The term human resources brings up different images and feelings for most employees. Some look at it in a positive light, while others think immediately of disciplinary actions and terminations. That said, have you ever wondered why human resources (HR) even exists? To answer that, we must go back to the Industrial Revolution.

In the late 18th century, we find the first concept of what we know as HR.  Two gentlemen, Robert Owen and Charles Babbage, had the idea that people are instrumental in furthering the success of organizations. This movement gained traction during the Industrial Revolution.

Although machines and the technology of the time prevailed, people were still needed to operate the equipment. It became obvious that labor needed to be both managed and appreciated, and the first concept of culture and employee engagement was born.

Fast forward to the early 20th century.  Frederick Winslow Taylor came up with the idea that scientific management can further enhance the labor process.  Scientific management is dedicated to improving productivity through efficiency — whether by labor, equipment, or both. It is also known as “Taylorism” and these methods are still used in today’s business world. Underneath all the fancy language, it is the primary goal of HR to increase the bottom line through good hiring, training, compensation, and retention practices (all under the basic heading of “culture”). This is, at it’s core, Taylorism.

Along the heels of Taylorism came a large international movement led by psychologists Abraham Maslow, Kurt Lewin, Frederick Herzberg, and David McClelland. Their methods of the needs of people (in and out of the workplace) is still taught and utilized in HR to this day. For example, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a pillar of the HR knowledge base. 

Knowing why people are motivated helps us learn how to motivate them and we, in turn, have a more productive and engaged staff.

In America, as we moved forward with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and an entire labor and employee relations industry was born.  Factoid: Nevada Association of Employers was also born around this time, in 1938, giving Nevada employers a combined voice as the country began to unionize (or not, as the case may be). About ten years later, along came Taft-Hartley, which defined additional unfair labor practices. 

In the mid-20th century, personnel positions and departments became more prevalent. These departments were staffed mainly by women, who hired, fired, processed payroll, and made coffee. The term human resources was coined by E. Wight Bakke, in his book “The Human Resources Function,” published in 1958. By the end of the 1950’s, personnel was a common department in most mid-to-large size companies. Then, 1964 came along, and with it Title VII of the Civil Rights Act … and then everything changed – again.


This is part one of a three-part series on the evolution of human resources. Part two of this series will cover Title VII through FMLA.