The Black Box of HR

I would love to talk to some HR people. I would love to know what goes on in HR departments. They are mysterious, mysterious places. Mostly I wonder if people who work in human resources ever feel complicit in contemporary practices that seem hell-bent on robbing people of their humanity.

Case #1

Last week I found a contract online with a Toronto college. The start date was ASAP, but there was no contact information or instructions about how to apply included in the ad. So, I called the “Contact Us” number. I was cued in to a two-minute recorded message that told me who I should contact if I was following up on an application, if I was looking for a record of employment, if I was an employer looking for a reference, etc., etc., etc. “If none of these are your issue, please e-mail us.”

Well. Alrighty then. None of these were my issue, so I sent an email. Not to a person, because there are no people listed. Just to “HR.” In response to my e-mail, I received an automatically generated message that more-or-less repeated what I had just heard on the phone. I read it twice and still couldn’t determine if anyone was actually going to read my email and respond to my inquiry. After waiting 24 hours, I tracked down the e-mail address of a real person and asked whether a human being had actually read my email and would respond. I received this:

Hello Laura:
We’re looking into the below for you and will provide you with an update shortly.
Thank you,

Needless to say, at this point, I’m not optimistic about a follow-up. I am also still not entirely sure I’m not corresponding with algorithm.

Case #2

My daughter was after a job with a major Canadian hotel chain, and we spent about an hour working on her resume and cover letter for an advertised hospitality position. She submitted this and received an automated response asking her to complete a profile, which asked her mysterious questions like:

  • Would you describe yourself as a leader?
  • Would you agree that lying is always wrong?
  • Do you like cheese?

She spent another half hour completing the Mysterious Screening Questionnaire, submitted it, and in very short order received a PFO[1] letter via email. She was pissed. “Well,” I surmised, “that’s an hour and half of our lives we’ll never get back.”

Agency and the Job Search

What these stories have in common is that each reflects the impermeability of the job search. To get what this means, you may have to be my age or older, recalling an era when applying for jobs took more foot work, but also offered at least the possibility of agency – of being able to take steps to improve your chances. When I looked for jobs as a young person, I got advice like this:

  • “Phone to find out the name of the person who will be reviewing your application, and address your cover letter to this person;” or,
  • “Make a follow up call after you’ve submitted your resume to express your interest in the position;” or
  • Hand deliver your resume and ask the receptionist to speak to the person who is doing the hiring.

Quaint, huh?

Looking for a job was no more fun “back in the day” than it is now, but at least one had the sense that effort might make a difference. Effort today is still advocated, but in blogs that, apparently with no sense of the absurd, share statistics like “the average HR consultant will spend six seconds looking at your application,” and then advocate that you expend even more time and effort tweaking your resume and cover letter, all the more deeply investing in what amounts to a bizarre lottery with very poor odds.

The Panopticon

The French theorist Michele Foucault invoked Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” model of the prison to explain how people, in modern times, come to “govern” or control themselves when they feel they are always being watched, reducing the need for the state to use means of overt control.[2] Have a look here:panopticon

What you can see – and this was Bentham’s innovation – is that a small number of guards can monitor a very large number of prisoners when the prisoners always have to assume that someone may be watching them. The prisoners don’t actually know if the guards are watching them, because they can’t see the guards.

This Guardian article is a good example of the parallels that have been drawn between panopticon, and contemporary digital surveillance. There are, as Foucault noted, leveraged power imbalances in relationships where someone can see you, but you can’t see them. In this manner, the relationship between the contemporary job seeker and the intentionally impenetrable HR department is not unlike that between the prisoner and guard. The job-seeker, like me or my daughter in the examples above, can only perform the necessary rituals, “self-presenting” or “self-governing,” living with the knowledge that we are flotsam in a sea of algorithms and automated processes that screen cover letters, issue screening questions, and spit out e-mail responses. People, somewhere may see us. But we can’t see them.

If there’s a big point to be made here, I think it is my enduring wonder that we do not – perhaps feel we cannot – call out the inhumanity of these practices. After all, part of what makes us human and keeps us going is that we are built for agency. Unlike animals, who can only live with the hand they’re dealt, we humans must act on our world.[3] If we don’t act on our physical world, we physically die. If we don’t or can’t act on the world in a psychological sense, we suffer a psychological death. It’s called despair.

So, I do wonder about the people behind the automated emails, messages, and screening processes. Perhaps they are detached? Perhaps they are simply weary, swamped by tides and tides of need. Perhaps they don’t think about these things at all? I am genuinely curious.


Notes and References

[1] Please fuck off.

[2] I’ve made the argument pretty simple here. To nerd out further on how Foucault invoked the panopticon, you can consult any number of accounts online. Here’s a perfectly decent summary with references.

[3]This distinction between people and animals is drawn by Hannah Arendt, who in turn is speaking from a long history of philosophers who have probed “what it means to be human.” If you are not familiar with philosophy, this branch of philosophy that asks about the essence of things (including the essential character of being human) is called ontology.

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