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What HR Executives Can Learn from the Fall of Ancient Rome

woman looking at the Roman Colleseum

When was the last time you thought about ancient Rome? It may have been awhile, but a new social media trend cited in The Washington Post shows a shocking amount of men think about the 2,000-year-old civilization weekly, or even daily.

As someone who hasn’t thought about the Roman Empire since my Western Civ course in college, this surprised me. I frequently find myself thinking about various periods in American history, especially westward expansion. (How did they deal with laundry in those covered wagons?) But the Roman Empire is not a period I thought of often, so I realized I didn’t know anything about why the mighty empire fell.

When I looked into the reasons for the downfall of ancient Rome, it made me think about my work as an HR professional. Are there parallels to our companies today? Is it possible that 1,500 years later, we are ignoring the same problems the Romans ignored, which led to their society’s collapse? And what can we, as HR professionals, do to help our organizations prepare?

Lesson 1: Don’t Underestimate Outside Threats

In the year A.D. 300, the Roman Empire encompassed much of Western Europe and the British Isles, as well as parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East. However, less than 200 years later, the last of the true Roman emperors was deposed, and the empire was fractured.

The first cause for Rome’s fall was the invasion of barbarian tribes. When you hear the word “barbarian,” you probably think of someone uncivilized and uncultured. This was also a viewpoint propagated by the Romans, who viewed themselves as the single civilized culture.

Historians have a term for this: the Interpretatio Romana, which means the Roman Interpretation, or more precisely, the Roman Disorientation. The Romans convinced themselves that the barbarians were “other” and less important, and they arrogantly believed the barbarians could not possibly be a threat, since they were so different.

The final nail in the empire’s coffin was an invasion led by Germanic (barbarian) armies that historians agree were weaker than the Roman armies. Their attack was successful because Rome assumed the barbarians weren’t smart or sophisticated enough to cause real harm.

Are we doing this in our companies? Are we making assumptions about contemporary outside forces and trends that could lead to our downfall?

I’m reminded of Eastman Kodak, which had nearly 150,000 workers in 1980. The company failed to adapt to digital media due to fears of the negative effect on its film business. By 2012, when Kodak filed for bankruptcy, it had only 17,000 employees, a workforce reduction of roughly 85 percent.

What is your organization underestimating that you should be taking seriously? How can your HR department be a supporter and participant in solutions to problems?

Among all the technological shifts in recent years, artificial intelligence will likely be the most disruptive. Does your company have a policy on using ChatGPT, and are you encouraging employees to explore its possible benefits? When you need to write emails or policies, are you letting ChatGPT take a first stab at it? Trying out these new technologies and determining how they can be safely used while maintaining compliance with policy will be necessary for your department to keep up.

The other trend on the minds of HR is the return to office. Many of my HR colleagues are themselves adamantly opposed to more time in the office. But I would remind HR professionals that we are a support function. We support the business needs, whatever those may be.

Our job as HR professionals is to help identify and quell external threats. For remote work, that threat might be lack of productivity. Working from home is an interesting conundrum for HR professionals because it could be considered both a threat and an advantage. It is certainly an advantage because it makes hiring much easier. However, the onus lies with HR to ensure that those working remotely are contributing an appropriate amount. Otherwise, work-from-home status could pose a risk for the company.

Lesson 2: Advocate for Employees’ Wants and Needs

Another factor that led to the fall of Rome was its economic trouble and dependence on slave labor. While I’m confident your company is not using slave labor, I do notice a parallel in that Rome had a lack of field laborers and skilled tradesmen. When the slave trade was interrupted, the labor gap widened, with far-reaching effects.

This gets to the heart of our function as HR. How are we protecting and promoting the workforce? What is your equivalent of the missing laborers and tradesmen, and how are you advocating for their needs?

Apple is currently the most valuable company in the world, but 95 percent of its products are manufactured in China. Your company likely cannot offshore its workforce, but what are you doing to find ways to fill your labor gap? Can you consider strategies such as offering English-as-a-second-language classes to recruit employees with limited English proficiency? Can you upskill the workforce you have to fill the void? The function of talent management is tantamount to a successful HR department.

Lesson 3: Protect and Promote Your Company Culture

English historian Edward Gibbon, whose six-volume work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in the late 18th century, believed that one of the main triggers for Rome’s fall was a decline in civic virtue.

In HR, we talk about culture. When interviewing, we look for those who would be a “cultural fit.” When educating managers, we speak about maintaining a “positive company culture.”  When allocating resources, we discuss what will align us with our cultural objectives.

But is it enough? What are we doing to truly protect and promote our culture? Are we only thinking of culture when we want to “sell” our company, either to a prospective hire or to other stakeholders? Are we telling the CEO what they want to hear by extolling the culture we’ve created, or are we living and breathing it?

If your culture has become talking points instead of actions, it is time to reexamine your HR department’s actions and identify what can change. There is a fine line between the manager who is passionate about their work and the manager who is a bully. There is a fine line between the person who promotes work/life balance and the person who is abusing the flexible work policy. It is our job as HR professionals to dig into these details and ensure that the culture we are promoting is positive but also sustainable.

We must ensure that we are not contributing to our own Interpretatio Romana, or our own distortion, that is allowing us to pretend everything is fine, when intervention or new strategies are needed. This is a time when HR professionals must be proactive, not reactive, and think critically and strategically about the threats to our organization.


Erin Viale is a director of talent acquisition for an insurance company in Pittsburgh and serves on the board for the Pittsburgh Human Resources Association. 


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