business case for many of their policies and practices. They need to reinvent themselves in a major way to become businesspeople committed to creating not minor but significant improvements to the bottom line. They can't do that until they take a hard look at themselves from a capitalistic business perspective and focus on meaningful ROI measures.

    Having said that, I also believe that a little benevolence now and then never hurt anyone.

--Kevin Herring, Ascent Management Consulting, Oro Valley, Arizona


    The reason that HR may be a little "socialistic" is this: If "big business" treated people fairly (not the same, but fairly--there's a difference), there would be no need for unions or HR or anything else. It is a sad commentary on business that (companies) typically become so ruthless in their search for the almighty dollar that there is a need for other people, functions and organizations to act as a counterbalance.

--Jacque Vilet, president, Vilet International, Dallas


    I agree wholeheartedly with most of your article. For years now, every publication for HR professionals continue to place emphasis on all the "soft" issues. Due to lawyers and laws, it takes an act of God to terminate anyone for performance issues especially in the state of California. It is no wonder that companies have poor producers and workers.

    The managers I work with avoid placing someone on a performance-improvement plan because of all the time, preparation, documentation, etc. And then when it comes down to it, they can't terminate the person due to ADA, disability, leave or whatever issue. We have an employee who has been out over six months, has exhausted every leave available but we still can't terminate him because of a "potential" ADA issue. Our attorney has advised us that we must play the "interaction" game for up to a year and continue to hold her job open! Unbelievable.

    Your article alluded to the fact that the reason HR professionals are socialists is because they don't have degrees in business and do not know how to manage businesses. I disagree with that statement. HR professionals are held hostage by attorneys and laws that the state legislators are passing always in favor of the employee and their rights. The decisions that are made most often have nothing to do with how to run a a successful business; they are [based on] how to stay out of court and keep the company from going under due to a lawsuit.

    Gone are the days when you can be straight with the employee and tell them as it is. They may say you are discriminating against them, creating a hostile work environment, etc. Believe me, it is so frustrating to be in HR, see what is happening and what is required to follow all the necessary legal obligations. Consequently, the time is spent on the poor performers rather than the top performers.

    Hopefully, articles such as yours will enlighten those HR professionals who are in the socialist boat and want to stay there.

--Linda Johansen, human resource manager, Examen Inc., Sacramento, California.


    I'm surprised and disappointed in John Sullivan's slanderous statements about a "social work mentality."

    Mr. Sullivan implies several misconceptions about the profession of social work that I find damaging and offensive. I would like to remind your readers that social workers are not all socialists. Social workers most certainly do put profit first in business, and human resources’ adoption of "social work values" of fair and just treatment does not cut profits.

    Creating a safe environment with clear expectations, agreed upon expectations and respectful communication is not a "social work mentality." It makes good business sense. You have to give to get.

--Debra Brooks, Portland, Oregon.