If the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us anything it is the important contribution of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, allied health professionals, hospital workers and teachers. Health, people, and communities are precious.
My research (2015-2020) considered the dichotomies of regarding employees as assets with utility (valuable) or as people with dignity (valued).
The policy implications for employers here are significant: do we regard those who do the work of organisations just as individual human resources or as persons? In this post-pandemic recovery, we could do well to consider what view we have of the those who do the work in our workplaces. The truth is, we don’t need to adopt an ‘either-or’ approach to employees.
Two Views of Employees: Utility versus Dignity
The focus of my research was to challenge the ontology of human resource management (HRM), that is, how we think about the nature of employees. Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) was a French philosopher who regarded the individual as the ‘lower self’, but a person as the ‘higher self’. The individual was separate, common, and replaceable; the person was free, self-determining, and unique. Further, to become a person was only possible when connected to a community of other persons. I used Maritain’s philosophy as a lens to critique HRM.
Employees Have Utility
If employees are seen as separate, disconnected and expendable (as human resources), then gig workers as mere contractors, casualisation is the norm, wage theft would be smart, unpaid overtime would be rife, work conditions would be scant, and slavery would be allowed in the interests of lower prices for customers and higher profits for share-holders. One scholar quoted a manager as saying you can use contractors like a tap which you could simply turn on and off.
Humans in the workplace are valuable resources to be utilised: accordingly, ‘carrot and stick’ approaches to performance management make sense. Jobs are clearly specified, key performance indicators (KPIs) are enforced, and individual contracts sidestep the collective power of unions. The focus of this mindset is on profit and performance. For HRM practitioners, the approach to be pursued is strategic HRM – the HR profession is mainly at the service of the employer who is a strategic partner.
Employees Have Dignity
If one espouses that employees are connected, unique and irreplaceable (as human persons), then different policy outcomes and processes become evident – there is legislated time off for domestic violence, reasonable sick leave, superannuation, fair wages, and the recognition of unions with collective bargaining.
Persons in the workplace have inherent worth or dignity: to be valued in their own right for who they are, not just for how they perform. Accordingly, giving employees reasonable discretion on what and how they contribute to organisations makes sense – ‘job crafting’. Jobs are collectively designed to suit societal, environmental, and organisational outcomes. The focus of this mindset is on potential and sustainable well-being for organisations and employees and society. There is a new research agenda, ‘humanistic management’, which espouses these views. For HRM practitioners, the approach here is sustainable HRM or, increasingly, ‘green HRM’.
Summary of Two Views of Humans at Work
Conclusion and Invitation
As someone who has worked for over forty years as a consultant and academic, I have seen the best and the worst of human nature in the workplace. I have challenged managers who justify bullying, and supported employees to be the best they can be in the interests of all stakeholders. I am encouraged that there are alternate ways of treating employees than as mere assets.
My research sought to balance a viewpoint where people in the workplace might only be valued, not for what they are but for what they do or what they have – for their usefulness.
I invite readers especially those of us who are managers to challenge how we all think about organisations, and how we regard those who do their work. This quest is more than an exercise in rhetoric – how we think about employees really matters. Theory informs practice: how we regard employees influences how we treat them. Let’s treat employees with the respect they deserve.