They’ve Got Your Number(s)


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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67 Responses

  1. Avatar Damon says:

    That HR guy was a jerk.Report

  2. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Please check your email, @will-Truman.Report

  3. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    I’ve been very lucky with most of my work groups that they encourage interaction. My current manager told me that he is okay with us socializing on the clock for an hour per day because the positive relationships we build make our collaborations extremely productive.

    I sense a real change in corporate culture coming. There is starting to be an overwhelming amount of data that the traditional workplace is going away quickly.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      I sense a real change in corporate culture coming. There is starting to be an overwhelming amount of data that the traditional workplace is going away quickly.

      I’ve heard rumblings about that too. I know a guy, for example, who basically is making a career out of changing corporate decision-making and internal dynamics based on some of the stuff Will references in addition to stuff like altering communication paths, delineating accountability between and within groups (to increase individual ownership over tasks, not to punish transgressors), revising the corporate psychology upon which individuals are incentivized to be productive individually and within groups. Basically, he’s all about replacing multiple small sticks with a few bigger carrots. Apparently, he’s finding lots of work as a consultant doing this sort of thing.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I know someone who runs a few companies (well, maybe more than a few). He’s not the CEO, though, because the corporations don’t need one.Report

  4. Avatar Lyle says:

    Interestingly back when I interviewed for a job in 1976 the had a shared break as a food cart was brought by, and then a bell rung to attract folks. 2 months later when I went to work this had changed. So the shared break idea is not new.Report

    • Avatar LWA says:

      Maybe they had to change it because everyone would salivate anytime a bell rang.Report

    • I temped at an office in Downtown once for a couple weeks about 14 years ago. And every time 10am or so rolled around, there’d be this announcement on the intercom, “The burrito man is in the building.” And a lot of people got up and left.

      I wasn’t there long enough to know who the “burrito man” was, but I assume it was someone who sold (probably really tasty) burritos.Report

      • Avatar Barry says:

        “I wasn’t there long enough to know who the “burrito man” was, but I assume it was someone who sold (probably really tasty) burritos.”

        What was amazing was that the people who always bought ‘burritos’ were
        always ordering huge pizzas for lunch 🙂Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:


  5. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Yeah, life is complicated. SO complicated that it takes real world evidence like the kind you reference to defeat the idea that human beings are more complicated than machines or can be “managed” based on trivial a priori-derived principles . But it’s good to keep testing the limits of all this to better determine just how much power management should really be able to exercise over individuals.

    All I can say is I’m sure happy I’m fundamentally allergic to life in the corporate world.Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:

      SO complicated that it takes real world evidence like the kind you reference to defeat the idea that human beings are more complicated than machines or can be “managed” based on trivial a priori-derived principles .

      Pshaw, like real world evidence has had anything to do with business management practices since 1967.

      Okay, I kid. Usually about twenty years from now things that people knew about ten years ago start becoming generally accepted practice.

      Right now, workplace management styles are just getting into the 80s, so that seems about right to me, anyway.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Hey! I know folks that got stuff into Business Courses!
        It’s good practice, too (not sure how many businesses follow it, though).

        Fire the worst 10% of your customers (choose your index). Rinse, Wash, Repeat.Report

  6. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Will Truman, Iter without a cause 🙂

    I’ve noticed that in general certain fields of law attract certain personality types. Not always but often enough. Corporate law tends to attract people who like being officious, plaintiff’s lawyers are generally a more informal bunch. HR as a field tends to attract a personality type that can rub a lot of people in the wrong way but they seem unavoidable. I suppose this is because part of their job is making sure the company does not get sued for harassment and they think clamping down on all fun is the easiest way to make this happen.Report

    • While I don’t want to completely deny the importance of personality types, I’d plus 1 on your last sentence especially. I think it’s largely (but not completely) a question of incentives.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Hr types at a uni tend to be really, really different than other places.
      They have to actually work to attract folks, after all.Report

  7. Avatar zic says:

    HR is such an odd profession; one heavily gendered ‘female,’ and heavily leaning toward the touchy-feely side of work that it can be really discomforting; both when someone more logical has to deal with it and when the policies aren’t touchy-feely, which the break-time policies here reflect. I’m sort-of relieved that they’re finding ways to measure the value of these things.

