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Human Beings, Not Human Resources

What’s in a Name?

A funny thing happens when we refer to our employees as resources or assets: they become commodities. Commodities can be traded, bought and sold and their value is only as high as other people are prepared to pay for them. Commodities can either rise or fall in value over time, based on market forces, supply and demand. Is this really the way we ought to be thinking about our employees?

It’s a tough one, because the new improved model of ‘Personnel Management’ which we now know as ‘Human Resources’ (despite retaining its original nomenclature through its professional body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), has already gone through one rebranding. The growth of the HR Business Partner model has sought to further embed People at the heart of organisational strategy rather than as an afterthought or necessary evil and, in many cases, this model has proved to be effective. There remain, however, too many examples of HRBP roles being used to mop up the ‘dirty work’ that managers shy away from.

Changing a name is one thing: it will only go so far in changing mind sets. And changing the mind set is more important than a superficial semantic exercise. What really matters is what we think and how we subsequently behave. Whether we call it Human Resources or Human Capital or People Management or Staff Support, really doesn’t matter.

So, what does this changed mind set look like? What does it require of HR professionals and other strategic leaders in terms of their attitudes?

  1. First of all, it requires us to recognise that being an employee is only one role a person plays in their life. Beyond their employment, they play many other valuable roles such as parents, community leaders, sporting heroes, friends, partners, charity supporters and carers. When they come to work, they bring all that experience with them.

  2. Secondly, it requires us to appreciate that people have skills and hopes and fears beyond the confines of their current role. Most people have some idea of what they want their future to look like, even if it isn’t a fully-formed picture. If you want to breed loyalty, you need to understand what these (often hidden) motivations are.

  3. Thirdly, it requires us to show genuine interest in all aspects of an employee’s life. This isn’t a license to be nosey, but is an invitation to show people that you realise they are more than the job that they do. Whatever they do when they leave the factory or the shop or the office, has an impact on what they do when they return. It informs their character, their emotions and their state of mind.

  4. Fourthly, it requires us to remember that we were all children once. This is important on three counts: A) It reminds us that what we are today is not what we will be tomorrow; B) It reminds us that every person has a rich history; and C) it conjures up something we rarely allow ourselves to see or show at work; joy, wonder and excitement.

Human Resources has evolved into a technical function and in some cases the ‘human’ aspect has been relegated so far that it has almost disappeared. How refreshing it is to meet a HR professional who truly understands the need to focus on the ‘human’; and sadly, how rare. When HR is seen as a holistic function, that takes the whole person into account and embraces all aspects of their humanity, it really earns its stripes.

We’ve come a long way, and I am fortunate to work with some dedicated, caring and compassionate people working in HR. But once we allow ourselves to lose sight of the ‘Human’ inside the ‘Resource’, we have lost the value of HR as a separate function. It might just as well sit within Operations of Finance.

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