The Evolution of Human Resources: A Look at HR’s Past, Present and Future

By Barbara Mitchell


Over the years, the function within an organization that manages its employees  has been referred to as human resources, industrial relations, personnel, and even the “people department.” Before the 20th century, however, organizations didn’t need a department to handle employees’ issues. Immigration provided businesses with an unlimited supply of workers. There were  no laws to prohibit child labor or seven-day work weeks.  Many jobs didn’t require skilled labor and worker safety rules were almost non-existent.

Things changed at the beginning of the 20th century, as the result of a  strike at National Cash Register. The company president, J. W. Patterson, determined that in order to retain a productive workforce, he should create a new department that he called personnel to handle:

  • Discharges
  • Grievances
  • New laws impacting workers
  • Safety

Learn more about human resource management degreesAlthough this was the official start of human resources, it took until after World War II before the general public embraced the idea.  By mid-century, management guru Peter Drucker coined the term “human resources.” Drucker said  that leaders were responsible for managing the business, other managers and its workers.

In the second half of the 20th century, news laws were created to protect American workers including:

  • Equal Pay Act –  1963
  • Civil Rights Act –1964
  • Establishment of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) –  1971
  • Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) – 1974
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act –1978
  • Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) – 1986
  • Americans with Disabilities Act – 1990
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – 1993     


HR has only gotten more important. More than ever, organizations are facing a growing shortage of skilled workers, and have more contingent workers.

As the 21st century has progressed, HR has only gotten more important. More than ever, organizations are facing a growing shortage of skilled workers, and have more contingent workers. People are living longer, so they are working longer. There’s a global economy and the rapid pace of technology impacts nearly everything within the workplace.

To truly handle the current  human resources needs, today’s HR professionals must understand how businesses operate in order to add value as a true HR business partner.  HR manager positions require at least a bachelor degree while in order to progress in the field, a master’s degree and or HR certification is desired and many times required.

Columbia Southern University’s online human resource management degree programs equip students to work in the complex world of HR in the 21st century.

Students learn how business works by studying business ethics, business law, finance, leadership and marketing. Students also take classes on benefits, collective bargaining, compensation, compliance, employment law, human resource management and staffing.


The future for HR professionals is bright. Organizations will continue to need savvy HR managers to hire, engage, develop and retain the best talent available, but like everything else in today’s fast-paced environments, HR is changing. HR managers and others in the field need to take on exciting new roles and responsibilities.

More and more, organizations are looking to data analytics to help them make decisions about their employees. Traditionally, organizations made decisions based on anecdotal information, but those days will soon come to an end. Businesses like Google do not make decisions that impact its workers without data to back it up. For many HR managers, this has been a difficult shift in the industry. Taking courses like financial management and information systems management is beneficial to becoming more familiar with these practices.

Tomorrow’s HR manager must be innovative,  leading their organizations by staying up-to-speed on current HR changes and bringing new ideas forward.

With many businesses and organizations constantly changing and improving, tomorrow’s HR manger must be change-agents,  helping employees through the changes necessary to keep pace with competitors.

Lastly, tomorrow’s HR manager must be able to actively participate in business decisions. Many organizations are now outsourcing tactical tasks that were traditionally accomplished by HR, providing today’s HR management with the opportunities to focus on strategic issues.

Although HR management has come a long way from its beginnings, it’s still poised to have even a greater impact on the organizations it serves. You’ve made a good choice to consider this exciting profession!

Bio: Barbara Mitchell is an author and HR consultant in the Washington, D.C., area. She is the author of The Essential HR Handbook, The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. She also works with  organizations to help them hire, engage, develop and retain the best talent available.