“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – Romeo and Juliet; William Shakespeare.

Juliet is telling Romeo that a name is merely an artificial convention, and changing it would not alter the basic integrity of the person.

In fact altering a name should not alter the basic integrity of any thing; if we decide in a fit of pique to change the name of the colour of grass from green to beige, would it make one bit of difference to the real colour which our eye recognises and our brain reacts to? Of course not!

So why does the job which was referred to as ‘dustmen’ in my youth, now become “refuse collectors”?

Well I believe it is all down to attitude and the way that names make us feel about things. If I have been taught to believe that being a “dustman” is degrading, then I may feel more comfortable about being a “refuse collector”. If I have come to believe that “failure” is the end, then “not achieving my goal” may make me more willing to give it another try.

Names, by their association with memories, education and culture have a profound effect upon our emotions. So a rose has become associated in our memories with a sweet smelling beautiful flower, and I don’t think that now calling it a ‘cauliflower’ would generate the same emotional response!

Why, you may ask, does any of this matter? Well my philosophising arose after I was a bemused spectator of a heated discussion about the differences between a Personnel Manager and a Human Resource Manager.

“There isn’t any difference” shouted one; “Yes there is!” yelled another. The discussion was now becoming quite heated. “HR is just a politically correct way of describing the old patriarchal role of the Personnel Manager” was another comment which aroused a fair amount of derision.

Gradually they came to some sort of consensus, and it was decided that today the role of the HR Manager included those duties which were previously associated with the Organisation’s Personnel Manager, even if it was in a pseudo ‘de facto’ status.

Now I want to make this quite clear, I do not have any qualifications to talk about the role of Human Resource managers or even Personnel managers; but as a part-owner of a training company I have worked quite closely with a number of HR managers, and this morning I did a bit of a ring around with the question “What are the differences between Human Resource Managers and Personnel Managers?”

The results were a little confusing – most of them agreed that in practice they did assume the responsibilities of a Personnel Manager, but many of them were quite vocal about the fact that they defined each role differently. Personnel Managers, it appeared, had a more administrative role, while HR was concerned with the practical development of skills that were required to enhance productivity.

“I spend too much time in the admin side of my job; it impacts on my ability to deliver the results that should be expected” said one.

But the response that really caught my attention was made by a HR manager that had previously worked in a company as a Personnel Manager. He said “Unfortunately many organisations have joined the disciplines, and I have found, personally, that we have become too focused on the resource and ignore the personnel.”

And this is what brought me back to the question “What’s in a name?” and our perceptions about things.

Names and Titles come with historical meanings that impact on our expectations. And if we look at these two titles we find the core focus has moved from “personnel” to “resources”. What do we understand these two words to actually mean?

“Personnel” is defined as “a body of people engaged in some public service or a factory” (OED). As an ex- soldier, army personnel to me were the ‘people’ involved in the military activity. Personnel Departments of organisations and companies had responsibility for the ‘people’ working in them. But:-

“Resources”are defined as the “means of supplying a want or a need; stock that can be drawn on” (OED). When we think about our ‘resources’ we usually bring things like coal, uranium, bauxite etc to mind. Things which we utilise and exploit.

When we transfer the name ‘resources’ into a role that deals with ‘people’ how do we now interpret the new meaning? The first response that I quoted sees the core purpose of their role as being the ‘resource’ the ‘means by which the organisation achieves their goals’. The second one sees the ‘personnel’ – the ‘people who are engaged in achieving the organisation’s goals’. Perhaps that is the difference between Human Resources and Personnel managers; the aims may be the same but the focus has changed.

And how about the workforce; do they, like the dustman, feel uncomfortable with their title? Do they have the same sense of identification with an organisation that refers to them as a ‘resource’ as they might with one that calls them the ‘personnel’?

Tell me, do you feel good about being a resource, or would you prefer to be a person?

Or is it just the age old question “What’s in a name?”

Michele @ Trischel

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