Amelia cat by Paulo Ordoveza on flickr CC BY 2.0

The Royal Mail literally employed cats, with the last one on the employment roster into the 1970s. Photo: “Amelia Cat” by Paulo Ordoveza is licensed under CC BY 2.0

HR professionals often compare their job to herding cats, but if you worked for Her Majesty’s postal service a few decades ago, you might have meant it quite literally.

You might not think the Victorian-era Royal Mail would have much to teach us about talent management in the 21st century. But while reading about the London Post Office Underground Railway–a manifestly pre-Internet series of tubes beneath London that moved mail through the capitol on miniature subway trains until 2003–I encountered a delightful factoid: the postal service literally employed cats, with the last one on the employment roster into the 1970s.

While initially arresting, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really surprise any student of how corporate systems and bureaucracies overgrow their boundaries. Somewhere long ago, some postal manager figured that the best way to deal with a rodent problem was to adopt a cat or two. As word of this simple solution got around the cats multiplied in number, until some green-eyeshaded finance clerk insisted that monies spent on these four-legged employees needed to be properly tracked. Whether it began as a joke or not, someone decided the best solution was to assign the felines employee IDs in their pre-computer version of an HRIS, and to pay pension contributions to accrue money for their care if they retired from the rat race

Like many other blue-collar employees, the mailcats presumably got replaced by more sophisticated technologies, but this example got me to wondering what might have developed had they lasted into our modern era of the Talent Management System. In a highly-structured large company today, you typically can’t have some random Tom, Dick, or Tabby walk in off the street and get hired on the spot, so you’d want to have a requisition in an ATS, perhaps to substantiate that multiple reputable cat sources were evaluated prior to hire, and that the required managers’ approvals for the hire had been obtained. “Reason for Replacement” would certainly need to be tracked, though it’s up for debate whether that field would have to include an option for “Predecessor Ran Off,” or whether those could be classified under “Voluntary Resignation.”

Colin W. Kingsbury, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Colin W. Kingsbury, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Paperwork would certainly have to be filled out, so the Onboarding component would come in handy, too, particularly to make sure they got all their shots. But the real fun would come later: Employees need performance reviews, and performance reviews are nothing without structured competency models, so it’s likely the Royal Mail would, somewhere in its learning management system, add an entry for “Mouse Skills,” which would no doubt lead a generation of Data Entry Operator 1’s to wonder why their annual review included a question asking, “How many rodents did the employee catch during the evaluation period?” Likewise, it’s inevitable that some cats would not get on so well with their fellow workers, and the logical result of this would be to put them on a Performance Improvement Plan, (required course modules including “Scratch and Hiss Reduction”), and if they failed to meet objectives, send them to the Offboarding module where employees who adopt difficult cats could be classified as Placement Agencies or something similar.

We’re getting well past a little silly here, but chances are good that if you’ve worked with any of these kinds of systems for any length of time, you’ve confronted data, interfaces, and processes that feel similarly absurd or nonsensical. In the battle to win and retain clients, software vendors have built systems capable of ingesting enormous volumes of data and representing arbitrary structures of ever-increasing complexity, all to ensure that no client ever needs to hear the dreaded “there’s nowhere to put that piece of data in our system.” Using all of this organizational power thoughtfully and building a system that isn’t full of absurdities requires care and forethought, but with management breathing down our collective necks and lean post-recession staffing levels, we often end up with a lot of metaphorical cats on our payroll systems. And while it’s often tempting to think that everything will work fine if we just herd all this data just a little bit more (the technical term for this is “kludging”), the better answer is usually to ignore the system, and pet the cat.

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