“Words can change the world.” – Terry Pratchett
The words that we use matter. They shape our attitudes, shape our behavior, shape the very way that we think about the world. Words can inform, empower and inspire.
But in an age of commerce, where the language of finance and resources seeps in to the way that we manage people, have the words led us to lose sight of our common humanity?
It started with ‘human resources’, a benign sounding phrase for what replaced ‘personnel’. But this is a phrase that invites us to see people not as people but as resources, to focus on their value to an organization at the expense of their personhood, their motives, talents and desires. It reduces us all to one more resource to be counted, like money in the accounts or paper clips in the cupboard.
It’s a mindset from which other de-humanizing terms follow. ‘Outsourced solutions’ replace ‘temporary workers’ or even ‘employees’, as if people were just answers to the problems facing an organization. Discriminatory practices are abstracted to ‘adverse selection’, taking the sting and the urgency out of situations that should rattle our cages and urge us to action.
Discriminatory practices are abstracted to ‘adverse selection’, taking the sting and the urgency out of situations that should rattle our cages and urge us to action.
Economy over Humanity
It’s an attitude that values us all primarily as economic units rather than people, that shelters decision makers from facing that humanity, but that also blinds them to its effect.
Treating people as abstract economic units means you will never get the best from them. Instead of their uniqueness and potential you see their sameness. Instead of people with needs and desires customers become sales units to push your product on. Instead of workers who might become disillusioned and unmotivated, who have desires that might be at odds with what an organization wants from them, you see resources plugging into a gap as easily as a computer or a ream of paper.
Do any of us want to be seen that way?
Treating people as abstract economic units means you will never get the best from them.
Why Words Matter
This might all sound academic, but semiotics and anthropology have shown that the words we use, the way that we apply them, have a real effect on our lives.
Labeling people as ‘resources’ and treating them in this way affects the way they view their work. They may feel less respected, and will certainly not be given the impression that their human identity matters to the business. They are less likely to fully engage with an organization that acts in this way, especially when these words affect the way that managers treat and plan around them.
Employee engagement affects all aspects of a business. It affects how motivated employees are, how hard they work, how likely they are to stay with the organization. It affects your value generation and your staff turnover.
In short, talking about people as resources hurts your bottom line.
Talking about people as resources hurts your bottom line.
Think Carefully, Speak Carefully
This is not an absolute. In many cases the role of human resources is found in the provision of resources to employees, humans. In this light, the meaning and the verbiage are fitting. However, I would venture that is most cases this is not the intended statement.
So, I challenge you to think about the way that you and your organization label employees and processes centered around them. Can you break free of the default terminology and start to use language that humanizes your employees? Can you speak in a way that encourages positive engagement, both from your employees and from you? Can you find the time to make your business less about resources and more about humans?
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