Human or Inhuman Resource Management?

I am old enough to remember hearing the term Human Resource Management for the first time. I was a young personnel practitioner in a blue chip company, sitting in the audience of an in-house Conference. I can still hear the Keynote Speaker say “The time has come for Personnel to decide whether you are here to serve the cats or the cat owners”. He bellowed, “I’m here to tell you that it is a no brainer. It’s the cat owners”.  He went on to say that Human Resource Management (HRM) was a way to maximise human potential by aligning the individual to the organisational goals, which at the end of the day was increasing profits for the shareholders.

HRM brought with it the thinking that employees are not merely overhead costs, but people were ‘resources’ or ‘assets’ that had a value/worth linked to their economic utility. My former tutor at King’s College, London, Tom Keenoy (1990) wrote that HRM’s prime objective was to legitimise the management ideology that strives to intensify work through the use of labour.

I guess this makes sense in the commercial sector where the employment relationship is characterised by employers’ desire to maximise profits. In this context, HRM is about increasing productivity. For me, this is at odds with its claims to be ‘human’, oriented for the good and well being of people. At best, it is an attempt to use psychology in a transactional context where the relationship is intrinsically unequal. Some argue that the move away from regulation to the ‘winning of hearts and minds’ merely masks the fact that the end game is still control and conformity. In this sense, HRM is a means to an end.

Is this too harsh? Judge for yourself.

In your experience, how has HR practices structured social relations in your organisation? How is power used, and by whom and for what purpose… particularly in the way that job analysis, job evaluation, work plans, selection & recruitment, performance appraisals, and disciplinary and grievance procedures are done?

A critical view is that these ‘management tools’ allow individuals to be objectified, classified, measured and ordered in a particular way, creating such things as leaders and followers; and then maintaining this social order?

Many Christian organisations have introduced HRM because this is the self-evident, professional thing to do. Surely it is time that we ask how the ideology of the market place (HRM) is influencing, even changing, our culture, ethos, beliefs and identity in the process?

Needless-to-say, I feel that Christians should be more discerning about what practice we adopt; and be proactive about exploring biblically based forms of organising (and leadership).

Why am I drawing attention to this? Am I biting the hand that feeds me? According to the French philosopher Michel Foucault “by showing that things are not as self-evident as one believed, transformation becomes very urgent, very difficult and quite possible”.

3 thoughts on “Human or Inhuman Resource Management?

  1. Interesting piece.

    I worked for an insurance company in the early 80s, they changed from personnel to human resources, then implemented the Hay-msl job evaluation points system that graded the post and not the person or any skills, potential or ambition the individual had. Quite a demotivating experience. It was primarily a salary cap for the staff but it changed the whole culture of an organisation where previously employees could work their way up and take advantage of learning and development, internal promotions and financial rewards through annual merit increases. One of the first things we were told was merit increases would cease with immediate effect and learning and development opportunities would no longer be routinely available.

  2. True, just changing the words to “Human Resource Management” doesn’t necessarily change anything else. Most of your articles have been about leadership. One view of the difference between leadership and management is that leadership is about vision and goals, and management is about organising resources of various sorts to achieve the goal. As you say, there is an issue around considering people to be a resource (an object, a pawn) at all, and where does Human Leadership fit in? So, like you, I have a problem with the title HRM.

    1. Richard – thank you again for your insight comments.
      I am reading Simon Walker’s book on Undefended Leadership; and he says something that really chimed…
      Faith-based organisations tend to take our models of organising and leadership from “the playground, sports and the market place”. While it is wise to learn from good practice, we need to be vigilant about the ‘colonising’ effect of global capitalism on our values.

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