Human Resources and Cancel Culture
Current human resource (HR) policies deliberately misuse terms such as diversity and equity to achieve political ends. That isn’t news. But the process by which those terms were twisted into their current shapes is worth a look. Likewise, it is important to see how their current usage is grounded in economic ignorance and unsound ethics. Sadly, the resultant HR policies -- including microaggression training and gender-and-race training -- feed a growth industry of diversity hucksters. These quick-buck artists subvert productive corporate meritocracies and replace them with systems that enshrine mediocrity, manufacture complaints, and generate resentment – not to mention whining and pearl clutching. Even worse, the dismal results of these programs only seem to validate those who started them! The dysfunctional corporate cultures they create give politically motivated HR staff an opportunity to “referee” disputes among their newly infantilized employees. Meanwhile, adults who just want to do their jobs well, get paid, and go home are marginalized or driven off – as in the case of Google engineer James Damore; scores of editors, journalists, and columnists; and university professors in the U.S. and Canada.
From Cross-Cultural Training to “Woke” HR Policies
It wasn’t always this way. Cross-cultural business training is a valuable initiative that goes back at least 50 years. In the 1990s, for example, innovative firms offered programs based on the work of Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. Hofstede’s “cultural dimensions theory” identified crucial differences in world cultures. His theory was adapted and incorporated into programs that assist employees as they conduct business around the world. In particular, these programs train people to respond appropriately to the following culture-based sensitivities, or “dimensions”:
- Hierarchy -- the ways (and degree to which) people rank themselves and interact at work and socially.
- Change tolerance – the importance of maintaining traditions, personal loyalties, and rules vs a willingness to innovate, take risks, and control your destiny.
- Group dependence – the relative importance of the individual vs the group – including the importance of independent action and decision-making vs acting as part of a team based on a shared consensus.
- Diversity receptivity – how roles, power, authority, and expectations are associated with gender, race, religion, and country of origin.
- Status attainment – the importance of goals and personal achievement for a sense of well-being vs one’s family position, social connections, sense of job satisfaction, and personal traits.
- Relationships – the importance of long-term relationships and a history of trust before engaging in business, pricing, and schedules.
- Communication – the importance of having deep, contextual, background information for each situation and a more complete sets of nonverbal cues in addition to language.
- Time – the degree to which time is seen as something that you control with plans and schedules as well as the willingness to engage in many activities simultaneously vs. only one.
- Space – the use of space to define oneself when speaking to others as well as privacy in the workplace and for living spaces.
These cultural dimensions express a rich legacy of human interrelationships, and they inform the way people respond to business offers and conduct. Employees who receive competent cultural training are more able to engage businesspeople in different cultures. As a result, there are no enemies, no oppressors, no victims. Sadly, this is not the case with the “cancel culture” generated by enforced equality and faux diversity.
New Frontiers in Failure: HR Departments in Action
Bored with their “pedestrian” mission of helping employees do their jobs, HR departments have changed their focus. They want what economist Thomas Sowell calls “cosmic justice,” going far beyond their area of competence – and anyone else’s. It’s a leftist agenda of postmodernism, identity politics, and intersectionality – complete with its mythology of oppressors and victims. And they’ve manufactured lots of victims and oppressors as finger-pointing reaches epic levels. Professors Michael Rectenwald and Jordan Peterson have outlined the history of this movement in academia. Consequently, I can focus on its most common manifestation in HR departments: the obsession with (1) equality and (2) superficial “diversity” characteristics such as skin color, gender identity, sexual preference, and one’s biological sex.
The Procrustean Ideal of Equality
Legend tells us that Procrustes was a robber with an iron bed. He forced his victims to lie on it: If the victim was shorter than the bed, Procrustes stretched him on a rack until he fit. If the victim was longer than the bed, he cut off the legs until perfection was achieved. Either way, the victim died. That’s the faith-based religion of today’s egalitarians. Moreover, their understanding of economics is just as crude and its results just as cruel as Procrustes’. Economist David Henderson has thoroughly debunked today’s equality fetish – devastating the notions that people are becoming poorer, are trapped at low income levels, or should be taxed more heavily if they’re wealthy. He also points out that people too quickly assume that wealth is obtained in a nefarious manner. Some people indeed do achieve wealth through political favors and other forms of dishonesty, but most earn their wealth by making our lives better and by increasing worker productivity by means of wise investments.
Likewise, notions of unfairness regarding sex and skin color are based in ignorance. Thomas Sowell long ago debunked the notion that women unfairly earn only 75% of what men earn. He wrote, “As far back as 1971, single women in their thirties who had worked continuously since high school earned slightly more than men of the same description.” How? Men accept different types of jobs (in risk and unpleasantness) than women, work for their employers much longer (seniority), and work more hours each year. Once you factor in these choices, the so-called wage gap disappears. Likewise, Sowell has documented the misguided nature of claims that minorities suffer earning disparities as a result of racism. He showed that individual choices are the primary cause of measurable disparities – often influenced by, but not determined by, cultural attitudes.
A Focus on the Superficial
By focusing on characteristics that aren’t essential to the job – such as skin color, gender, sexual preferences, and a growing list of “identities” – HR departments expend scarce resources on policies that don’t contribute to the bottom line. Seeking to achieve sexual parity in hiring, for example, they ignore the findings of psychologists, who have identified a set of Big Five personality traits. What do they show? Despite exceptions and significant overlap between the sexes, sex-specific personality traits result in men and women having different interests. These differences are expressed in all cultures, including those that attempt to prevent gender-specific behavioral reinforcement during childhood (generating the gender equality paradox). Ironically, the welfare state itself tends to reinforce the gender equality paradox. And you can’t penalize sex-based differences without doing significant harm.
What will be the outcome at organizations that substitute sex- and race-based quotas for genuine ability and merit? How will these programs affect medical safety in an operating room or the design of a bridge? You can’t have performance if you hire employees based on characteristics that reduce the pool of qualified applicants. Pick one or the other, corporate America! You can’t have both. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken’s quip about democracy, “American organizations deserve to get exactly what they ask for – good and hard.”
Lawrence M. Ludlow provides international location analyses, marketing, and business writing services to corporate clients. He holds an M.A. in medieval studies from the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies and has lectured on manuscripts, early printing, and art history at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the San Diego Public Library.