Human What?

On February 13, 2014, in HRExaminer, Industry Analysis, John Sumser, Leadership, Learning, Skills Gap, by John Sumser

photo of people in workplace talking on different floors for article about human capital by john sumser on hr examiner february 13, 2014

Humans are not capital. What we call things really, really matters.


On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order did not outlaw slavery, it made the eradication of slavery an explicit goal of the war. The civil war ended in April 1865 and the executive order was enforced in all of the states.

The thirteenth amendment, abolishing slavery, was passed by the Senate in April 1864, and by the House of Representatives in January 1865. The amendment did not take effect until it was ratified by three fourths of the states, which occurred on December 6, 1865, when Georgia ratified it. On that date, all remaining slaves became officially free.

At that point, almost exactly 150 years ago, it became illegal to own another male person in the United States

Today, slavery, legal or not, remains a factor in sex trafficking, convict labor and various forms of gender and ethnic based coercive working conditions. This is surprisingly true in the United States. One estimate suggests that there are at least 60,000 slaves (1 in 5,000 people) living in the US. That doesn’t include forced labor in prisons, work in isolated company towns or the dreadful circumstances in most migrant workers’ camps.

You could add those numbers and conclude that there are more slaves in the US today than there were during the Civil War. And that’s just the men. While male slaves were sort of liberated in the 1860s, it took another hundred plus years to reach today’s less that satisfactory state of affairs (We now put the people who would have been slaves back then into prisons and make them work for pennies per hour)

Women, who weren’t even accorded a cash value most of the time, were considered property until 1920. As recently as 1940, the State of New Jersey was trying to restrict the voting rights of women. The degree to which women continue to be treated as property in the US depends on the relationships between upper and lower classes. Certain American religious persuasions perpetuate the notion.

All of this, brought on by Abe Lincoln’s birthday is the work up to a single very important idea.

People are not capital.

They are not our most valuable assets. They are not things. They are not components of a human capital supply chain. They are not performance scores in need of improvement.

Humans are not capital.

What we call things really, really matters. Pretending that an inventory of performances, skills and recommendations constitutes a person is the fallacy in our Human Capital Management systems. Rather than exploding the potential of our work forces, we measure and harp on their defects.

Currently there are no tools for measuring increments of wellness, personal interest, passion or personality (except some hyper primitive screening tools that look to homogenize the organization). The question of which curiosities drive our people and which of them bounce back from failure is simply not understood or quantified. (We’re huge Oracle fans for the steps they are taking in this direction.)

But then, why would you give a crap about the motives of a piece of office furniture. All we really wish is that it doesn’t show much initiative. As long as it don’t go too far, it remains predictable.

20th Century Industrial style management, with its emphasis on stamping out identical widgets has zero tolerance for character, idiosyncracy, imperfection and limits testing. It needs its Humans to be Capital. It requires control.

On some level, we as leaders are responsible for the fact that our workforce can’t learn. We’ve taught our people that they are things. We’ve sought best practices, rewarded conformity and confused consistency with excellence. We tell them they are assets and then blame them for not having the right skills.

And now, it’s time to pay the piper.

As I am learning (painfully), we can not tell the difference between a disability and an opportunity. By encouraging each other to go beyond our limitations, we can make the development of value a real thing. Unleashing the value of our entire workforce should be the result of the end of slavery.

When you call them Human Capital, you are calling your workforce slaves.

Stop it.


Read previous post:
photo of boy struggling to lift heavy barbell or weight on hrexaminer
Disruption, Learning and Curiosity

The real learning doesn't come from struggling with your mind and body. It comes from being willing to get back...