Hilarious memoirs from the HR department: chapter 15 of "Let's Pretend This Never Happened"

Jenny Lawson, creator of the Bloggess blog, has posted a long and extremely funny excerpt from her forthcoming book Let's Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir). The excerpt, from chapter 15, details Lawson's bizarre experiences working in a corporate HR department, coping with the terrible behavior of the employees, the awfulness of the corporate bureaucracy, and the absurdly bad job applications she received.

When I was in HR, if someone came to me about a really fucked-up problem, I’d excuse myself and bring in a coworker to take notes, and the employee would relax a bit, thinking, “Finally, people are taking me seriously around here,” but usually we do that only so that when you leave we can have a second opinion about how insane that whole conversation was. “Was that shit as crazy as I thought it was?” I would ask afterward. It always was. Sadly, HR has very little power in an organization, unless the real executives are on vacation, and then watch out, because a lot of ass-holes are going to get fired.

There are three types of people who choose a career in HR: sadistic assholes who were probably all tattletales in school, empathetic (and soon to-be-disillusioned) idealists who think they can make a difference in the lives of others, and those of us who stick around because it gives you the best view of all the most entertaining train wrecks happening in the rest of the company.

People who aren’t in HR always assume that people who are in HR are the biggest prudes and assholes, since HR is ostensibly there to make sure everyone follows the rules, but people fail to realize that HR is the only department actively paid to look at porn. Sure, it’s under the guise of “reviewing all Internet history to make sure other people aren’t looking at porn,” but people are always looking at porn, and so we have to look at it too so that we can print it out for the investigation. This is also the reason why HR always has color printers, and why no one else is allowed to use them. Because we can’t remember to pick up all the porn we just copied. This is just one of many secrets the HR department doesn’t want you to know, and after sharing these secrets I will probably be blackballed from the Human Resources Alliance, which is much like the Magicians’ Alliance (in that I don’t belong to either, since I never get invited to join clubs, and that I’m not actually sure that either of them exist). Regardless, almost immediately after starting work in HR, I started keeping a journal about all the fantastically fucked-up stuff that people who aren’t in HR would never believe. These are a few of those stories:

Last month we decided to start keeping file of the most horrific job applications handed in so that we’d have something to laugh at when the work got to us. We now officially have twice as many applications in the “Never-hire-these-people-unless-we-find-out-that-we’re-all-getting-fired-next-week” file than we have in the “These-people-are-qualified-for-a-job” file. What’s the word for when something that started out being funny ends up depressing the hell out of you? Insert that word here.

UPDATED: Excerpt of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) [Amazon]

(via JWZ)


  1. And not a single HR horror story to share? Wow, BB, it’s like none of you have ever worked in an office…

    1.  I’ve apparently just worked in smaller, more normal offices where nobody wants to put any body parts on our copiers.

      I certainly don’t have any HR horror stories to match hers.

      1. You generally only find them in mid to large human organizations: corporations, institutions (eg. universities) and bureaucracies.  Environments large enough and complex enough that stupidity can be insulated from reality.

        The universal wisdom is that, when you’re job hunting, avoid HR wherever possible and go directly to the supervisors and managers you’d be working under.  Make the sales pitch to them, because they know exactly what skills are wanted (as opposed to resume buzzwords), and can talk to you in the language of your particular profession (try explaining, say, software coding to a bunch of HR drones who majored in fluff studies like Sociology and Feelgoodism).  Then they can hand your resume to HR as fait accompli.

    2. The night supervisor was a “lady’s man”.  He had an all-female crew,  and he put the moves on all of them.  He got away with this for years.  Nobody reported him.

      Then one day two of his employees got in a verbal catfight.  This was disrupting the whole team’s work, so he took them into a closed conference room.  As it turned out, what they were fighting over was him, so he settled back to enjoy the prospect of two attractive women battling for the favors of a somewhat dumpy middle aged guy.

      At which point one of them whipped off her shoe and drove the high heel a half-inch into the other woman’s forehead.  Bedlam ensued, an ambulance and police were called, and suddenly the night supervisor’s long history of inappropriate behavior was common knowledge.

      The next day his wife heard the story somehow, while he was at work being reprimanded.  None of us knew he had a 6-foot-plus Jamaican wife with muscles like a professional bodybuilder and a temper like an active volcano.  She wasn’t willing to wait for him to come home for a confrontation, and when she showed up in the front office she went through every person in her path like a bowling ball through ninepins.  There were quite literally people flying through the air, and I heard her voice from the floor above.

