Why Employees Are Not Your Most Important Asset

Why employees are NOT your most important asset
Douglas Wood

Almost all companies have a sign on the wall somewhere that says something like, "Our employees are our most important asset." The work 'asset' may be replaced with 'resource,' or some other portion of the wording may be altered slightly, but the sign usually hangs someplace on the premises. Regardless of the exact wording, the intent is the same; the firm is trying to state that it values its employees, and the sign is a visible indicator of that value or belief.

As well intentioned as this statement is, I believe problems result from it. My objections do not include accidental or planned duplicity on the part of the employer. I do understand that employees may often feel that the sign only provides lip service to the belief, and the employer really does not care about them. Let's set this objection aside. I cannot really tell the deep intent of anyone, much less an employer I've never met. That is not the kind of fundamental problem to which I refer.

Of course, if this lip service is happening it is a significant problem, and any employer that thinks this is happening at their firm would be prudent to address this issue. This sort of thing not only negates the value of the sign, but it creates deep misgivings in the employees. If this is the case, it would be a good start to take down the sign. A good follow up would be to do some work on employer-employee relationships, as these misgivings are likely to lead to less-than-optimal behaviors.

The core issue centers on the content of the statement. It places employees in a class with assets. Simply put, assets and people (let's refer to the employees as people) are quite different on several levels.

First of all, assets do not walk out if they are dissatisfied. Not that people quit jobs easily, but an asset never leaves. People do leave, given sufficient reason. This mobility is a strong indicator that people and assets are different.

On a more primary level, you can own an asset. No firm owns people anymore. There may be employees that have worked for a given employer since dirt was young, but that is still not ownership. People choose to stay, and they choose to leave.

Perhaps this is too obvious, and certainly not what the employer meant when he/ she put up the sign. I still think this undercurrent of meaning is there, and many people may feel uneasy with the sign even if they understand that the employer has no intention of 'owning' people. There is a discomfort with being equated with an owned object, even if it is meant with good intentions.

The second reason the sign is flawed involves the issue of creation. Assets do not create; they modify (like a printing press) or shape (like a metal lathe.) They transform (like a computer) or direct (like an artificial intelligence software application) but assets do not create something that was not there before. This is the territory of people.

Even if most of the time, most of the people employed by a firm are modifiers, transformation workers, or direct the work of others, they do create some of the time. They think about what they are doing, and they create new procedures, new practices, new products, new services, and sometimes new businesses. This process of creation is going on all the time, even in the worst of workplaces. It is this creative process that makes the company alter its shape, migrate with the market, fix new kinds of problems for customers, and finally survive and grow. There is no asset that can do this. The ideas that people have create new value out of thin air! People make new assets from nothing; assets do not make assets.

This characterization of employees as creators appears to be what the employer is trying to get at with the sign. Employers value their people, because without the people, the firm would not be.

The real problems start here. By placing people and assets in the same basket, a sort of mental confusion begins. People's objections can be dismissed more easily, since they are in the class with assets (owned articles.) The ideas created by the people can be ignored easier, they contributions of the 'little people' can be forgotten, the supervisors find it easier to tell their people that they should 'just do the work' without complaint. These actions may be unconscious, but we have all seen them and their effects in the workplace.

The attitudes thus started can grow. At the very least, it will take effort by senior executives to avoid these problems. There is a better way. By placing people in their own, non-asset category, the above mistakes can be avoided. Efforts to do the right thing and treat people well happen more naturally if these categories are clear in everyone's mind. For example, managers and supervisors under stress may occasionally snap at employees. Such behavior is easier to avoid if the employees are never classified as assets, but are elevated to the level of value creators.

Some employers use the word 'resource' instead of 'asset' on their sign. This softens the objections raised here, but it does not fully address them. A resource is a consumable item. Water, metal, and time are all resources. You use them up, and they are gone. Today, there are very few jobs where a person is consumed in the act of working.

You can recycle resources in some cases, but they clearly belong to a class of 'stuff.' People do not belong to the class of 'stuff.' It's time to quit using the categories of 'things' or 'stuff' to talk about the creative, dedicated, quality minded people who work at our businesses. In this manner we can move beyond the limitations that come from incorrect classifications, intended or accidental. Since people create assets, they are in a distinct class. Is there a better way to honor the contributions of people than to do this?