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The history of human resource management

Before the industrial revolution people lived mainly off the land. The first factories gave people the opportunity to improve their lives with guarantees of employment and subsequent rewards. But factory conditions were often unacceptable and initially factory work was resisted. Workers encountered harsh conditions with strict regimes and little consideration for their welfare. Men, women and children worked, were fed and housed in poor conditions.

Scientific Management, developed by FW Taylor and F Gilbreth changed systems of work. Production was analysed in minute detail and workers’ conditions improved as a result of being part of the production process. At the same time a number of philanthropic employers emerged, inspired by social and religious consciences, they set about improving working and other welfare conditions for their employees. The best known of these were Robert Owen, the Cadbury family, the Rowntree family and the Lever Brothers. In addition, social commentators such as Charles Dickens, and later George Orwell, raised awareness and created the climate for improvement generally.

Welfare officers emerged to improve conditions for the workforce, a buffer between worker and manager, and to educate workers in health, safety and hygiene. The first institute for welfare officers was formed in 1913. However, the First World War and subsequent economic depression served again to repress the rights of workers and Trades Unions.

In the late 1920's and early 1930's the Hawthorn experiments, famously presented by Elton Mayo, recognised that better production could be achieved by treating workers as cooperative participants in the process and by considering them to be social and team members.

Following the Second World War there was a period of full employment. Expectations of workers were high. There was also a rise in material expectations (originating from the USA) and the Trades Unions became powerful drivers of change. The first personnel managers came into being, partly to negotiate terms and conditions of employment, collectively, with Trades Unions. Between the early 1960's and the mid 1980's Trades Union influence steadily increased, redressing the balance of previous exploitation.

However, this influence drastically reduced in the mid 1980's with confrontations between unions, employers and governments. Legislation limited the activities of unions and this together with the recession of the late 1980's kept union influence at a relatively low level.

Recently, employee’s rights are increasing again. Evidence of this can be seen in EU legislation such as The Working Time Directive restricting the working week to a maximum of 48 hours. It is expected that further increases in the rights of individuals and trades unions will be introduced through European Directives and then into national legislation. There have also been signs that Trades Unions are again becoming more militant. Strikes and other forms of industrial action are becoming more prevalent, an example being the recent UK fire brigades strikes and their subsequent dissatisfaction with agreements made to settle the strike.

Meanwhile, manufacturing in the EU has been drastically reduced. Large manufacturing industries such as mining, shipbuilding and steel production have suffered from greatly increased Asian competition. These industries used to employ many workers, all employed on the same terms and conditions, bargained (and sometimes fought for) nationally. They have now been replaced with smaller businesses. The service industries have grown as manufacturing has declined. Peoples’ working conditions have changed. A job for life is now a thing of the past. Short-term contracts, job sharing and part-time employment are recent and growing trends. This will lead, in many cases, to greater employee anxiety resulting from greater uncertainty.

Personnel departments have undergone massive changes in the last 20 years. The personnel department traditionally controlled all issues concerned with employees, such as; recruitment, selection, training, appraisals, record keeping and so on. Many of these functions are now carried out elsewhere. Consultants recruit and recommend new staff. Line managers carry out appraisals, disciplinary and grievance procedures and outside agencies provide training and education for staff.

The role of the human resource manager is now to advise the organisation on the resource of people. This could be internal or external to the organisation. This then is the distinction between a personnel manager and a human resource manager. The personnel manager is a worker-centred function whereas the human resource manager is a resource-centred function. The trend has been for organisations to devolve traditional personnel duties to line managers.

This text is adapted from HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT IN CONSTRUCTION, by David Eaton, Salford 2008. The original manual was developed within the scope of the LdV program, project number 2009-1-PL1-LEO05-05016 entitled “Common Learning Outcomes for European Managers in Construction”. It is reproduced here in a slightly modified form with the kind permission of the Chartered Institute of Building.


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