Look at a job listing or sit in on an executive meeting and you’re likely to hear them refer to the people at a company or the people that company wants to hire as “resources”.
I’m here to tell you that, if you do this, you need to stop right now. People aren’t “resources” – they’re PEOPLE. They have hopes, fears, dreams, and aspirations just like you do. Stop dehumanizing them, because you’re not only doing harm to the people you refer to that way, you’re doing harm to your organization and even to yourself.
Before you start your protest of “I’m not dehumanizing anyone,” yes you are and you need to realize that you’re doing it. That’s the first step to stop doing it.
A resource is something that you use until it breaks and then you throw it away and go get another one off the shelf. “Fungible resources” are even worse – that’s saying that Thing A is a 1 for 1 fit for Thing B.
People aren’t identical. They never will be. Even if you look at them purely from a skills perspective, no two people are going to be alike (I know so many HR people, managers, and executives that have fought me on this. Here’s a hint – they’re all wrong. We’ll get to why later).
If Priya or Christina or Bob quit, you can’t just go to the employee store, pick Kyle off the shelf, bring him to the office and tell your team “This is Kyle. He’s your new Bob. I expect nothing about the way you work to change.” It doesn’t work like that because Kyle and Bob are not interchangeable (this is to say nothing of the fact that it’s going to take Kyle time to learn your environment, needs, etc).
If this is the case, why is it so rampant in the working world? The short answer is that it’s literally done in order to dehumanize the people that work for you. If you only think of people as interchangeable parts and numbers on a spreadsheet instead of as individuals with families, you don’t bat an eye at laying off entire divisions to make your quarterly numbers look good.
Seriously. That’s the whole point. Business schools teach people to use this kind of language (as was pointed out by a friend of mine in conversation the other day). They may not teach people why they use that specific language, but that’s the reason (and it’s been going on long enough that some of the people teaching it may not even realize the reasoning). Since most CEOs come up either through business or legal, the language taught in those arenas dominates the speech used.
We could get into the discussion that it likely started during the Industrial Revolution in the west when hand-crafted parts were replaced with duplicate, mass produced parts, but that’s a whole other conversation.
So, we’ve established that “resources” is the language of the CEO and that it comes from their formal education. Why, then, does it seem like everyone in so many companies use the same language?
Because they want to be seen as part of the in-group. It’s a way for the people below the CEO to say “I’m just like you. You want to keep me around and promote me.” This then filters down through every layer of the organization for the same reasons it happens at the top – it’s an attempt to be part of the group.
The problem is that it’s actively harmful in several directions.
The language we use shapes the way in which we think. If we use language that dehumanizes people, we start to think of them in a dehumanized way – as something that is easily replaceable which we shouldn’t have to consider for anything other than their immediate use to us.
We literally have a word for that – sociopathy. And, no, that’s not an exaggeration. Think of the behavior of your average medium to large business (and the people who run them) and then look at the list of traits for Antisocial Personality Disorder. You’ll see one heck of an overlap.
That is not a healthy situation to put people in, and we not only do this daily in business, we try to frame it as some weird kind of virtue. That in itself is both broken and alarming.
By using dehumanizing language, you are literally dehumanizing the people you use it on. We’ve already stated that. What we haven’t said is that, by making it okay to dehumanize the people below us, we signal to the people above us in the org chart that it’s okay to dehumanize us.
It’s starting to hit a little differently now that it impacts you, isn’t it?
Furthermore, all of those DEI efforts that companies like to brag about suddenly look very empty. You can’t have Diversity, Empowerment, and Inclusion if you don’t respect people as people. You don’t care about the diversity of a paperclip. In fact, if the paperclip is “too different” it might not be “useful” given this mindset. You most certainly don’t empower a paperclip or include it in your discussions on how to run your business.
This is why so many DEI initiatives inside large orgs fall flat. They want to be able to say they value people without actually doing so or changing anything about how they behave in the larger scheme of things.
People aren’t paperclips. The differences between one person and another can be an incredible advantage to a business because they allow us to look at problems from different angles in order to come up with answers that might not be obvious to any single person in the group. It’s one of the reasons that, to a business, real DEI is actually an amazing tool for growth (apart from, you know, treating people like people which we should be doing anyway).
We live in a global economy. The customers for a business are almost certainly going to be much more diverse than the largely white, male leadership of your org. If you want to solve problems that appeal to a wide variety of demographics, you can’t do it by treating your people as replaceable cogs. Trying to do so is going to actively hurt your business in the long run.
I’m not framing it this way to do my own form of dehumanization on people by reducing them to an argument that features business utility and increased profits or viability. I’m doing it so that people in charge of a business can look at this from a sense of enlightened self-interest instead of just going “yeah. Sure. Moral argument, but morals don’t pay the bills.”
People who know me well can tell you that I’m a big fan of the term “enlightened self-interest” when it comes to framing arguments. It tends to be incredibly effective once you start to get people to see it that way.
Sometimes you have to speak someone’s language in order to get them to understand why they need to change. It takes a lot of energy to redirect the behavior of a person or business – especially when you’re trying to change the prevailing thought and language of a couple of centuries of practices.
So, what can we do to change this trend? The answer to that depends on your position, risk appetite, relative power/privilege, and a variety of other factors.
I don’t expect an entry level employee or someone without a lot of institutional power to have the same tactics and strategy that I do. I’ve literally stopped meetings with high level managers who used the term resources to ask “By ‘resources’ do you mean people? Then say people.”
I’ve even had some success by doing this, but I am coming from a position of influence and I realize it (I’ve been in tech for 20 years and have been in leadership positions for a decent amount of that time). You may not be. There are other ways that you can help change culture. Do what you feel is both right and relatively safe from the standpoint of being able to keep a roof over your head.
If you are in a position to alter the language, however, please do so. If you’re the one writing job listings, remove the word “resource”. If you’re a manager, stop calling your people that word and push back against your bosses and peers when they use that word (point them to this post if you want to – or to the work of countless other people on the subject).
The only way culture is going to change is if we work to change it. Otherwise, the people who set the tone at the top are just going to keep treating us all like numbers on a spreadsheet because, to a lot of them, that’s exactly what we are, and that is something that needs to change for so many reasons.