Why You Shouldn't Call Humans "Resources"

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Organizations refer to people who work for them by various terms: employees, staff, associates or talent, to name a few. But there's one common term that should be discouraged. Here's why Deb Hughes, ADP's SVP of Transformation, Communication and Change Management, says she doesn't refer to employees as "resources."

Organizations refer to people who work for them by various terms, such as employees, staff, associates or talent. However, according to Deb Hughes, ADP's SVP of Transformation, Communication and Change Management, there is one common term that should be discouraged: "resources."

It might seem like just a slight name change, but Hughes says the words leaders use to describe their people have everything to do with how they view and treat those employees.

Q: Why is it such a bad thing to refer to employees as resources or "human resources?"

Hughes: "There's a difference between what we label our function as — or the work we do — which is human capital management, and the people we serve. The term human resources, or HR, is fine for that. But I don't want to call our people, our humans, 'resources' because resources are things like air, water and gas.

Someone might say to me, 'we have 100 resources' in a location, but they aren't referring to the electricity. They mean people — humans. When leaders think of our people as resources, they stop thinking of them as humans or people. It is depersonalizing and desensitizing. Each person has a family, a future, personal expectations and needs. When leaders refer to employees as resources, it's easy not to think about what motivates each individual or the impact of organizational decisions on our employee's lives."

Q: People have been referred to as "resources" for years. Why does it matter at this point?

Hughes: "Although leaders and organizations have used that term in the past, it was never okay. Still, it feels more prominent now as many businesses are coming to a reckoning and recognizing how their people are being impacted, as well as the positive impact people truly have on each business.

We, as leaders, try to simplify things and use language we think everyone knows, but how I might define resources is quite different from how someone else might describe them.

Especially now, HR leaders and small business owners are juggling multiple responsibilities like recruiting, reskilling, training, developing and retaining. They're trying to keep people engaged, supported and involved. They can't do that successfully if in their minds, people are anonymous resources. They have to put the human back in the conversation."

Q: Why does a name or term we use really make such a difference?

Hughes: "Think about the term 'resources.' It usually means some source to fill basic needs and is often a one-way relationship. You either turn water off or on in your sink, not a lot of engagement there. Is that the definition we want to describe our relationships with those with whom we work alongside each day?

Other words, like 'them' or 'they' versus 'us,' create distance and barriers, even when everyone is in the same organization. It could be people working in headquarters versus the field, or in one country versus another; in-office versus remote; diverse employees versus the majority.

Here's another example: some companies say 'people' or 'employees.' At ADP, we use the term associates, and it is very intentional because the connotation is that we work with each other. I am fierce about it, and my colleagues are fierce about making sure we never forget it.

I'm not suggesting that every organization has to call its people 'associates,' as we do, but I do recommend that businesses think deeply about the meaning behind the words they use."

Q: Is a word shift enough to make organizations see people as human?

Hughes: "It's a start. Think about when we talk about a decision someone made. We say 'they' made the decision, and it feels anonymous and depersonalized. I will often ask, what are the names of those people? It reminds us that the "they" are actually individual people with whom we can talk and negotiate. Not using a "they" increases accountability because we've named the decision makers.

The conversations often open up after that. When our leaders talk about the people they care about, they can now think with emphathy and it becomes easier to make decisions — even difficult ones — with individuals in mind."

Q: Businesses are looking at many ways to engage and retain employees. How do changes in language impact organizational culture and help those efforts?

Hughes: "Culture is based on a set of values. When you have a set of values or operating principles, it helps ensure that everything you're doing — leadership training, onboarding, even the words you use to describe the people who work with you — reflects those standards.

These may seem like small changes, but they seep into the culture and are constant reminders and evidence of what you believe to be important and what you stand for.

No matter what size your business is or what your HR work entails, know that when you're deciding what to call your employees, you have a critical opportunity to craft your culture with people at the heart of it."

We're reimagining what it means to work, and doing so in profound ways. At ADP, we say that we're Always Designing for People. Starting with our own. Learn about careers at ADP.