Because employees count: the need to reshape accounting

Considered mere expenses in the current accounting system, employees are now experiencing newfound recognition thanks to the concept of human capital. However, this notion has a “dark side” as it can support a self-quantifying phenomenon of the subjective skills of employees and their control. A reflection on the transformations of the accounting system is underway to overcome this social impasse.

Layoffs regularly making the headlines. Last March, we witnessed the massive and sudden layoff of 800 English sailors by the P&O ferry company, which made the front pages because of its scale and the way in which the company acted, described as “brutal” (announcement by video-conference, mobilisation of security agents, etc.). They planned to replace the sailors with outsourced workers paid below the minimum wage, which the management justified by saying they were aiming to reduce costs to make “the company viable and sustainable”.

 

 


  • Bessieux-Ollier C., Nègre E., Verdier M.-A., 2022, « Moving from accounting for people to accounting with people: A critical analysis of the literature and avenues for research » European Accounting Review, à paraître

                           Emmanuelle Nègre est Professeure des Universités, membre de l’Institut de Recherche en Gestion des Organisations à Université Bordeaux (IRGO) :  emmanuelle.negre@u-bordeaux.fr

                       Marie-Anne Verdier est maître de Conférences en sciences de gestion, membre du Laboratoire de Gouvernance et de Contrôle Organisationnel à l’université Toulouse 3 Paul Sabatier : marie-  anne.verdier@univ-tlse3.fr


Employees are not just an accounting “expense”

This argument, a classic in the language used when announcing layoffs, is mainly due to the way in which employees are reflected in the company accounting system: as expenses. This classification leads us to believe that reducing the payroll is automatically accompanied by a reduction in expenses and therefore an increase in accounting earnings.

In this context, it’s hardly surprising that employees are used as an adjustment variable when it comes to increasing the economic and financial performance of companies, even though this assertion is far from verified in practice.

Numerous studies have actually shown that workforce reductions do not increase company performance in the medium term (e.g. Bullon and Sanchez-Bueno, 2011; Marques et al., 2011). Such reasoning also serves to legitimise the implementation of workforce reduction operations with the main objective of serving the interests of holders of financial capital, particularly within publicly traded companies. However, other proposals have been put forward by academics to move away from this restrictive vision of employees, aiming to move more towards a model which would take into account the interests of the latter.

These proposals are outlined in our study which takes the form of a literature review based on 109 articles published between 1926 and 2018 in 22 scientific journals from the field of accounting.

It shows that, as early as the 1920s, researchers were suggesting that employees should be included on the balance sheet as an asset because of their crucial importance for organisations and no longer considered mere expenses on the income statement. Some years later, other researchers recommended considering employees as resources that should be “measured” to facilitate managerial decision-making.

These different proposals were nevertheless met with technical measurement difficulties and ethical issues inherent in people counting. Because of this, researchers have gradually ruled out these ideas.

More recently, the concept of human capital has appeared in the literature. The notion was defined by Becker (1964) as the set of productive capacities that an individual acquires through the accumulation of general or specific knowledge, know-how, etc.

 

Human capital and the risk linked to the objectification of employees’ subjective skills

The rise of the concept of human capital in scientific accounting literature reflects the shift from what Boltanski and Chiapello (1999) call the second spirit of capitalism, characterised by large industrial companies and mass production, to the third spirit of capitalism, characterised by project-based management and where much attention is given to the non-technical skills of employees (for example, talent, creativity, entrepreneurship).

It is precisely these skills that are involved in the concept of human capital. Could it ultimately be a matter of acknowledging that employees provide the company with human capital that is just as decisive for its sustainability as the financial capital held by shareholders? Would this recognition mean that their contribution to the value creation process is finally taken into account? This seems to have been the original ambition of the researchers who, like Becker (1964), contributed to theorising this concept.

However, and this is one of the major contributions of our study, while the concept of human capital can contribute to enabling social progress, particularly in terms of freedom and happiness at work, it has a “dark side” which, despite potentially laudable initial intentions, struggles to serve the interests of employees.