    It falls out in other ways, too. I’ve been told that the predominance of women with liberal arts degrees in the field lead to bias against applicants from the military; and I’ve talked with dozens of women who work in fields that higher from the military, and have received a lot of training in what to look for and how to think about those applicants. (I wrote about this for a magazine called “Across the Board,” published by The Conference Board, the think tank that produces the Consumer Confidence Index.)

    Please forgive me, Will, for bringing gender into this; but I thought you might appreciate the observations. I do think the bias against people who have served in the military rather appalling, and reflects poorly on the class of liberal, well-educated women who tend to be responsible for screening job applicants.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      No problem. I appreciate the contribution. Dilbert and the above cases aside, I have mostly good interactions with HR once hired. I do have problems with whom screening often occurs, though hadn’t heard about the military thing.Report

      • Avatar Lyle says:

        One question before I retired and afterwords, all dealings with HR were by web, and mail. This is about benefit choices etc. About the only thing left to corporate HR now is some hiring decisions, and also discipline procedures, as well as non job related training classes e.g. diversity etc.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:


      I’ve had guys I served with experience discrimination not just in the job market, but also in school admissions. When I was in college, I worked for the department that admissions was in, and people there (90% women) had confirmed to me that such bias was common, especially in more elite schools. It used to exist at my school, until the VA opened a veterans service office next door to the admissions office & started talking to the right people, in order to change hearts & minds.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:


        “It used to exist at my school, until the VA opened a veterans service office next door to the admissions office & started talking to the right people, in order to change hearts & minds.”

        post 9/11 gi bill and yellow ribbon programs surely helped on that front considerably. recruiting veterans and dependents for slots is a full time job at many admissions offices.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Certainly, I think the anti-veteran bias is not as pronounced now, but I went to school pre-9/11, when it was still very much a thing.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:


        “Certainly, I think the anti-veteran bias is not as pronounced now, but I went to school pre-9/11, when it was still very much a thing.”

        definitely, though one i think it varied from place to place and even department to department, and two there is a need to generally (even if i think somewhat unfairly) make presumptions and allowances about the potential different needs of veterans (and even their dependents) as compared to regular 18-year-olds. marine todd is a fiction (and now an oft-hilarious series of fictions) but there’s a very, very small nugget of truthy fear in there.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        It did vary from place to place, and what I was told was that the more elite & private the school, the more pronounced it was (vets still got admitted, but usually because they had the support of an alumni, or some such). I went to a state school, where it was less pronounced, but they told me there were ‘unofficial’ criteria that would disqualify a vet that other kids never faced (Navy & Air Force would be preferred over Army & Marines; officers over enlisted; time in service could hurt you, the wrong MOS or rating could hurt, etc.).

        Having the VA right there, helping people overcome their biases & stereotypes, made a lot of that disappear.Report

    • Avatar gingergene says:

      I think most people have to fight a tendancy to favor people who are like themselves. In my experience in engineering, the trouble we had with HR was most of them had no idea what we did or how we did it, and that goes about as well as you might expect it to.

      My current company puts more hiring authority in the hands of the hiring manager. One of the patterns management has recentlyt tried to address is that despite years of engineering schools graduating at least 25% women, the number at my company is only ~9%. We are a little better with some racial and ethnic diversity, but the ratio of black and hispanic engineering graduates / hires is similar to women.

      Anecdotally, my very first boss told me that when hiring entry-level engineers, she took it as a given that possessing a degree from a decent school indicated a basic technical competence, and that during the interview she was chiefly interested in determining how the well the candidate would fit with the existing team. That was well and good for me, as she and I got on pretty well, but it would take a deliberate effort not to fill your team with only people you like personally, and I’m not sure that most managers even understand why that’s a problem.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

        I’m not sure that most managers even understand why that’s a problem

        Can you explain why that’s a problem?

