I applaud every organization that is working to try to erase, mitigate and flat out demolish the inequities that have been part of our national economic standard business practices. I appreciate the articles and books about leadership. However, there is not enough attention being given to corporate microaggressions.
Like any other type of microaggression, it is insidious. Even when we believe that we are establishing fair corporate cultures. Especially, when we say that we are setting up human resources to benefit our employees. We are failing to change the most important part of the culture or department - ourselves.
In fact simply saying “we are setting up human resources to benefit our employees” is problematic. For those of you who think that words are just, well words, this article much less the concept of change is not for you. But for the rest of us, take a look again at that sentence. Do you see the issues?
First of all, “we” are setting the department and policies up. How? How are we setting up something that arguably has little to nothing to do with us? How are we setting policies when we are the ones that are writing the checks and almost never are held to them. It is human nature to try to stay in balance, this is even more true when it comes to finances in a new or growing organization. When we are looking at a spreadsheet for “our” company it is too easy to justify “tightening belts” for growth. It is too easy to say to ourselves that growth helps all of us. But if we are honest with ourselves we know that this company is our life, it is our creation and we want it to survive. Business owners will often call their companies their babies.
It is not. It is an artificial thing designed around our idea. Our ideas do not breathe or cry. Our ideas cannot die from starvation. But our team can. Their children can. Our customers can.
Stop. Don’t start with me now about how companies can metaphorically die. Do not talk about how the company hires people, gives them jobs. That’s too easy. So what if we give them a job that they cannot feed their family on? So what if we employ folks who don’t have the basic necessities of life for themselves, their partners, families, or community? That’s rhetoric and if we’re honest we know it.
The next problematic phrase in that sentence is “human resources.” I won’t spend a great deal of time on this phrase. Many others have written well about it. I think we are not unfamiliar with the peril of listing “human resources” right next to “natural resources”(which are arguably human resources as well). If you look at most financial spreadsheets you will see that there is a “labor cost” but a desk is an “asset.” I am oversimplifying and I understand that. But the point is clear. Our labor is a cost, a resource to be used. While our car, calculator, building, is an asset to the company.
Next issue is “benefit.” I would posit that when we say “benefit” most often we are talking about basic human needs. We refer to medical insurance - good health. We talk about days “off” that we expect our employees to come back from “well rested” and “ready to hit the ground running.” We in essence are supplying either things that every human should have without question or things that we believe will help our “resource” perform better.
In addition, a benefit is something that can be different for everyone. What does that individual need? But during a job offer a benefit is presented largely as a take it or leave it. That is not a benefit, it is a bribe. Work here and you get “x, y, z” unlike somewhere else. And even that is disproportionately negotiated with those who are applying for “higher level” jobs.
Finally, we come to “our employees.” This is my least favorite phrase in the entire sentence of inappropriate words. How far from “our staff” is “our employees”? We all understand what this means whether we say it or not. If you feel it is too extreme to say we understand we own them then by all means try the phrase “we rent them”. We rent their time. We use supply and demand analysis on humans just like we do on any other resources. There are too many uneducated people for the jobs out there? Great! We can pay less since there is a glut in the supply. No difference between that and toilet paper or copy paper or any other resource we need to keep the business running.
Each of these phrases are tiny microaggressions that let people know “where they stand.” I will give you an example of this at work. Even in the best organizations who pride themselves on fairness and good treatment you will see this at play when a meeting is going to be scheduled. How often have we seen someone “higher up” just put a meeting on a calendar and expect everyone to be there? It is seen generally as normal and acceptable behavior for that person to make it clear that their convenience and their time is more valuable than those “under” them. Most of our organizations have calendar apps that will help us know when people are available. Most of us use them when organizing a meeting with someone “higher up” than us. But how many do with those seen as less important or “lower” than us?
I’ll take it one step further and say that even organizations that did not choose to afford or budget for such an app most certainly have email or other forms of communication with which to ask for someone’s time. We certainly find ways to communicate what is expected and the timelines in which they are expected. But when it comes to time, our resource of time is more important than those in positions ``lower” on the chain.” That simple microaggression, in and of itself, makes it clear who is more valuable than whom in an organization.
I’ll circle back around to the people who feel that these are “just words.” I will give you this. Simply changing the words without changing the mindset is at best ineffective. Just changing the words without changing how our eyes see and our hearts react to the humans around us will do nothing. You’re right. We need to listen to the words and change them from our intentions rather than just do lip service.
So I’ll leave you with this as a way to start rethinking. If you cannot put yourself in everyone else’s place and do what is right for them. Then understand that this is right for your “bottom line” as well. If we continue to treat our human resources like they are disposable we will run out of human resources like any other. We will burn out communities, and leave children to grow up without health and education, both of which are needed to continue to be a resource.
If you cannot be a good human and work with each other to create a space in which everyone is thriving, then think about this for a moment. In business we have all heard the phrase “even the janitor” as if that is the lowest position in any organization. As far as “human resources” go, that position is seen as one of the least valuable. So the next time you go into that big meeting, the next time you are rushing to get to your presentation, don’t stop to go to the bathroom. There isn’t one. Your “resource” has provided you with service on the level you have invested. The toilets are overflowing and there isn’t any paper. I will argue with you all day long that I can go into my meeting with one less page of my report. I can punt with less data, but I cannot perform at my best without the kitchen team preparing food, the janitorial team providing a bathroom or the maintenance team making sure there is air in the room.
We are all important members of the team. It’s time we started acting like it.