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Our world of words.

Should we stop calling it Human Resources?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Shakespeare. But “not if they were called ‘stench blossoms’,” argues Bart Simpson. In an attempt to test this hypothesis, 44’s Alan Coates explores the idea that in the language of business, the words we choose to use make all the difference in the world.

The saying goes that you are what you eat – and I think it’s the same for what you read. Over the years I have seen my reading habits change from my favourite fiction (Douglas Adams, P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie) to predominantly non-fiction. More specifically, I’ve been reading a lot of biographies and books on business theory and development.

However – among the regular golden nuggets of insight and endless (endless!) models of organised thought – there seems to be an undercurrent running through the various volumes, which I feel is a recurring issue: how we talk about people in business.

We know our people are important

In our profession we often set ourselves as the advocates for the people that make up our businesses. We know that not only is a business nothing without its colleagues, but that in the MacLeod and Clarke report (2009), we’re shown that engaged employees take fewer sick days, understand customer needs better, and are less likely to leave the organisation.

What I haven’t yet come across, however, is that people like to be referred to as a ‘resource’.

So why do we use the phrase Human Resources?

In the late 19th century, there was a movement to improve and maintain the welfare of people working in organisations – predominantly to safeguard women and young girls. They were dubbed ‘welfare secretaries’, and it led to the start up of separate organisations such as the Welfare Workers’ Association, which we now call the CIPD.

During the 1920’s, we would go on to call the role ‘Labour Manager’ or ‘Employment Manager’, and extended the scope to include managing worker absence, recruitment, dismissal and remuneration.

It was in the 1980’s that, along with a ‘greed-is-good’ mentality and red suspenders, we inherited the phrase ‘Human Resources Management’ from the USA.

America’s finest beatnik philosopher and comedian George Carlin examined this in the context of the business trend of ‘soft language’ – using alternative words to hide a harder truth. People aren’t ‘fired’, he would argue, management just wanted to ‘curtail redundancies in the Human Resources area’.

So, the idea of ‘Human Resources’ has been with us for around 30 years. Skip ahead a few years and we might be seeing more ‘Employee Success’ teams, like at Salesforce, or ‘People @’, as in the case of Facebook. We might even start seeing a few instances of ‘People Experience’ – abbreviated to PX in the US Army. Time will tell.

Why does any of this matter?

I think there are two reasons why the language matters. Yes, it could be argued that so long as a colleague knows where to go to get help, the name of the team is of little consequence against the wider business strategy.

But my first argument is this – as management guru Peter Drucker famously observed – culture eats strategy for breakfast. What we feel like when we enter our workplace is part of our culture. What we feel comfortable talking about when we get a coffee from the canteen is part of our culture. How much interaction we have with different and senior members of the business is culture. And how we self-identify in the workplace is culture. And so, it follows that if people self-identify as a resource, they will feel one way. If they feel like their talent is being managed, they’ll feel another. The language the business chooses to use is part of a tapestry that connects all employee experience and shouldn’t be dismissed.

My second argument is one of cognitive scope limitation. Okay, bear with me on this one. The idea, put forward by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is that any human has a theoretical limit to the number of stable social relationships they can maintain. It makes sense. Use the example of birthday cards. You only write them for people you maintain close relationships with, and that number is probably between 20 and 50 each year. Called ‘Dunbar’s number’, he put this number closer to 150 people. Now, put this in a business setting, and the person running a FTSE 100 company with thousands of employees can’t be expected to know everybody’s name or understand their personal backgrounds and individual needs. So, what happens? They become a data point on a spreadsheet. They become a resource. They become an asset. And this isn’t a criticism on any company or any individual – only an observation on the way our minds naturally work.

So, I say let’s change the way we talk about our people. Let’s be reflective of the times when these phrases were born, and how far we’ve come in the time since.

To close, I’d like to quote Dale Carnegie’s classic guide on How to Win Friends and Influence People, who I think summed up the argument. “Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely’.

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