      The HR guy says he heard her coming too, and before she yanked the door open and started beating his ass the errant husband was begging frantically for a place to hide… it took about six people to pull her off, and she was still struggling when the police took her away in cuffs.

  2. My worlds are colliding.  I can’t read BB and see The Bloggess.  My mind can’t handle it.  I look at Will Wheaton, twine, collating paper, giant metal chickens and a whole lot more very differently after getting a glimpse into Jenny Larson’s humor.

  3. I would never have guessed that a guy who emailed his cock around the office could be completely awesome.

    “Is this your penis?” I asked, as I pushed the printout of the e-mail over to him.

    I think I was expecting him to break into a sweat or try to jump through the window out of embarrassment, because apparently I’d forgotten about the fact that this was the same man who thought it would be perfectly fine to take a picture of his penis in the office bathroom to send it to a shocked coworker. Instead he grinned cockily (no pun in tended), saying, “I think the better question is, Exactly how did you get a picture of my penis?”

    “It was caught in the e-mail filter. The picture, I mean. Not your penis. If, in fact, that is your penis, I mean.” I was flustered, but tried to gain control of the situation again with a deep, calming breath. “Did you mail a picture of your penis?”

    He raised an eyebrow. “Would it make it better if I said I was mailing pictures of someone else’s penis?”

    I’ve thought about that question for fifteen years and I still don’t have a good answer. Instead I said, “Not really. Giving a coworker a picture of a penis is sort of universally frowned on. It’s in the employee hand book. Sort of. It’s between the lines.”

    “Is there anything in the handbook about someone in HR handing you a penis picture and asking you whether it’s yours?”

    1.  Tell me about it. You don’t want to get called into HR and asked, “Is this your article about people in HR having to discuss employee penises?”

  4. I did a lot of firing paperwork at Kaiser.  The oddest thing, which happened several times, was that someone would go through the considerable nuisance of getting hired – multiple interviews and loads of paperwork – and then never show up.  Ever.  Even once.  And yet, we would have to “manage them out” by sending three escalating registered letters.  And after a month of paperwork to hire them and a month of paperwork to fire them, they’d file some kind of wrongful termination claim.

    Of course, the biggest problem was that all applications went to HR, who then forwarded the ‘best’ ones.  Nobody in HR had ever actually worked in health care or had the faintest idea what would make for a good applicant, but they screened them anyway.

    1. Nobody in HR had ever actually worked in health care or had the faintest idea what would make for a good applicant, but they screened them anyway.

      Yeah I have similar issues in engineering. The only time it worked well was when we hired interns. HR had no role in this to the team leaders just circulated resumes. I picked the first guy who couldn’t compose a document to save his life. Fantastic software guy. I never regretted hiring him.

    2.  We get applicants who are hired, spend two weeks in training, and then never show up for the actual job.  They get one paycheck, for the two weeks, and then we never see them again.  That’s not the baffling part, though – the baffling thing is how many of them afterwards try to use us as a reference…

      “Yes, we did hire Dolores.   We sincerely regret it, and wish we could have the money we spent training her back again.”

      1. I’ve known many people, all of the Ed Norton/Ralph Kramden school of psychology, who would get weeks to months of training at someone else’s expense and quit on day one.  Usually for some kind of sales.  One failed sale and they give up, because they were convinced that they would be millionaires in a month.

        1. It was said in my call center that a common thing people would do for at least a little while was just training hop. Apply at whatever call center, doesn’t matter if it’s telemarketing or bill collection or what, get hired and go through training, collecting pay (some of these training programs would be six weeks), then quit immediately.
          Then apply at the next call center down the road. Good way to spend a mostly-effortless summer between spring and fall semesters and still walk out with a bank account.

          And you wonder why centers are outsourced…

          1. The real estate industry has a better idea that’s fairly common. You pay for your study materials and get your license, then the broker who hires you will reimburse you for your education expenses after you’ve closed two transactions.

