Are employees businesses’ greatest asset, or just their cheapest?

One of the main, and largely undisputed, points of view regarding employees among heavyweight business thinkers and the HR community in general is that ‘people are our greatest asset’.

There is no doubting that people do indeed have the capacity to be great. And good people can help things go smoothly, help the profits grow, build goodwill and a great reputation. But people can also be a whacking great liability. People can cock things up, do the wrong thing, make bad choices, destroy reputations and leave organisations in ruins.

While it is rare that individuals have the deep-rooted ineptitude to totally annihilate years of hard work and endeavour, they do nonetheless have the capacity to put an enormous spanner in the works.

Rome was not built in a day and it was not destroyed in a day, but it was neither built nor destroyed by anything but people. Another great empire, the British one, was founded on international trade and manufacturing. And ‘our greatest asset’ was employed in vast numbers, churning out cheap clothing for the upwardly mobile masses.

Along came technology

But then a new ‘asset’ started to have a big impact on the way people worked – technology. The Industrial Revolution meant that things could be made in far greater quantities by fewer people, and the ‘modern’ workplace was characterised by the sheer scale of the buildings and equipment and the dismal lack of people being employed to operate them.

The handful of human capital hanging around was mainly there to stand by the ‘off’ button, feed the donkey or stoke the fire. The tragic reality was that the fabric of British society was actually being stitched together by the malnourished fingers of women and children working in cramped, back-street sweatshops, in appalling conditions, for little or no money.

But while many now bemoan the fact that the UK’s manufacturing industry seems to be in terminal decline, the top techniques employed in those bygone days are still delivering results for the unscrupulous employers of the world.

In manufacturing, it seems that nothing much has really changed – just the location of the labour supply. For while technology has moved on apace, there will always be a need for people to exploit, and there will always be a pool of less regulated ‘talent’ waiting to adopt the low pay and wretched conditions that made Britain so great.

So while British industry struggles to keep its head above water, the likes of China, India and Taiwan have taken up the baton and are churning out ever-greater quantities of the stuff we all need and the stuff that we all don’t need but feel obliged to consume.

Through the shop window

And in the past century, the retail industry has thrived by exploiting our greatest asset to provide a shop window for all this ‘stuff’. Low-cost food, clothing and electrical goods have all been supplied to the grateful British consumer by our friendly retail community.

Until relatively recently, this particular industry carried on the tradition of placing a high value on our ‘greatest asset’ by paying as little as it could get away with, forcing people to work unbelievably long hours and then casting them aside when they could no longer cope. Thankfully, union pressure, HR involvement and employment laws have improved things.

The latest advances in technology mean that people will be used in ever-shrinking numbers. But surely, you say, these are the traditionally low-paid sectors, not representative of the high regard our nation places on our people.

In the higher-paid world of financial services, it could be argued that paying vast bonuses to City high-fliers is proof that people are highly regarded. But even this minority work ridiculously long hours, and their vast pay packets tend to mask the fact that beneath the surface there is a whole army of agents and sales staff, working long hours selling policies that people don’t need to people who cannot afford them.

In the private sector, at least, people are definitely not our greatest asset. They are, however, our cheapest.

As businesses are driven by profits and providing value to shareholders, people are the most flexible, gullible and adaptable ‘tool’ to be used in attaining that goal. HR practitioners working in hard-nosed businesses know this only too well.

This is unlikely to change. For while HR thinkers and business analysts predict that the ‘developed’ world is transforming into a ‘knowledge-based economy’, exploitable people with limited educations will still be essential, if only to drive buses, deliver parcels, clean toilets and pack boxes.

And as long as the public face of the HR community continues to trumpet the idea of people being our greatest asset, being taken seriously, getting to the top and having a greater influence over those in positions of power will remain out of reach.

By Tony Pettengell, group production editor, Personnel Today

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