My beef with “Human Capital” and “Human Resources” and the like

by | Jun 14, 2023

Human capital. Human Resources. Talent Management. 

I saw a post from Dr. Susan David this week about how words matter. The gist: perhaps we shouldn’t refer to the humans we work with/work for us as “capital” or “resources,” and instead choose a more human term. 

I remember mentioning my disdain for the “Human Capital” term to a client, who told me, “I think you’re missing the point.” 🤔

Falling into the “choose your battles” category, I kept my trap shut. 

However, it brought me back to a moment about 8 years ago when I fully did engage. 

The scene: The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. There were some process issues, leading to some customer issues, leading to some engagement issues. If words matter, “issues” is an understatement: the place was a bit of a hot mess. We were there to sort it out. 

During a session with some Will Call folk, we were troubleshooting their process for answering the phones. Always one to make things as legit as possible, I pretended to ring-ring-ring the ticket counter to see how they would answer. 

“Kennedy Center Will Call. This is agent 5435 speaking. How can I help?”

Me: DEAFENING FLABBERGASTED SILENCE FOR A GOOD TWENTY SECONDS, seriously questioning if this project was all a well-orchestrated ruse and we were really at the CIA Headquarters with the agent talk. 

I asked them to repeat themselves, in case I had misheard. “I’m sorry, what was that?” 

“Kennedy Center Will Call. This is agent 5435 speaking. How can I help?”

My words came back to me. 

“Ummm, why are you saying a number instead of your name? 

I was so appalled and internally rage-y I don’t remember the actual reason but it went something like…

“Well, our boss told us not to use our names in case there is an issue, then people can’t call and yell at us or blame us if we give them the wrong information, or they have a problem.”

Everything in my body and mind was screaming this is a horrible idea and perhaps one of the worst plans I’d ever heard—but I decided to check to see if I was missing anything.

“What do you guys think? How does it feel? Are you OK with it?”

They hemmed and hawed and pretended to like it but my suspicions were confirmed: They hated it. 

No. Duh. 

The agent-number plan was the epitome of well-intentioned dopiness gone wrong. 

“Hey, team! Our processes are non-existent or broken, so let’s band-aid some stuff! I’ve got it!  We don’t have the resources to equip our people, our processes have gone up in flames, we’re working on a remodel, there’s no time to train our people, so we’ll have them go by numbers and then no one will be able to call back and complain and since they won’t have a name to ask for, and maybe the customers will stop yelling so much!” 

I could barely type that last one because it makes no sense! If someone is going to yell, they’re going to yell. If I’m calling to get support from a human, and they’re hiding behind a number, I’m going to get suspicious. I’m going to be confused. I’m going to feel uncared for. I might just start yelling before they tell me how much it’s going to cost for parking (a LOT), that I should get there an hour early (parking lot construction) and I have a hike ahead of me because of said parking sitch. 

There were lots of broken pieces to this equation. (To be fair, that’s why we were there.)

What their customers needed on the other end of that line was understanding, empathy, and a thoughtful person.  By implementing Operation Let’s Number Our Humans, the leadership team treated the Will Call team with the exact opposite vibe they wanted them to deliver. It’s hard to give what you don’t get. 

It was confusing.

It was demoralizing. 

This sort of decision–so commonplace. 

Instead of thinking about how they could deflect the wrath, perhaps a better line of questioning would have been, “How can we train our people? How can we give them the resources they need? What solutions might they have?”

The fact that the number plan passed through multiple departments and was given the seal of approval was indicative of a crack in the culture. A crack that starts small then spreads throughout the organization, and gets people to accept that calling people by numbers instead of their names is an OK solution. 

From my view, it starts with “human capital” and ends with Agent 5435. 

That is the point. 


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