Corporate America has mutated over the course of the last thirty years into a completely different creature. Back in the ‘90s if you worked for even a cold-blooded corporation like Raytheon and even though you knew (and they admitted) that you were nothing but a faceless cog to them that they would layoff at the drop of an earnings point still there was an honesty about what they were about and what your place in the company was. You were there because they had measured your competency and they had work that they were willing to pay you to do. And as long as you accomplished that work in a satisfactory manner and they continued to have that work for you to do, then you were a cog in good standing with Raytheon.
But in the last five years a very different model has existed at American corporations. A larger and larger proportion of the company’s time and energy is invested in social justice. And not just in the trappings and theater that corporations have up until now been involved in. These trappings are things like sensitivity training and “celebrations” of diversity where they hand out rainbow magnets with which everyone must festoon their cubicles. We’ve all learned to ignore all that crap because it’s annoying but relatively harmless.
What isn’t harmless is the diversity hires that don’t work. I group this category into two cases. The first case is the out and out hopeless employees. A few years back we had an opening for a senior process engineer. This requires someone with about five years of experience. We don’t need a genius but we do need to have someone who knows the basic requirements for the process equipment that we use and also competency in the engineering knowledge that we typically need. So, heat transfer, fluid mechanics, material science and the good manufacturing practices that the FDA expects in a biopharma plant. My boss at the time had a found a candidate. The candidate was a senior engineer at one of our competitors. But more importantly she was a black woman from Africa. He was in heaven. She was a threefer; a woman, black and a foreigner. He sang her praises and told me how much she would bring to the process engineering group through her pluperfect quantities of diversity. For a minute I was afraid he would jump up on his desk and start dancing or burst into tears. I nodded my head and inwardly hoped for the best.
Well, she was utterly unqualified. She was completely unfamiliar with even the simplest equipment and instrument components. One of the first thing a chemical process engineer becomes familiar with at his first job in a processing plant is relief valves. The senior engineers love to stick the newbies with the thankless task of sizing and specifying these devices. There are a bunch of safety cases that have to be considered that have to do with things like a fire breaking out in the area or a runaway reaction occurring. I was prepared to have to teach her how to do the sizing calculations. What I wasn’t expecting was that she didn’t even know what a relief valve is. I was kind of stunned. What I realized then was that they had hired someone who wasn’t an engineer. She wouldn’t be able to do any of the work that her spot on the team would get assigned. Six people would have to do the work of seven. Luckily for us this very personable woman spent most of the remainder of her time with us either on maternity leave or sick leave. She ended up having two and a half children before she left for her next diversity engineering position with one of our competitors.
That’s the first category, the completely useless. The second category is not as absurd but much more damaging and demoralizing. This is the Supergirl category. Here they select a straight out of college young woman, preferably an attractive blonde girl, and put her in charge of a large group of qualified technical people and by dint of power point slides and corporate blather elevate her to upper management. She has a very high-ranking male boss as her mentor who makes sure that everyone on the team understands that failure is not an option. So, if she decides to institute a continuous improvement program that requires everyone to work eighty-hour weeks to constantly update the systems in an almost random fashion on a bimonthly basis then that is what everyone will do if they want to remain on the “team.”
And that is what will be. For the younger people they’ll accept this nonsense because they’re trying to build a career. But it’s extremely discouraging for the qualified people working under this wunderkind. And not just the men. Plenty of the senior women are outraged that they’ve been leapfrogged over by goldilocks and they immediately assume she’s sleeping with the boss. So, morale goes straight to hell and anyone who can leave, does. Eventually the problems this causes are laid at the feet of her boss and she gets kicked upstairs to the executive suite where the whole thing probably happens again.
And in the last year since the George Floyd fiasco things have gotten even worse. Now straight white men have been targeted as people who can be openly harassed as bad people. This is accelerating the exodus of qualified professionals from these woke companies. The people who remain are a combination of either those who desperately need their jobs or those who agree with the social justice narrative. And there are even straight white men who fit the latter case. Canadians seem especially well suited for this environment.
But that brings me to the point of this post. In the old days even at the most dehumanizing corporate hellholes you would still find plenty of humans, people you wouldn’t mind sharing a beer or playing a game of cards with. In fact, everyone could agree on just how bad the company stunk. But in today’s woke corporations they are actively selecting both by positive and negative reinforcement for pod people. Working in a place that has a dysfunctional selection process that creates a caste system that ignores merit will create an echo chamber that normal people will find intolerable and in the long run will make the company unprofitable.
A few companies (e.g., Basecamp) have decided to reverse this trend and select merit as the basis for hiring and advancement. Hopefully this will grow into a trend. But until it does the corporate environment will be a bleak vista for the normal Joe.
I’ve seen many of these hires as well. One of our useless hires (Previous employer) made a major mistake that could have killed people. It was a safety violation and management had no choice but to fire her. But they couldn’t just fire her! No, the Gods demanded a sacrifice! So a senior technician (White male, so who cares?) was also fired for “Not catching her mistake”. Apparently, it was his job to keep an eye on her. Who knew?
I had a wunderkind as a boss shortly after grad school so I stayed to build my career. This woman could do no wrong. Like you said, when the problems became apparent, they fired her boss – and gave her his job. A year later she went on maternity leave for 3 months and came back to a VP position. Must be nice.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen the wunderkind crap too many times. I’ve even been passed over because I didn’t fit the apparent “demographic need” (ie, I wasn’t female and attractive). I had been at one very large company for 6 years (12 years of total experience in the workforce) and was deemed not the right fit for a manager role that they gave to a 23 year old. To be fair, she was gorgeous. I could see the draw. Beyond that though, she ticked several other boxes as well… she was personable, easy-going, and seemed to be a real “go-getter,” etc.
She just wasn’t real bright. And the M&A role she was promoted into needed a bright person. She actually skipped one “level” and was essentially promoted twice into this role. They did offer me a transfer into the group, but it would have been a lateral move and I would have been working for this girl. I passed on the move, much to my manager’s relief.
She is now employed with the same company and has been promoted a couple times beyond that manager role to a “director,” whatever that means.
The company was trying the “woke” thing, even back in 2011 when this particular story took place. They had a women’s development group, etc. We even had meetings where they told us that they were not trying to “promote” women just because they were women even though that’s exactly what they were doing. They apparently forgot that actions speak loudly, and we weren’t blind just because we were men.