        I mean, I understand why it would be a problem for Andy Asperger, but why is it a problem in general?Report

      • Avatar Murali says:


        Because given that people tend to personally like people who are similar to themselves (all else equal), and given that people who are in a position to make hiring decisions are most likely to be white (jim crow etc etc), hiring people you personally like is something which would end up systematically denying jobs to black and hispanic candidates regardless of the technical skill level of the candidate.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I think the real problem with HR folks trying to evaluate engineering/cs jobs is that they tend to default to: “not a cs degree. not hiring” and other such bullshit. If they actually sat down with a few hiring managers and got a course in “what we want, and what is probably bullshit”, they’d be a lot better off.Report

      • Avatar Veronica Dire says:

        Actually, funny thing, apropos nothing really, today I had my first one-on-one meeting with my new manager and halfway through I mentioned that I didn’t go to college. He seemed surprised. 🙂Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I’ve heard you mention that before, but reading it again I thought “really?” So I was surprised. Again. You strike me as pretty damn smart, but also in that “academically trained” sorta way.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        I do that book reading stuff! 🙂Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:

      In my experience, people who made it to NCO status in the military are usually pretty goddamn good at figuring out what the problems actually are and what solutions actually work.

      Above that, on the other hand…Report

    • Avatar Damon says:

      Most of my experiences with HR have been that they are a hindrance to get things done, saying “No” to the hiring managers and such. In fact, I’m not even sure what our HR does anymore. They don’t do the EEOC work-we sub that out. Other than maintain the employee files and send out emails regarding mandatory training, ours seem not to do much, but Jeebus we spend a lot of money in that department.Report

    • Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

      the predominance of women with liberal arts degrees in the field lead to bias against applicants from the military

      To be fair, this is one of the things that HR gets right.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

      Zic, it’s really nice to read something you’ve written. I read the piece you’ve linked below, too. I listen to the tracks (of Tom and others playing jazz) you gave me a few years ago and think of you. That was you, I think, and not some other Rebecca Ziccarelli that goes by the handle “Zic”, and hung out with me and the rest of the Golden Horde?

      Best to you and yours, and I agree with what you wrote above.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Ha! Nice to see you here.

        You, Doctor Jay, I remember with both fondness and respect.

        I hope you’ll stick around; and thank you so much for admiring my sweetie’s music. He’s awesome; he puts a lot of joy into this world.Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The places I worked that had the most love were the tight-knit teams where we were pretty much stacked up on top of each other like cordwood and encouraged to go on break together, eat together, damn near everything but go to the bathroom together (one person who was not the manager was rotated through to stay behind and mind the ticket queue).

    There was a gaggle of us and we were always together, close enough to smell each other.

    That was the only team that increased my lotto ticket buying because, hey, maybe I’d win and we could split it up together. Looking back? I don’t keep in contact with any of them. At the time? I’d never had so many co-worker hugs during the week. Never had so many questions about my evening before or my fam or the cats. The company had a team that would take bullets for each other…

    And they outsourced us to Singapore.Report

  9. Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

    We got a new HR person who basically thought his job was squeeze us for increased performance and professionality.

    I’ve had a couple of these experiences too. For the professionalism part, I’ve always wondered if these people understand that unless they’re managing a customer service group, “professionalism” isn’t a product that the company sells. It’s a means to an end, and in most environments, the returns to a marginal increase in “professionalism” are roughly zero.

    Performance metrics are more interesting, but my unfortunate experience is that the people most interested in coming up with performance metrics are the people least qualified to analyze the data and decide whether the metrics mean anything. HR is a real profession with real skills and it’s a job I wouldn’t do well. But in all honestly, it’s not really a job that requires mathematical literacy or a deep understanding of the tasks the employees are actually doing, and those are the two things you need in order to actually measure employee performance. When HR departments take it upon themselves to do “metrics” and make performance appraisals quantitative, I know that morale is about to drop off a cliff.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Same employer, different story.

      We had some performance metrics that I had developed that were about as good as they could get. More or less everybody agreed that if we were going to have metrics, this was about as good as it was going to get.

      At some point, management (not HR) got it into their heads that it should be automated. They couldn’t, however, automate the number of errors very easily. So they decided that they would just measure length under the belief that it would save QA the time that was required to input the number of errors.

