My first real job after I left the security of my parents’ home was in the 1970s, as an engineering apprentice for a company near Leicester. On my first morning I was told to report to the Personnel Department, where they made sure my name was on the payroll, arranged my accommodation with a landlady in the city and explained where I needed to go to collect a union card. In other words, they looked after my well-being.
The years passed and Personnel Departments disappeared, to be replaced by Human Resources Departments. Now, people were our greatest assets was the organisational mantra. Recognising this would mean that the Boards of Directors would pay serious attention to what Human Resources said and things would change completely.
Of course, nothing really happened. HR is still something of a poor relation and takes orders from line functions. At least, that is one argument which says that the role of HR has been reduced to carrying out the wishes of senior management and that the principles of ‘beneficence’, protecting employees’ well-being has been pushed to one side. The idea of ‘human resources’ came out of the interest in the concept of ‘human capital’, which was developed by the economist Gary Becker in the 1960s. Becker was a member of the Mont Pelérin Society, the somewhat secretive group of economists who developed the idea of neoliberalism, which is the economic model we all swim within nowadays. The essential principle of neoliberalism is the primacy of the market, so all human activity needs to be reduced to financial value: hence the conversion of employees into resources, at the same level as machinery. Perhaps this is why nothing really happened as far as the status of human resources is concerned?
The neoliberal principle of relying on markets to make decisions is also another reason why we in the West are gripped by an inability to really come to terms with the climate emergency. As I write this article parts of Australia are gripped by record temperatures and people are burning to death in wildfires: outside, here in Yorkshire it has barely stopped raining for the last three months. The world as we know it is changing dramatically, and fast. To deal with problems such as this requires large-scale, integrated action which will only see benefits over many decades, and this is something that neoliberal economics cannot deal with. The market makes calculations about financial returns only, and decision-making for what may happen in the future is discounted. Immediate returns are prioritised, and what happens in our grandchildren’s generations is given very little weighting. So, from the neoliberal mindset, taking action to mitigate the actions stoking the fires and floods of climate change is of little interest.
But economics is all about values. What do we think is worthwhile? What are we prepared to pay for? What is important to us? These are questions about values, and within organisations the guardian of values is, or at least should be, the Human Resources Department. Through HR Development activities, such as training and encouraging informal learning, HR can influence the ethical culture of the organisation. HR is also a function which provides an essential boundary spanner role connecting an organisation with its social environment, the people who work for it. Most organisational writings seems to treat employees as unidimensional beings, whose only interest is in furthering the interests of the corporation, whereas in reality employees are members of society, societies where people are burning in wildfires and having their homes destroyed by floods, if not today, then in the decades to come when it will be our grandchildren who are bearing the burdens what we are doing now.
So I think that it is time that all of us who work in Human Resources Development think about the values we are promoting within our organisations and how they contribute to the future of the planet. What will be your answer when in 30 years time your grandchildren ask, “What did you do in the war against climate change, Grandma or Granddad?”