It’s 2018! Let’s Terminate the Terms Human Resource and Human Capital! Who’s With Me?!

I’ll get right to it. Human resources (HR) and human capital (HC) need to be out of the lexicon of today’s organizations. HR sounds like a basket of humans like a bushel of apples where we pick out the best one, consume it and get on with our lives. A resource as defined by Macmillan Dictionary is “something that you can use to help you to achieve something, especially in your work or study.” Human capital is another one. This one sounds like a storage room full of people unhooked from their power sources wearing tags displaying how much profit they can produce. Make sure you pick the one with the highest productivity label! Neither term exists without controversy. Human resource was first used in the early 1900s and depicted workers as capital assets. Economist E. Wight Bakke, credited for modernizing the term, used it in a report in 1958 where he described human resource as a function in a company with specific management tasks rather than a focus on human behaviors and relationships. Professionals in labor and academia criticized the term claiming that human beings are not "commodities" or "resources," but are creative and social beings in a productive enterprise. In 2004, "human capital" was named the German Un-Word of the Year by a jury of scholars who considered the term inappropriate and inhumane, as individuals would be degraded, and their abilities classified according to economically relevant quantities.


I don’t know about you, but I would rather not be referred to as a resource. I realize that an organization is going to use my skills, experience, training and personal drive like it would energy to run its machines or parts to build its products. That’s okay, but the difference is we often treat people as we would energy or parts; we squeeze every bit out of them, cast them aside and expect they will be back the next day for more. Human capital is a term I would not prefer either. Capital has a worse connotation than resource. It gives off more of an ownership sentiment. You might nurture a resource knowing you will want it in its best form when you need it next. Capital just gets used and forgotten. I’ve seen some organizations use terms like team member, executive, associate or specialist. The military uses soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines. These certainly have a better ring to them. I think of people when I hear them; I do not think of people when I hear resource or capital.


The more we dehumanize titles, the less we see the humans affected by them. People want to be referred to and treated as people. Maybe in the workplace if Mary was referred to and knowns as Mary the generous, dedicated person with a great sense of humor who just bought a condo and got engaged last month instead of “employee 0037 the Audio Visual Technician” or if Army Private Atkinson was known as Bob Atkinson from Philly with an expensive sports car and a one-year-old son who is working through a divorce from his wife instead of “Atkinson the rifleman who can run a mile in 6:24,” we might view them as people instead of resources or capital.


This HR and HC extermination should start at the top. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) should change its name to something like The Society for Investing in People (SIP). The Army's Human Resource Command ought to consider the same. There is some good news as we ring in the new year. Many organizations are creating a Chief People Officer (CHPO) instead of a Chief HR Officer (CHRO). This certainly is a sign that some leaders recognize the importance of titles and see HR as too old-fashioned for the modern workplace, but it is time for more. Terms aside for a moment, what is most important is how we conduct ourselves and lead our organizations and people and how we humanize our processes. As an Army officer I commanded a large organization that used all these terms. We managed personnel readiness using AHRS and EMILPO which stood for Army Human Resource System and Electronic Military Personnel Office respectively. These systems existed to help the Army determine if units were ready to deploy to combat on short notice. They didn’t have a function that accounted for Private Atkinson’s family and financial situation. I was not going to let these terms and processes prevent my leaders and me from connecting with our people. I had rock stars who managed my soldiers using AHRS and EMILPO, and they were the best in the Army. I was blessed to have them. I stayed focused on the human being. Where I could “humanize” these systems and where I could change terms and titles, I would. I never lost sight of the person behind “employee 0037.” To some, this would be a human resource or capital on a spreadsheet. To me, it was a human being with a story. I wanted to know what that story was, get to know them and help them be the best they could be. I talked about this personal approach every day in my organization so I could get my teammates to think like I did. So for the new year, let us terminate, once and for all, the terms human resources and human capital. Who’s with me?

For more on this subject and how you can overcome these terms and invest in people in your organization, check out my book “It’s Personal, Not Personnel, Leadership Lessons for the Battlefield and the Boardroom” 

Rob Campbell