January 6, 2015
“Your people are not your greatest asset. They’re not yours, and they’re not assets. Assets are property. You don’t own your people.”
I had already written these opening lines months earlier in the manuscript for Widgets. I was driving through Illinois last year when I saw ahead of me what’s in the photo above.
“Our most valuable resource sits 63 feet ahead.”
What’s wrong about this declaration is not what the people who wrote it intended. They probably meant it either warmly or, at worst, as a marketing gimmick. It’s that they failed to appreciate they were using terms of ownership to refer to people.
A resource or asset of a business is, by the definition in the accounting textbooks, owned by the company. The enterprise can do with it pretty much whatever it wishes. Lumber, coal, patents, buildings, water rights, trademarks, cattle, or that 18-wheeler being driven through the Midwest – all assets. All to be used, sold, left sitting idle, or traded in as best serves the interests of the company without any say in how they are treated, because they are property.
This would be nothing more than my personal hang-up were it not for so many other ways that some organizations today treat their employees like – their term – “human resources.”
At a time when most organizations are less likely to take a long-term interest in the people who work there, too many are assuming they essentially own all of a person’s time, evenings and weekends included. They are reducing people to electronic bits and bytes in their “eHR” systems. They are assuming they own the employee’s “wellbeing” and private health information, even as they boost others off the company insurance. They are far more willing to send their so-called “greatest resources” packing if the next couple quarters threaten to be below analysts’ expectations.
I used this photo in a presentation after my friend Dr. Brad Shuck and I spoke to a business group last spring in Scottsdale, Arizona. On his way back, he spotted this truck, which took the “greatest resource” thing yet another step too far with what was painted on the side.
This raises the ridiculousness to Dilbertian proportions.
For the best managed of these drivers, it’s probably no big deal. They might even get a warm feeling from it. But for the most frustrated drivers – those who haven’t seen their families for weeks, who are being given poor routes by dispatch, or whose pay isn’t what they thought it would be – coming out of the truck stop to climb back in front of the company’s clumsy slogan has to take some of the air out of their tires.
In any case, it’s not right. No employee is a company’s resource or asset. He’s a person, plain and simple, not the punctuation on a big rolling company billboard.
(If you come across other examples of companies pointing at their employees and calling them assets, please send them along.)