From Personnel to Employee Experience: How History Has Shaped HR

Something is broken in HR, from how we show up for people to how we show up for our organization. If you want to fix it, you have to understand who HR is and where we collectively came from.

Katie Augsburger, an employee experience strategist and partner at Future Work Design, gives a five-minute rundown on the history of HR and why we’re still figuring out how to recenter our work around what truly matters.

The history of HR is tied to the evolution of work. “Our history is really centered around the work we did in the Industrial Revolution,” says Augsburger. “How we show up now is how we showed up then.” Early on in the Industrial Revolution, HR took the role of welfare secretaries and payroll. HR also tried to make people safe at work but was ultimately not successful in that role. Pre-World War II HR was on the side of employers, often in direct opposition to employees.

The first significant change happened during the war. There was a wage freeze, so companies couldn’t compete on salary. They had to offer non-wage incentives like health benefits to compete for talent. “Also free daycare,” Augsburger points out, as employers tried to coax women into wartime support jobs. “Don’t have that anymore!”

We saw HR take on these new tasks and ultimately start to reimagine a role that wasn’t entirely focused on simply protecting the employer at all costs.

After the war, we had to find a new way to manage an educated, post-war, white-collar employee base, says Augsburger. We didn’t know how to measure this new class of the workforce, but we figured it out. Amid that transition though, she also points out that we broke the social contract with employees. Lifetime employment slowly eroded in the 70s and 80s, and we saw a new challenge for HR leaders: Engagement.

With the social contract broken, employees had different expectations for their careers. “Employees don’t have the expectation of a paternalistic relationship where I’ll have a job for 30 years,” says Augsburger, “It has to be a partnership.”

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That’s why Augsburger says we need to recenter HR work. Instead of centering around the organization, we need to recenter around the employee. “And if we aren’t centering our work around the most marginalized employees,” she says, “Are we even doing work that matters?”


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