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.


19 Comments on “Why Do We Believe That Employees Are an Expendable Resource?

  1. I work as a consulting engineer and make a lot of money from people that though that people that knew what they were doing was expendable. Eventuality it seems that people that think this way will screw up and need help out of there mistake. And yes, I do charge a high rate for my help. I found out a long time ago, how loyalty works and was on the street once a company thought they did not need me any more.

  2. The nature of work has changed and the interaction of employees with customers has declined. Work is now based upon defined processes driven by computerized systems. Customers interact with websites rather that in person or on the phone. That reduce the specific knowledge workers need to do a job and makes them very easily interchangeable. Microsoft Excel is the same everywhere. Sadly, we are never going back. This is the new normal.

  3. I find myself in this category. It looks like I am about to be squeezed out of a job that I just started less than 2 months ago. My work hours have decreased steadily while other coworkers have stayed the same or increased. Everybody in the office knows this and now I find that even my coworkers are becoming more and more distant to me.

    The thing is, I am tired of searching for jobs. I have been on more than 6 actual interviews since Dec last year, not to talk of emailing my CVs and I am tired…both mentally and physically. Sometimes I wonder whats the point? I try to change my situation and nothing works out.

    1. Dont lose hope. I was once in your shoes and what i do now is update my reume to the job description you are applying for and use key words. I wish you the best.

    2. I feel your pain, however, if you KNOW you’re going to get the axe, don’t you think you’d be better off looking for a job NOW?

      As hard as it is to find employment, it’s even harder when you’re unemployed. Take advantage of your slack time.

      1. No YOU do not feel my pain. I do not KNOW that I am going to get the axe. Why don’t you go on 6 interviews in the span of 2 months, send out dozens of CVs each month, arrange numerous phone interviews with potential employers who never call back. All the while depending on the public transit system to move about and worrying about how to pay YOUR monthly bills. Then get back to me on how it FEELS. Okay?!

        1. Calm down buddy, I’m not your enemy.

          For the record, not long ago I was unemployed for 12 straight months, burning up unemployment insurance, savings and credit cards, while keeping the mortgage paid and the family fed. You at least HAVE a job NOW. Take advantage of it as best you can.

  4. Of course we’re expendable. In the Software Era, employers now measure people in terms of software proficiency and micro-certificates. We have talent or tendency for evaluating intelligence or innovation or creativity. We’re too lazy and there’s no formula / template / manual for that. So no one matters anymore. If someone’s plane goes down in the French Alps, it’s next man up. Go out and get another person who knows the software.

  5. We got here because the average person loves themselves some cheap Chinese made goods. So what do people expect the extension of that to be? I always wondered how Americans would transition to being 3rd world labor, because honestly that’s who we are competing against. Do you expect to make $30/hr in manufacturing when a Mexican will work for $2/hr or Chinese work for $2/day?

    Consumers are to blame as much as any corporation. When GM moved to Mexico and China, the CEO said, will you promise to buy our cars if we stay here? And of course the answer is NO.

    You can demonize companies, but consumers are responsible as well. You can’t have your cheap Chinese cake and eat it too.

    1. While that is certainly part of it it is a gross oversimplification and outright misrepresentation of the outsourcing craze. Often netting the consumer NO savings in end product but putting big $$$ in the hands of the corporate elite.
      You may not be familiar with the story of steel in this country – an industry GIVEN AWAY as American companies invested in everything BUT steel production (golf courses hotels malls) when times were good, relying on the same foundries that built the Liberty ships in WWII…Then cried unfair and blamed the unions when the Asians kicked their butts with vastly more efficient modernized capacity. Didn’t begin to turn around until NUCOR went head to head with modern thinking. Eliminated the golden cow treatment
      of management and treated the employees as important members of the team.
      Look it up…The ONLY path for ANY company to really succeed and stay true to the American people.

  6. You know what? I’m expendable. But get rid of me and I won’t ever buy your products. The product that made you a profit and allowed you to buy your fifth house. No workers, no product. No product or service, no profit. Support unions, tell the boss to go shove it.

  7. The only solace I take in having to interview with 27 year old HR workers is that the company already let go of the old HR workers. I never see a 50 or 60 something HR worker.

    1. Good riddance to the older HR workers who refused to hire their peers.
      From a so called stale, pale male, a term they coined for us!

  8. It can be difficult to prove your worth to ANY employer. This article reflects the issue that all employees have faced since the end of WWII. Temp workers are cheaper, thus most companies will try to reduce employee costs first. Being open to doing your best for any position, or becoming self-employed, is really the best any of us can do.

  9. I don’t see temp work as the problem, its the solution. Im 26, I got a job at a home construction department store when I was 18. I was treated like garbage, with 4 assistant managers, 3 super visors and a manager, I felt like I was in office space with 8 bosses micro managing everyone. Then the 2008 financial crisis happened. No one was buying housing materials for a while obviously. They looked for people to fire as opposed to lay people off. Any excuse they could find. When they had fired the sweet old woman at the front with a cane because a customer said she had pushed him. I was pissed. So I quit the next day, walked out because they fired so many people like the expendable assets they were and we were now understaffed. Furthermore they were rapidly trying to hire replacements for bare minimum wage and got some of the most incompetent people that I was expected to train.
    So I said fuck it, I walked out, never looked back. My resignation letter was “I quit” scribbled on a piece of cardboard and put in the HR’s box. When I walked out they kept telling me I couldn’t just quit like that, and I just said “Ya I can, watch me.” It was like they acted as though they owned me. The last thing they said was “you’ll never find a job in this economy” I just said “No, your wrong”

    I went accross the street to the temp agency. I was offered a job in 15 minutes that paid 15 an hour starting and was apart of a logistics firm for various oil companies around the country.

    It was a 3 month contract. There were 3 other temps when I came in and no one knew what to do with us. I understood my supervisor was busy so I spent my time away from the other temps that were just sluffing the work trying to make it last.

    I did what I learned at my last job and reorganized their stock to be more efficient. No one asked me to. I found about 100,000 dollars of lost materials and it took 3 months.

    The other temps were let go because they were idiots. They wanted to sluff the work like you would do at any other job. I don’t believe in sluffing it. I didnt expect to be hired but I was. I got a higher position that required a degree, but I didmt need one because I had proven myself.

    The company had no positions open when I was hired on but they made room anyways. I never realized how lucky I was until a position had opened for them to hire one more person after me.

    When the position opened, the lines were long of applicants. One guy had a degree in logistics and had been doing it for 10 years in the army. He was doing it part time but wanted to start another carreer path in civillian life so that he could transition.

    He didn’t get hired. People with masters degrees didnt get hired. It was actually ironically, a former manager of the old department store company I worked for. He too quit had left that store, as he was asked to work with little sleep and not enough pay to justify it. Hos wife left him because he worked so much.

    The moral of the story is that temp agencies allow workers to try their hand at any field. I enjoyed logistics but I didnt know it till ai worked that job. The company wouldnt have known if I was any good via interview.

    So many Americans and so many people are just sluffing it at their jobs. I get it when they treat you like crap but they do that because they assume everyone is lazy.

    A temp position can let you earn your job, no one gives you anything and those that sluff it will learn not to. This is what it should be. A man that works harder or smarter than the rest should get the job that pays more. Your job should be based on how hard you want to work in life.

    Sadly its not and everyones just blaming the 1 percent

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