How HR Destroyed the World

If you’ve ever held a job in a corporation you will understand color discrimination.  I’m not talking about the racial stereotyping of skin color.  I’m talking about discrimination in the  color wheel spectrum: yellow, red, green, and blue.   Yes, you there, the one who took the Myers-Briggs or The Birkman Method or some other official sounding personality test they sprung on you before they  would agree to hire you or just before they decided on a round of layoffs or the one they proffered before beginning your career transitioning services, parlance for professional grief counseling.

The origin of these tests were based on subjective clinical observation and not based on controlled scientific studies.  The personalities, parsed down to four from 16-32 depending on the origin of the psychological underpinning, assume the administrator of the test has adequately identified the major archetypes in a specific job category.  Which brings us to problem #2:  the idea a person’s personality is static.  Environment provides a contextual backing for one’s perceptions and reactions.  I was a much happier and outgoing ‘blue’ person at my last job than two jobs ago when I was micromanaged by the CEO’s son who had just graduated from university.  They also stuck me in a small office with no windows that was a converted supply room.  At that time I was an introverted ‘green’ person that avoided social situations and felt hostile towards authority.

The ubiquity of personality tests and the people who have taken them is evident in people’s introductions:  “I am a predominately blue person with yellow tendencies but in reality I’m actually an introvert masking as an extrovert.”  Uh?  The last test I took started with: “You are a complex and unique individual….”  but the results were computer generated so I suspect the algorithm thinks all humans are complex and unique.  In the end I was unable to decipher the major differences in character traits of the different color codes.  There were a whole lot of adjectives that seemed as easily applicable to a puppy or a carrot.  Easily approachable, check.  Easily consumed, check.

In modern corporate speak, quantifying a person’s value is a good thing.  It takes out bias and it attributes value to departments like I.T. or H.R. that support professionals with working computers and a biweekly payroll deposit.  For big corporations with hundreds or thousands of people, there is almost always a formal procedure for determining bonuses and pay raises.  It is usually a calculation based on performance evaluations from coworkers and/or managers in addition to a corporate target that either augments or negates the individual’s contributions.  But personality tests fall into a dangerous realm not only because the user’s answers are subjective and easily manipulated by mood but because the person holding the results, who often are not trained psychologists but HR personnel with certificates in office administration, apply judgement with impunity.   In a perfect world an industrial psychologist would take the results and use them in conjunction with other reporting methods to determine if there are significant behaviours that could impede performance.  In the same way, under Canadian Alberta employment law a person cannot be dismissed for being an alcoholic, to avoid any chance of litigation, proactive steps would need to be taken to provide counseling or  training to the employee.

Recently, I had coffee with a friend who had survived multiple rounds of layoffs at a struggling oil & gas company.  Shortly before one layoff, after three years in which half the work force had been laid off, personality tests were administered.  As coworkers are apt to do, people had divulged their color coding.  My friend made the observation, anecdotal but nonetheless disturbing, that all the people dismissed  were from the green group.  One should question the necessity of any personality test before layoffs for the reasons mentioned above.   In this scenario, after the fatigue of multiple sorting and ranking of personnel, it would seem HR fell back on plain and simple color discrimination.

Next time I am trapped in a networking event and I am asked which color I belong to, I will plant my feet squarely, look him or her in the eye and say “I’m a goddamn rainbow.”  Refuse to be boxed into a category.  Be as complex and unique as you need to be because if we don’t insist on our individuality, we become manufactured personas.  I think humanity deserves better if not only for the simple enjoyment of better coffee companions.

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