definition backgroundA Jump Back in Time: The History of Human Resource Management

A Jump Back in Time: The History of Human Resource Management

By Gabriel Birky Pohirieth
Published: 3/8/22

Is your HR department in need of a little refresher on job history? Look no further! We’ve come a long way from the days of dangerous safety standards and the 16-hour workday.

The field of human resource management (HRM) has gone through a change or two over the years. The history of HRM, as we know it currently, has evolved in name, ideas, and practices.

You might ask yourself, how have we arrived at where we are today? You’ll soon see how important an impact there is now that the workforce can rely on modern human resources.

There are undoubtedly still improvements that could be made, but let’s understand the context of where we came from, before changing the future.

The basics of human resource management

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely got some knowledge of the concept of human resource management. If this is all new to you, here are the basics.

Human resource management, in its current form, is a crucial part of organizing a company. As the title suggests, it’s a position or department that focuses on all aspects relating to managing people in an organization

The ultimate goal is to respond to the working objectives of the company to assure an optimal level of efficiency from employees.

Human resource management not only has administrative but also strategic impacts on the management of employees. But if the goal is efficiency, what functions are needed to accomplish that?

One might deal with recruiting and hiring employees, organizing or tracking their pay and compensation, among other things. But once they’re on the job, there's more to come. One may equally be found dealing with training employees, motivating them and managing their performance, managing benefits, and even setting up safety and wellness standards.

If all of this is done well, this will improve the efficiency of employees and help them achieve the needs and goals of the company. It’s HR jobs that help keep it running like a well-oiled machine.

The origins of human resources

In the large scheme of things, what we consider as human resource management is a relatively new concept.

The origins of what one day becomes HRM can be traced back to ancient times. Armies, empires, and civilizations had to organize and manage the human resources that they commanded. This was the beginning of what we have today.

Luckily, our standards of work and safety have grown and evolved along with us.

The history of human resource management: through the looking glass

The 1800s: a pivot towards industry

The timelines of human resource management around the world change slightly, generally following similar paths, but we’ll start in the early 1800s.

In this period, agriculture dominated most economies. As time moved on, work by hand or artisanal work grew and the first forms of industry began to appear. This led to the increase in the management of laborers, as they had to be given functions and produce goods.

Towards the end of the 1800s, laborers continued to gain rights, albeit slowly. Workers in mills and small factories endured harsh conditions, with not much focus on their welfare.

Regulations on child labor, exceedingly long workdays, and dangerous working conditions appeared throughout the mid to late 1800s. This happened as a result of employees growing tired of their conditions. Strikes and trade unions played a large role in the advancement of those regulations.

The pivot towards industrialization stemmed from concepts and theories proposed by people such as Robert Owens and Charles Babbage. Owens supported the ideas and effectiveness of better working hours and labor conditions for employees. Babbage noted the efficiency of the division of labor and supported the concept of employees specializing in tasks.

Industry, change, growth, we’re starting to see the traces of human resource management behind it all.

The beginning of the industrial revolution

As the 1900s approached, the growth of industry and factories was upon us. This brought forth a higher involvement in employee management. Management and supervision were done by trainers, supervisors, line managers, welfare officers, or managers.

The problem at the turn of the century came from the common strategies and practices of employers. Their main goal was to produce as much as they could, regardless of employee satisfaction. As their goal was to make as many goods as possible, some employers rewarded or motivated their workers through financial incentives, such as paying per piece or product completed.

Workers didn’t particularly respond well to certain management practices. With strategies such as imposing their rhythm at work or voluntarily being absent from work due to more pressing work or injuries from other jobs.

History does repeat itself sometimes, as this led to high amounts of turnover.

Taylorism and Scientific Management

As the first World War approached, the concepts of scientific management and psychological principles in managing employees appeared.

Frederick Winslow Taylor thought it was more important for the work to be organized and optimized than to push the employees as hard as possible. He had otherwise been called the father of scientific management. But what is scientific management, and how did it change the production process?

The scientific management process focused on the tasks of jobs and how to break them up effectively. By separating the tasks, workers would collaborate with managers and fellow employees and standardize their work, becoming more productive and efficient.

Around the same period, Hugo Münsterberg began focusing on the psychological aspects of work. He noted the importance of finding the right man for the job, as well as making sure the working conditions were optimal.

Both Taylor and Münsterberg realized the importance of fitting people to the right position.

We know that all of us are unique with different skills and abilities. Some work best in certain jobs and others don’t. We’re still using those schools of thought to this day.

The evolution of ideas and practices through World Wars

As the first world war came, men were at the front lines, leaving behind many open positions to be filled. In response to this, many women and other “unskilled” workers took up positions in the industries.

