Most would agree that objectifying people is wrong because it is dehumanising. For example, the objectification of women, the poor, the disabled, marginalised people groups, etc., are now roundly frowned upon. Given this context, I’m curious as to why it continues to be okay, in a workplace setting, to objectify employees? Objectification refers to the tendency to think about and treat individuals more like an object or a commodity than as human beings.
This is my short reflection on this.
In my view, Human resource management (HRM) as a profession objectifies people by ideologically defining people as “labour” or “role objectified employees” and consequently treating people as instruments for accomplishing jobs. Instrumentality explains objectification as empowered individuals viewing others as means to achieving their personal goals.
This mental model or discourse is brought to forth and consolidated through HR systems, processes and procedures that impose capitalist values as the norm through prescriptions and proscriptions on employees.
While most of us will acknowledge that we are regulated/controlled in this way, we tend to accept this as an inevitable part of our market culture. For example, a few months ago, when I introduced myself to a new colleague as being in the HR department, she remarked, to my dismay, “so, you are the police of the organisation” and added, tongue in cheek, “do I need to watch what I say?”
HRM as a profession is an offshoot of managerialism. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, people management as a profession began at the end of the 19th century in response to trade unions, and enlightened employers such as the Quakers campaigning against the harshness of industrial conditions. The profession grew out of a commitment to create “industrial betterment” for workers. From the onset, the function sat on the nexus of conflicting values as it tried to balance the tension between protecting employees on the one hand, and meeting organisational need for higher output, on the other.
Around the mid-1980s, the term Human Resource Management arrived from corporate America. This name change was not merely semantic but heralded the arrival of a commercial discourse that unequivocally positioned People Management as a management function. It is linked to managerialism in that it grew out of the shift in power relationships between labour and capital in the 1980s.
Many of its techniques and interventions stem from its modernist (logical, rationalist, deductive, binary) assumptions about work. This positivist legacy has led to practice that inadvertently objectifies employees. This can still be seen today in the popularity of psychometric testing. The widespread acceptance of the latter has even led to employees themselves fixing their own identities into things or commodities such as “Plant”, “INTJ”, “Completer Finishers”, “Command”, “Reformer”, just to name a few. These inventories have been used to link attitudes, characteristics and behaviours with performance.
On the shadow side, when employees do not conform to the norm, they are objectified and pathologised through deficit language such as “damaged goods”, “losers”, “dysfunctional”, “rubbish”, “disaster”, “brown noser”, “useless”, “dead wood”, “ “plank”, “trouble”, “plonker”, “redundant”, etc.
As a systemic practitioner, I believe that workplace cultures that objectify people cannot be life-giving. It definitely does not engender flourishing and productive human beings.
I am interested in exploring how people can be emancipated from this psychological prison we seem to made for ourselves. I believe that change can only come about when we embrace a relational rather than managerial approach to coordinating and organising people. This will involve re-imaging ways of working that treat human beings as whole people, not a human resource, a means to an end or a corporate brand.
To my mind, change will have to be discontinuous rather than continuous – a re-inventing. The first step is to innovate life-giving humane practice based on the premise that employees are emotional, spiritual, creative, intelligent, meaningful, purposeful and collaborative communities of people.