Words Matter: ‘Human Resource’ Denigrates Employers

Did I mean to say it denigrates employees? Not by a long shot, it’s the employers that get the black eye for this one.

Management guru Peter Drucker

Pete’s the dude who invented the term. According to Vitor Marciano, member of the Faculty of Business, University of Alberta in Edmonton,

“The term “human resource” was coined by management guru Peter F. Drucker (1954) in The Practice of Management. In this seminal work, Drucker presents three broad managerial functions: managing the business, managing other managers, and managing workers and work.”

Okay, I’m on board with that so far. It’s what Drucker gets into immediately after that riff on the function of management where I find fault.

It is in the discussion of the management of workers and work that Drucker introduces the concept of the worker as ‘the human resource’:
“comparable to all other resources but for the fact that it is human” and, as such, having “specific properties” which must be considered by managers. Drucker argues that the human resource possesses a quality that is not present in other resources: “the ability to coordinate, to integrate, to judge and to imagine.” Unlike other resources utilized by managers, the human resource can only utilize itself. “The human being . . . has absolute control over whether he works at all.”

Was there ever a more deadly, mechanical and unfeeling euphemism to describe the man or woman who shows up for work every day? Time out for a moment while I link you to George Carlin’s excellent video on euphemisms. It’s basic to this conversation.

“Drucker calls on managers to consider the moral and social needs of human beings in the design of work. He calls on managers to take positive actions to encourage worker motivation, and to create jobs that challenge and develop workers.

He’s probably got fitting lug-bolts to Buicks for 2,000 hours a year in mind, or perhaps scanning groceries at the checkout eight hours a day, trying to keep the beep-beep out of your dreams. Remember to smile and say thank you to the customer who roots through their wallet, looking for the two pennies they absolutely know are in there.

“In the process, Drucker disparages the personnel management discipline of his day, detailing its three basic misconceptions: (1) it assumes people do not want to work; (2) it looks upon the management of work and the worker as a specialist’s job rather than a key part of any manager’s job; and (3) its tendency to be a “fire fighting” and “trouble-shooting” activity, rather than focusing on the positive and building harmony. However, Drucker expresses a hope for the improvement of the managing of workers.

Well thank God for that. Pete expressed that hope some 67 years ago and, in my experience (having been 19 at the time), employees in their relationships with various managers have suffered a steady and sometimes rather steep decline at each and every step of the way.

But hold on, Drucker is not yet through with us

“He answers his own rhetorical question “Is personnel management bankrupt?” with a no, choosing rather to see personnel management as temporarily insolvent.

Now there’s a Carlinism for you; Not busted, fucked-up or gone entirely to hell, but temporarily insolvent. We can only hope that corporate takeover or bankruptcy isn’t just around the corner, taking our pension with it. If I told my banker I couldn’t make this month’s mortgage payment because I was temporarily insolvent, I’d get a very arched eyebrow and quite probably a lien on my house in return.

According to Drucker, the personnel management of his day was not meeting its promises of effectively managing workers; it had the necessary expertise and was aware of the right approaches; but had yet to apply them.

That hasn’t changed in four decades.

Pete, it’s no longer 1954

It’s 2021 and you’re no longer with us, having quietly passed on to your reward sixteen years ago at the ripe old age of 95. God bless you Peter, but I have to report that the employer-employee relationship has regressed to the point that 4.5 million of our fellow citizens have refused to return to their old jobs now that the pandemic has loosened re-employment.

That might not be so bad in a workforce of almost 160 million. But that’s not a year-to-date total, Peter. That was last month.

Somehow or another it seems that the human resource you so bloodlessly named 67 years ago is insistent upon consideration of the moral and social needs of human beings in the design of work.

So you were right, but even you called them human beings. Yet management went on to create all kinds of departments and theories and managerial nonsense based on treating the lifeblood of their corporate futures as resources. Encouraging worker motivation and creating jobs that challenged and developed workers got lost in the translation between employee and resource.

And we noticed. You see, language really does matter.

I am a writer and a father, a husband and an earner, a friend and a sometimes pain-in-the-ass to my friends, but I love them and they tolerate me…they call me many things, but never a resource

 

 


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