The most common ways we refer to people at work are possibly the most destructive business terms ever devised. It’s time to purge them from our terminology.
A few years ago, Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry Wehmiller, asked a military general, “How do you train or condition people to kill other people?” His answer was, “We don’t. We teach them to take out targets that make bad decisions.” Chapman went on to rightly observe, “The military uses language to dehumanize the taking of lives. We do the same thing in business.” When we refer to people as “head count”, “human capital”, and a “human resource” we unintentionally dehumanize them as well.
How Did We Get Here?
In his 1909 groundbreaking paper titled, “The Principles of Scientific Management” Frederick Taylor developed the idea of “task allocation”, which broke work down into the simplest, most mundane tasks (“put this nut on that bolt”). This intentionally took all the thinking out of work, turned it into a rote “task”, and in the process, fully dehumanized the worker. Charlie Chaplin described the result as, “Machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts.”
Slave, Stiff, Cog, Hand…
The very concept of an employee came from the Factory System period of 1850-1970, which not so subtly turned employees into “stuff”. The factory system needed people to run the machines, but the less human they acted and the more they resembled machines, the better the system worked. We’ve left the machines behind, but it’s still convenient to see people as “stuff”, as extensions of machines. When you search the thesaurus for synonyms for “employee”, some of the more disturbing synonyms listed are things like “slave”, “cog”, “hand”, “hired gun”, “desk jockey”, “hireling”, and “working stiff.” What we call people at work doesn’t have a respectable history. With that legacy in hand, it’s very easy to see how we got here.
Things That Dehumanize
A common definition of racism is, “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” When we refer to people at work as “head count”, “cogs”, “work force”, “capital”, or as a “resource”, we conveniently reduce them to something inferior and less human. We did this to people for centuries to enslave them. Doing it to people to dehumanize them at work is nowhere near as egregious, but it is built on the same principles of false superiority and inferiority. If we don’t have to see people as fully human, it makes it easier to make decisions that negatively impact them.
There are a number of ways we refer to people at work that are deconstructive. All of them should be as off-limits as any racial slur, not because they are on the same level, but because both are dehumanizing. Here are some of the worst:
…And the most subtle and insidious of all, “human resources”, which reduces people to the level of a chair, computer, forklift, or other business resource.
All of these terms make it easier to see people as “cogs in a wheel”, allowing us to make decisions without as much regard for the individual human beings involved.
As with most legacy terminology, we don’t think about the roots of such terms and usually don’t mean to use them pejoratively. But words are powerful and communicate; or with repetition, actually determine what we really believe. So let’s ban terms like these that make people seem less human, and that are worn out in exhaustion in our time. We can do better.
If you have a Human Resources department, it’s time to change the name to something that emphasizes humanity and deemphasizes people as a resource. The very existence of such a department might be a related problem we can talk about in another post.
I’m not human capital, or a human resource. I’m a human being. Going forward, please refer to me that way at work.
Article as seen on Inc.com