by The Escaped Inmate
Corporate ethics often seem to swing between two extremes, on the one hand outright ruthless avarice, and on the other a reliance on bland and bloodless middle-class ethics. The first one usually issues from the boardroom, the second from the Human Resources Department.
Many years ago organizations had Personnel departments. Now they have Human Resource departments. At first that might just look like use of a buzzword, but I think there’s more to it. Lots more.
Personnel. It’s derived from “person” – the one thing every employee has in common is that they are people. It even almost sounds like “personal.” Personnel departments dealt with hiring people, paying them, administering their employee benefits and, on occasion, disciplining or firing them. But everything the Personnel department did, it did to a person.
Human Resources. It’s a different picture entirely. How often do you refer to an individual or small group as a “human” or “humans”? Not often, I’d guess. Certainly less often than you’re likely to refer to a “person” or to “people.” Yes, we are all humans, but “human” is so much less vibrant than “person.” It doesn’t carry the mental associations we have. But that’s not the big difference. A “Humannel” department might be only somewhat less personable than the Personnel department was.
The big difference is that we’ve become “Resources.” Our society views resources in a very particular way. Resources are to be controlled, exploited and used up. After a resource is used up, what’s left of it is thrown away. Too frequently resources are wasted. Once in a while they’re categorized as renewable or reusable, but that tends to be the exception.
Changing employees from persons to resources makes the employees less distinct from other resources — equipment, supplies, furniture and the like. That describes a great deal of what’s happened to the American workplace in the second half of the 20th century. It’s bound to keep going that way as we enter the 21st century too.
Of course another difference between resources and people is in the category of ownership. It’s still technically illegal to claim ownership of another person. At the same time, our economy is built on the ownership and manipulation of resources. Employers are more and more coming to believe that they own their human resources, at least while there’s work to be done. At the very least, the employer believes that it owns your time (and all of it) while you’re at work. How else to explain the constant monitoring of e-mails, phone calls and, for some unlucky souls, rest room visits? Sure there are pretenses like the danger that e-mails pose to IS resources, the risk of company secrets being divulged or the bugaboo of employees abusing trips to the lavatory. Those pretenses, though, are only believable if you first believe that employees are in need of being controlled. The employer’s need for control over the employee is best understood in terms of a feeling of ownership. The most potent displays that you own a resource are your control over that resource. Mandatory overtime – especially the unpaid variety so common among salaried employees, ID badges and most restrictions on what you do at your desk are attempts to demonstrate ownership.
Institutions forget that people resent being controlled. This causes resistance. This resistance is far from futile, though it can render the means of control futile. One of the most popular Dilbert cartoons shows Dilbert’s great epiphany – he realizes that there is one way in which he has control over his workplace – the amount of effort he exerts. All of the sudden, by doing nothing, he is striking back. Soon his colleagues have the same realization. All of them sitting there, looking busy, doing nothing. Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator, has phoned many of his fans (who had signed up in advance) during the workday, to see just what they were doing at the moment he called. After several hundred calls, he had not found one who owned up to being ‘on task’ right before answering the phone. Apparently depersonalized human resources have a nasty tendency to unproductiveness. What’s the employer to do?
Since big organizations with Human Resource departments will be making many advances in and decisions about biological technology, can manufactured quasi-human resources be far behind? That would be expensive, but it might be easier for the corporation than to start treating each human resource like a person.
- Whyte, David, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, A Currency Paperback published by Doubleday, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, N.Y.,1996, pg. 159.