Q: When Is A Human Not A Human?

A: When it’s a resource.

This would be my early bid to take the crown for crap joke of the year, except in the current world of work, it is no joke. An overwhelming number of businesses choose to refer to people not as people, but as resources. Human Resources. According to the great God Google, resources is defined thusly.

Resources: Noun. A stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organisation in order to function effectively.

My curiosity about humans described as resources has been reawakened by a blog post on Forbes.com titled: Airbnb Chief Human Resource Officer Becomes Chief Employee Experience Officer (Warning! Like every article on Forbers.com this one is riddled with irritating adverts, making it exceptionally hard and unpleasant to read. Proceed with caution). I confess my initial reaction to the headline was not altogether positive, then I checked myself. Just because it’s easy to say/refer to Personnel as HR, doesn’t make it the right thing to say. The language we choose to position and describe things is important, and though we need words and actions working together, what we say about something, powerfully shapes the subsequent conversation.

I offered the headline and article up to Twitter and was generously responded to.

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Gemma’s suggestion that the idea of framing the conversation about colleagues as resources is hideous, feels easy to agree with. Personnel, people, colleagues, employees, these are all surely preferable to the current, and most common option? I know resources is only a word, and if it’s our starting point then it sends the conversation off in an unhelpful direction.

To Paul’s point – if this move from HR to Employee Experience does represent a shift towards a more supportive environment, rather than the often held belief that Personnel (sorry I’m not using Human Resources any more) are the watchful eye of the employer, there to manage risk/make sure you don’t step out of line, then that too is a shift in a positive direction. I like Paul’s new question – where does the risk function end up? I’m not sure and I’m no expert, and when I’ve worked with and in Personnel departments a lot of risk management is discussed with and referred to lawyers, so maybe cut out the middle person and go straight to legal?

Ade sees this change of language as a good example of Personnel realigning with the business. Hard to argue with that, given so many of us believe and experience that high levels of understanding/integration between departments and functions is a good thing.

I like what all three correspondents have to say, they’ve helped stretch my thinking, and hopefully yours too. When you want to connect to these folks, click the pics above and you can link to their blog sites/twitter.

What do you think? Does it matter that we so frequently label people as resources? Should there be a shift to something less resource, more human? And if so, what? If the term Personnel, the P in CIPD, is good enough for the UK professional body, is it good enough for you too?

Not withstanding my slight disappointment that after hailing the move from HR to Employee Experience, the writer of the Forbes.com article reverts to the current norm in these follow up questions, I offer them to you by way of more food for thought.

  1. Are we still functioning in a Human Resources silo? How can we broaden our vision and begin to partner with other functional groups such as Marketing, Facilities, Real Estate, Communications, and Sustainability to create as memorable an employee experience as we create a customer experience?
  2. How can we use the tools we use for our customer experience such as: ongoing research into needs and perceptions, design thinking, and a marketing mindset to re-invent the Human Resource function?
  3. How do we create and embrace an iterative development model so new Human Resource services are co-created with employees in much the same way new products are co-created by our company’s most passionate consumers?

8 thoughts on “Q: When Is A Human Not A Human?”

  1. Hello after a long while – sorry I’ve been so tardy.

    From the commercial world, Human Resources / Remains is still frustratingly remote. Worse than that we are in the world of HR “Business Partners” which is even more disassociating.

    See, from a business perspective, a Business Partner in any realm of business should add value …. financial value and that means only one thing, namely optimising the cost line (as they can’t generate revenue). That makes them a threat which is wholly wrong and divisive.

