Control or no control, that is the question

1983. My first assignment as trainee was at the Defence and Control Systems division of Philips Electronics. On the premises of Hollandse Signaalapparaten b.v. (more than 4000 employees on this location in those days) there was only one fax machine.

The fax machine was in a special room in the main building. When you wanted to send a fax, you had to (1) fill in the request-to-send-fax form (why is this message so urgent it has to be faxed? Number of pages? Fax number of recipient?), (2) complete the special fax cover sheet (“how many pages has this fax including the cover page?”), (3) ask your secretary to walk to the main building and (4) hope that she would be able to convince the fax headmaster on duty that the fax was really urgent. No PC’s in those days, all the typing work was done with electric typewriters.
If a department manager had a vacancy, he process was as follows:
  • He (only male managers at Hollandse Signaalapparaten) had to fill in the so-called Green Card. This was in fact a green cardboard card, where all the important elements of the vacancy had to be filled in. Most important: the signature boxes on the bottom of the green card. There was room for five signatures, but sometimes this was not enough. For us (the recruitment team) to start legally a recruitment process we needed a green card with the signatures of the department manager, the unit manager, the sector HR advisor (called Personnel Manager), the Head of HR and the Chairman of the Executive Board (CEO);
  • The department manager arranged the signatures of his boss and his Personnel Manager
  • The Personnel Manager took the card to his boss, the Head of HR;
  • The Head of HR discussed the submitted green cards once per week with the Personnel Managers (in the important weekly Personnel Managers Meeting) and the Head of Recruitment;
  • The Green Cards that survived all the filters, had to be taken to the CEO for a special Green Card session, on Monday morning between 8 and 8.30. Depending on the number of submitted vacancies, the Chairman would always refuse approval for one or two vacancies; he would scribble some notes on the card, like “Can we wait?”, “Are there no internal candidates?”, or “Maybe it is better to recruit a mechanical engineer”. The Monday mornings were full of excitement. We were waiting downstairs to hear the verdicts of that morning. The green card sessions were dreadful. Sometimes I had to replace my boss, when he could not make the Monday morning session. The CEO always had questions I was unable to answer. One day was the worst. On a green card where a department asked for a new young electrical engineer, the Unit Manager, lets call him Herman had written: “I am OK, if Hans [the department manager] thinks this is really necessary’. I have to tell that I already had made the new engineer an offer, as I was assured that the approval of the green card would be no issue. “It is stated here that Herman is ok if Hans thinks this is really necessary. And, does Hans think this is really necessary?”. I said that I was sure. Let’s call Hans, the CEO said. He called Hans. “Hans, this vacancy for an electrical engineer, is this really necessary?”. I could not hear Hans, but it was clear Hans hesitated too long. Vacancy not approved….
Control or no control, that’s the question. When it comes to staff planning some control and harsh measures help, is my experience. Especially in big organisations. Big organisations have the tendency to become bigger, independent of the market situation. One HR manager is nothing. He or she needs an assistant. And a recruiter. And a recruitment team of one is no team. Not only in HR but everywhere there is an autonomous need for more people. Tight procedures help to keep the growth within limits (and good management of course, but that is scarce as we know). Harsh measures also help. Cutting staff with 10 or 15% every couple of years looks rude, but it helps to keep an organisation fit. There are other ways to stay fit (ref. the GE model to fire lowest 10% performers every year), but generally very difficult to implement organisation wide.
This article was published earlier in the booklet “30 Years in HR” , by Tom Haak. The book can be downloaded in iTunes. If you want to have the book in hardcover, you can order the book at (from $31.25).
About the author: Tom Haak is the founder and director of the HR Trend Institute ( Prior to founding the HR Trend Institute in 2014, Tom held senior HR positions in companies as ARCADIS, Aon, KPMG and Philips.