Wright, N. (2000) ‘New Year’s Resolutions: HR & Social Transformation’, Organisations & People, Association for Management Education & Development, February, Vol7, No1, pp2-6.
“Organisations do not exist - but people do.”
HR in Context
‘Human Resources’ is a curiously contentious phrase. On the one hand, protagonists applaud the virtue of describing employees first and foremost as valuable resources rather than, with reluctant tone, necessary costs. In an economic environment characterised principally by harsh competition and financial cutbacks this is, perhaps, an emphasis to be welcomed. On the other hand, critics are quick to point out the paradoxical and potentially de-humanising effects of describing people purely in terms of their economic output or business productivity.
If this were simply a matter of semantics, I would have to say that the issue I will seek to address in this brief article would be redundant from the start. I will, however, argue that our HR definition has had a direct effect on organisational behaviour and that, in some important respects, our 1990s conceptual frameworks and resulting HR preoccupations and practice ought to be seriously re-examined as we approach the new Millennium.
There is, of course, a wider context to this debate. I will seek to demonstrate that organisations form an intrinsic and influential part of social, economic and political society and a commitment to genuinely humanistic1 organisation development can help both to create the conditions under which broader social transformation is made possible and, more positively, contribute to the very nature and pace of that transformation. The question is, what kind of society do we want to build for the future and what kind of HR practice will contribute to the fulfillment of that vision?
At a more personal level, the challenge extends beyond that of macro-abstract organisational responsibility. As HR practitioners, the truth is that our individual attitudes and actions either contribute to or detract from the longer-term building or more people-oriented organisations and society. It may well be that our role-modeling influence turns out to be greater than we would feel comfortable with or willing to admit. This article will, therefore, culminate in a series of practical challenges designed to help us examine and evaluate our own HR approach, practice and conduct.
HR and Values
Part of the reason for the on-going debate about Human Resources is, I believe, that the focus, ethos and agenda of HR in recent years have been driven more by hard business objectives than humanistic core values. Ironically, this shift has taken place in a climate within which (a) traditional IR mechanisms to safeguard employee welfare, in the main, no longer exist and (b) pressure on organisations to achieve short-term gain, often at the expense of employee interests, are great. Viewed against this backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that the HR function has been criticised for treating employees as dispensable resources (‘a means to an end’) with all the potential connotations of use and abuse. As one disillusioned colleague expressed it recently, “Out of the ashes of impersonal-Personnel has risen the terrible phoenix of inhuman-HR.”
I would argue that a values-based approach to HR ought to be quite different - and experienced as such. It is interesting to consider that the word values is derived from the same root as other words such as valuable or, putting it another way, the things we value most. The problem is how to take seriously people’s essential value beyond their functional roles as employees3 whilst, at the same time, upholding professional standards, achieving valid business goals and contributing positively to broader social change. This is, admittedly, a difficult task.
It might help to start by dispelling a 1990s management myth that tends to be articulated as some variation of the following: “To focus on achieving our values rather than our business goals is a distraction from our primary purpose.” This argument confuses mission and values to that achieving values is presented as an alternative and competing mission. Values are, in fact, concerned with the underlying beliefs and organisational ethos which help determine the nature of mission and manner in which it will be achieved. In this sense, humanistic values seek both to promote good practice and to define parameters of acceptable behaviour.
It is clear from recent experience that acting consistently with humanistic values can enhance staff motivation, professional creativity, business productivity and, indeed, wider social transformation. What may be a matter of some surprise and legitimate concern, therefore, is that (a) so many managers and HR practitioners appear either unaware or unconcerned about the humanistic implications of their management approach and (b) so many employees appear to have little hope or expectation of any other form of organisational relationship. The challenges at the end of this article are, therefore, posed within this light.
On a somewhat brighter and more encouraging note, a recognition of the rather obvious-on-reflection but hitherto elusive-to-consciousness presence of people in organisations has been one of the key factors influencing the development of HR in recent years from its personnel roots. It is very difficult to conceive of organisations nowadays without people featuring in the picture somewhere - and usually somewhere in very prominent position. Quality initiatives including Investors in People, in spite of its mechanistic limitations, have helped to place employee interests firmly and squarely on the organisational map.
I do believe, however, that this process needs yet to evolve one step further to consider people in organisations as people per se. This may involve challenging our own personal and professional assumptions and redefining HR as an ethical and humanising influence in organisations; a marked shift, perhaps, from its current preoccupation with task-orientated business goals.
