This particular cliché is often used in the belief that it demonstrates to employees how much they are valued. The truth behind its sentiment however is often debatable, and people are not usually taken in for long by nice words if they are not matched by appropriate action.
If we look at the definition of an asset, a completely different interpretation of this phrase emerges. In finance, an asset is any item of economic value owned by an individual or corporation, especially one that can be converted into cash. It would seem therefore that not since the abolition of the slave trade could people literally be considered assets, owned by the organisation, used and then disposed of. Speaking figuratively, it’s not exactly a positive message, although some staff may consider it an accurate description of the relationship they have with their employers.
Even when professing that employees are their greatest asset, most managers can identify certain individuals they regard as complete liabilities. This suggests that the phrase does not in fact cover all people; it could also be argued that in most cases it probably doesn’t even mean specific people. There are few instances where an individual possesses the precise combination of knowledge, skills and expertise that makes them so indispensable that they couldn’t be replaced by someone else. The phrase might therefore be interpreted as meaning the organisation needs people, but not necessarily you; again, this is hardly likely to increase motivation and engagement.
Like with most clichés, the intended impact of saying people are a company’s most valuable asset has been lost through overuse, and familiarity with the phrase has led if not to contempt at least to indifference. Managers would do well to think of other ways of saying, or preferably showing, that they value their employees. Without this, the most capable may well look for somewhere where their talents will be more appreciated, while those that remain may take on another characteristic typical of an asset, namely that their value to the company depreciates over time.