Have you ever read Albert Camus’ The Stranger? Spoiler alert if you haven’t: the protagonist, a semi-sociopathic man named Meursault, shoots and kills another person for no good reason, then he gets sentenced to death.

On the surface, this has absolutely nothing to do with HR. But follow me here. I’m pretty sure I’m going somewhere.

People often point to The Stranger as an example of existentialist literature, with existentialism being “the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To put it in the simpler terms of the disaffected youths who are often drawn to existentialism: the world is uncaring and alienating, and we have to do everything we can to be true to ourselves as individuals to thrive in it. (I know this is reductive, but this is a web site about recruiting, not a philosophy class.)

Notice the importance that existentialism places on authenticity as a key to human existence; the way existentialism encourages individuality over complacency; the disdain existentialism has for the status quo, choosing instead to disrupt the world with authentic actions and feelings. These terms — authenticity, complacency, disrupt — should be familiar to any practitioner of HR. They’re some of our favorite buzzwords right now.

But are we going overboard with them?

Existentialist HR

Early in March, TalentCulture held a #TChat about disrupting HR. In writing a recap of that #TChat, Maren Hogan referenced all three of our favorite HR buzzwords: “The first step towards true disruption is authenticity;” “Complacency is definitely the work place killer;” “So we might as well bring on the chaos of disruption!”

As is often the case with buzzwords, it can be really hard to figure out what, exactly, people mean when they use this language. The terms get dropped just for the sake of dropping them.

But seeing all three of these words appear together in the #TChat recap made me think of existentialism, because all three of these words are important to that philosophy. And once you start to see the parallels between a human-centric industry (HR) and a human-centric philosophy (existentialism), you can find ways to use one to explain the other.

According to existentialism, here’s what HR’s favorite words mean:

  • Authenticity: “that attitude in which I engage in my projects as my own” (Stanford Encyclopedia, again). This refers to committing to something — an action, ideal, whatever — on the strength of one’s own will, with no regard for social sanctions. An example: if I really love tank-tops and commit to wearing one to a job interview despite what society says about proper dress in that situation, I’m making an authentic choice.
  • Disruption: overthrowing and undermining societal expectations by choosing not to follow them and instead committing to something freely and whole-heartedly according to your own will and no one else’s.
  • Complacency: inauthentically choosing to do what society expects you to do, instead of authentically choosing to act according to your own will.

Honestly, these don’t seem to be too far from the ways HR uses the terms: Isn’t the authentic leader a person who commits genuinely and passionately to their team? Isn’t disruption an act of breaking out of and totally overthrowing the industry norm? Isn’t complacency the act of settling into the mundane rut created by your job’s current demands, instead of bring your own unique and vital energy to the table?

But Please, Don’t Hurt Anyone

Let’s revisit Meursault: this paragon of existentialism authentically chooses to kill a man, thereby shaking off complacency and disrupting society.

Of course, Meursault is an extreme case, and he’s meant to be. But the fact remains: we can imagine a scenario in which an unquenchable thirst for authenticity and disruption leads to disaster.

Now, I’m not saying that championing disruption in the HR industry will lead to death. Nor am I saying that disruption and authenticity are necessarily bad things. Instead, what I’m suggesting is that we be more careful in applying these ideas, leveraging them when they make sense, not because everyone else is doing it (boy, that’s ironic, isn’t it?).

I’m also suggesting that we recognize that authenticity and disruption are not always good choices. Sometimes, you have to momentarily relinquish authenticity for the good of other people. Maybe one of your coworkers really bothers you. You can either inauthentically get along with that person, for the good of the office, or you can authentically let them know how you feel. I think you and I both know the smart choice here.

Similarly, some things need disrupting — ATSs, anyone? — but others do not — you can offer to switch payroll over to bitcoin, but I won’t be happy.

So if we’re going to get a little existential in HR, let’s make sure we do so smartly.

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