You Are Not "Human Capital"

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There is probably no workplace department more maligned in popular culture than human resources. Remember Catbert from the Dilbert cartoons? What about the laughably dull corporate trainings given by Toby Flenderson from “The Office”? It seems HR is an easy target for comedy.

These teams have a tough job, though — handling recruiting, hiring, and firing, as well as benefits administration and any sensitive situations that crop up. That juggling act leaves room for misunderstandings. And sometimes, for a misuse of that great responsibility.

But there is another reason HR does not get much love, and it has more to do with words than action.

Quite a bit of their language comes from economists and efficiency experts. For example, economists use “human capital” to describe spending on training, education, and health care. But some HR departments use that term to describe an employee’s skill set or to refer to the collective worth of employee “assets.”

If that makes you shudder, that is understandable. Yes, they are just words. But the words we choose convey a powerful message about what we believe and value.

We are intentional about the words we use at Aha! We never refer to the individuals we work closely with every day as “employees.” We work on a “team” with “people.” We use the term “people success” instead of “human resources.” It is about more than semantics — this word choice says that our strength lies in the people who are passionately committed to this company and our collective goals.

It should bother you deeply when your employer uses a throwaway term like “human capital.” It suggests that you are:

At risk
You want to concentrate on delivering your best work, not to worry about where you stand on someone’s spreadsheet. But hearing language like “human capital” can make you wonder whether you are in the plus or minus column today and where you might be tomorrow.

You want to be recognized as a valued contributor, not some cog in the company machine, easy to manufacture or replace as needed. Terminology that infers mass production and replaceability leaves no room to measure your true potential and capacity to shine.

Company property
This phrase is dehumanizing, making you sound like a piece of machinery. You may get the false impression that you have little control over your job or much say in your future. And it certainly does not inspire warm feelings of devotion that your company truly cares about your overall happiness.

You deserve to work for an organization that recognizes the worth of each person and treats everyone with respect. And it starts with the smallest of things, like the words we choose.

Realistically, you are not likely to singlehandedly change the lexicon at your workplace. But you can choose the words you use and you do not need to think about yourself in these stark terms. You should never let someone else’s words define you, demean you, or ruin your confidence.

No matter what anyone says, it is really up to you to measure your own worth and believe in your own potential. And then you can prove — through hard work and results — that you are so much more than “human capital.”

How do you feel when you hear someone refer to people as “human capital?”

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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  1. Jim Markwalder

    Hi Brian,

    A mistake was made many years ago. There was a time when the activities around people in companies were generally found in the “personnel” department. Not perfect but it least it recognized that it was about people. Since then in what I guess may have been an attempt to find equal standing in the c-cuite the professionals began calling them selves Human Resources. The real irony is that inspite of all the machinations in between, if you poll CEOs today on their most persistent challenge it will almost certainly be finding and convincing people to align there lives and goals with those of the company…eg find and keep good employees. I can only conclude that “HR” as a concept and as it practiced must be considered a monumental failure.

    People are not resources, they are not assets, they are not buckets of talent, they are not capital….they are people. When they agree to trade portions of their lives to help a company or team accomplish an objective it is absolutely dehumanizing to summarize that agreement with a only paycheck in an “at will” environment.

    its been fun watching and reading about you on linked in. Thanks

  2. Lorna Thompson

    It’s important to remember that, no matter what label may be slapped upon you, you are indeed a valuable person with something positive to contribute to a team. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

    Human capital sounds too much like capital assets. No one wants to be accounted for in the same way as the furniture and the copy machine.

    Excellent post.


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