October 21st 2011, posted by

Human Beans

Anyone who read The BFG by Roald Dahl will know that ‘human beans’ is how the story’s eponymous giant describes human beings.  And like most things in Roald Dahl’s stories, the description is both funny and dark.

On one level, it’s a mispronunciation of human beings. On another, it’s a sinister reminder that this is how the other giants see people: as food.

It struck me this week that the bean counters in business describe people in a similar way.  No, not as food, that really would be sinister. People are seen as money, so they’re described in financial terms.

For example, one of the biggest clichés you’ll find on a company’s career page is:

‘Our people are our biggest asset.’

Are they? Really? Why, then, are people – those vital beings so important to a company’s success –often described in the dead language of finance? Why describe them as an asset, as if this is a compliment? Perhaps it’s the sneaky way words have of revealing what you really think and feel about something.

This week I was putting together a workshop on HR writing and came across this:

Human Capital.

Eugh.

For me, Human Capital is far less, er, human than Human Resources (which got language grump John Humphrys in a lather and made WMW foamy with rage, too).

It’s easy to see their point. You can interpret resources as something negative and inhuman – resources to be mined, for instance, or as a synonym for income or possessions.

But to my mind, resources can also be positive. It means means. That’s not a typo – means as in ‘the means’, or ‘wherewithal’ (now there’s a word that doesn’t get used enough in business). Then there’s ‘resourceful’ which, if your average recruitment ad is to be believed, is one of the most sought-after qualities in an employee.

But Human Capital? These days it’s difficult not to read this as anything other than a synonym for ‘expensive overhead’.

These words help businesses categorise people in financial terms and to value them. Which is crucial if the business is going to be efficient. But when described in such inhuman terms, the value a business ascribes its people doesn’t always match how valued those people feel.  

An old boss of mine used to refer to his employees as ‘Mobile Cost Units’.

Ironically, he said.

I wonder if they heard it that way?


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