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When HR Meets IT
November 7, 2008 - 4:03pm


Before Crazy Larry dropped out to play the train conductor in some holiday “experience” that we aren’t allowed to call The Polar Express down at the mall, he was an IT manager at a famous university. He and his staff provided support to administrators and faculty, some of whom willfully refused to help themselves yet expected instant and total service. There’s a triage for this sort of thing when resources are limited—resources are always limited—but out of some sense of privilege the faculty especially felt they shouldn’t have to play by the rules. You should hear Larry on the subject; he’s quite amusing.

But as a person long accustomed to queuing up, let me tell you: Sometimes those rules are set up to the advantage of the system, not the individual, and should be abolished. A new aggravation has been the introduction of technology, which pretends to make things more convenient, easier, and quicker, even as it imposes another level of bureaucracy and makes it harder to speak with a person when problems arise. Our online ethics training and testing for state employees is a good example. The system isn’t smart enough to know my job description, so it offers only a blanket test. Taking it I’m asked to memorize information about not taking bribes as a procurer or hiring agent, or the rules for putting in bids with the state. But someone did work to make the system smart enough to watch me take the test and judge if I took too little time to consider each question—at which point I can be reported to my state ethics officer.

I’m on the job market this year (hiring committees, please take note), and I keep running into the same human resources interface when I click through links to job listings. Clearly the software belongs to the same vendor, since it looks and navigates identically and even remembers some of my personal info from school to school. Sometimes it simply wants my name and contact info and lets me upload my cv and cover letter, which isn’t bad, though it could be done quicker and more easily by e-mail.

The worst of them force me to fill in multiple fields, screen after screen: entire employment histories, contact names, phone numbers and addresses of people I haven’t seen since the Harding administration, where and what years I went to high school, majors, minors. Pages with columns and rows of toggle-boxes to indicate what kind of software I know how to use, my other skills, even hobbies. It’s like something a fast food franchise would put together for 16-year olds.

The biggest, best-known departments ask only for a letter and cv to be sent directly to the chair of the hiring committee. As the colleges get smaller, the electronic bureaucracy gets worse, until the tiniest places have application procedures that are an embarrassment due to some unholy union between their HR and IT departments. It's not even fair to those colleges, since the best applicants might very well walk away without applying. And this, Ben, is my issue with technology: its inherent animism. Like cars or handguns or any other technology, HR software wants to get used to the fullest, even when that's not the best thing for people.


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