      It turns out that if you measure for length and not accuracy, coders worry about length and not accuracy. This, it turns out, did not actually make QA’s job easier and did not save QA time.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

        I’ve always liked the saying, “If you start using an indicator as a control system target, it’s not an indicator anymore.” Programmers are especially dangerous to evaluate that way. If they have an incentive to optimize for one variable, they’ll optimize the hell out of it and find all sorts of innovative ways of making it happen. So be sure the thing you’re asking them to optimize for is a thing you really want and not just a somewhat useful proxy for the thing you want.Report

      • Avatar Citizen says:

        That reminds me of the time that I had to explain to the quality professional that what he was measuring was a human driven production system and he “might” actually see human errors in that system.

        There are times I swear, I wake on a new planet every day, living some warped sense of humor of an unknown deityReport

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      my unfortunate experience is that the people most interested in coming up with performance metrics are the people least qualified to analyze the data and decide whether the metrics mean anything

      Allow me to introduce you to student evaluations.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

        Ahh, I remember the 1-5 evaluations for professors. My signals and systems prof said, “Make sure your comments are useful. Once everybody’s opinions are in, all of the numbers are high spread bimodal mush around 3.0 anyway, so there’s hardly any real information in them.”

        My last company had a wonderfully “scientific” ranking system with several categories and a score of 1-5 in each. The computer would then average them all and give you a composite score from 1-5.

        Me: “Is there any weighting to the categories?”
        HR: “No. The computer just averages them.”
        Me: “So this is number just a tool for us to discuss with our employees their rough location in the pack and what areas caused them to be above or below the norm, then?”
        HR: “No, the computer sorts the numbers and pay increases are set based on the ranking.”

        I almost asked, “So, what are the units on that number?” but the only people who would have gotten my point were people who had no power to change the system. Every year HR had a slightly different totally scientific system that was going to really normalize everything and make performance appraisals objective and fair. People who probably can’t do basic algebra are going to come up with a statistical framework for objectively evaluating the value of all employees across the disciplines. They’re still working the bugs out, but next year will be great.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        I used to work for a large non-profit that used 1-5 evals once per year. My boss, who generally wasn’t an idiot, told me she wasn’t allowed to give out 5’s. Our raises weren’t tied to evals, so that wasn’t an issue. She thought that is she gave someone the highest rating they wouldn’t have anything to aim for or have motivation to keep working. Of course if no one could get a 5 then they couldn’t aim for it since it was unobtainable. And it bizarrely assumed great workers work hard just for a great eval once per year instead of because they are great workers who work hard. Double faceplam city. That place burnt the hell out of all their staff.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Yep. And there is growing experimental evidence of their uselessness. The best I saw was a an experiment where they randomized students betweem two intro math courses, then compared the evaluations to the grades continuing students earned in the subsequent course. I.e., to eliminate the potential for differences in grading, and its possible effects on evaluations, they measured how well the students did in the subsequent course (which had a single section), as a measure of their actual learning in the prior course (how well it prepared them). There was no correlation between the reviews of the first profs and student learning.

        But best of all are the written comments. “Dr. Hanley needs a new haircut” (to be fair, I was overdue). Or my all time favorite, “I went to his office and he was boozing it up. Fire him now!” This, when I was having a single shot with a colleague, that I sipped slowly, but of course that was the comment the Dean circled, even though there’s no rule against so doing. These insights into my teaching abilities are invaluable, I tell you. 😉Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Heh. When I was an IT Manager for the Business School, I had a number of student evaluations (I was in charge of the student computer labs) that called me bad names, from tyrant, to tin pot dictator, all the way up to a Master’s student calling me a Nazi!

        Turns out they didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t as lax about rules as my incompetent predecessor. So they couldn’t eat dinner in the lab, and I instituted paper quotas, and wouldn’t let them install whatever little app caught their fancy. The labs worked as close to perfectly as one could ask, and for that, I was a Nazi!

