Some Businesses Need a Kick in the Assets

By Jason Menard

To paraphrase John Hurt in the film The Elephant Man, “I am not a stakeholder, I am not an asset or a resource. I’m a human being. I… am… a… man.”

I’m Jay. Nice to meet you. However, if you go by the way businesses speak about its employees, one would think that people are no more important than the computer they’re working on, or the phone with which they’re calling you.

Actually, scratch that. The phone is so passé – after all, that’s some form of human interaction, right? Much better to instant message, Tweet, or e-mail. After all, interpersonal interaction reinforces the fact that we’re dealing with people – and there seems to be such a resistance to expressing that notion in the language of business.

Today I received an e-mail wherein the person stated that “there has been some activity between stakeholders…” It struck me as cold then, but I’m sure that wasn’t the intention. It’s just a continuation of the neutering of the English language that began with the elimination of gender-specific terminology and has continued, through the development of Biz Speak, towards an elimination of the ‘personal’ from personal pronouns.

And this pattern is not unique to any one company or field. You see it in corporate press releases, CEO speeches, and reports throughout the business world. The human is becoming superfluous in businesses’ human resources.

Oddly enough, this dehumanization of employees comes at a time when many companies are embracing social media in an attempt to reconnect with their customers by putting a human voice, if not an outright face, to their organization.

However, the end result is a greater detachment from employees to their employer. Sure, the days of the family oriented business may be long gone, but lumping your company’s best asset – its employees – with other resources like furniture by using similar terminology to describe them is hardly a great way to boost employee morale.

You can look at any number of studies to find out that the best way to motivate employees isn’t through increased pay or bonuses – although that never, ever hurts – but rather by expressing real appreciation for their efforts. Token gestures, no matter how small, mean as much if not more to people on a day-to-day basis than cash.

Of course, this particularly nefarious aspect of business speech could simply be reflective of the times we live in. Many companies have had to cut back drastically in light of a challenging economic climate. Several have had to lay off staff outright to improve their bottom lines. And, in the end, it’s harder to fire a person – one complete with emotions, feelings, and a family – than it is to reassign an asset.

Plain speech is the bane of many corporations. The sentiment appears to be that if you’re not using big words, you’re not trying. For many companies, the impression of one’s intelligence is directly related to the use of empty buzz words. Who cares if the heart of the message gets lost in a mind-numbingly soulless three-paragraph preamble? Who cares if clarity and customer-value is sacrificed at the altar of polysyllabic buzz words? For many, appearances are everything.

But what’s the end result? At our core, we’re social animals and we want to interact with real people. The social media revolution is not one based upon any great revelation – it’s just an embracing of those fundamental concepts that have been the cornerstones of communities for thousands of years.

We have a need to connect and we have a desire to trust. Those two goals are best accomplished by talking to people like people.

Assets, resources, and stakeholders are great on budget sheets. But most of us want to feel like we’re worth more than just a few scribbles on a ledger sheet. We want to be treated like the people we are – and in return most people will feel a greater responsibility and affinity towards their employers should they be afforded even that modicum of respect.

And when companies look at the bottom line, a happy, involved workforce is one of the greatest predictors of success. It’s just human nature to be more engaged, more creative, and more innovative when you feel like you’re valued for who you are – not just what you represent.

Corporations can continue to dehumanize their employees at their own peril. After all, if you keep treating people like assets, don’t be surprised when they start feeling and performing like assets – without the ‘t’.

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