Skip to main content
globe careers

Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees as if They’re Real People by Rodd Wagner.

Excerpted from the book Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees as if They're Real People by Rodd Wagner. Copyright © 2015 by Rodd Wagner. Reprinted with permission of McGraw-Hill Education.

Your people are not your greatest asset.

They're not yours, and they're not assets. Assets are property. You don't own your people. Many of them don't trust you. Some don't like you. Too many won't stick it out with you. And the ones you need most have the credentials to walk out fastest if you treat them poorly.

Your employees are not "full-time equivalents." No college graduate, upon landing her first big job, calls her parents to announce, "I'm now an FTE!" No hardworking employee considers himself part of the company's "headcount." "Headcount" is for cattle. Your employees are not "talent." They are not "human capital," to be saved, spent, or loaned like money. They are not "overhead." They are not the numbers each is assigned when hired. They are not, as one staffing firm refers to them, "inventory," or as one home improvement chain called them, "aprons." They are not, as tech people sometimes call them, "meatware."

Above all, employees are not "human resources."

Money is a resource. Land is a resource. So are water, oil, trees, buildings, computers, gold, coal, cattle, and coffee beans. Resources are the raw materials from which a business creates a product.

Humans are not resources. No manager talks about having coffee with one of her "humans." No father holds his young son and hopes he will one day grow up to be a great "resource." It is difficult to have the right relationship between a company and its people when the corporate function responsible for doing so goes by a euphemism.

You might as well call them widgets, flesh-and-blood widgets. That's what the term "human resources" means. That's how they are too often treated. In trying to get a better seat at the executive table with number-crunching departments like Accounting and Operations and Marketing, the executives in charge of the hiring, culture, payroll, insurance, and training were seduced into using impersonal metrics for persons. Business lost its bearings in how to deal with people.

Once people are seen as widgets–as "human resources"–it's much easier to apply to them the kinds of Operationspeak that should be reserved for raw materials. They are "downsized," "attritted," "onboarded," "blended," "change-managed," "diversity-trained," "e-taught," "force-ranked," "matrixed," "requisitioned," or "made redundant." In the human resources machinery, people's entire working lives too often are reduced to a series of clicks on an automated "selection system" and sorted by computer into "As," "Bs," and "Cs" for the hiring manager. They are stereotyped by their generation, rated on their "competencies" and their computer-calculated "strengths," combined for a "group dynamic" designed by an "industrial psychologist," tracked by a "human resource information system," and tagged with a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. They are analyzed for target "behaviors." They are ordered to pee in a cup and hand it over.

The temptation to treat people like widgets is not new. Charlie Chaplin made a movie about it in 1936. Henry Ford is reputed to have complained, "Why is it that I always get the whole person when what I really want is a pair of hands?" More than a century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor, the pioneer of time-and-motion studies, tried to engineer an optimal system where the employees best served the machinery around them. "It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone," he wrote in his book, The Principles of Scientific Management. …

Too many corporations have become people-chewing machines, places where you are more likely to get an access code by which a computer gets to know you and spits out your top "themes" than you are to get a manager to take you to coffee every month and work with you individually, person to person. When people apply for a job now, they force-fit their unique selves into electronic boxes hoping not to run afoul of the secret algorithm that, because of the increased applications e-applying allows, must sift through hundreds or thousands of submissions.

No wonder one HR executive who had applied anonymously through his own company's e-selection system got rejected, or the e-selection system of another took in 25,000 applications for a standard engineering position and reported back that not one person was qualified. "Job applicants have been changed into these bits-and-bytes kind of package for a software program that screens them as they apply for a job," reported Mitchell Harman on the radio program Marketplace Money. "These systems are persnickety. They're software; they're not human-ware."

Few HR professionals meant for it to come to this. Most are highly principled people who want their companies' employees to have a great experience at work. And there is compelling statistical science behind much of the machinery. But the road to treating people like widgets is paved with good intentions and great software.

An entire industry has emerged to help companies address their employee engagement and other "human resources" issues. The consultancies made more problems than they solved. Rather than addressing the issues, they complicated them. They created models and metrics, "team feedback" processes and "action-planning" systems, cold acronyms and catchphrases. They too often attacked the widget problem with more ways to process people as widgets.

As their answers to people problems, the competitors in the employee engagement business created a lot of shapes. One company based its model on a big Maslowian pyramid. Another created a model based on an endless four-stage cycle, each stage pointing at its neighbor. It looks like four boxes blaming each other. Another model looks like the distributor cap for a six-cylinder engine, or maybe a nuclear bomb, everything coming together at once to create a critical mass of fissionable employee engagement. Not to be outdone, another consulting firm made a model that looked a lot like a board game. Employees who landed on one of the squares were called "hamsters."

Most people do not like to be compared with rodents.

There were other shapes as well. A flower. A thing that looked like an arrow shot through an orange. One that looked like a molecule, with labeled electron bubbles circling labeled proton bubbles. And many more. Each of these shapes and its associated survey and process is supposed to ensure employees are more engaged and therefore working harder for their employers.

But they don't. And they won't, until leaders and managers to better at treating each employee as an individual, stop ruling by fear, make pay a nonissue, and quit burning out their people. Performance won't get better until leaders realize why making their companies cool places to work is good for business, or at least stop doing things that are so uncool. Firms won't match their potential until their leaders become far more transparent than in the past, stop snuffing out the meaning in their employees' work, and plan for the futures for their people as much as they do for their companies.

Rodd Wagner is a New York Times bestselling author and confidential advisor to senior executives. His latest book is Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They're Real People (McGraw-Hill, April 2015).