      2. I never was in HR, but one day in the call center I worked in, my supervisor was baffled when his desk phone (the phones had externally-reachable direct numbers at the time) rang and the caller was calling to confirm references for an applicant. The person in question had been fired for showing up to work still-drunk (not hung over, still drunk) in the second month of their career at our little dungeon. They had also previously brought their laptop with data card in and spent their shift chatting with their friends on Facebook, and were given a second chance instead of getting termed on the spot for that massive security violation.

        Suffice to say, he gave a reference, all right.

    3. And then there are recruiters.  I looked up a list of recruiters on LinkedIn and called my GF over to look at the pictures.  I said “Despite their appearance, these are not strippers, these are not Miss SC runners up. These are recruiters, and their profiles say they were all sorority girls at southern universities, and  their first job after school  is being the gate keepers at high tech companies.”

  5.  If you need a further teaser:

    ‘Today I had to talk to an employee who e-mailed a photograph of his penis to a woman in his department. I knew it was his penis because it said, “This is my penis,” in the subject line. Also, his name badge was clipped to his belt and was clearly visible. I practiced saying, “Is this your penis?” over and over in my office until I could say it without giggling, and then I called him and his supervisor in.’

  6. If I ever hit the lottery, or make my fortune in an iphone app, then I am going to quit my job and join the HR department of some large corporation that attracts the extroverted kooks (Disney, Morgan Stanley, and the CIA come to mind) just for the yuks.

  7. Jenny Lawson writes: “Sadly, HR has very little power in an organization….”

    Oh Thank-You Sweet Jesus for Small Miracles….

    Most departments within a corporation have at least some connection to the company’s core clients.  For human resource departments, the company IS the client, which is why you can never, ever trust someone from HR to look out for your best interests. I’ve worked for companies where the human resource VP’s bonus was tied to reducing head counts and she would delay hiring much-needed staff to ensure she didn’t miss out. I worked closely for months with a HR Manager to reach a labour agreement with a union only to find I was persona non grata one minute have I was laid off a year later. Friendship meant nothing.

    Human Resources is a contrived, life-sucking money pit and the very best business decision a company can make is to ensure HR is as small as possible, or better yet, outsource the whole thing.

    Hmmm, maybe I’m bitter….lol

    1.  I agree with most of what you say but can’t for the life of me imagine how outsourcing would do one bit of good for the situation. The same messed up metrics-without-context would very likely be even more immediately at stake, because how else would the company or the contractor determine “success”?

  8. My job after college (software) required a daylong round of interviews.  First interview was with an HR screener.  She asked how many bathrooms I would install if I were designing a stadium.  

    Whatever I said, they hired me anyways, and I quickly learned never to talk to HR ever again.

  9. My candidate for the missing word is bedrückendvergnügt. This is unfortunately what happens when you allow me to use a German dictionary online.  I translate it as depressingly hilarious; the zornification of schadenfreude.

  10. This is the sort of thing I’d find interesting it if it was more factual than fanciful… but it sounds like such baloney from the get go.

    HR have their own printers to print porn… yeah…. okay. Not for example to print letters etc. which are confidential. It’s the porn.

    Does this person work in a real business?

    1. One morning the super-expensive photo-quality color printer the big bosses use was jammed up, so one of their ultra-secretaries unjammed it.

      At which point a bunch of pictures the night shift had been printing while the big bosses were home sleeping came pouring out.  I was unfortunately called in to investigate.

      People are weird, and the things that excite people are weird, and the porn people print out when they think nobody else will ever see it is deeply weird.

      When you look at other people’s email, it’s even worse.  I’ve written at least a thousand lines of code over my career to let non-technical HR people trawl the email anomalies instead of the postmaster, because, y’know,  there are things you just can’t unsee.  Hell, there are people I can’t even look at anymore without getting the fantods, and I’m reasonably open-minded for an old fart.

  11. As a user of HR services at my company, I’ve never had any problems with them, but I’m a pretty low maintenance employee. I’ve only had to talk to them a couple times since being hired, and I can’t say many bad things about them. I have a lot of sympathy. People treat those who work in service fields like crap, and like garbage collection or law enforcement, HR is invisible to most people except when it is already bad day (except for being hired, people don’t go to HR for happy things — they go to HR because their paycheck is wrong, or they have to fire a harassment complaint, or they’re about to be fired, or their request for manpower has been delayed, or their boss is a major problem, etc.).
    Even if I can’t say much about HR, we’re a large enough facility (1200 people) I’m sure they have some things to say about us.Question: At our company, below some of the senior positions, there is a lot of contract labor, people hired from outside HR companies to staff our company’s offices and help with the work. Is this typical for larger companies? It seems to work from a business perspective, as the department can rapidly expand and contract with the workload (lots of people if there’s hiring or firing, less if there’s a freeze) and isn’t stuck paying for people who aren’t doing anything.

