The History of Human Resources

A. Overview of the Labor Department
And what is the sick day policy anyway? Some employees might just be asking that of their employers these days, depending on whether or not the employer has provided its employees with a spelled-out sick day policy. Believe it or not, some companies today are still vague about this policy and others like it. But most companies – and certainly the smart ones – make sure they have specific information about not just sick days, but also all the other benefits and policies their employees must adhere to. Thanks to the formation of the United States Department of Labor in 1913, and more than $60 billion dedicated to the department's functionality today, employees reap the rewards of a company's benefits and also have "someone" watching out for their best interest.9

According to the words of the original act, the Department's purpose is "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of working people, to improve their working conditions, and to enhance their opportunities for profitable employment." Today, the United States Secretary of Labor heads the governmental department responsible for occupational safety, wage and hour standards, unemployment insurance benefits, re-employment services, and some economic statistics.10

As far as history goes, the Department of Labor actually began as the Bureau of Labor in 1884 under the Department of the Interior, eventually becoming an independent department, but never holding executive stature. It wasn't until President Taft signed a bill in 1913 that the Department of Labor came to be what it is known as today.11 Basically the Department is continually assisting in making sure that the workforce in our country is being treated fairly and working in a safe environment. The Department is broken down into many departments to oversee specific areas of employment, like a benefits review board, international labor affairs, labor statistics, employment and training, mine safety, occupational safety, health administration, employee benefits, veterans' employment and training, and a women's bureau, to name a few.12

B. Unions
The history of unions can be traced back to the pilgrims and Plymouth Rock, where primitive unions of carpenters, cabinet makers, and cobblers banded together up and down the Atlantic seaboard. In search of shorter hours and higher pay, printers were the first to go on strike in 1794; cabinet makers struck in 1796; and carpenters in Philadelphia in 1797. In the early years, negotiation and strikes became more frequent.13

Today, when employees believe they have been treated unfairly by management, are not getting their due, or simply want to negotiate contract renewals, chances are they turn to their union for help, or seek out membership in a union. A trade union or labor union is an organization of workers who have come together to achieve common goals in key areas of wages, hours, and working conditions. Members pay dues to help pay for support staff and legal costs. Leadership in a trade union will bargain with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiate contracts. Think here – Teacher's Union, Player's Union, Plumber's Union, United Steel Workers, the Teamsters – the list goes on. The contracts negotiated by the union's leaders are binding.14 Post a union job and that means no one other than a union member may hold that position unless, after a certain time frame, that position cannot be filled with someone from the union. In addition, if someone does not belong to a union, that person is an At Will employee and technically can be fired or let go at any given time, without a reason from the employer. Being a member of a union protects someone from that happening. Bottom line: Most workers join unions to protect themselves from management's unfair, random, and sometime malicious conduct.

C. The Personnel Department
As unions continued to grow in numbers, some employers began to realize that perhaps it wasn't just a pair of hands that were needed to do a job, but actually a whole "thinking" person, one who could problem-solve and be more than just an assembler on a line. These employers also began to see a correlation between worker satisfaction and involvement, and absenteeism and high turnover. The lower the satisfaction the higher the absenteeism and turnover. As a result, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the personnel profession emerged, providing basic personnel management principles, like hiring, training, and compensation.15

One of the first personnel management departments was at the National Cash Register Co. (NCR) and evolved because of a union strike and lockout. After a difficult battle, the company's president organized a department to handle complaints, hirings, firings, safety, and other employee issues. The department also provided training for supervisors. Other companies followed suit. For example, Ford had high turnover ratios of 380 percent in 1913. A year later, the company doubled the daily salaries for line workers from $2.50 to $5, even though $2.50 was a fair wage at that time.16

As more and more union activity continued to fight for the employees' rights, and with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, labor disputes continued to rise. Gradually employers began to understand there was a need for professionals who could be the middle person between an employer and its employees (instead of having unions fight the battles). As the personnel manager's role emerged, employers finally began to realize that employees were more than just machines with hands. Each one wore an individual face and was motivated differently. As it evolved, the personnel department more and more became an integral part of the overall development of a company's culture, policies, and procedures.

