Anyone who has ever seen the films Village of the Damned (based on the book The Midwich Cuckoos) or Stepford Wives, or any other work in the genre of people being turned into crazed automatons, and has also had the misfortune to work with PwC’s ‘HR consultants’, cannot fail to have noticed some very disturbing similarities.
This might leave me open to charges of libel if it were not for the fact that the person who pointed this out to me was one of PwC’s own staff development managers – puts a whole new spin on the word ‘development’ doesn’t it? To protect this person’s identity, and to save them from the sort of gruesome fate that usually befalls anyone who tries to halt the march of the humanoids, I will refer to them as ‘A’. ‘A’ said that PwC had a reputation for producing “clones” (A’s word not mine), and very arrogant ones at that: apparently some of the partners were increasingly concerned about it . As A was telling me this in a very public gathering I suddenly felt an urge to look over my shoulder and clock everyone else in the room for any suspicious or menacing behaviour.
Unfortunately, in the time since A told me this PwC does not seem to have had any success in stemming its descent. I stumbled across an interview yesterday, about the totally discredited ex-HR head of RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) that only confirmed my worst fears. I first met Neil Roden in 2001 and suffice it to say that his is a classic case of over-promotion (in every sense) having become CEO Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin’s HR head while he was at Bank of Australia. Roden, like many HR directors, was struggling to maintain some semblance of competence and composure in a job that was obviously too big and too strategic for him.
At the time he was boasting about reducing his ratio of HR people per 100 FTE’s since RBS acquired Natwest: an obsession with irrelevant minutiae fostered by Saratoga – a specious benchmarking regime now run by PwC and inflicted on many of their clients. Also, as one of Fred Goodwin’s henchmen, he had to show his macho credentials by mimicking his master’s appetite for slashing costs. What has never occurred to Roden, or PwC/Saratoga for that matter, is that really effective, evidence-based and value driven HR people are not a cost but a sound investment. What a difference a few good HR people, who understand the true value of human capital, might have made to this now state-owned bank.
Roden was never one to hide his ‘talents’ and ‘achievements’ as he won awards and was regularly chosen to top HR league tables. I even had my own clients asking me what was so good about RBS? I tried to put them straight and even challenged him head on but to no avail because one of the biggest myths in HR, that companies making lots of profits must be good at HR, is perpetuated by those very HR directors who work in profitable companies but have no evidence to demonstrate what their own contribution is. The old saying ‘no one ever got fired for buying IBM’ has been replaced by ‘She must be good – she worked for Pepsico‘). Only when it is too late is the reality revealed, when companies like RBS or Enron crash.
So what is Roden’s hindsight view now?
“There’s a debate here about what HR can reasonably be held accountable for. People think HR runs companies. I say, stop getting carried away; HR is a support function, no more or less important than sales or IT. HR critics are way ahead of themselves; they need to get back inside their box.”
Roden is of course referring to ‘critics’ like yours truly but what Neil always failed to realise was that any criticism was objective and evidence-based and we were never criticising HR, per se, only its worst exponents. It would not be so bad if he actually stopped contradicting himself: compare this with an interview he gave to PwC’s newsletter ‘Hourglass’ in February 2008 (just before RBS collapsed) in which he was quoted as saying -
“I was personally involved in the group executive committee on whether or not we should proceed with ABN Amro.”
This contradiction and bare-faced hypocrisy actually makes Roden a perfect candidate to join PwC, having passed their integrity standards test with flying colours. As Michael Rendell, head of HR services at PwC, commented on Roden’s appointment:
“In addition to a wide ranging role advising clients on all aspects of HR, Neil will be focusing on the role of the HR function, how to optimise its activity and the critical impact of people on business performance.”
Obviously Rendell and PwC don’t care what Roden did at RBS. The fact that they are already contradicting each other will soon be resolved because PwC’s core competence in cloning will soon ensure their latest recruit is mouthing exactly what their clients want to hear.
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