        Well damnit, Mussolini made the trains run on time too!Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist So you admit you disallowed soup intake by your whim!!!! You know who else was controlling about soup…..Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        That’s it @greginak , NO COMMENTS FOR YOU! COME BACK ONE YEAR!Report

      • Avatar gingergene says:

        At my last job, we were graded on a scale of 1-5, but were told that a 1 meant you should be fired and a 5 meant you could walk on water, so they were never used, even on self-evaluations. When everyone complained that a 3 point scale was too narrow, they allowed the use of 3+ and 3-.

        So in the end we had a 5 point scale that went from 2 to 4.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:


        It would be very tempting to rate myself as an 11 in some category. I don’t know if I’d want to work for anybody who didn’t get it.Report

      • Avatar gingergene says:

        @Troublesome Frog
        Believe me, you don’t want to work for anyone at that company. I put it down to a learning experience of what I don’t want in a job. Also, any time I start to get too complainy at my current job, thinking about that job helps me to relocate my perspective.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        I got one for you, James.

        The year I was hired here, a student submitted as a CS homework a script that produced a 10′ long, 2′ high banner that said “(Last Name of Professor teaching the class) Sucks!” The letters in the banner were made up of normal typeface, no spaces, repeats of that phrase.

        So you had, basically this (to illustrate):

        pats ………….. ucks
        pats ………….. ucks
        pats ………….. ucks
        pats ………….. ucks
        pats ………….. ucks

        Said professor printed out the banner and put it in is research lab. It was more than moderately hilarious.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers says:


        That joke is much funnier in Courier.Report

    • Avatar Veronica Dire says:

      Funny, I was watching a video from a dude in our HR department the other day, and he kinda joked about how the engineers didn’t take his group seriously. Then he started talking about the regression models he was using and why he chose them. It quickly became clear he was at our level.

      Which was really nice to see.

      (He was modeling bias in hiring and peer review, which for obvious reasons interests me very much. So, they’re trying to solve this stuff. But it’s a hard problem.)Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

        Man, it would be great to see more of that. I strongly suspect that most of the analysis they do would point toward the typical evaluation methods being basically worthless, but some real analysis would be welcome.

        Another story on similar lines: My old college roommate is a brilliant guy who did a lot of work in conflict simulation for a government organization right out of school. Annual reviews came around and as is often the case in government, the ranking was clearly largely about seniority and not performance. There was a big department wide meeting in an auditorium that went over their wonderful ranking methodology and how everything was super fair and unbiased. And then: “Any questions?” My roommate: “Can we see the data?” Murmurs in the crowd and hushed chatter among management. The whole operation was full of applied math wizards–there were probably very few rooms full of people with better credentials to double check the methodology. Management: “No.”

        He came home and chuckled, “We’ll see if the squeaky wheel gets some preemptive oil next time around.”Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Hot damn, that sounds fun. Actually finding talented HR folks? Wow, I’m impressed.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        @troublesome-frog — Well, in these cases there are limits on what data you can see, since it might be private to your coworkers.

        At my job, we do not use traditional evaluation methods. In fact, it is mostly a peer review kinda culture, where your boss has limited say in your advancement. Instead, the opinion of your coworkers holds sway. Which seems a decent way to do things, at least for engineers. Certainly we don’t have any easy to game shit metrics to meet. No one is counting LOCs or “bugs filed” or any of those failure modes.

        (But then, I’ve been here like four weeks so I’m still adjusting. And I don’t yet know how being a queer gal will affect me with this peer stuff. My team is thick with dudes.)Report

  10. Avatar James K says:

    It seems that this HR person fell victim to a common problem with people who don’t understand how to measure something – input focus. If you can’t think of how to measure the value of something then most people will default to assuming that the amount of output (the value you deliver for your company) is proportional to your input (the amount of time at your desk). They may not even be doing consciously, but I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on here.Report

  11. Avatar Barry says:

    gingergene: “I’m not sure that most managers even understand why that’s a problem”

    ScarletNumbers: “Can you explain why that’s a problem?”

    Because then the hiring manager(s) replicate themselves, which then feeds into a positive feedback groupthink cycle. This ends up with a group which can’t figure out why something isn’t working, or even that it isn’t working.Report