D. Human Resource Movement
It quickly became apparent to those smart employers that motivated employees were more productive employees. However, it was also obvious that each individual employee was motivated by different factors -- whether it was verbal praise, compensation, benefits, etc. Some research showed that when supervisors and managers paid more attention to employees, those employees performed at a higher rate of productivity. Elton Mayo, known as the Father of Human Relations, was the first to emphasize the need for employee communications, cooperation, and involvement. Through his studies, Mayo concluded that human factors were sometimes more important than physical factors, like the quality of lighting and other physical workplace conditions. His research argued that workers' feelings were important – sometimes even more important than the tangible things in a workplace environment. As his research continued through the 1940s, Mayo's findings connected with business leaders, who began to reap the benefits of high production rates when managers acted less like taskmasters and more like leaders counselors and facilitators. Rewards other than money also became important as well.17
Over time, through wars and new and failed labor laws, a new group of managers emerged that were more personable and held a more profound interest in people and feelings and how those related to the success of the overall business. Managers began to place importance on employer-employee relations versus scientific management. Programs to increase wages and fringe benefits continued to develop in the 1960s and 1970s. Baby boomers introduced the notion of human rights and the idea of self-fulfillment to the workplace – people wanted more than a job, they wanted to be challenged and interested and have their occupation reflect back on who they were as people. Human resource management continues to evolve to include ways to enrich the workplace environment, communicate company objectives better, and tie individual employee goals back to the overall company goals. Most of these efforts also tend to lead toward increased profitability for the company as a whole. Once was just a cog in the machine, the employee is now an integral part of the company's overall success.18
A. Where to Find the Right People
Too many times managers lose a key member of their team and unexpectedly they have a position to fill within their department. But instead of sitting down with the soon-to-be-exiting employee to learn the fine details of that person's day-to-day role in the company, managers find themselves caught up in meetings and other obligations that, directly or indirectly, steer them quickly away from finding the right "human" to fill this vacant position. Basically, if a manager invests the time and energy to truly find the right fit for his team, it cuts into his regular duties of his own job and adds extra hours to his day. It is very easy for managers to procrastinate a hiring search simply because they don't want to "deal." But it's also a Catch-22. Wait too long, and that hole in the team becomes deeper and deeper and the department's goals will eventually get off track. In large companies, human resource departments handle the hiring process, but many small and medium companies have middle managers opening searches while continuing to do their own jobs. But like anything, at the end of the day, the more time and thought dedicated to finding that right person to "click" with the department will pay off 10-fold in productivity.

There are many places to find "recruits" and various ways to reach potential employees, depending on the type of position you are trying to fill. For instance, a restaurant looking for a line cook may place a classified ad in the local newspaper, while a four-star café in need of a sous chef may advertise in an industry publication to better target potential employees. The first step is to know and feel confident about the type of person you want in the position and the particular skill set and personal characteristics this new addition will need to have in order to succeed in the company's environment.

A great way to start a search is to turn inward to current employees and ask them where they originally heard about their job, where they looked for a new position, and what made them choose the job with the company.

From there, one of the most frequently used ways of attracting applicants is the classified and display advertising section of a newspaper or trade magazine. It may be a local, regional, or statewide publication -- and today, many publications also offer online editions. Classified ads are line ads listed in the classified columns, while display ads are traditionally used to find middle managers, professional applicants, and senior level executives.

With the continued growth of the Internet and technology, more and more people are searching for jobs online, so it makes good business sense to include online job portals like,,,, and other Internet referral services to advertise new open positions. A survey of 1,000 corporate recruiters found that 71 percent report spending up to 20 percent of their recruitment budget on the Internet.20 Companies should also make sure they include an employment section on their own website, with a complete description of employment opportunities, as well as a general benefits overview. Many job seekers will target companies they specifically want to work for, and this is a great way to garner qualified applications from people who are interested in the company from the start.

B. Posting a Truthful Job Description
One of the best ways to write a job description that truly reflects the position is to ask those who perform a particular job to describe their day. Open-ended questions will not only help to analyze the existing job, but also help define new or changing roles that may evolve by hiring someone new. Some questions to ask current or exiting employees are:

- How do you spend a typical day?

- Describe some of the work you occasionally do; how often to you do it and when?

- Do you supervise any positions? And how much time do you spend supervising others?

- Do you operate equipment, and if yes, what type?

- What standards are you expected to meet in your job?

- What training did you get on this job, or were you expected to know most of the needed skills prior to being hired?21

Answers to these questions, coupled with actually observing employees in their current positions, will provide insight into what the job entails. Managers should also consider what they want in a candidate as it relates to job qualifications and personal qualities. Level of education, skill sets, past work experience, physical strength and stamina, communication skills, and accuracy of work are just a few of the qualities that may be important when selecting a candidate for consideration.22 But good managers also won't limit themselves to applicants that only have these qualities. While a college degree may be desired, a candidate without a college degree may have the same or even more job-specific experience than another candidate.

When creating a job description, and ultimately an ad for a newspaper or online referral service, managers should stick to the basics about the job itself, and not try to look for candidates similar to the employee leaving the position. For instance, base job requirements on job factors, not on the background of people currently doing the job, and then create an accurate job description.23

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Human Resources Management course?
C. Important Laws to Remember
What to say and what not to say? What questions are legal to ask, and what can get the interviewer in trouble? Managers and HR staff must plan their questions for an interview to be effective. Having key questions ready at the beginning of an interview opens the door to conversation and will hopefully lead to other questions that may or may not be expected. While there are many laws that human resource professionals and senior management must be aware of when it comes to employment, there are some key questions that are unlawful to ask. And beyond those questions lie "subsets" of questions, where one can ask about various categories but some specifics about those categories can not be approached. Here is a sampling of some of those questions:24

- Questions about complexion, color of skin, or coloring (race or color).

