Everyone hates Workday It creates mountains of busywork for everyone. So why does half of the Fortune 500 use it?

 If you've hunted for a job in the past decade or so, you've likely encountered the following obst
acle course. Applying to a desired role online, you're greeted with a login prompt. The employer is asking you to create a profile to apply? Annoying, but you go ahead.

You're given a long form to fill out with the information that's already on your résumé. In a world where we can all attach PDFs, this seems unnecessary, but — ah, phew — the form promises to autofill the entries if you simply drag your résumé over, and — oh, crap. It loads all wrong. Your work experience is scattered across the lines that want your name and address. Your address, truncated, is where your college degree should be. It's a mess. You find it's easier to delete it all and manually type in each entry. How obnoxious.

Soon after, applying to a different job at a different company, you click through and see the same form. You recognize the logo at the top of the page: a blue W with a yellow arch cresting above it. Is the arch a … frown? Geez. But you'd set up a user ID to apply to the previous job, so this should be — huh? It wants an entirely new ID. New company, new profile, new form. Oof. Surely it saved your application entries from the other job, right? Nope. Does the autofill work this time? Of course, it doesn't. Another half-hour of formatting and you're done with the application — and so done with whichever confounding organization decided to execute these tasks this way.

Then you find another job opening and — no. No! So the logo is a frown.

The company devising this torture that is the modern job application is called Workday. Since 2006, Workday, which provides software for payroll, talent management, and expense processing, has been making a mint creating misery where painless processes could be. More than half of the Fortune 500 companies use Workday to pay, hire, onboard, and administer benefits to their employees. Clients range from Netflix to Goodwill, Spotify to The Washington Post, and Chick-fil-A to Ohio State University. Trillions of dollars in revenue and tens of millions of employees are at the mercy of Workday's back-end people-management software. The company is worth some $70 billion, a market cap greater than that of FedEx, Nintendo, or Honda.

LinkedIn, Reddit, and Blind abound with enraged job applicants and employees sharing tales of how difficult it is to book leave, how Kafkaesque it is to file an expense.

Few seem happy about this. LinkedIn, Reddit, and Blind abound with enraged job applicants and employees sharing tales of how difficult it is to book paid leave, how Kafkaesque it is to file an expense, how nerve-racking it is to close out a project. "I simply hate Workday. Fuck them and those who insist on using it for recruitment," one Reddit user wrote. "Everything is non-intuitive, so even the simplest tasks leave me scratching my head," wrote another. "Keeping notes on index cards would be more effective." Every HR professional and hiring manager I spoke with — whose lives are supposedly made easier by Workday — described Workday with a sense of cosmic exasperation. "It's like constantly being botsmacked by bureaucracy incarnate," said a copy director at an AI startup in San Francisco who had the misfortune of having to hire contractors through Workday. He went on: "Getting someone onboarded using Workday is like trying to get water from your sink to your stove using a colander." The X account Work Day Failing tracks memes and news articles describing workers and companies suffering within various circles of Workday hell, from Amazon's failed migration to Workday in 2021 (after which Workday's stock dropped by 7%) to an ongoing class-action lawsuit that alleges Workday uses AI to discriminate against candidates based on race, age, and disability. ("We believe this lawsuit is without merit and deny the allegations," said a Workday spokesperson. "Workday does not have oversight or control of our customers' job application processes.")

If candidates hate Workday, if employees hate Workday, if HR people and managers processing and assessing those candidates and employees through Workday hate Workday — if Workday is the most annoying part of so many workers' workdays — how is Workday everywhere? How did a software provider so widely loathed become a mainstay of the modern workplace?

The answer, to use a term that any client of Workday could surely use, is POSIWID. This is a saying in systems thinking: The purpose of a system is what it does (POSIWID), not what it fails to do. And the reality is that what Workday — and its many despised competitors — does for organizations is far more important than the anguish it causes everyone else.

Of the 160 million Americans with jobs, about 130 million of us aren't self-employed or don't own a business and so receive wages and health insurance plans through our employers. Serving these 130 million people are roughly 1 million human resources professionals. That's an impossible shit ton of hirings, firings, withheld taxes, expenses, paid leaves, orientation training, and professional-growth reviews to keep track of. It's a world of paperwork that software is eager to eat.

In the late 20th century, companies moved more and more of that recordkeeping from filing cabinets to mainframe computers and then to servers. In 1988, PeopleSoft, backed by IBM, built the first fully-fledged Human Resources Information System. In 2004, Oracle acquired PeopleSoft for $10.3 billion. One of its founders, David Duffield, then started a new company that upgraded PeopleSoft's model to near limitless cloud-based storage — giving birth to Workday, the intractable nepo baby of HR software.

Unlike its predecessors, Workday stores our applications and profiles as objects that relate to each other, linked with metadata. How this works is less important than the fact that it means Workday could conceivably build its own encrypted database of our information, across our different jobs and applications. When you leave Spotify to go work at Netflix, your profile could follow you, allowing you to more easily apply for the job. The multiplying powers of tech could scale to free us of our busy work, as promised.

