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HR still carries an image of being a lowly and menial task.


It would appear that it is generally accepted that the HR function is largely a post-WWII development, having originally sprung from the accounting needs to pay people, and the information storage needs to do this with an increasingly complex tax and social welfare system.

Two issues tend to emerge initially from HR history.

Welfare issues began to be attached to the personnel function because of increasing representation by trade unionists and church related organisations.

There is an argument that in those post-war years we still clung to a patriarchal society, and a patriarchal family unit, and it was mainly women who saw the welfare needs and were able to provide the earliest welfare support systems. The linkage between welfare provision and women’s activities meant that in a patriarchal society this was a low status and unimportant role.

For men looking at personnel work this resulted in coping with a job with a female job image.
For women, personnel work was seen as a specialism moving them up from being ‘typists’.

The role became more masculine in the 1960s and more so in the 1970s because of increasing trade unionist activity and collective bargaining which allowed the personnel function to develop a more macho image. It took ‘real men’ to negotiate with unions. There could however be a carry over that 'real man' went into real management that dealt with operational activities, not this personnel stuff on the edge of business. We may try to celebrate a diverse and equal-sex workplace in the year 2000, but we still carry some ingrained prejudices from long ago.

The industrial relations era of the 1970s developed ‘industrial relations’ as a central personnel activity along with recruitment and selection, training and development, payroll and benefits management, communications, personnel admin and organisational development. In essence though, the period was one of high employment, albeit that the climate was approaching major change.

Whilst accepting that it didn’t happen right across the economy, the 1980’s saw a period of increasing unemployment, but a tightening economy that led to a boom time for many businesses. I accept that the poverty gap widened and there was increasing individual suffering and changes to employment patterns beginning.

For many businesses, the story was one of getting leaner and fitter. Personnel activity increased with redundancies as ‘dead wood’ was cut out, and recruitment as the bright stars of tomorrow’s business success were sought. Recruitment competition for people with the ‘right’ skills, increased the provision of salary package benefits, and the extension of welfare activities began in more earnest as a business need and not just a sop to ‘do-gooders’. The key part here is that the personnel function only began to be seen as meeting business needs in the recent past.

Since that time the personnel function has moved on to become Human Resource management. With some saying that the latest name of ‘knowledge management’, indicates the HR managers move into handling technology as a means to handling people as a means to handling the business. Although the (maybe) more cynical say that knowledge management is only the software vendor’s way of making the HR manager feel good about their product by adding another ‘new’ competency to their skillbase.

In conclusion, the essence of this whole line of argument is that business owners still largely see the personnel/HR function generally, as being non-core activity, menial and performed by do-gooders who don’t understand ‘real’ business.


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