Why Do We Believe That Employees Are an Expendable Resource?

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Employees are our greatest asset” has become such a hollow phrase, any marketing department still including this language in its company’s promotional materials should be ashamed.

As someone once said to me, “However, unfortunate, the bigger reality [is] … employees are an expendable resource.”

Now, I had to think about this statement for a while, because — could this really be true? Can people be expendable? Or is that just a convenient lie we tell ourselves to justify treating them as though they were?

How did we get here?

Then I looked up the definition of the word on freedictionary.com and had to admit that yes, human beings are expendable.

 ex-pend-a-ble. Open to sacrifice in the interests of gaining an objective, especially a military one.

But my next question was, “How the hell did we get here?”

And it turns out I’m not the only one who’s ever wondered about that.

The Never-Never Girl

Have you ever heard of the “Never-Never Girl?”

She’s the invention of an 1970’s advertisement extolling the benefits of temporary workers. The “Never-Never Girl” never asks for a vacation, never asks for a raise, and never costs an employer in fringe benefits.

In addition, she “Never costs you a dime for slack time. When the workload drops, you drop her.”

Hmmm …

In The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy, sociology professor Erin Hatton argues that the “evangelizing of the temp industry,” deserves a big part of the blame for the modern-day idea that employees are a profit-eating burden from which employers need relief.

“Just another capital investment”

Consider this: When Manpower and Kelly Girl Services were formed in the late 1940s, union power was at its peak. However, these agencies managed to avoid union ire by advertising their jobs as mostly suitable for young, white bored housewives looking to earn a bit of pocket money. Hatton writes:

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While greater numbers of employers in the postwar era offered family-supporting wages and health insurance, the rapidly expanding temp agencies established a different precedent by explicitly refusing to do so. That precedent held for more than half a century: even today “temp” jobs are beyond the reach of many workplace protections, not only health benefits but also unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination laws and union-organizing rights.”

One advertisement in the 1971 issue of The Personnel Journal even urged employers to convert its employees to temps. Why not?

Just say goodbye… then shift them to our payroll and say hello again!”


Hatton sums it up this way:

According to the temp industry, workers were just another capital investment; only the product of the labor had any value. The workers themselves were expendable.”

Can we get out of this mode?

And there you have it. One very compelling argument for how, at least in part, we got to where we are.

By the way, I highly recommend that you read the entire article. It’s really quite fascinating.

Hatton says that we want good, living wage jobs to return to this economy, then we’ve got to figure out how to keep the best of what the temp-worker model has to offer while ditching the anti-worker ideology.

What do you think?

(By the way, if you’re tempted to believe the effects of the Great Recession are long gone, consider that according to PayScale’s Real Wage Index, real U.S. wages have gone down 7.5 percent since 2006).

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.