• July 2015

The History of Human Resources

By Barbara Mitchell
HR Expert and Co-Author of
The Essential HR Handbook and The Big Book of HR

In the late 1800s in America, most employers didn’t spend any time thinking about the people who were actually doing the work.

Bosses just expected people to work six and seven days a week for not a lot of pay. In factories, the foreman ruled the factory floor, and there was almost an open disregard for the health and safety of workers.

It wasn’t that the people in charge were heartless, but rather that there was an abundant supply of workers. Recent immigrants were willing to work for close to nothing, and there were no child labor laws to prevent bosses from working children day and night to get the job done.

Things changed following a major strike at National Cash Register. Workers revolted against some of the employer practices, and in response, the management added a function called “personnel.” People in this new department were tasked with handling grievances, discharges, and safety.

And from that beginning, came the field we now know as Human Resources.

Still, it wasn’t until after World War II that most US employers fully understood that how they treated employees made a profound difference in their productivity.

Management expert Peter Drucker was the one who coined the term when he announced in the 1950s: “The worker is the human resource.”

HR and the staffing function have come a long way since the beginnings of the profession.

In well-managed organizations today, HR departments typically handle many things that have strategic impact on the organization.

Some of those functions include workforce planning, succession management, staffing, employee engagement, employee retention, performance management, rewards and recognition, benefits management, compensation, compliance, coaching and counseling, labor and employee relations, and so much more — including planning the holiday party.

As the HR profession has evolved, one thing hasn’t gotten enough attention — the importance of staffing.

I have said it before and will say it again — there is nothing more important in an organization than bringing in the right people.

So, why do so many organizations put entry-level people into the recruiting function?

Don’t they realize their recruiters are the front line to job applicants?

I hear so many stories from job seekers about how poorly they are treated by internal recruiters who don’t understand the organization or even know how to ask a good question.

Desirable job seekers have options, so think about who is responsible for employment screening in your organization, and be sure you are putting your best team out there so that you get the best applicants who want to join your organization.

Certainly, HR has a long history and has come a long way in the impact it has on most organizations, but we still have more to do. People matter! Please, remember that.


About Barbara Mitchell

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and has consulted for organizations around the world.

She has served in senior human-resources leadership positions with Marriott International and at several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding The Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Her books include The Essential HR Handbook and The Big Book of HR.

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