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A Conference Room With People Having A Meeting About HR Leadership Around A Table

How Human Resources Has Evolved

Nearly every worker interacts with an HR professional, from the moment they are interviewing for a job to retiring from the workforce. With Human Resources so heavily involved in the modern workforce, it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. From its small beginnings to its now global impact, the evolution of Human Resources has continued as HR leadership is recognized as an essential part of a successful business.

The History of Human Resources

During the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more individuals—including children—worked outside the home in factories. These new working conditions had next to no safety regulations and no real employee-employer relationship for workers to express their complaints.

During this time, tensions between an unrepresented workforce and employers resulted in strikes and sometimes violence, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Affair, and the Ludlow Massacre.

World War I and II

The first basic HR department is credited to the National Cash Register Co. in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the onset of WWI and the subsequent WWII that labor relations changed on a big scale. Both wars created a high demand for industrial products while creating a labor shortage with many workers joining the military. This labor shortage forced employers to create more appealing work environments, raise wages, and make an effort to recruit workers—thus began the evolution of Human Resources.

Within 5 years, 20% of employers now had personnel departments, and the beginning of Human Resources was born. With the New Deal laws of the 1930s, employers were forced to create systems and policies that compensated workers fairly, kept them safe, and worked with labor unions. Personnel departments started writing the first employee handbooks, resulting in new hiring procedures. These first HR jobs were still fairly procedural, aligning with labor laws, but started to branch out into recruitment and retainment.

HR Organizations

During this time, some of the first HR organizations began. In 1913, the Welfare Workers’ Associate, now known as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, began in England. Then, in 1945, Cornell University started its School of Industrial and Labor Relations. A few years later in 1948, the American Society for Personnel Administration (ASPA) began, which later became the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Its first year had 92 members, but it now boasts over 320,000 members, making it the largest HR association. These organizations allow for certification and the continued education of HR professionals globally.

Social Changes

The 1960s and 1970s brought racial and gender discrimination to the forefront of American politics and the workplace. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, and the shifting social climate caused companies to be more diligent in adhering to new discrimination laws. Human Resources evolved into not only a clerical job but one that played a part in the legal ramifications of what their companies and employees said and did.

What Human Resources Used to Be

Human Resources started as the basics of employee needs: fair pay, no unfair labor practices, and protection from the often unchecked capitalism of the Industrial Revolution. Human Resources listened to employee grievances and ensured labor laws were abided by and company policies were followed.

But by the 1980s, Human Resources had changed from a more procedural and clerical job to a people-focused profession. This shift in focus led to additional employee training, especially in discrimination. Still, HR was only viewed as something to keep a company from getting in trouble with labor or discrimination laws.

a woman leading a business meeting with ideas on sticky notes

The Future of Human Resources

Many basic tenets of HR leadership remain the same: employees deserve to be protected and treated fairly. But HR today goes beyond these minimum standards and is heavily driven by employee experience. HR leadership will thrive today if it focuses on creating a healthy, thriving environment for employees.

This goes beyond the bookkeeping of the early 1900s and the rule-following of the 1960s and 70s, although those should be remembered. Human Resources has transitioned to creating a better environment for employees not from the threat of laws or PR fallout but because businesses have recognized that a happy employee is a good business strategy.

A positive employee experience translates into a successful business, which is why HR leadership is now being offered a seat at the table in business strategy meetings. Happier and empowered employees often lead to a higher retention rate, happier customers, and higher productivity and performance. Finally, a more positive employee experience comes from successful and well-trained HR leadership.

Learn more about continuing your education as an HR professional here.

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