Paint brush stroke

Why calling people human resources is getting a makeover

Revamping organisational terminology

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Paint brush stroke

In the modern organisation, we tend to use a wide variety of labels to refer to the people who work for and with us.

We use popular labels such as team members, workers, employees, staff, labourers, personnel, talent and human resources.

But there is a growing movement against the use of one such label – “human resources”, along with its siblings “human assets” and “human capital”.

As a starting point, some consider the “human resources” label to be dehumanising.

When we talk about humans as resources or assets, it puts people in the same league as a computer screen, photocopier or the electricity that powers those devices.

And while most resources are interchangeable, people are not.

Unlike a printer that can be replaced with the same model if it goes on the blink, one human is never the same as another. Each human being has unique skills, experiences and aspirations.

The point is humans are not the same as resources – they are not something to be labelled, boxed stored, filed, unpacked or stacked.

And unlike resources, a human is not in the workplace to be used and, in time when fully worked or worn out, sold off cheap, thrown out or put on the scrap heap.

There is also growing concern that the label is inconsistent with modern workplace values because some consider the term human resources to be almost entirely focused on the needs of the organisation.

The modern workplace, on the other hand, places greater emphasis on the wellbeing of employees and their growth and development.

But not everyone agrees that the human resources label requires a makeover.

Protagonists argue the name has served organisations and their people well since the early 1980s when “personnel” was renamed human resources – as employees increasingly became viewed as a company’s most valuable asset.

Besides, some suggest that adding the word “human” before the term “resources” is enough to ward off accusations that the label unnecessarily puts people in the same category as other resources.

There are even those who suggest human resources is merely a label and that we should avoid reading too much into it.

Nonetheless, those who advocate for the change will tell you that all words have a meaning. They will argue if we believe that people are resources, then behaviours will reflect this and you will treat people like any other resource in an organisation.

For those convinced that the term human resources needs a makeover, there is no shortage of alternatives.

Many organisations have latched onto a “people and culture” tag to describe their human resources function, some refer to their talent and others simply make reference to their workforce.

The bottom line is that a decision to rename human resources will come down to the values and priorities of an organisation at any one time.

While some will choose to retain the human resources label, others will pick a name that better reflects the values of their evolving workplace and what their organisation wants to portray to others.