Human Capital: Are Employees a Small Business’s Most Valuable Asset?


I have heard the words “employees are our most valuable asset” many times, but have rarely seen accountants embrace the idea of capitalizing human capital as an asset on the balance sheet. The theory goes that companies expense wages as employees earn them. If employees are an asset I believe the part of workers’ employment cost that adds value to the organization should appear on the balance sheet.

Although accounting rules forbid capitalizing human capital, they only recognize human capital on the income statement. Despite this oversight, many call accounting the language of business. At least one article admitted the problem and recommended alternatives for capitalizing human capital. Chen and Ku (2004) concluded, “The succession of the human intellect over machines and equipment in the contribution to industrial value makes a financial statement that relegates human capital expenditure to expenses inadequate if not obsolete” (p. 129). If accounting is the language of business why is the value of its most valuable asset excluded from the balance sheet?

This disparity leads one to believe companies’ accounting standards look at employees not as an asset, but as a liabilities. For example, in finance the main goal of the firm is to maximize shareholder wealth and accounting rules treat human capital as a period cost (expense) instead of an asset. In recent years many companies have reconsidered the view shareholders are the only stakeholders in a firm, and have expanded stakeholders to include customers, suppliers, and employees. Even with the coming of triple bottom-line reporting I have not seen accounting rule-making bodies espouse the capitalizing human capital (Elkington, 1994; Slaper & Hall, 2011).

Similarly, Reimers-Hild, Fritz, and King (2007) described human capital as a continuous investment leading to increased earning power. Reimers-Hild et al. further described human capital as responsible for innovation, creativity, and keeping pace with change.  Chen and Ku (2004) developed a theoretical classification framework that would capitalize certain formation and acquisition costs in early stages of development, learning costs in middle stages of development, and replacement costs in final stages. Chen and Ku argued for disclosing these costs as investments if the costs are unique and add value.

Do you believe employees are your greatest asset? I would like to hear your thoughts. Should your greatest asset show on the balance sheet? Please let leave your comments? Click here if you want to understand more about accounting for human capital.

References

Chen, H. M., & Ku, J. M. (2004). The role of human capital cost in accounting. Journal of Intellectual Capital, 5(1), 116-130. doi: 10.1108/14691930410512950

Elkington, J. (1994). Towards the sustainable corporation: Win-win-win business strategies for sustainable development. California Management Review, 36(2), 90-100. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=9410213932&site=ehost-live

Reimers-Hild, C. I., Fritz, S. M., & King, J. W. (2007). Entrepreneurial Career Development: Using Human Capital, Social Capital, and Distance Education to Achieve Success. Advancing Women in Leadership, 24, 1-N_A.

Slaper, T. F., & Hall, T. J. (2011). The triple bottom line: What is it and how does it work? Indiana Business Review, 86(1), 4-8. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=66506015&site=ehost-live

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