Human Capital Disclosure Is ‘Unambiguously a Good Thing’

It's crazy to report a company's "most important assets" as nothing more than costs.
Dan McMurrer and Laurie BassiMarch 16, 2016
Human Capital Disclosure Is ‘Unambiguously a Good Thing’

Yes, companies surely should disclose more information about their human capital.

Laurie Bassi

Laurie Bassi

Looking at the issue from the perspectives of major stakeholders — including companies, shareholders, employees, and society as a whole — increased disclosure on human capital is unambiguously a good thing. It’s a bad thing only for companies that do a lousy job on the “people side” of their business, and human resources executives who would prefer to avoid accountability for human capital performance.

Let’s consider the perspective of each of these stakeholders, including the two exceptions noted.

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Beginning with publicly traded companies, if employees are a firm’s “most important asset” — as many CEOs repeatedly proclaim — why are they reported only as costs? That begs another question: What are the problems caused by this mismatch, and how could expanded human capital disclosure ameliorate them?

For starters, CEOs are correct when they talk about human capital as important assets (even though their companies’ actions are sometimes inconsistent with those words). The fact is, companies that have consistently prioritized the people side of their business are among the best investments you can find.

Since January 2003, we have invested in a portfolio of companies that actively invest in the people side of their businesses. On an annualized basis, the portfolio has outperformed the S&P 500 total return index by 3.5 percentage points per year. That has yielded a cumulative return of 259% over 13 years, relative to a cumulative 135% for the S&P 500.

That is a dramatic result — especially given that we are amateurs who do this as a labor-of-love hobby.

Those companies have chosen to invest in their future despite the pressures from Wall Street. Although the Street typically punishes them in the short run for investing in employees’ development (since it contributes to high general and administrative “costs”), it rewards them in the long run for the increased capacity those investments create.

That’s precisely why most publicly traded companies should be in favor of expanded human capital disclosure. It would help ameliorate the Street’s pernicious short-termism and dilute a primary source of pressure that leads to chronic under-investment in people throughout the economy.

Shareholders should also welcome expanded disclosure. It would help them know better whether they are investing in companies that are positioning themselves wisely for the future, or whether certain firms are dangerously attempting to maximize quarterly earnings at the expense of future earnings.

Ditto for employees. Whether or not they own shares in their employer, they are making a major and difficult-to-diversify investment by spending an enormous percentage of their waking hours working for a given company. They too would benefit from increased disclosure and fewer disincentives for firms to invest in employees.

And anything that helps to diminish the market’s focus on short-termism would be good for society as a whole. This change in particular would simultaneously help make companies more sustainably profitable and society more equitable.

Having said that, increased human capital disclosure will not be without its costs. Many companies will have to improve the sorry state of the technologies they use to run the people side of their businesses. Some can’t even figure out how many people are working for them, much less how much the company is investing in them.

But don’t shareholders have a right to know these fundamentals? In a world where, by some estimates, more than 80% of value is created through intangible assets — all of which are ultimately created by human capital — information on people investments is material information for investors; they should be entitled to it.

And what about those two exceptions — lousy employers and human resources leaders who would prefer to avoid accountability for human capital? Okay, we’ll agree that expanded disclosure will be painful for them. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s just as it should be.

Laurie Bassi, PhD, is CEO and Dan McMurrer, MPP, is chief analyst at McBassi & Company, a leader in using human resources analytics to improve organizational performance.