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Human Resources and private detection were never meant to be a good match.
The basic premise for a new kind of amateur sleuth was to throw a disaffected corporate cog—someone searching for a meaning in a job that has none—into the heart of a murder mystery where he might very well find that purpose in life. When I was refining the premise further to a specific job within a company, Human Resources became the clear choice. What better job to personify disillusionment and existential crisis than the person watching over all the disillusioned people undergoing existential crises in their meaningless jobs?
Soon after I started writing the Chuck Restic mystery series, I realized that an HR exec as a private detective wasn’t so far-fetched an idea after all; in fact, the skills of your average HR person actually translate quite well to the world of private detection.
One of the main attributes of being a detective is the ability to extract information from people and know when someone is lying. Those in Human Resources demonstrate this skill every day when interviewing potential employees. Sure, the room is likely nicer, there’s no two-way mirror, and in most cases, no handcuffs—but at its core, one person is trying to discover the truth while the other is trying to present an image that’s, at best, one-third accurate.
This isn’t exactly easy, either. Over the last two decades, resumes and interview responses have gotten so bloated with fluff and jargon that it’s become nearly impossible to glean what someone actually does:
“Facilitated discussions among teams of senior managers…”
“Liaison for strategic external clients…”
“Workflow oversight of core content deliverables…”
A good HR person can see past the jargon from even the most experienced interviewee. They are able to navigate the subterfuge and discern the truth behind people’s words:
Investigation is another core function of the HR role. Granted, the “crimes” being investigated never quite reach the level of a triple homicide, but discovering who stole the half-and-half from the communal fridge comes close when failure means facing down legions of angry caffeine addicts. And unmasking the person who’s been using the Mother’s Room to do phone interviews is a high-stakes operation when you factor in the risk of a million-dollar lawsuit from a pissed-off mom who’s just returned to work from maternity leave and is leaking through her silk blouse. Even in these lesser crimes, the core tenets of good detective work—observation and deduction—and all the techniques—stakeouts, interviews, research—are essential if an HR exec is ever going to solve the case.
Unfortunately, the final attributes of all great detectives—courage and the tenacity to see things to their end—are woefully lacking in many HR folks. While most of them hold black belts in passive aggression, they aren’t generally known for their bravery. In their defense, the corporate structure doesn’t typically reward people for standing tall, fighting for what’s right, or being the lone voice. Those types of people are pushed aside, marginalized, or outright terminated. Anyone with a long tenure at a big firm (and a desire to keep it that way until they retire) learns early on that there’s safety in numbers and that what’s “right” is what the most senior person in the room says is right.
That’s where the existential crisis and the need for a purpose come back into play. My character Chuck Restic—a longtime HR guy for a large downtown-LA firm—might not exactly demonstrate courage at work, but he sure does outside the office when he’s on a case in the real world where people’s lives are at stake. And if Chuck’s able to take those same skills he practices every day in a meaningless job monitoring employees’ petty internet excursions and apply them down on the dirty streets below his hermetically sealed corporate skyscraper in search of truth and justice, he may just find that purpose in life he’s been longing for.
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Adam Walker Phillips is a 20-year veteran of Corporate America. He has endured countless PowerPoint decks, offsite retreats and visioning sessions, synergies, and synergistically-minded cross-functional teams to bring you the Chuck Restic mystery series. He lives with his wife and children in Los Angeles.