The “Human” Resource

If you Google “Why companies don’t hire,” you get a flood of responses — and an interesting sidelight on the disappointing job news.

Prospective employees are “under-qualified,” because, as the Wall Street Journal noted, businesses no longer provide training. But, then, so many are “overqualified.” Other entries suggest companies also don’t want to hire the unemployed, or veterans, those over 40, or “jerks,” defined as those who don’t fit in.

Perhaps the large number of people seeking jobs makes companies choosey. That encourages them to raise standards, include more people in the process, cast wider nets, ask more questions. They delay and dither and, as they do, they generate more doubts: Is the person really committed? Will he get along with co-workers? Is she perhaps too aggressive? What about illness in the family?

But I suspect that this fussiness masks a deep underlying resistance to the very idea of hiring. Employees have accidents, get sick, misbehave, complain, fight, sue, unionize and in general display all the messy attributes of human beings.

The Wall Street Journal recently noted that the time it takes corporations to complete a hire has reached a record 58 working days, and it quotes one senior executive: “When there’s a larger pool out there you can make mistakes and there’s another one standing in the queue.” he says. He sums it up: “when you hire someone you want to make sure they’re the right one.”

But can you ever know for sure? Such hesitation is the very definition of ambivalence, the fear of getting it wrong.

So all the alternatives to hiring employees are being explored. The best, of course, is robots since they always stick to their tasks and can be scrapped or retooled as needed. Close to robots are automated functions like computerized answering systems, ATMs, gas pumps, and the like. Then, part-time workers are better than full-time, as they are easier to hire because they are also easier to fire; they involve less of a commitment. Another strategy is outsourcing work to other companies that carry the risk.

Over-working existing employees is another favorite strategy, adding hours of extra work each week or just cancelling vacations for those who already work for you. Even better is encouraging employees to cancel their vacations or simply forgo them because they are “indispensible.” There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this becoming more and more common: “Vacations in the U.S. are among the shortest in the world, and a quarter of American workers get no paid vacation leave at all,” according to John de Graaf, executive director of Take Back Your Time.)

It is a frightening picture because it suggests that we never get back to the “full employment” we remember and still officially hold as our goal. It also suggests a growing divide between levels of work, the jobs that require creative thinking and those that are routine and repetitive.

The jobs that demand innovative thinking are the ones that depend on messy people, who can’t always stay in the boxes to which they are assigned. But, then, how to decide whose messiness is worth tolerating? The “human” resource in HR is getting harder to find.