Then & Now: 75 Years of HR Disciplines

ThenNowImpossible to fathom in 2014, there was a time when the intertwined disciplines of Human Resources/ Skills Assessment/ Surveys/ Organizational Development did not exist. Prior to the 20th century, most Americans lived rural lives where work activities were directly connected to outputs. Planting fields of seeds and tending them to harvest provided a very clear connection between individual efforts and outcomes. Typically people were born into their livelihoods and had little freedom to choose alternative careers; a much simpler economy offered few employment options. This relationship between worker and work did not require much research or analysis and, until passage of the FLSA in 1939, there was no need for “HR stuff” (surveys, etc.).

Modern warfare, technology, and industrialization dramatically challenged this simple formula. These fostered a need for new tools to manage increasingly complex organizational structures.

World War I challenged the U.S. to respond in new ways: efficient and rapid mass deployment of qualified military personnel over long distances was needed. Errors in human judgment would be amplified and possibly determine the war’s outcome, thus must be minimized. Responding to this urgent need, two Cornell researchers introduced standardized assessments known as the “Army Alpha” to predict the soldier’s ability to succeed in their assigned position. Administered to over one million service men, it was considered a great success. This approach appealed to American industry who adopted such assessment practices to boost productivity.

An important milestone was Harvard researcher G. E. Mayo’s industrial experiments conducted in the 1920s and 1930s. He identified the “Hawthorne Effect” which indicated employees improve productivity based on emotional factors, not just mechanical forces. His conclusions, though not universally accepted even today, inspired the emerging field of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (IOP). Powerful socio-economic and political forces combined with IOP to mold the humanrelations movement of the 1930s. Countering the prevailing scientific-management approach, this movement emphasized the role of psychological forces in the workplace and asserted that productivity was not just a function of equipment, raw materials, and labor. The interplay between individual qualities, worker relationships, and organizational practices was a force to understand and manage. The foundation was firmly set for the Human Resource discipline to evolve over the coming decades alongside expanding employment law.

American World War II military equipment and procedures required much higher levels of technological competency than any previous war. Skills testing and aptitude assessments developed to evaluate the best people to operate equipment and achieve the highest levels of competency. Post-war industry again adopted military practices to boost productivity and measure employee satisfaction to avoid work stoppages and unionization. As the U.S. economy expanded globally and grew ever more complex, IOP evolved to address new challenges. In 1945, New York’s legislature established the State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University to study and improve the tumultuous relationship between employees and employers. This formal education program was the first to focus on labor and related human resource topics, adding legitimacy, rigor, and standards to a nascent discipline. The American Society for Personnel Administration founded in 1948 (later known as the Society for Human Resource Management or SHRM) further heightened self-awareness among practitioners.

Widespread use of formal surveys to monitor wages, benefits, and workplace satisfaction came after World War II. Industry’s concern over worker satisfaction was focused on increasing productivity by avoiding work stoppages, labor unrest, and other conditions that encouraged unionization. Surveys to compare wages and benefits with other employers provided useful data for negotiations and business planning. Responding to member needs, MSEC has conducted labor market research and provided survey data since the 1940s! Today, with skilled practitioners, technological advances and best practice processes, the business community relies on MSEC surveys as an essential business tool.

A sinister side of the HR discipline was the intentional misuse of testing, assessments, and other HR processes to discriminate against minorities and women, denying them equal access to employment opportunities. Unintentional adverse impacts of various employment practices became of equal concern. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 tackled such problems by requiring testing, assessments, and other screening practices be validated as work-related. In subsequent decades, technological advances would bring more sophisticated tools and approaches; debate and litigation over accuracy, efficacy, and adverse impact continue. MSEC guides members through such complex issues on a daily basis.

MSEC evolved over the last 75 years lockstep with HR to meet member needs. A look back explains much about where we are today and hints at what might be ahead. Next quarter, our last installment in this series will peer into the future of what’s to come in the workplace. MSEC will continue to be at members’ side to meet those challenges.