What’s In A Name? The Lexicon of ‘Human Resources’

April 6, 2014

By Audra August, Associate, Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge

Michael Fertik, the CEO at Reputation.com, recently took to Linkedin to celebrate his company’s decision to hire its first “Chief People Officer.”

Fertik said the CPO hiring was newsworthy because it signaled a departure from the practices and cultures of traditional human resource professionals. “It’s a strategic shift in how we think about people, culture, and enterprise value over the long term at a company,” Fertik wrote.

Although it might be easy to dismiss Fertik’s emphasis on changing the title of this important function as a gimmick, the fact is that more and more organizations are ejecting the term “Human Resources” in favor of new titles and concepts to describe the challenge of finding, hiring, engaging and rewarding real people.

Throughout the history of the workplace, there have been many different words used to describe the practice and profession of managing workers. Many of the previous terms we’ve used have been functions of the times. As attitudes and working conditions changed, along with our understanding of what motivates the average worker, so did our labels.

The Evolution of The Workplace

In fact, the evolution of the term “human resources” is a great insight into the evolution of the workplace in western society.

In the 19th century, we saw the rise of “welfare secretaries” in industrial-age factories. These were the supervisors who oversaw, predominantly, the treatment of women and children in the workforce.

By the 1920s, trade unionism was on the rise and terms like “labour manager” or “employment manager” were more commonplace. They were primarily charged with monitoring employee hiring, firing, and absenteeism.

In the period immediately following the Second World War, we saw the title of “personnel manager” work its way into the lexicon of the workplace. And, within 20 years of that innovation, the term “human resource management” had become commonplace as employer sought ways to maximize productivity in their workforces.

People as a Resource Commodity

The thread connecting many of these terms and titles is the supposition that human beings actually constitute a resource commodity. In business, it is the idea that people can be identified, rented and measured as a line on a spreadsheet. Like all commodities, the reasoning goes, with enough study and planning you can predict with reasonable assurance how they are going to perform in any given scenario.

Of course, most us instinctively know you cannot predict with complete confidence the outcome of any undertaking involving a human being; we are by our very natures predictably unpredictable in so many important ways. And that realization, which I believe is becoming more and more obvious to people in HR, is leading us to yet another change in terminology.

More recently, as our understanding of employee engagement and retention practices have become more sophisticated, many organizations have turned to terms like “talent management” to describe a lot of the functions that fell under the umbrella of HR. That is also a term that presents problems.

Although we know that most people today are defined by their employment “talents,” use of that word suggests that the search for top-performing employees is more of a talent show than a measured assessment of skills and expertise.

Where next?

If not resource or capital or talent, then where do we go next?

Michael Fertik is not the only one leading the charge for new nomenclature. It’s not unusual to find organizations today with vice presidents of “people” or “culture.” These titles represent a more holistic view of the workplace and a human being’s place within it. They dispense with the idea that people are commodities, replacing it with the idea that people are the fabric and foundation of any business.

All of the terms and titles used to describe the discipline of overseeing human beings in the workplace share, at some level, an acknowledgement that the most successful organizations are those that those that invest in their people and treat them as valued stakeholders.

Is it essential that your organization use the trendiest, most contemporary terminology to describe the people or departments that oversee employees? 

In the final analysis, it is probably more important how you treat your people than what you call the process.

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