- Questions about religious denomination, affiliations, church, parish, pastor, or religious holidays observed.

- Questions about an applicant's lineage, ancestry, national origin, etc.

- Questions about gender, marital status, birthplace, or birth date.

- Interviewers may ask, "Are you 18 years or older? If not, state your age." But they can't ask how old someone is, or what year that person graduated from high school.

- Questions about disability, arrest record, citizenship, and education should be used carefully. Some questions may be asked while others are illegal. For example, "Have you been convicted of a crime?" is OK to ask, but, "Have you ever been arrested?" is not.

Many companies and corporations with HR departments will not let their managers and supervisors ask certain questions during an interview – they require that only HR staff ask these questions, typically questions that one would find on a standard employment application. Then managers interview applicants regarding job specifics and collectively the HR department and manager review the overall answers.

D. Thought-provoking Interview Questions
There are techniques that create a "structured" interview versus a less formalized way to interview. Regardless of the way one interviews, the key is to get the candidate to open up and be honest and meaningful with his or her answers. How one frames the questions is just as important as really listening to the answers, as there may be a follow up question that comes from that answer. Interviewers should steer clear of questions with yes/no answers. These are dead-end questions that don't provide any information or feedback. For example, instead of saying, "Have you ever worked with Excel?" ask "Tell me about how you've used Excel in your previous work."

Another interesting way to interview is to think like a reporter and ask the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. These types of questions help draw out the information needed and again avoid yes/no answers. Situational and summary questions, as well as non-directive techniques can also help the candidate talk about himself.25

E. You're Hired – Well, Almost

One might argue that making the perfect selection in hiring someone for a position is just as important a decision as which $50,000 car one might by. Others say it's a crap shoot. And some say that even after interviewing someone who has outstanding references, an unbelievable employment history, and incredible benchmarks and milestones, if the "click" isn't there, don't offer the job. In essence, it all boils down to gut intuition in many cases.

After administering a slew of interviews and reviewing a bucket-full of candidates, narrowing that candidate down to two or three of the best people for the job is the next best step. From there, a few checks and balances will help dub-down the selection process even further to find the perfect match for future employee and the company. These ideas also help ensure there are no surprises when hiring a new employee along the way, as well. Regardless of the level of the job, choosing the right person is important to the success of the whole team, department, and ultimately the company.

Some companies may find it useful to administer tests, whether it's a typing test for a high-level executive assistant, or a personality or cognitive test to find of more about the "human" behind the applicant or how that person might think or problem-solve. Other tests might include:

Intelligence Tests – to measure the ability to learn.

Aptitude Tests – to determine the potential in a specific area of expertise.

Performance Tests – to measure how well someone can do the job they will be hired for.

Personality Tests – to identify personality characteristics.27

Typically a company that uses these types of tests will have a human resources or independent organization administer them. But as with any "test," keep in mind that some people simply don't test well and get nervous, possibly answering something incorrectly or not as in-depth as if they were to tell the story or example themselves. Tests should be used in conjunction with information gathered from interviews and reference checks, as well.

Once the selection process is complete and a candidate has been chosen for the position, the next logical step is to check references. Sometimes this feels like a Catch-22. The candidate offers three or four references of his choice. Clearly, those references are going to be good ones – they come from the candidate! And while it is important to hear from people that the candidate has worked for and with, it's also critical to find unbiased sources who can give an objective point of view, as well.

Some companies require that the human resource department call on references, but ideally the manager or supervisor for whom the new person will be working should place the calls. The manager has a better sense of the dynamics of his team and will ask more appropriate questions of the reference. Ideally, speak with the candidate's former supervisor or manager, not an HR employee or co-worker. A supervisor will have a better overall picture of how that person worked, his style, and more details about his integration into the department. Have information that should be verified, but also have questions that will provoke a more substantiated answer to get to the meat of who the person really is and how he performs. Some good questions to ask in a reference-check interview are:

- What activities did she perform most effectively?

- What activities did she need a little more help in?

- How was his attendance? Dependability? Degree of supervision? Overall attitude?

- How did he get along with co-workers? With his supervisor?

- Did she grow with the company, or just do what was asked of her?

- What were her specific job duties? Did she take initiative to work outside of her specific role?

- Why did he leave? Would you hire him back if another appropriate opening were available?

- Is there anything else you'd like to add?28

This last question is a great way to sum up the reference interview and also offers an open-ended question for the person to expand on what has already been talked about, or to add something that might have been forgotten. It's a nice way to close the interview as well, along with a grateful "thank-you," and something along the lines of, "Is it OK if I call you again if I have any more questions?"

Lastly, if everything "checks out" and you feel in your gut that this is the ideal candidate, make the offer!