The Commoditisation of People: Convenience over Performance

You might recall not long ago the passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight – apparently at one point unconscious as he was pulled by his feet down the aisle. You may have seen the public “apology” and then the inevitably leaked internal email to United employees about the incident.

I’m not here to discuss the finer points of crisis management. My organisation has been brought in to handle the tone, language and perception of a number of crises. From that perspective, I can reliably inform you that United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, was not using any playbook with which I am familiar, and indeed his language in external and internal communications was lacking in anything like a ‘finer point’.

Most companies will not find themselves in the midst of such a stark and public example of leadership and organisational failure, and while some will look on smugly while this incident focuses media and public attention away from their own workplaces, with a “this could never happen here” attitude, I want to talk about the precursor to treating a person like oversized cabin luggage.

What does it take for a person to be so dehumanised by an organisation that they can literally be dragged for refusing to take part in a process referred to as “voluntary”?

While this incident was happening, I was speaking to a group of senior doctors about the dangers of our processes and policies, as well as the often onerous and arbitrary personal and organisational targets. These create an environment that systematically dehumanises our colleagues, not to mention our patients and their families, a near inevitability.

We are literally living in a time where our brightest minds are trying to create human-like machine (code) while making people themselves, more machine-like.

If you add to those factors the habituation and desensitisation effect of being supremely familiar with your environment and eminently competent at your job, you create a stew of volatile ingredients. When combined with the impact of the ‘cult of busy’ that mandates that any ‘serious professional’ look and sound like they have no time to breathe, it’s a recipe for a disaster. This is epitomised by the treatment of a human being (and fully paid customer) as a logistical inconvenience on that United flight, and the subsequent company rhetoric.

If you don’t believe me on the ‘cult of busy’ then think about the last time you met a client, distant colleague or even a casual friend for a drink after work and didn’t answer the question, “How are things with you?” with some derivation of “Really busy!” It’s almost mandatory now – as if you couldn’t be any good if you weren’t busy.

Even the language of People functions to foster commoditisation: employees are a ‘human resource’ – a label bound, if not designed, to purge people of their humanity when being discussed by a third party. We call our employees “talent” – and then stream them into “high-potential” and ‘everything else’ – rather than recognising that with people we need to be more nuanced and understand that each person, if engaged and included, really will have some unique and important abilities to bring to the organisation. Indeed, perhaps it’s time to recognise the fact that if that’s not the case, then it’s the recruitment process, not the people themselves that are broken.

It’s ironic that we live in a working world where were two fascinating processes are happening at the same time: data mining, and the creation of generic, almost cookie-cutter-like workforces.

We are mining data at an unprecedented rate and creating ever smarter algorithms in an attempt to mimic human intelligence. At the same time, organisations operate with policies, procedures, language, an approach to people, and fixed mindsets around inclusion and human capability that turn people into predictable, indistinguishable and ultimately disposable automatons.

We are literally living in a time where our brightest minds are trying to create human-like machine (code) while making people themselves, more machine-like.

When you turn people into machines, commodities or ‘resources’, you can do unconscionable things to them because the moment someone is less than human – even by a fraction – what we consider reasonable in their treatment changes radically – and not for the better.

Suddenly, it becomes acceptable to demand complete compliance to even the most egregious of orders, to eschew outside responsibilities to loved ones and partners in service of their employer and by treating a person less well than excess baggage. This happens despite, as we saw with United Airlines, the existential threat to their own brand and stock price.

In the grand scheme of some epic Gantt chart to greatness on the wall of an organisation’s head office, there will be a line item for necessary “broken eggs”. Sometimes this is a euphemism for colleagues who will be asked to sacrifice for the greater good, and sometimes it’s a customer or client, like a doctor trying to get back to his family and patients.

If we aren’t very careful we are recreating an existence where people are not quite full people. History is littered with examples of this ‘less than’ mindset – such as the holocaust and the African Americans of the post-slavery and Jim Crowe era, and the ramifications of those decisions are still being felt today.

The words that define our organisational success in the future are transformation, innovation, disruption and resilience. These words are human words – intrinsically tied to properties that only humans (for now) can manifest. Every moment an employee in any company feels less human, they are less and less able, not to mention willing, to demonstrate those qualities we have collectively decided are so important to our future thriving workplaces.

It may well be easier to work with machines, but for organisations that are truly serious about competing in a future world of work, seeing people as human as possible will be how they achieve their shared goals.

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