The development of the human capital concept has been accompanied by an increasing awareness of what we call “soft skills”, that is, individuals’ behavioural or relational skills such as talent, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit… In a sense, this amounts to promoting human qualities or characteristic traits of an individual’s personality, by nature subjective, whereas up until now individuals were recruited or “evaluated” according to their objective skills marked by their level of training, experience or by achieving pre-established objectives.

While taking into account subjective skills is not a problem in itself, their objectification can result in a process of reification: the “measurement” of subjective qualities facilitates the creation of numerical evaluations that can be compared with companies’ economic and financial performance. The consequent quantification and simplification of human qualities then entails a risk of dehumanisation as human subjectivity is reduced to a numerical indicator.

Human capital and the risk of increased control over employees

The concept of human capital is indicative of what Foucault (2008) calls the “neoliberal mentality” that has reconfigured employees into self-entrepreneurs. This mentality leads to new methods of governance based on the economic evaluation of subjective skills, which allows business leaders to go further in controlling the work of their employees.

In short, employees are now subject to a new type of control, which has shifted from control of the workforce and the tasks carried out to a control of employees’ availability, attention and ability to cooperate by means of interconnected devices. Since the control is computerised, it can now even be enforced remotely.

Thus, by failing to “liberate” employees and enable greater recognition of how they contribute to the company, the concept of human capital risks strengthening control processes at work.

The question of how to treat human capital better therefore remains untouched and we feel that it’s an important one to ask, even though the Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally changed our perception of work and current management practices.

In support of a social and dialogic approach to accounting

An interesting initiative proposed by accounting researchers aims to completely overhaul the accounting system to allow for social (and ecological) management of companies (Richard and Rambaud, 2020).

The idea behind this model is to treat human capital the same way as financial capital in order to highlight companies that implement actions to preserve the human capital provided by their employees (by placing importance on well-being at work, fair distribution of profits, decent remuneration etc.).

Inspired by these authors, we have come up with some avenues of research that aim to release the human capital concept from the neoliberal logic in which it is currently confined, to identify how accounting research can support the development of social and dialogic accounting.

Following the adage “what is done without the people, is done against the people”, the idea is to give a voice to employees and bring together various actors in an accounting based on dialogue within the organisations to promote the emancipation of all people.

While some will say that we have an impossible challenge on our hands because of the conflicts and inertia that such an approach may provoke, we are convinced that only a transformation of the accounting system and associated mentalities will make it possible to break free of the societal impasse that we are up against, evidenced by the multiplication of burnouts, late career changes and students desperately searching for meaning.

 


  • Becker G.S., 1964, Human capital: A theoretical and empirical analysis with special reference to education, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Boltanski L., Chiapello E., 1999, Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Paris: Editions Gallimard.
  • Foucault M., 2008, The birth of biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Springer.
  • Lukács G., 1960, Histoire et conscience de classe, Paris: Minuit Paris.
  • Marques T., Gonzales I.S., Cruz P., Ferreira M.P., 2011. “Downsizing and profitability: An empirical study of Portuguese firms in 1993-2005”, International Journal of Business and Economics, no. 1, vol. 10, pp. 13-26.
  • Munoz-Bullon F., Sanchez-Bueno M.J., 2011, “Does downsizing improve organizational performance? An analysis of Spanish manufacturing performance”, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, no. 14, vol 22, pp. 2924-2945.
  • Richard J., Rambaud A., 2020, Révolution comptable – pour une entreprise écologique et sociale, Ivry-sur-Seine: Editions De L’atelier.

Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: CC BY-NC-ND
To see more of her drawings, visit https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/

Crédits images en CC : Macrovector, Freepik, Smashicons, Flaticon, Storyset, Gstudio, Imagen, Kiranshastry, Juicy Fish.

 

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OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Emmanuelle Nègre et Marie-Anne Verdier (25 mars 2024). Because employees count: the need to reshape accounting. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 21 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/w33q


Emmanuelle Nègre et Marie-Anne Verdier

Emmanuelle Nègre, Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, TSM-Research (emmanuelle.negre@tsm-education.fr) ; Marie-Anne Verdier, Université Toulouse 3 Paul Sabatier, LGCO (marie-anne.verdier@univ-tlse3.fr)

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