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A life lived in words – and music

We mark the passing of our publisher and editor-in-chief, John Hobel

Saying goodbye is never easy. Unexpected farewells are even harder.

John Hobel, publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, passed away in March following an illness. He fought the good fight, as they say. 

John had been a fixture and steady hand at this publication for nearly two decades. He taught me a lot about journalism, and the business behind it. He hired me in 1999 and I reported to him off and on for a good chunk of my 17-year career at Thomson Reuters. From 1998 to 2006, he was the managing editor — his words filled this column nearly 200 times. 

John’s work
John was a talented writer so it seems fitting to revisit his take on the world of HR. In the final column he wrote in 2006, he wrote about his first column in 1998 looking at the recruitment and retention crisis: “Back then, I commented that offering employees training and development opportunities was a strategy for winning the recruitment war. Many of my early columns focused on areas where HR could improve the employment proposition, help harried managers, and/or improve organizational effectiveness and design… As I became more attuned to the work of the human resources department, I started writing columns about how annoying employees and the senior management team can be.”
About those annoyances…

John had a lot of pet peeves, and little patience for wrongdoing. A random sampling:
Poorly handled terminations: When Radio Shack fired 400 employees in 2006 by email, he wrote “I’d rather be fired by a parrot” — a reference to the 1983 movie The Survivors, where Robin Williams is turfed by a fine-feathered friend.

“Employers put on their best face when they hire staff,” he wrote. “The same attitude should exist when they are let go.”
Remembrance Day: John rolled his eyes every year when, inevitably, some retailer would kick out veterans selling poppies, citing some corporate policy.

“Then the head office steps in to apologize, correct the situation and save the organization from gaining a reputation as a mean-spirited place that picks on elderly people and callously demeans the sacrifice given by those who served in the military. (It’s generally agreed that sort of thing doesn’t look good on the corporate mission statement.)”
Coffee: You didn’t want to mess with the publisher until he had his morning cup — one that would then turn into three, four or five.

“Beware the employer that ignores workers’ coffee needs,” he wrote. “No one should be forced to toil in a coffeeless environment. It’s inconceivable that legislators haven’t already written this into labour codes.”

And at firms without coffee, “Expeditions are launched on a regular basis, with employees bringing back as many coffees as they can carry to aid eagerly awaiting co-workers. All this adds up to a lot of time away from work running coffee errands.”

That Fast Company article: John didn’t take kindly to the infamous 2005 article titled “Why we hate HR.” He argued senior management teams that don’t value people strategies are to blame, not HR itself.

“It’s a lot like handing a worker a spoon to dig a trench with, complaining about the lack of progress and then firing the person for being an incompetent idiot.”

The commute: John commuted 50 kilometres to work across some of the busiest sections of highway in North America. So traffic was a common gripe for him — along with the lack of good transit.

“To get to work from my western corner of the Greater Toronto Area to Canadian HR Reporter’s offices in the northeast sector means two buses, two subway lines, one GO Train and three different transit systems. Or I can drive. And that, in a nutshell, is what’s clogging Canada’s highways, day in, day out.”

Writing skills: As an editor, typos drove John crazy. The proliferation of short forms, texting and whatnot among millenials led him to describe a letter his daughter received from a pen pal: 

“’Wots nu? Eye em sendin a foto of mi cellf.’ After that, it got a bit hard to make out, but we think there was some mention of the writer’s name near the end. Not to judge an entire global generation of young communicators by one garbled note from abroad, but trouble seems on the horizon.” 

February holiday: Saddened by the length of time between New Year’s Day and Easter, John created the bandwagon for a February holiday. He mused about St. Patrick’s Day being a national holiday — but it was too late on the calendar. John A. MacDonald seemed worthy, but his birthday fell on Jan. 11. So he found his muse in a lesser-known prime minister.

“Canada’s post-Second World War leader Louis Saint-Laurent deserves to be honoured with a national day off. In addition to his key role in the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway (isn’t that something we can all get behind), he has that rare quality we’re looking for in a figurehead — a Feb. 1 birth date,” he wrote. “But while efforts to lobby for recognition of Saint-Laurent’s achievements (OK, his mom’s achievement) are underway, Canadians still need that floater day.”

John was thrilled when Family Day, the third Monday in February, became a thing in Ontario.

He loved animals, Terry Pratchett, the Beatles, Alice Cooper and playing the guitar. We used to play together in his basement, me on piano and him picking up one of his 13-odd guitars. We had nothing in common musically, and he was a far better musician than I, but it was fun to belt out the tunes. He’d do the odd Depeche Mode tune to placate me.
But most of all, John loved his family. He is survived by his wife and two children. 

John’s last column in 2006 carried the title “So long and thanks for reading.” It was a nod to the “So long and thanks for all the fish” line from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a series he made me read and for which I am thankful. 

Farewell, old friend. I’ll miss the countless hours we spent chatting about journalism, HR and life in general. I’m glad you finally know what 42 means.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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