Why Human Resources?
December 19, 2007 7:03 AM   Subscribe

In researching this question, I found this quote: "When Personnel became Human Resources, we all lost something.", which exactly sums up my feeling today. Does anyone know when and why 'Personnel' became 'Human Resources'?

Was there a 'good' reason, or is it just trendy?
Might it have come out of an MBA program or a certain theorist?

It seems to me I noticed the HR term first in the 80's and it coincided [?] with other negative changes in the workplace. I worked for a large corporation for 30 years and it was definitely a better place to work when there was a Personnel Department then when there was an HR Department..
I find just the term Human Resources to be demeaning- I am no longer a person, but just a resource.

Can anybody tell I've been filling out my Employee Self-Evaluation today?
posted by MtDewd to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The term is derived from the "Human Resources Model", a theory of management developed during the 1950s as a "third way", described in detail by Douglas McGregor in "The Human Side of Enterprise" published 1960 (but mentioned earlier by others including Peter Drucker in his 1954 "Practice of Management").

The prior models were (1) Traditional model, in which management closely supervised workers, and told people exactly what to do, on the theory that for most workers, working was kind of a necessary evil and that very few were capable of creative thinking and worker-driven improvement in products or processes; and (2) the "Human Relations" model, which assumed people would be motivated by recognition and that managers should make people feel useful and involve them to some extent in decisionmaking.

The Human Resources model took this a step further in proposing that there was a great pool of untapped potential among workers, and that workers at all levels should be involved in decisionmaking and responsibility through a team approach.

Adoption of this model led to the use of "Human Resources" to replace "Personnel" (which was seen to reflect most closely the Traditional Model.

The problem, of course, is that most businesses are still stuck in the Traditional or Human Relations modes, which are at best benevolent dictatorships; and in those models, using "Human Resources" emphasizes "resources", while in a firm truly driven by the Human Resources Model, the emphasis will properly be on "human".
posted by beagle at 7:41 AM on December 19, 2007 [17 favorites]

Wow, that's great, beagle. Very interesting.
posted by cashman at 7:47 AM on December 19, 2007

Yes, great answer, beagle!

As someone who has created great HR teams from scratch three times now, I'd add that there are giant cultural shifts at play here. Managers used to feel more personally responsible for the wellbeing of their employees. Between increased competitive pressures, increased middle-manager layoffs, and the loss of the "employed for life" tenure perspective, a great deal of the caring function has been offloaded to HR, much to most employee's regret. HR can't show you care and relatedness - we don't know you and don't know about your achievements and families. And, we can't make your manager care about you if they don't.

I've never been comfortable with the term Human Resources, FWIW. I've gone years without a title at all just to avoid it for the very reason you mentioned above. Personnel sounds really old-fashioned and administrative, "People Function" sounds pretentious, and there's really not a good term to describe what we do.
posted by pomegranate at 8:24 AM on December 19, 2007

Even worse is that now some places are moving on to "Human Capital" instead of "Human Resources", which sounds like it should run into trouble with the 13th Amendment in the U.S. It makes you misty and nostalgic about plain ol' HR.
posted by dilettante at 8:56 AM on December 19, 2007

Well, I can say that at one point there was a whole swath of people who didn't actually recognize that personnel and personal were different words with, get this, different meanings. The move to human resources seemed to offer people a way to circumvent this ignorance. (That's my data point as a management consultant through the early-to-mid-90s.)
posted by cocoagirl at 9:01 AM on December 19, 2007

Southwest Airlines calls their's the People Department. Sounds much nicer.
posted by cdmwebs at 1:39 PM on December 19, 2007

Thanks, beagle.
Exactly the kind of answer I was hoping for.
posted by MtDewd at 2:18 PM on December 19, 2007

this reminds me vaguely of the BC government's switch from calling users of the medical system "patients" to calling them "clients."

a subtle change, but one i think reflects a disturbing change in the way the government sees citizens: we're consumers now, not people.
posted by klanawa at 5:06 PM on December 19, 2007

Someone at a meeting the other day said he was planning to add "four more resources" to a project. It stumped me for a moment. Then I realized what he was probably getting at.

"You mean people?"

"Yeah." Everybody laughed.

In the guy's defense, he's nice and his first language isn't English.
posted by tangerine at 8:30 PM on December 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

this reminds me vaguely of the BC government's switch from calling users of the medical system "patients" to calling them "clients."

My gf is an LCSW and does the same thing (calls the people she sees "clients"). I asked her about it, and she said that to her, "patient" connoted that there was something wrong with the person, and that they needed to be fixed. For mental health, at least, it seems reasonable.

To tie it back to the topic of HR, the motivation behind the name change may be less sinister than it seems.
posted by Horselover Fat at 10:24 PM on December 19, 2007

"Patients" and "clients" are both better than what we get here, which is generally "customers".

If I'm going to see the doctor, I'm a patient first and a customer second. Hopefully.
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 AM on December 20, 2007

tangerine, do you work in my office?
posted by klanawa at 7:22 PM on December 21, 2007

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