Recently, I was asked, “what is human resources?”
In 1974, I started in what was known then as the Personnel Department at Marx Toys, in Erie, Pennsylvania. We had a manager, me as an assistant manager, and a staff person who handled safety and insurance administration. We also had two clerical folks on staff. There were over 1,000 employees who were involved in the tooling, plastics, metal work, and assembly of toys like the Rock ’Em Sock ‘Em Robot and the original Big Wheel. My primary function was hiring staff to assure all lines could produce. In addition, I was also involved in labor and employee relations, safety, insurance administration, problem-solving, and, since we had government contracts, affirmative action.
According to an HR Magazine article, the first personnel management department started at the National Cash Register Co. in 1900. The owner, John Henry Patterson, organized a personnel department to deal with grievances, discharges, safety, and training for supervisors on new laws and practices. In 1913, the Ford Motor Company established a Personnel Department to help reduce their 380 percent turnover rate.
The Human Resources function of today is much broader in scope and complexity, with many of the same responsibilities from the 1974 department. When researching the topic, various sites list anywhere between four and twenty responsibilities. The website Limelight took an interesting approach to define Human Resources as responsible for four areas: business partner, change agent, administrative expert and employee advocate.
For a perspective on today’s Human Resources function, I asked Brandy Olson, the Director of Legal, Regulatory & People Services/General Counsel for Muscatine Power and Water for her thoughts. Brandy responded by saying the Human Resource function is responsible for numerous tasks:
- Recruiting and hiring
- On boarding and orientation
- Staff training and development
- Assisting departments with performance management
- Designing and administering benefits (sick leave, vacation, FMLA, disability/health/vision insurance, and retirement)
- Managing workers compensation claims
- Organizational structuring and development
- Conducting workplace investigations
- Ensure the company’s hiring and employment practices are in compliance with applicable regulations and laws (HIPPA, GINA, EEOC, etc.)
- Developing a positive culture that fosters employee engagement and high-quality work
I can see where Brandy’s thoughts fit wonderfully into the Limelight perspective.
As Personnel evolved into Human Resources, I also evolved as a Human Resource practitioner to include training and development. The education gave me an added perspective to enhance how an organization can effectively leverage its employees to better service the customer. One result is to see employees grow and better utilize their capabilities for a positive impact on their organization.
The position is not without its challenges. A challenge for everyone in the Human Resource role is to serve as an employee advocate. Being an employee advocate requires the human resource practitioner to utilize a unique set of analysis and interaction skills, taking difficult positions, and then communicating those positions.
Once “labeled” as taking care of the company picnic, human resources has evolved into a function having a positive impact on the success of an organization. By working in the department, I better understand organizations, and the need for an impactful human resource staff to help meet organizational objectives.