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Opinions expressed on this blog reflect the writer’s views and not the position of the Capgemini Group

Les Miserables of HR Practice

Along with what seems most of the population I went see the film Les Miserables and 157 minutes later I appeared blinking into the daylight singing ‘One Day More’ and have been doing so for the next two weeks. I’m not quite sure what the cure is for getting the melody out of my head and have tried singing along (not great when I have ‘Master of the House’ in my head) so I give up and I have immersed myself in the musical story of Les Miserables.

Having studied this, I now understand why it is so miserable which of course is because there is limited HR good practice within the two workplaces depicted in the film. I feel Victor Hugo has some important messages for us.

1. Javert, Prison Guard and later Policeman

The treatment of Javert by his employers is quite cruel. This is a man who is devoted to his work as we hear him say/sing ‘my duty’s to the law’. From the very beginning, he distrusts Valjean will ever contribute to society but as the story progresses he becomes obsessed with him. At no point do we ever see his employer provide support and recognise that he is heading for a breakdown, that then causes his suicide.

Indeed, during the years of Valjean evading capture, Javert is promoted from prison guard to policeman. The appropriate action from the employer and Human Resources department is to ensure that Javert is ready for promotion and is clear of his performance requirements and that it is set against a clear job profile and competencies of the organisation. There is no evidence to suggest this has ever occurred and there is certainly no suggestion of management support in his newly promoted position. Furthermore, there is no performance rating or annual appraisal conversation. Indeed, it does not appear that he is ever managed which inevitably leads to his demise. The Capgemini support his employers could have received would be to develop and support a culture that provides transparent performance and talent management. This would ensure that employees such as Javert will be ready for promotion, understand what is expected in their new roles and a consistent standard of performance is achieved with a view of the requirements of effective talent management. Instead, we witness one man’s obsession and fail to see what value this provides to the employer while no other criminals have been caught.

2. Fantine, factory worker

Within a different workplace in Les Miserables we witness Fantine being dismissed. The foreman’s reason for sacking her is due to peer pressure ‘At the end of the day she’ll be nothing but trouble…you must sack her’ and his own sexist views. There appears to be no grievance or diversity policies followed or an attempt at providing a reference, which then leads Fantine to further difficulties. There are two concerns this presents to the HR Practitioner. The first, is the employer made no assessment as to what Fantine’s personal circumstances were and had that happened he would have learnt that she had childcare commitments. At this stage Capgemini may well have suggested that they review their working arrangements and consider smart working with an emphasis on output and supporting mobile and remote working. By doing this Fantine, would have been able to work around her childcare commitments and it is likely that such a change would increase her motivation and productivity. The second issue is the management skills of the foreman. It is encouraging that Valjean delegates authority (so he can presumably take up singing and childcare services) but the foreman does not seem to know how to treat employees and does not follow the leadership example of Valjean.  Disappointingly, Valjean does not address these management concerns, which is likely to lead to further problems across management.   

Had effective employee transformation practices been provided there would be a lot less misery within this story. In defence of the poor HR practices it is a depiction of the nineteenth century employment practice and I hope we have moved on from this. It may well be worth asking though, is your HR practices more Les Miserables than it should be?

About the author

Nicole Gee
Nicole Gee
Nicole is a senior consultant, within the Employee Transformation team and joined Capgemini in 2011. She has had projects within the finance sector, local and central government. Prior to this she was a senior Human Resources manager within the NHS. Nicole’s interests are change management, HR strategy and learning and development strategy within organisations.
1 Comment Leave a comment
smytton's picture
Unfortunately I don't think these paractices remained in the nineteenth century (although my view is that their appearance may vary by industry) and I think that one of the key opportunities for HR is to embed an organisational culture where these practices do not happen. P.S. The way to remove 'Master of the House' from your head is to go to see Viva Forever 'Tell me what you want what you really really what'!

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