Brandon Wilner ……… blog

18 Mar 2021
Evil Words: human resources

[This post is an entry in Evil Words, a work in progress.]

human resources

1) People (esp. personnel or workers) regarded as an asset of a business or other organization (as contrasted with material or financial resources). [OED]
2) The department in an organization dealing with the administration, management, training, etc., of staff; the personnel department. [OED]

This study is primarily concerned with the second of the above definitions, but the sense used in the first is vital to an understanding of the field. “Human resources” is the widely used name for this field, but its contemporary application in corporatized language is best understood in view of its root phrase: human resources management. A company’s employees have value and needs as material as the wood, stone, metal, or plastic that constitutes their machinery or product. Efficient production therefore requires management of the human element (their emotions, goals, and expectations) just as much as that of inventory storage or shipping.

Human resources management sprang forth from a broad range of thought during the radical social reorganizations of the Industrial Revolution. With tens, hundreds, or thousands of workers all present in the same workplace, there would need to be some amount of social control structure to ensure their productivity, so many economists and industrialists tried their hands at theorizing it. There were sundry approaches to the topic in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, but there emerged two primary strains that inform contemporary thought on human resources management.

One is represented in the work of the American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, who in the 1880s pioneered the field of Scientific Management. Taylor sought to stress individualism in the workplace, appealing directly to the single worker’s drive for higher wages, which he thought would break up groupings and prevent workers from commiserating about shared frustrations, a practice which could lead to worker-organized trade unions. The result was the Taylor System. According to Judith A. Merkel, the system was:

a series of tools, methods, and organizational arrangements designed by Taylor and his associates to increase the efficiency and speed of machine shop production. It began with a system of timing work that was to eliminate once and for all the struggle between workers and owners over the appropriate returns to capital and labor by establishing a scientific measure of “what constitutes a fair day’s work.” It included various bookkeeping and accounting techniques, an array of techniques for measuring work input, and various methods of organizing storerooms, tool repair, and other potentially time-wasting elements of the work process.¹

The Taylor System used worker management in clear service of the company’s bottom line. It became a strong and widely implemented crystallization of the idea that the owner’s goals are superior to the worker’s.

The second strain of human resources management stems from socialist thinkers of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Those like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen saw that people and their wellbeing were essential to the production process, and thought that factories and agrarian societies should be set up so as to guarantee harmonious and fulfilling life and interaction for all involved. Around the turn of the twentieth century, socialists like Sidney and Beatrice Webb picked up this tradition by arguing for the importance of worker welfare and putting forth an economic vision centered around worker cooperatives in which laborers would address workplace issues as a union possessing greater bargaining power.

The contemporary beast of human resources has to a degree internalized both approaches, but one predominates. There is the general acknowledgement of employee fulfillment and wellbeing as the HR department’s ultimate purpose (this lip service paid due to the centuries of work done by labor advocates). The outward expression of these aims comes from a company’s knowledge that bad publicity can to some extent affect the customer’s willingness to buy from it. In the United States, the company knows too that there are few laws in place to protect the worker, so it can treat an employee however it likes, short of firing them explicitly because of their race or sexual orientation. The concurrent awareness about its publicity concerns and its total control over a worker’s employment status makes human resources into an organ of manipulation that serves the interests not of the workers, but of the company’s owner.

The HR department will receive specific briefings on a company’s projected goals for a given span. These may include cutting expenses, increasing productivity, growing clientele, or the hiring or firing of staff (sometimes both of these last at once, as an expense-saving measure). Whatever the goals, they will generally be at odds with those of the employees, who over the past 40 years have experienced wage stagnation even though studies show that productivity writ large has increased over the same period. The HR department is partially to thank for this disparity. They are the seawall that receives and disperses the crashing waves of worker vexation. In many ways it is an unenviable job, which is not to say that those who do it deserve sympathy.

If a worker approaches an HR officer with a complaint about hours or pay, the officer might assure the worker that their grievance has been heard while drawing their attention to the plight of another worker (perhaps even that of the HR officer theirself), who is also doing a great deal but is not making a fuss about pay. The officer works as a sounding board who by their own telling cannot offer much in that moment, but promises consideration of the topic discussed. This quells the worker’s frustrations, at least for a bit, and might even make them question whether they were correct in coming forward about them at all. It might also go into a report that the officer gives to their boss, letting the latter know of the meeting’s revelations, which might be representative of broader company morale. If it seems as though the employee is likely to organize with other employees around the issues discussed, they may be unceremoniously fired.

This ability to adopt kind and inclusive language while actively working against the employee’s interests is HR’s most unsettling adaptation, as it can be effective in making an employee second-guess their own experience and worth. The HR officer positions theirself as something resembling a therapist: a trustworthy entity who will address in good faith and perhaps even share the worker’s concerns, which they are ostensibly just as invested in solving. Not so. Human resources is a boss in worker’s clothing, and their department’s goals are by necessity opposed to those of the worker. Humanity is — like steel — a resource to be managed, a tendency to be undermined and forged into profit. Likewise, if a company’s HR department is not negotiating with a union, then it should be undermined by one.

¹ Merkel, Judith A. Management and Ideology: The Legacy of the International Scientific Management Movement. University of California Press, 1980, p. 2.