Building on the ideas of Taylor, the management and supervision of the broken-down tasks helped to reduce the scarcity of skilled workers that were needed.

In the same period, in the early 1900s, the first assembly lines of Henry Ford also began mass production. This was a game-changer for the industry as it cut production times dramatically.

Ideas started evolving as the economic integration of workers was becoming more important. The development of paying workers living wages that were fixed pay per day (or time worked) instead of per piece produced became more common.

As you can see, this laid the foundations for modern salaried workers.

During the years and decades following the first world war, positions such as Employment Managers or Personnel specialists emerged in the organization of companies.

These roles started to resemble the management positions of today, with functions revolving mostly around the employment and compensation of employees. Although I’m not sure that they had as many tasks on their Google calendar as your local HR manager.

Advancements continued to evolve and grow as Elton Mayo joined the picture. His Hawthorne studies in Chicago in the years leading into the second world war developed new observations. He experimented on different working conditions and group dynamics to observe their effect on productivity.

It turns out that motivated employees with good working conditions and group dynamics tend to work better. Who knew?

Many important concepts solidified the role of personnel management after the second World War with focuses on behavioral science, human relations, and scientific management. This comes along with new legislation regarding civil rights or equal pay.

There is an increase in the centralization of employee management tasks. Now, personnel specialists must focus on not only the hiring, employment, and compensation but also employee development while ensuring safety standards. These types of positions start to become careers and professional activities that need to be done.

Whether it’s 70 years ago or in 2022, Human Resource professionals are an organizational blessing!

Modern Human Resource Management.

From the early 1980s onward, human resource management became the new norm. Personnel management departments transform into Human Resource departments.

The perception of workers evolves to viewing them as assets or resources. Now, we rely so heavily on this concept that the success or failure of a business can depend on how well they can manage employees.

As time moved on, our positions, our technology, and our perspectives have progressed and changed. Now HR employees must focus on a large variety of functions. Employee organization, development, training, compensation, benefits, diversity, leave, policies, to name a few.

But hey, at least now there is HRIS technology to make it easier!

The impact of HRM on workplaces

Looking at the history behind human resource management already gives us an idea of how important HRM is in the workplace. Through time, human resource management has been a key factor in improving employee productivity and efficiency.

It’s essential to have a good understanding of human resource management and a solid structure in place.

Human resources provide the necessary function to create a unified workplace culture. Not only that, but organizing employees effectively is no easy feat. Its importance lies in many areas, including:

  • managing compliance with work regulations and laws,
  • following the entire employee life cycle (recruiting, onboarding, development, retention, etc.),
  • organizing salaries, compensation, and benefits,
  • ensuring the safety of employees and minimizing liabilities

Either way, you could say they’ve got their work cut out for them.

What does the future of human resource management look like?

Now that you’ve seen the context of how human resource management has evolved, you might wonder, what’s next? What will our future look like? Although nobody can truly envision what the future will be, we can already see trends that are hitting their strides.

Virtual Work and Tools

Who knew that there would be a global pandemic? An event as unpredictable as this has already begun changing standards. Employees were forced to be put into a virtual setting, but polls and research have shown that many prefer it. The trend of remote work isn’t slowing down, but speeding up, as more companies offer it as a new normal.

Remote work isn’t the only virtual thing that’s changing. Digital tools and software have been essential to the long-term growth and success of most businesses.

We’ve seen the evolution of HRIS tools, collaborative working options, and more. Now more than ever are those tools important to increase productivity and organization to achieve your business goals.

Employee Wellbeing and DEI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusion)

We’ve come a long way from twentieth-century psychological advancements regarding employee satisfaction and wellbeing. During this pandemic, companies, and employees, have noticed how essential employee wellbeing is toward positive work cultures.

Companies should work to provide a flexible and understanding work environment. Human resources play a big role in this. Pay attention to the mental health, satisfaction, and wellbeing of employees. This can help reduce the effects of burnout and turnover, which is good for everyone.

A current and future HR focus should be involved in the diversity, equality, and inclusion of the workplace. In response to various social movements in recent years, this has become a significant focus for companies looking towards the future.

By prioritizing DEI initiatives, it can help your workspace be more inclusive and diverse. Use it to create a positive work culture, improve your reputation, and recruit some great talent! Especially because it benefits both your employees and your business.

Final Thoughts

The history of human resource management has come a long way since ancient times. The greatest advancements have come from understanding the needs and motivations of employees, but we’ve still got a way to go.

What we can be sure about is that HRM is key to any business. Especially because without it, there would be a major impact on the organization and effectiveness of your company.

With all that context in mind, you’ll finally be able to impress your colleagues with your knowledge of HR through the years!

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