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It's Time to Retire "Human Resources"

The words we use at work influence how we see the world and each other.

It has long been known that the words we use to categorize and navigate our lives influence the way we see and interact with the world and each other. It is partly for this reason that in the workplace the term “secretary” was replaced with “administrative assistant," and why employees are often eager to assume roles with fancy titles like “Director” even if their responsibilities don't change much.

Much of my work focuses on workplace well-being. I think we might be able to promote workplace well-being a little more, and build healthier organizations, if we change another term. Along with my colleague, Marie-Helene Budworth, one of my most recent suggestions for promoting thriving employees in flourishing organizations is that we abandon the term “human resources.”

What is a resource? It is an object. A thing. It is a tool, something to be used, leveraged, or exploited to achieve some desirable end. Is this how you think of yourself as an employee — an exploitable thing? Is this how you regard the people you work with — as objects to be used? If not, then allow me to suggest that you join me in retiring the term “human resources” with its connotations of employees as exploitable objects. Instead, I suggest we employ the term “human resourcefulness.”

Resourcefulness is dynamic, affirming, and connotes strength. Whereas “human resources” is a dehumanizing term, “human resourcefulness” offers a much more positive way to conceptualize what we, in fact, hope to achieve through the HR practices and policies we implement in our organizations — that is, we hope to release the potential and resourcefulness of our employees.

As I discuss in my latest work, we want to expand people’s competencies so that capacity at work is built and enhanced. This “resource unlocking” can initiate a virtuous cycle through which the cultivation of employees’ resources generates other resources, unlocking a pattern of resource intensification. This goes by various names, such as gain spirals or ampliative cycles. These virtuous feedback loops produce employees who are more capable, satisfied, and engaged. These employees are not static resources; they are dynamically resourceful.

The degree to which HR practices and systems generate positive outcomes such as well-being and performance depends partly on whether employees perceive that the organization respects them and is concerned about their welfare. Research shows that when employees think that an organization implements HR practices in order to squeeze more productivity out of them, the practices may have little to no effect. However, when employees believe that HR practices are implemented to enhance their well-being, the practices can have a significant impact on performance, job attitudes, and well-being itself. I refer to this as a climate of human resourcefulness, which concerns the extent to which employees share the perception that an organization is motivated to invest in their well-being. The terms we use at work can help to convey that we respect our employees, are concerned about their well-being, and can go a long way toward building the right climate.

“Human resources” is an outdated term that leads us to regard fellow employees in an archaic way. People are not objects to be leveraged, but individuals to be celebrated. An important step in creating a positive organization is using terms that reflect that organizations truly value their people. Organizations that genuinely care and respect employees, want to convey that they are interested in employee well-being, and want to build a climate of human resourcefulness are well advised to consider launching a change initiative to advertise that they are retiring the term “human resources” and replacing it with “human resourcefulness."

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