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Human Resources - What's in a Name?

Updated on October 28, 2011

Defining the Phrase "Human Resources."

If you would like to study human society and its interactions, study anthropology. If you would like to study human beings, and what goes on in their mind, study psychology. And if you would like to study how to classify humans, force them to fit a given box, and how best to intimidate them, study human resources (now being re-branded as "personnel management").

An HR department is defined by its (admittedly generalized) goal: to get the best possible employee for the lowest possible wage, and retaining them. This is a difficult undertaking at best (as shall be described below), and is not always achievable.

HR - and How It Should Be.

Some HR departments try to do this in a human-friendly manner; they realize that in order to do this effectively, fringe benefits must measure up to the wage differential. They are (or should be) responsible for an excellent, open workplace environment, and benefits like free health insurance, excellent response time on technical and workplace issues, good parties, and even small things like free drinks at work. A good, clearly defined path of promotion (which is actually executed) really helps. At that point, working for a lower wage is balanced by increased job satisfaction, and the humans working for you are happy. Many top IT companies realize that IT (and other) professionals are okay with this.

HR - and How It Normally Is.

Most HR departments, however, go about this in the 'other' way. They constantly hang a sword over their humans' heads, threatening firing if goals are not met, if the human makes errors, or if they so much as use the bathroom at the wrong time. They may have a promotion structure, but it is very vague, and essentially open only to those who brown-nose most effectively. Due to the the rapid 'turnover rate' (the rate at which 'employees' are replaced because they simply leave),Any semblance of a merit-based structure is generally ignored, usually unofficially replaced by a tenure structure instead.

HR - and Why the Phrase is a Self-Fulfilling Fallacy.

First of all, let me say that I use the word 'fallacy' to mean 'a failure in reasoning that renders an argument invalid' (the second definition in the New Oxford American Dictionary). Another point I'd like to make here is that this is certainly not always the case, and if you're in a company where it's not - don't leave. You're in a special place.

'Human Resources'

Describing the humans who work in a company, and the humans who could potentially work in the company, as 'human resources' essentially indicates that they are inanimate objects - 'resources' like computers and chairs and decorative plants.

Money must be invested in order to use and maintain them. Metrics can be used to differentiate between them, and those found 'unworthy' are simply discarded. Some may be good enough to 'promote' and invest more money into. Others simply remain stationary.

Describing an HR worker (this obviously doesn't refer to you) as a 'drone' is not far off the mark. They normally work exclusively with metrics, occasionally asking their humans if they're 'happy' in the company for statistical purposes (who's going to answer 'no'?! Feel like getting fired today?).

A Self-Fulfilling Phrase.

The reason this fallacy is self-fulfilling is complex, and rests in the realm of psychology and NLP. Suffice it to say that if anyone repeats a phrase long enough, they'll end up 'internalizing' (and believing it). The phrase, therefore, is the most ingenious and evil piece of subliminal mind-engineering I've ever seen. Let's de-construct it here.

The first part - the 'human' - de-personifies the subject. They become things - animals (notice how I used only that word above. How do you feel about that?). They become easily-quantifiable entities - all you have to do is add an 's' - 'humans'. Because the word is used in popular medicine quite frequently (the human body, human organs, etc…), it has a strong scientific connotation to it, further de-personifying it.

The second part - 'resources' - generally conjures up pictures of coal mines, stacks of steel pipes, and the like. Resources that can be bought and sold, used and discarded. Resources that are dumped if they are the wrong shape, or look like they can't take the strain, or simply don't look as good as the others. Another word that relates rather well to resources is 'exploit' (again, how does that make you feel?).

This kind of phrase hooks into the deepest parts of the mind in a very subversive manner. It forces you to think in a certain mind-set, simply because of the associations relating to it - associations which have been strengthened time and time again by society as a whole.

The Fallacy

Of course, this tends to lead to a certain mind-set which treats humans as objects, and totally ignores the human aspect. A human is an incredibly complex being, which even a human (as the currently most intelligent known life-form on the planet) can't fully understand. The human mind is a sea of constantly roiling emotions, needs, wants, thoughts, dreams, and so forth.

Each human is different - each one may be more or less suited towards a particular task. And each one will only take so much. Each one has limits of pressure and stress, and each one will only perform well if the environment is optimally suited to their needs. Each is a person. Each is a star.

The Dangers of 'Human Resources'

If people allow the phrase 'Human Resource' to permeate their mind-set (and enough have), they will gradually fall into the traps associated with that phrase. And the results can range from the mildly annoying to the truly horrific.

The most benign results are that there is a constant atmosphere of discontent. People aren't happy with their work - they're simply doing it because they needed a job. And they will only do it until something better comes along, leading to a high turnover rate. The company hires, trains, exploits, and loses their 'resources' in a steady stream. The training, especially, generally costs a significant amount of money, causing the company to constantly bleed money. The 'resources' themselves are unhappy (leading to all sorts of medical conditions) and can suffer burn-out as a result of this kind of treatment.

The other kinds of results are more drastic. As stated before, people have a limit. Some respond relatively benignly when this limit is reached - they simply quit, or sow a little dissent. Others don't. They crack - they do terrible things. Often the phrase 'going postal' is used to describe what they do - you know what I mean. I'm not going to go into details.

A Possible Solution

The first step in ameliorating the situation is to rid yourself of the terrible phrase. Call it the 'people department' or something else involving the word 'people' - a word which generally conjures up positive images and associations. From that starting point, realize that the 'resources' you are dealing with are people, just like yourself. They probably have the same fears, wants, and needs. They must be treated with respect and dignity, and must be given an environment which promotes their well-being. They must not be 'fired', 'let go' or threatened with either for any minor breach or mistake - after all, they're people. People make mistakes. And finally, the workload should be fair, not crazy.

If these suggestions are met, you'll start to see serious performance improvements, a higher retention rate, and a much more positive and motivated workforce who are willing to work themselves very hard should the need arise.


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    • profile image

      Johnathon Southerland 

      3 years ago

      I'm for the name talent management, its more personal, but should only apply to us HR people that actually care about the employees.

    • profile image

      Roger Chestnut 

      8 years ago

      Human Resources is much more than just payroll. It's making sure people act in a professional manner, making sure things get reported correctly, and making sure employees get recognized properly. Payroll processing is only one part of the picture.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Wow someone had a bad HR experience. I linked to this as an alternative view to my hub on the subject.


      If these suggestions are met, you'll start to see serious performance improvements, a higher retention rate, and a much more positive and motivated workforce who are willing to work themselves very hard should the need arise.


      Is this conjecture or do you have studies which cite this? I think you are placing to much emphasis on a name, actions are what really count. In fact modern HR thinking is to not treat people as objects, it is counter-productive no matter what the title.

    • Coeus profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from All over the world and then some.

      Mark - Definitely. At least they were honest about it!

    • Mark Knowles profile image

      Mark Knowles 

      10 years ago

      Great hub. I personally preferred the old name - Payroll LOL At least you knew what they did.

    • Coeus profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from All over the world and then some.

      Thooghun - Thanks for that. THought you might like the references. :)

    • thooghun profile image

      James D. Preston 

      10 years ago from Rome, Italy

      The coeus is at it again, great stuff, I particularly liked the NLP references myself!


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