There are shit jobs and then there are bullshit jobs.
What’s the difference? Anthropologist and professor at the London School of Economics David Graeber breaks it down in his book “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.”
- Shit jobs have bad working conditions and be incredibly labor intensive or have horrible pay, but if these jobs vanished tomorrow, we would find ourselves in a societal quandary.
- Bullshit jobs are defined by Graeber as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”
Shit jobs matter to society, but we’re not willing to pay much to those who do the work. What if the garbage collectors stopped picking up trash? What if you went to a restaurant and there were no clean dishes and utensils because the kitchen stewards had disappeared? Shit jobs are handled by people who keep us clean, safe and well-ordered.
Bullshit jobs are the ones considered “high value,” and elicit gasps of admiration from bystanders and pay a decent salary. Think about the VP of Product Experience at a fancy tech firm, or a head of HR at a company with big perks. The roles sound fantastic, but the people in these jobs scramble to justify their existence by crafting incredibly byzantine and hierarchical processes to accomplish the simplest of things.
(Hey! I’ve held that job!)
Does HR Have a Bullshit Job?
I work in human resources, and if there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s creating unnecessary processes.
- Why settle for two approval signatures on that electronic workflow when four is better?
- Let’s create an HR Coordinator role for someone to run reports and upload data to System Zero, but we’ll need a Senior HR Coordinator to present the confidential information from System Zero to the finance team.
- And then we must carve out that group (let’s call them HR Quality Assurance!) and add an HR Manager role so that someone can attend meetings, be strategic and track all the KPIs and OKRs to justify the team’s existence.
You know, I talked to that HR Manager just last week. She’s got a fancy title, a good salary, HR certifications out the ying-yang and her soul is withering from all of the insanity. Reminds me of this quote from the book:
“I get most of the meaning in my life from my job, and now my job has no meaning or purpose. It gives me anxiety because I think that at any moment someone is actually going to realize that nothing would change if I were not here and they could save themselves the money.”
–Lilian, Digital Product Project Manager, IT Department of a major publishing house (Chapter 4)
Stop the Madness
I liked this book. A lot. I’m using it at work.
While reading it a few weeks ago, I dogeared a bunch of pages and scribbled notes in the margins (no e-book for me). Then, just the other day, I PULLED IT OFF MY BOOKSHELF, found a reference to a point I was making, and read it aloud to a manager who came to my office with a question.
What were some of my favorite parts?
- The typology of the five categories of bullshit jobs: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers and taskmasters.
- The underlying reasons that people being paid to do nothing are exasperated, depressed and infuriated. Graeber believes that deep moral and spiritual wounds result when people — who want to do something that contributes to the world in some meaningful way — are stuck in bullshit jobs and they realize it.
- The exploration of how we’ve gotten to this stage. Bullshit jobs do not just exist in the government sector (a common perception) but are everywhere. While most anyone may have a bullshit job, there are quite a few “unnecessary” middle managers, corporate lawyers, brand managers, PR consultants and hedge fund managers.
- The review of possible solutions so we can fix this massive growth of pointless employment.
Working in HR, we know the bullshit jobs that exist in our own organizations and in our own departments. We’re also the group that can promote substantive change to the how/what/when/why of work.
I strongly recommend that you read “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.” I guarantee you’ll read this book and you’ll look at some of our HR buzzwords (engagement, employee experience, culture) in a whole new way.
Robin Schooling is a America’s HR Lady, an HR executive, tech lover, speaker, writer, advocate of the workplace revolution, and a humanizer of human resources. She lives and works in Baton Rouge, LA.