But Workday's servers belong with its clients, and so it can't (or won't) do this. Does Workday want to carry the liability of a data breach that could damage half of the Fortune 500? Probably not. A Workday spokesperson said that Workday's clients "configure the application process for each job to fit their unique hiring processes and needs." She added, "Our customers retain control over their own data."

This raises another point: Workday is indifferent to our suffering in a job hunt because we aren't Workday's clients, companies are. And these companies — from AT&T to Bank of America to Teladoc — have little incentive to care about your application experience, because if you didn't get the job, you're not their responsibility. For a company hiring and onboarding on a global scale, it is simply easier to screen fewer candidates if the result is still a single hire.

Also, because Workday is a jack-of-all-trades program (recruiting and finance and company-wide planning etc. etc.), the supposed convenience of an all-in-one platform often comes at the cost of creating frustrating new problems for clients. At one major university last year, migrating its IT — including 11,000 outstanding invoices — to Workday became a full-blown fiasco. A search on a job board can return hundreds of listings for in-house Workday consultants: IT and engineering professionals hired to fix the software and promising to fix processes.

Bureaucratic hell is always about one person's ease coming at the cost of someone else's frustration, time wasted, and busy work.

For recruiters, Workday also lacks basic user-interface flexibility. When you promise ease of use and simplicity, you must deliver on the most basic user interactions. And yet: Sometimes searching for a candidate, or locating a candidate's status feels impossible. This happens outside of recruiting, too, where locating or attaching a boss's email to approve an expense sheet is complicated by the process, and not streamlined. Bureaucratic hell is always about one person's ease coming at the cost of someone else's frustration, time wasted, and busy work. Workday makes no exceptions.

Workday touts its ability to track employee performance by collecting data and marking results, but it is employees who must spend time inputting this data. A creative director at a Fortune 500 company told me how in less than two years his company went "from annual reviews to twice-annual reviews to quarterly reviews to quarterly reviews plus separate twice-annual reviews." At each interval, higher-ups pressed HR for more data, because they wanted what they'd paid for with Workday: more work product. With a press of a button, HR could provide that, but the entire company suffered thousands more hours of busy work. Automation made it too easy to do too much. (Workday's "customers choose the frequency at which they conduct reviews, not Workday," said the spokesperson.)

Of course, Workday has innumerable competitors, their names as ridiculous as their sheer volume. We have Dayforce, Zenefits, and Sage. We must not confuse Paycom with Paycor, or Kudos with Kudoboard. How dare you mistake Namely or Cornerstone for Rippling. Beyond standard HR Information Systems, legions of niche operators offer add-ons to boost employee engagement, from Bonusly (really) to BucketList (sad but true), to Motivosity (yes).

Are any of these better, or are they all maligned? As easily as you can find a founder who hates UKG Pro but loves Rippling you can find a similar rant from another founder ripping Rippling a new one. HR and payroll and recruiting are unenviable tasks, and not easy even before scale. At the scale of a large company, this is simply too much work to expect a few people to do and far too user-specific to expect automation to handle well. It's why Workday can be the worst while still allowing Paychex to be the worstPaycom to be the worstPaycor to be the worst, and Dayforce to be the worst. "HR software sucking" is a big tent.

The writer and tech critic Cory Doctorow coined the term "enshittification" to describe how internet platforms inevitably decay. First, platforms are good to their users, creating value (Facebook, where people can connect and share their lives with one another). Then they abuse their users to make money for their actual customers, advertisers or businesses (Facebook, where we sell your data to inundate you with ads). Then they abuse those business customers to try to recoup revenue for themselves (Facebook, pivoting to video). Then platforms die.

Workday finds itself between enshittification steps two and three. The platform once made things faster, and simpler for workers. But today it abuses workers by cutting corners on job-application and reimbursement procedures. In the process, it provides the value of a one-stop HR shop to its paying customers. It seems it's only a matter of time before Workday and its competitors try to split the difference and cut those same corners with the accounts that pay their bills.

Workday reveals what's important to the people who run Fortune 500 companies: easily and conveniently distributing busy work across large workforces. This is done with the arbitrary and perfunctory performance of work tasks (like excessive reviews) and with the throttling of momentum by making finance and HR tasks difficult. If your expenses and reimbursements are difficult to file, that's OK, because the people above you don't actually care if you get reimbursed. If it takes applicants 128% longer to apply, the people who implemented Workday don't really care. Throttling applicants is perhaps not intentional, but it's good for the company.

Customer service is Workday's goal. It's just that the customer isn't you.

I once worked at a cocktail lounge with a creaky board behind the bar, and the owner refused to fix it. We all complained nonstop about the board, but never about him. He'd seemed to realize the same net benefit that Workday and all of its love-to-hate-them competitors provide us in the modern workplace: Nothing brings people together like a common enemy.

Matt Alston's writing has appeared in Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Believer. He trained as a civil engineer and now works as a copywriter in tech. He lives in Maine with his wife and daughter.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post