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From human resources to human beings: managing people at work

Yochanan Altman
he economic upheaval engulng the world, the worst since the Great Depression, not only sends shockwaves of uncertainty about our nancial future (whether as individuals or nations), but it also presents us with an opportunity to rethink some fundamentals of economic theory and of management.

Yochanan Altman is Professor of International Human Resource Management at London Metropolitan University, London, UK.

None of the superior companies paraded in best-selling books like In Search of Excellence and Good to Great has managed to outlive the success of the books in which they are depicted. In other words, we do not have recipes on how to manage organizations, or their various assets, successfully in long term. Management is at best guesswork, and conceding this may be the rst step to renewed economic prosperity. The collapse of nancial markets has brought home another truth: the ecological, social and human risks of the relentless drive to maximize prot at all costs. Here I am concerned with what many enterprises herald in their mission statements as their most valued asset: the people who work for them. The problem is encapsulated by the term human resources. Resources may be justiably exploited. Even those who advocate their development and betterment ultimately intend to harvest their investment. The term denes the organizations goal nding ways of maximizing peoples productivity, that is, how to select the best people (best for what?) how to motivate people to work ever harder (to what end?) how to empower people to assume more responsibility (who benets?) and how to socialize them into good organizational citizens (on whose values?) All this is achieved by normalizing high expectations, offering hefty bonuses to achievers, and getting rid of the losers. The stress is on specied, targeted outcomes. The organization often has little interest in these human resources as people that is, as human beings. Indeed, the latest term commonly deployed, talent, refers but to a rudimentary aspect of their essential humanity. What do we really know about the people who work with and for us? Have you ever wondered whether the cleaner who empties your ofce bin and wipes the dust off your executive chair enjoys a fair wage, is protected by the law, has access to medical care? Have you given more than a passing thought to the armies of illegal and semi-legal chambermaids, bar attendants, nannies, construction workers and taxi drivers that service cities like New York, Buenos Aires and London? Our challenge, as a society, as a company, as individuals, is to bring these unaccounted millions into the realm of legality and human rights, into the formal economy and civic society, in the years to come. Have you ever wondered what your subordinates are really passionate about, aspire to, and dream of? Are they given the opportunity to voice their views of life and the world and manifest their beliefs at work?

Copyright Yochanan Altman

The quest for meaning and authenticity is the deepest and strongest motivator more than money or title. Helping people to fulll their destinies in life through meaningful work is what

DOI 10.1108/09670730910996464

VOL. 17 NO. 7 2009, pp. 3-4, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 0967-0734



should drive organizations to excel. Opening up to the uniqueness of each person, acknowledging and celebrating his or her individuality and supporting the expression of his or her life story is what will make organizations great. The future of our organizations public and private, in manufacturing, nance, energy, construction and services, small and large depends on engaging all the people who are capable of making a contribution. The competitive advantage of our organizations hinges on successfully championing the rights, needs, aspirations and dreams of each and every person that they are privileged to manage.

Yochanan Altman is Professor of International Human Resource Management at the London Metropolitan University Business School, and Visiting Professor with CIFFOP, the University of Paris II. He is founding editor of the Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion ( and can be contacted at:


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