    Personnel in old money was a support – recruitment, management, development and yes even emotional support plus a whole lot more. That is no longer there and managers have to deal with that pretty much by themselves as part of their role. It does make you wonder what they do ………

    So to answer your questions:-

    1. Yes you are. Partner by adding value to the overall colleague experience, don’t try to step on the feet of those you are tasked to support but add value and understanding (of who/what you are dealing with). I wish I could remember where I saw this (it was only yesterday for goodness sake!!!) but there was an article on two-headed people which wasn’t a Greek tragedy but was about how the people who buy things and the people who make things are actually the same species so treat them the same so I like your comment on employee and customer experience being tied together.
    2. Re-invent or go back to what it used to be? Can I suggest modernise the Personnel function rather than reinvent the HR one?
    3. Quite similar to (1) I would suggest. The problem with iteration is that it requires time, energy and commitment to change. Within a corporate framework, no-one really has the luxury of any of that for anything other than their responsibilities. There would be an argument for those responsibilities to incorporate iterative development and I think that is a fair ask but for that to happen, cut some time-slack to allow it to happen. This actually has happened very recently with a level of management who have been largely ignored for a number of years in the company I work for (and happily it is the level I work at!!) and it is making a big difference. Why? Well in my view it is because it is outside of the usual development dirge we are fed, it is externally facilitated at the initial stages and it is unprescriptive but within a framework. Eh? I hear you say – let’s just say that my reaction after a couple of “consultations”, one of which included my Director was “wow, so you are saying that I can go and try to change who I am, not (just) what I do”. I’ll take that ……………

    1. Hi Chris – thanks for being in touch with such thought provoking stuff. As far as I’m concerned, if being tardy means me and the people who read my blog get good stuff like this – we’ll wait as long as you like!

  2. Hi Doug,

    I’m struggling with the term Personnel. I understand with your reluctance to use Human Resources, and feel that using Personnel is little more than being stubborn and also feels like the reference to the function is being taken back to a previous era where we weren’t valued as a function. Add to that that the CIPD still hold it in their title and that creates a whole other level of complexity which I’m unsure how to consolidate.

    I’m reminded of a series of guest blog posts Michael Carty invited us to contribute to some years back on the name of HR.

    I’m also aware that some teams prefer the name ‘People Team’ which I personally prefer.

    This is one of those topics which often creates interesting debate, but doesn’t seem to really get anywhere.

    Thanks for the provocation.


    1. Cheers Sukh – I just chose personnel at random, then remembered it is the P in CIPD 🙂 I’m OK with it – and there will be better terms I’m sure. In any case I think it beats resource hands down. I appreciate your pint about debate and no change – the trouble here I think, is that the terminology is decided by the function – which often looks inwards, rather than out to the people it serves and beyond. I wonder what language employees would prefer?

  3. Hi Doug,

    Building on your thinking, I don’t have an easy or pat answer. I asked a question at a UK HR conference this year that the panel seemed to struggle with (IMHO) and it springs to mind here:

    If HR did not exist, and we needed to create something – a function/department/call-it-what-you-will – to meet the needs of an organisation, would you still come up with HR as we know it, and if you did, what would you call it? If not, why?

    Taking Sukh’s point, re a debate that goes nowhere. Maybe the point, the purpose, is to have the ongoing debate? Organisations and leaders crave certainty that more often than not is an illusion at best, more often than not in reality absurd.


    1. Good to hear from you Steve – it’s been a while since our paths crossed. I love the invitational, exploratory nature of your question – maybe the struggle came because people couldn’t separate the opportunity to create something new from the fear of losing what they have? And definitely – we need to get more comfortable with uncertainty.

      Catch up soon – Doug

  4. You make a totally valid point, Doug. I’d add the question as to what would happen in most organisations if the HR function disappeared? What impact would it have on the business? Would you have to re-create it or would you take a completely different approach?
    Lot of businesses use self-management or employee-centrix organisational structure very effectively. These days most people manage their own development and career development and those entering the workforce often expect this to be the case. How does HR or Personnel or whatever you want to call it add value in this environment?
    I beg your indulgence in linking to a blog a wrote a while ago on the same topic (I say blog, more of a rant, really) http://www.colinnewlyn.com/2012/07/31/terminological-inexactitude-no-2-human-resources/

    Have a good summer!


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