The Truth Behind "Human Capital"

Remember Catbert from the Dilbert cartoons? What about Toby Flenderson from "The Office"? It seems HR is an easy target for comedy. There is probably no workplace department more maligned in popular culture than human resources.

These teams have a tough job, though -- handling recruiting, hiring, and firing, as well as benefits administration and any sensitive situations that crop up. That juggling act leaves room for misunderstandings. And sometimes, for a misuse of that great responsibility.

But there is another reason HR does not get much love, and it has more to do with words than action.

Quite a bit of their language comes from economists and efficiency experts. For example, economists use "human capital" to describe spending on training, education, and health care. But some HR departments use that term to describe an employee's skill set or to refer to the collective worth of employee "assets."

If that makes you shudder, that is understandable. Yes, they are just words. But the words we choose convey a powerful message about what we believe and value.

It should bother you deeply when your employer uses a throwaway term like "human capital." It suggests that you are:

At risk
You want to concentrate on delivering your best work, not to worry about where you stand on someone's spreadsheet. But hearing language like "human capital" can make you wonder whether you are in the plus or minus column today and where you might be tomorrow.

You want to be recognized as a valued contributor, not some cog in the company machine, easy to manufacture or replace as needed. Terminology that infers mass production and replaceability leaves no room to measure your true potential and capacity to shine.

Company property
This phrase is dehumanizing, making you sound like a piece of machinery. You may get the false impression that you have little control over your job or much say in your future. And it certainly does not inspire warm feelings of devotion that your company truly cares about your overall happiness.

You deserve to work for an organization that recognizes the worth of each person and treats everyone with respect. And it starts with the smallest of things, like the words we choose.

Realistically, you are not likely to singlehandedly change the lexicon at your workplace. But you can choose the words you use and you do not need to think about yourself in these stark terms. You should never let someone else's words define you, demean you, or ruin your confidence.

No matter what anyone says, it is really up to you to measure your own worth and believe in your own potential. And then you can prove -- through hard work and results -- that you are so much more than "human capital."

How do you feel when you hear someone refer to people as "human capital?"