A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday, 11 September 2015

Hooptedoodle #191 - Ephraim's Photograph

This is a true story told to me by my friend Brandon, who lives in California. The story is set in the late 1990s, when Brandon used to work for a world-famous computer firm, at their very large research facility in Roseville.

These hotshot computing firms at that time were strange compromises – most of the propeller-heads who built them up were ageing hippies, but, as the organisations grew at an almost uncontrollable rate, the pressing need for professionalism and state-of-the-art commercial practice meant that a whole pile of untried management stuff was delivered in huge instalments, complete with fresh staff to implement it. Brandon was an engineer, and felt especially bewildered when the world of perfect Human Resource Management suddenly arrived to take control of his working life.

One unpopular innovation in his building was hot-desking – now there’s an iconic 1990s term; all staff had to be mobile – each employee had only a computer, a security badge and a wheeled pedestal with their belongings in it. Everyone – right up to the highest levels in the firm – was required to be able to start work at any location in the building, with whatever transient group of colleagues was required, with a maximum of 15 minutes notice.

Appropriate measures for phones and computer network access were challenging but could be managed, but some other things caused problems – the old human nature thing kept cropping up, and clashing with the new rules. For example, the workstations next to the windows on the top floor were much in demand, because they commanded rather splendid views (or, at least, because it was possible to see the world outside, which is almost the same thing in a work context) – this meant that staff would compete to grab these locations, and would be reluctant to move away from them. This was observed to interfere with the optimal working of hot-desking, so a new building layout was created, such that the spaces next to the windows were now walkways, and no-one had a window seat any more. That fixed it – everyone was now worse off.

Brandon had a colleague named Ephraim, who was even more nerdy and disorganised than Brandon was himself, and he took great exception to these new restrictions on his personal freedom (as he saw them). Things took a turn for the worse when the Corporation issued new rules to limit the “personalising” clutter which staff amassed on their desks – this was a further impediment to hot-desking, since a computer, a wheeled pedestal and an indefinite number of large cartons full of personal junk for each staff member was not what was envisaged in the new scheme of things. Thus there was a major cutting-back on what would be permitted on desks – this actually got as far as some formal definitions. Ephraim – and a few like him – complained bitterly about this, and diverted some of their effort and personal focus into the challenge of retaining as much junk as they could get away with – more, if possible.

At this point, Brandon and a couple of chums realised there was potential for some fun at Ephraim’s expense, and so Ephraim continued to receive a flow of further rulings from the hated HR, though by this stage HR knew nothing about them, since the stuff was being generated on their behalf by Ephraim’s colleagues, specially for Ephraim.

The next (fake) regulation restricted each member of staff to a single, framed photo of their own family. Ephraim complied, but bitterly and lamentingly. Then the photo was to conform to new maximum dimensions, and only children, partners and up to two family pets were allowed – no grandparents, and no golfing photos or similar. Ephraim was furious, but he became incandescent when HR expressed their unhappiness at the unruly collection of frames which were on display, and actually issued a standard frame, to ensure a more uniform, corporate look.

Brandon briefly considered that his alternative HR operation might ban family photos altogether, but instead he issued a new letter, saying that it had been noticed that some staff members’ families really didn’t match up to the Corporation’s required appearance standards, and that in future a photograph of an idealised corporate family might be substituted in extreme cases.

At this point even Ephraim realised it was a prank, and he sulked like a good chap until it was time to go for a beer, when all was forgiven. Three months of fake HR letters had reaped a handsome reward, but Brandon says that after the chuckles had died away they just had to get on with their wretched hot-desking world, and make the best of it. He lasted another year, and then he set up in business on his own – but that is another story.

So this is just a silly story about a workplace prank, in another century, on another continent. The shine is taken off the joke for me, a bit, by my own experience of HR people who learned about the human race entirely through books. That was one of the trends that eventually took most of the pleasure out of working – certainly out of managing other people – and that persuaded me to retire as early as I could afford. 

Are these beggars still out there?

Death by PowerPoint


  1. This reminds me of my time working the Barclays Group (during it's 'Big Bank') years. We had a (real) directive about the use of pictures - they had to be from an approved picture library of happy, smiling, racially mixed customers.

    As my job was in the Group Archives working on the history of Barclays District, Colonial and Overseas this caused problems.

    1. Do you reckon that directive (or similar ones) still apply? It always struck me as patronising and even insulting for corporations to have to come up with fake ethnic mixtures for acceptable photos - does this not actually make the discrimination and the true situation more offensive?

      Heaven forfend that the archives should reflect the truth - that must have been a tricky situation?

  2. Yes, they are out there, but they have gone into political back rooms.

    We were very progressive in the 80's when we moved into a big glass tower on the waterfront. All management offices were clustered around the center while the employees desks were around the outside so they could enjoy the view. Yes, it took 10 years and many thousands of dollars before all the managers managed to move into new outside corner offices.

    Mind you 14 years ago today our dept still had a good view of the harbour and the airspace above it. Being keenly aware that the US embassy was 2 floors above us, our joker couldn't resist pointing out the window with a gasp and a yelp of "is that a plane heading straight at us?" Most of us laughed after a quick involuntary look.

    1. Maybe the managers were too busy (or dumb) to understand how the building was going to be? Anniversary of 9/11 passed with no fuss here, as far as I am aware - I even forgot what day it was. In 2001, I was in Siena at the time of the WTC hits.

  3. Silly question. Yes, of course, HR is still plying these waters attempting to keep themselves relevant.

    1. I recall the growth of a paper qualification culture in HR - their people would only speak to other people who came off the same production line, in case any commonsense crept in.

  4. Oh yes, HR people are still coming up with theories and generally trying to insert themselves between managers and their people. Of course they are still innocent of any science, they haven't even studied the effects of their past theories. Hot desking is still used, and various "capability frameworks", recruitment standards, standardised PDs and other monstrosities proliferate.
    What amuses me most is the looks of puppy-like confusion that cross their faces when wondering aloud why they can't seem to improve staff retention rates, and the hurt look they get when anyone suggests it might be their own fault.

    1. I once had absolutely my worst-ever member of staff leave (Fat Pauline - a nightmare). In the midst of all the euphoria, I was shocked to find that when I wrote a reference for any future employers of hers, I was forbidden by HR to write anything meaningful about what I thought of her or what my experience of her had been - it had been stitched up that I was only allowed to state whether her attendance record was satisfactory, if her shoes were clean - stuff like that. However, I did rather better than that - I wrote in the comments "If anyone wishes to discuss details of Miss A's performance during her time here, please feel free to ring me on 0131-xxx-yyyy at any time". There is still room for honesty, if you play your cards right. I did get a phone call...

    2. Outrageous. How dare they tell you that you can't tell the truth? Over (or is it down?) here the onus is on the ex-employee to request a reference directly from their ex-manager. If they have the gall to ask for one after being appalling, the done thing is to refuse. The lack of references is all anyone needs to know, really.


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