People are not resources

18. Dec 2020

The choice of words matter. A lot.

For non-native English speakers like me, certain words carry a seemingly “professional” meaning to them. Common examples such as “synergy”, “executive”, “agreement”, and “resource” are used as part of the “lingua franca” of world business, usually without paying attention to their origin or hidden meaning.

Let us focus on the last word above: “resource”. There are many valid uses for it in a business environment: whatever your business needs to run, is a resource. Computers, electricity, money, raw materials, all of that are valid resources. The problem, however, appears as soon as we read the word “human” next to it.

Wikipedia explains that the first recorded use of the expression “human resources” happened in 1893. The term evolved and took its current meaning around 1950, reaching its peak of usage and “popularity” somewhere between the 1980s and 90s.

The world, thankfully, has evolved. The founding document of the International Labour Organization, the Declaration of Philadelphia from 1944, clearly states in its first point that “Labour is not a commodity”. Human beings are not replaceable, just like coal or wheat could be, and thus deserve to be considered in a different, much more humane light. We live in a world where the focus is moving back towards the individual; we no longer live to work, even if for the time being we still work to live.

When we started VSHN we wanted to create a different workplace; one where people were our most important value, one where everyone could voice their opinion, and actively shape and reshape the company following the best possible consensus. To a large extent, our Handbook is a concrete reflection of this attitude, an explicit contract between all VSHNeers. Needless to say, in such a place, the expression “human resources” not only makes no sense, it actually sounds offensive. We therefore decided to change it to “People Operations”, or “PeopleOps” in short, following the naming trends of the very industry we’re operating in.

When talking about people, don’t use the word “resource”.

Valid use of “resources”

  • The server does not have enough [ cloud computing ] resources
  • We’re out of [ monetary ] resources to buy more hardware.
  • With more [ monetary ] resources we would be able to achieve more results.
  • We’re out of [ raw materials ] resources to be able to produce more products.

Unacceptable use of “resources”

  • Our team does not have the necessary [ time/people ] resources to work on this task. → Our team does not have the necessary time to work on this task.
  • With more [ time/people ] resources we would be able to achieve more results. → With more people we would be able to achieve more results.
  • We need to assign more [ time/people ] resources to this project. → We need to assign more people to this project.
  • We don’t have the [ time/people ] resources for this project. → We don’t have the time for this project.
  • We’re out of [ time/people ] resources to be able to produce more products. → We’re out of people to be able to produce more products.

Aarno Aukia

Aarno is Co-Founder of VSHN AG and provides technical enthusiasm as a Service as CTO.

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