The late President John F. Kennedy once said, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” With that statement, President Kennedy expressed the philosophy of many industrialists and researchers who sought to improve labor productivity and the individual potential of employees. Their methods ultimately led to a greater emphasis on developing humans as resources.
The term “human resources” was coined only in the 20th century. However, the human race developed employee selection processes long before that. Even during the prehistoric period, humans carefully considered a candidate’s qualification before choosing him for a leadership position. In addition, the earliest human beings placed high importance on passing down necessary knowledge. Human resource development relies on education, which involves transmitting essential materials to employees so they can do their jobs better.
As human civilization continued to develop, so did the desire to improve employee performance and knowledge. Historians have found evidence of employment screening exams dating back to 1115 B.C. in China. The ancient Greeks and Babylonians created the apprenticeship system, which trained entry level employees in a particular trade. Apprenticeships continued well into the Middle Ages.
The Industrial Revolution
In the late 18th century, Europe and America’s economies shifted from agriculture to manufacturing. Inventors developed mechanisms to speed up production. However, mechanization led to injuries, a monotonous work environment and low wages in favor of more efficient production. Some employers realized productivity correlated strongly to worker satisfaction and attempted to improve training and salary.
Human Relations Movement
World War I brought about huge changes in the labor market. After World War I, the government and businesses realized that employees would no longer contribute to the economy if mistreated. In 1928, social scientist Elton Mayo began researching the effect of better working conditions on employees. Not surprisingly, workers under improved conditions produced more. Mayo discovered that under better conditions, employees worked as a team and generated a higher output. He promoted stronger human relations between subordinates and supervisors, which he called “the Human Relations movement.”
Human Resources Approach
By the 1960s, managers and researchers realized that just because an employee has better working conditions does not mean he will work harder. Instead, a new theory emerged. Both bosses and social scientists concluded that each worker has individual needs and requires a more personalized form of motivation in order to produce more. Businesses began treating employees as assets or resources, which needed cultivation and encouragement in order for the company to succeed.
During the last decades of the 20th century, supervisors began to focus on bringing organizational and individual employee goals closer together. To do this, managers strove to make work meaningful. Upper management gave human resources professionals the responsibility of optimizing employee skills to create a more valuable, skilled workforce. This trend has prevailed into the 21st century, with human resource departments emphasizing skill development and training for employees.
- Reference for Business: Human Resource Management
- "HR Magazine": HR Comes of Age - History of Human Resource Management; Michael Losey. March 15th, 1998
- University of Alberta School of Business: Elton Mayo & The Human Relations Movement 1880-1949. Yonatan Reshef
- CiteMan Network: History of Personnel/Human Resources Management
Rachel Levy Sarfin has been writing professionally since 1998. She has written for the "Yardley News" and the Healthwise Lifewise blog, and served as the Jerusalem correspondent for the Omanoot website. Sarfin completed her Master of Arts in Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.