HR and Society
The flip-side of the proverbial coin is that the potential costs of ignoring humanistic checks and balances within the workplace can be very high. Results can include loss of productivity, de-skilling, poor quality of products/services, high staff turnover, increased absenteeism, poor physical/mental health, stress, disillusionment and burnout. At a most basic level, the way in which human relationships function within organisations has a direct and/or indirect influence on the way in which human relationships are enacted within the home and in the wider community. Social scientists would argue that this influence is reciprocal; that is, organisational effectiveness is limited or enhanced according to the overall general quality of life of those who are engaged in it.
The relationship between external organisational behaviour and actual transformation of the social context of which our organisations are a part is also becoming increasingly clear. If nothing else, our UK experience of the 1980-90s ought to have persuaded us that a free market (‘free for all’) approach in which profit-based business practices are encouraged without corresponding commitment to social-ethical responsibility is neither economically or humanly viable. The resulting inventory of broader social cost (documented more widely by social work and health statistics than management theorists) includes extensive environmental damage, economic poverty, family breakdown, disruptive education, strain on the health service, drug/alcohol abuse and increased crime rates.
HR: The Future
As we approach the new millennium with all its symbolic connotations as a ‘new beginning’, the comments I have posed in this article should lead us, therefore, to consider seriously (a) ways in which organisations can contribute positively to social change and (b) what a more humanistic approach to HR and management might look like in practice.
Insofar as organisational behaviour is concerned, examples of valuable social contribution could include:
Employment: providing fair employment opportunities and conditions. Training: training and re-training people for work. Education: creating community-based educational access (e.g. new technologies). Investment: generating community wealth through local investment. Provision: providing safe and high quality goods and services. Environment: committing to ethical environmental policies and conduct. Arts: supporting culture/arts through sponsorship and grants. Welfare: supporting social welfare and development through Trusts.
At a more personal level, our conduct as strategists, managers and HR professionals will have its own significant impact. The following statements and challenges are, therefore, intended to help us to examine and evaluate our own mission, commitment, beliefs and value-base. The list in not exhaustive and you may find it helpful to use or modify each area in such a way that corresponds to your own personal, organisational and social context.
People: decide what you believe about people and how they ought to be treated, including within your own workplace. Organisations: decide what you believe about organisations and what their priorities ought to be, from a humanistic viewpoint. Society: decide what kind of society you want to build for the future and consider your own personal/organisational contribution to it. Integrity: determine to act with integrity and respect in all dealings with others, including all people in the workplace. Consistency: consider every action (e.g. conversation, letter, decision) in terms of its contribution to, or detraction from, humanistic goals. Model: determine to model the human values you espouse, whether others emulate them or not. Relationships: expand your work relationships beyond your natural ‘comfort zones’ and take active steps to get to know those with whom you would not normally have ordinary contact. Names: take time to learn employees’ names and to take a genuine interest in their personal lives, concerns and aspirations. Personalise: visualise real individuals when discussing strategy and tactics rather than dealing with abstract ‘human resources’. Consult: consult with employees about the impact of business decisions and practices on their personal lives, families and communities and reflect/address their ideas and concerns in your HR strategy. Cost/benefits: ensure that the real human social costs and benefits are included in your HR/business strategy. Accountability: invite independent social, pastoral, health and environmental specialists to comment on the broader human implications of your HR/business strategy. Structure: commit yourself to supporting structures and processes that honour people, include their input and encourage real participation. Freedom: determine to ensure that individual interests, creativity and motivation are not crushed by unnecessary bureaucratic procedures and constraints. Resilience: Be prepared for opposition and setbacks from those who consider humanisation of organisations as naive, idealistic or unrealistic, and deal with objections in a humanising manner. Support: build links with others who share the same values/commitment for mutual accountability, learning and support. Values: determine to do what is right because it is right and not simply because ‘it works’. Long-term: commit yourself to the long haul since organisation humanisation is an on-going and long-term process.
1 By humanistic, I refer to those values that consider human interests and concerns to be of at least equal value to the bottom line results of an organisation’s balance sheet. I am not using the term in its atheistic ideological sense.
2 As a Christian, my view of personhood is defined theologically, philosophically and practically by the Bible’s teaching on this subject. Other people will define their own view of personhood according to the comparative beliefs/values that they hold to be true.