  12. The prudes must have been in HR at the company I worked at.  One of my coworkers got a stern talking-to from HR because he posted a picture on his cubicle wall that they considered too risque.  It was a closeup of a woman, she was in a strapless dress, so you couldn’t see the dress, but neither could you see anything that would have needed covering up in polite company.  Also she was his wife and everybody knew it.

    1. I’ve found that the rule is never “Does it offend you” but “Does it offend someone“. Yes, that opens it up to a lot of unbelievable things being banned, and hopefully it doesn’t come down to some crazy employee complaining about that letter U-shaped scar on the back of your hand which you got from trying to break up that cat fight when you were ten, because he thinks it stands for the UFFA, which clearly has the goal to overthrow the government and thus makes him feel scared every time you send him an email (yes, thankfully I am making this up), but in the end, a corporation is not the place to assert your humanity.

      Mind you, I’m not supporting the position. I’m just explaining what actually happens.

  13. I used to work in a HR department.  Most of the problems were about sexual harassment, a bunch of idiots.  

  14. For some reason, this excerpt bothered me in a number of ways. I suppose because it isn’t funny, and also because it seems like what she’s really saying is: “HR is composed entirely of self-important people who were probably bullies and/or members of the Mean Girls Club in high school”.

    After all, what can you really say about people who find it funny to collect the applications of people who, in this day and age, are trying their best to play along with a rigged game full of bullshit and duplicity. As someone who can’t even bear to look through want ads because of the unbelievable feeling of dissociation it causes, I have to give a lot of credit to people who can continue to send in resumes and cover letters that “make you stand out” to a bunch of nameless and faceless assholes who are just going to laugh at you and then hire whatever idiot applies that went to the same college that the HR rep did, or the hiring manager’s frat buddy, or the CEO’s useless, drooling, simpering idiot of a son or daughter.

    Further, it seems like the author is completely unaware that – while talking about the unbearable horribleness of corporate bureaucracy – she is in fact an integral, and perhaps the most crushingly cruel, cog in that same bureaucracy.  It’s that same sort of self-blindness that she gets her perverse jollies from when it sends her applications for work.

    If I sound bitter, it’s because I am – and I won’t lie about it. I’ve long since given up the hopes gaining meaningful employment doing the sort of inane and dehumanizing bullshit that passes for work these days and, more importantly, in demeaning yourself  to find a job in the first place.

    1.  She doesn’t work in HR anymore, or for any other company for that matter. She works for herself. And if you read her blog you would realize why she never fit in there. Not a cog. Not a cog, at all.

  15. The author’s profile says she was raised in poverty by lunatics, which fits my preconception that most HR people would be better off doing one man shows about their horrible childhoods than working in Human Resources.

    It takes a healthier person to sublimate their pain into humor. Mostly people turn in raving “dry drunks” who go through life lecturing other people, or more often, making stuff up about other people and accusing them. 

  16. These are the salad days for HR because they can reopen positions as often as they want and let their search for the “perfect” candidate drag on for years, until they can snag the person who lies best about their qualifications.

    In the 90’s they had to make job offers the same day, and people who complained and spread rumors were likely to get the boot. 

    Today the people who spread rumors are in the drivers seat, and as managers push to reduce headcount no accusation is too small or absurd to ignore.

  17. The Achilles heel of these companies is that middle managers often rely on HR for legal advice,  which is the equivalent of asking a parakeet.  It’s even better if the employee has worked with the corporate legal department, so when HR screws up, the company must immediately contact an outside law firm. Hilarity follows.  Unfortunately legal settlements are usually quite small.

  18. In my experience, HR staff almost always act like they are from a completely different planet — and, what’s worse, they expect you to know all about their planet, and don’t care about yours.

    Example: in mandatory HR training, had a woman ask the class if we knew what “dependancies” were.  Turns out we were all wrong, we didn’t — because the only answer she would except was the weird and entirely arbitrary HR-definition. 

    And then we spent 20 minutes role-playing it.

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