The “Human Resources” Misconception

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“People are like fractions—the more you multiply them, the smaller they get.”—M. Moffa, freshman-year college journal

“We’d love to have you for lunch.”—cannibal credo

RESOURCES/Image: Michael Moffa

To anyone hearing the phrase “human resources” for the first time, it must sound like the ambiguous cannibal credo, “We’d love to have you for lunch.” The latter ambiguity was rivetingly exploited in an original black-and-white Twilight Zone episode in which vastly superior aliens come to Earth for purposes stated in their intergalactic manifesto impressively engraved with the title “To Serve Man”—fatally misinterpreted as something other than a cook book, By the time its real meaning was deciphered, thousands of starry-eyed earthling volunteers had boarded their one-way flight as “human resources” for a feast.

That “human resources” sounds a bit off must have been obvious to just about everyone from the date of its conception—variously dated as 1961 (but with no discernible attribution by Merriam Webster, which gives that date); 1970, in Leonard Nadler’s Developing Human Resources, considered the birth of the concept and the field of “Human Resource Development (HRD)”; or as early as 1928,  when “human capital”—a near-twin of “human resource” was first used, by English economist Arthur Cecil Pigou.

As for the theory and presumably well-intentioned practice of HDR, it seems it has its roots in the WWII era: “The position taken in this issue is that origins of contemporary HRD are rooted in the Training Within Industry (TWI) Service of the U.S. government from 1940-1945 under the leadership of Channing R. Dooley.”—Richard A Swanson, Advances in Developing Human Resources , Volume 3 (2): 115, May 2001.

Why the Switch from “Personnel”?

Attempting to fathom the conscious rationale and possible unconscious motivations for the switch from “personnel department” to “human resources”, I have speculated that the intent and incentive in making the switch was to give labor a human face by stressing “human resources” deserving humane, Maslowian humanistic consideration and treatment—given that labor was going to be seen as a resource, in any case. One goal and consequence of that move may have been to mute to some degree the endless Marxist harangues of that era.

Another likely goal and result was the accommodation of the growing “humanist psychology” movement, of which Abraham Maslow and his “self-actualization” “pyramid of needs” were the foremost example in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite those high purposes, the fact remained that “human resources” can—and for many, did—morph into “human resources”, another “To Serve Man”-esque stunning ambiguity.

In all probability, since, at its inception, it was “human resources” (with the stress on “human”), there seemed to be no reason to complain about or otherwise feel uneasy with the idea, even though “human resources” designates something that people are, rather than something they have—a very ironic inversion and distortion of the key humanist idea that as humans, we are to be defined by what we are, not by what we have.

Like Logged Logs Logged in a Ledger

Of course, now, decades later, what is obviously and widely believed to be wrong with the concept of “human resources” is that it makes us all sound like logs—logs to be selected, harvested, processed, distributed and ultimately consumed for our value-addedness before being individually disposed of, even if otherwise “renewable”. At the UK’s, “human resources” is—like “To Serve Man”—spookily and ambiguously defined as including our “disposal”: “Human Resources (HR) (sic) and Personnel (sic) and are essentially interchangeable terms that are used to describe the services and procedures associated with the acquisition, management and disposal of staff in an organisation.” So we can be forgiven for wincing a little when directed to the HR department.

Marxist angst about workers being treated as a commodity is familiar and fair enough, and, by extension, serves as a commodified canary in a coal mine, warning us about the perils of allowing ourselves to be seen as mere resources. But there is something more subtly wrong with the concept of “human resource”—a problem that remains even if the greatest care is taken to ensure that “personnel” (what human resources were called before “personnel” somehow made personnel officers uncomfortable) are not exploited.

The Dismal Law of DMU

Simply stated, the subtle problem is that “human resources” tacitly validates the notion that human beings can have “diminishing marginal utility”, or “DMU”, for short. That is, the concept of “human resources” inexorably leads to the notion that, as is the case with any resource, at some point the value of human beings for those making use of them is going to diminish as more and more are added.

Buying Big Macs illustrates this idea simply and clearly: You are very hungry, so you buy a Big Mac. You think it was well worth the price. Still hungry, you buy one more. Very good!..But not as urgently desired as the first. A glutton, you buy a third one. Although the price is the same, the value to you is beginning to diminish as your appetite wanes. After two or three more, you are unwilling to pay anything for one more: The value of a Big Mac at that moment has approached zero. In less simple terms, the marginal utility—the value of the “next extra unit”—has diminished, virtually to zero, making the price totally unacceptable.

Taking the Problem to the Streets

Here is how the “human resource” sanctioned notion of human DMU becomes a problem that spreads far beyond the confines of the work place.  You’ve left work, where there may or may not be an HR department—whether there is one is inessential, since there are so many of them everywhere that the concept is as familiar and friendly as a Big Mac. You are making your way through a rush-hour financial district sidewalk crowd of other human resources trying to make their way. What, not who, are these massed men and women?

You may feel, think or act as though they are obstacles, competitors, parasites (if panhandling) and other net losses as investments of time and energy, irritations or—and this is key—evidence of your own insignificance, as expressed in my freshman-year observation that “people are like fractions—the more you multiply them the smaller they get”.

In a world in which population has just about tripled in the lifetimes of many of us, those perceptions and feelings may seem natural, indeed, inescapable as our population densities become less and less natural, e.g., Hong Kong’s 150,000 people/km2 in some of its key commercial districts, such as Central and Mong Kok, as compared with metropolitan Vancouver’s 1,500/ km2.  If these densities were audible sound, they would amount to adding too many notes to a previously beautiful Mozart concerto. Result: existential cacophony and unsound sound.

Whistling in the Dark

You may try to fight these feeling and perceptions with a few bars of another song: “Everything is beautiful in its own way” or “Everyone is number one” (very popular in China). You may also try to comfort yourself with the notion that even if you aren’t special or unique, you are probably perfect—or at least no less perfect than many others. You may even, as I did in my article “Your Value vs. Your Values”, distinguish these for solace.

But, in the end, you are likely to fail—because you are a “human resource”, and, as such, must eventually have a DMU approaching zero. That’s the inescapable implication of being seen as or seeing yourself as a “human resource”.

Learning from the Stars

What is very strange about all of this is that even though there are infinitely more stars in the sky than there will ever be humans, no one ever gazes at the nighttime sky and mutters “worthless”, “pointless”, “trivial”, “insignificant”, or “too many”. No. Instead, we rhapsodize about them, use their insentient unfeeling gases as metaphors for our most vaporous romantic poetry, and somehow manage to believe that regarding stars, “the more the merrier”. Now, why is that? Why don’t we view ourselves and everyone else the same poetically inspired way? We don’t, because until now stars have not been resources—save for the Sun, which we almost never call “a star”, given its unique proximity and utility. If only we could view each other, every applicant, every recruiter, every HR staffer, everyone else the way we view stars, we might all feel much, much better about ourselves and all of those who surround us as strangers in our crowded midst.

Unfortunately, that transformation is very unlikely to happen as long as we continue to see ourselves and everyone else as a “human resource”, doomed by definition to eventual worthlessness by the dismal law of diminishing marginal utility that is built into the HR concept. Personally, I much prefer “personnel” to “human resources”. Somehow, it sounds much less “impersonnel”.

And much less like a misconception.

Read more in Human Capital

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).