October 27, 2023

What is Human Resources Management?

By Mala Nagarajan

Note from Mala: this builds on a previous post, “What is Radical Human Resources?”

Note from Vega: this is a long one! But stick with it; it’s so worth it! Her section on “A New Vision for People Management” toward the bottom is LIT! (Yes, I am cheugy.)

I get that human resources (HR) management has a bad reputation, especially in social justice circles. For many, HR management is ironically synonymous with the dehumanization of the workplace. Human resources management, by its very name, seems to reduce humans to a “resource,” along with equipment, cash, and flip chart paper.

During Vega’s (now defunct, sadly) career exploration workshops, it was not uncommon for participants to make comments describing HR as “the enemy,” a tool of management against employees, staffed by incompetent folks who as often as not had no HR experience. And to be fair, in the nonprofit sector, the HR function has all too often been a copy-and-paste, corporate-centric exercise that retains a profit-over-people and compliance-over-culture structure.

Though I live and breathe people-centered, values-aligned, movement-oriented HR practices, I found myself unable to offer a strong defense.

Had I been able to mount a strong defense, I would have argued that HR—despite its name and reputation—not only supports social justice, but also is, at its root, social justice work.

Please allow me to explain. Let’s start with a brief look at the history of the field of “human resources management,” to shed light on HR’s social justice origins, and how the “human” part got lost along the way.

Brief History of the Field of People Management

Modern-day HR management, or people management, has its roots in [wait for it…] organizing. In The Practicalities of Human Resources, Dr. Arbab Akanda describes modern-day people management as arising in response to the horrific conditions of the Industrial Revolution, when workers demanded better conditions and companies appointed so-called industrial welfare workers to oversee the welfare of the workers. Her work was rooted in the ideas of 18th-century Europeans Robert Owen and Charles Babbage, who believed that “people were crucial to the organization” and that the “well-being of employees led to perfect work.”

By Any Other Name

Over time, researchers and organizational managers adopted different names for the people management function and redefined their scope and purpose: from welfare workers to labor management, to industrial psychologists, to personnel administration, and ultimately to the modern-day human resources management, human capital management, and talent management.

These changes in names were driven by legal, philosophical, economic, and technological shifts in how people, work, and workplaces were conceptualized. In the U.S., the shift to “labor” can be attributed to shifting laws that Congress created. Those legal shifts were in response to labor movement pressure to hold companies accountable to better worker treatment. Companies, in turn, adopted internal functions to help manage people and ensure compliance to these new laws.

But companies didn’t stop there. They took the opportunity to monetize “managing people” and sponsored the study of workers in the form of scientific management, a theory formulated by Frederick Winslow Taylor, that suggested that by optimizing and simplifying jobs, productivity would increase. Taylorism, as it came to be known, promoted high levels of management oversight, designed performance pay based on standardized measures of productivity, and ignored worker differences, labor power, or earnings capacity. Taylorism has links back to slave management, as Caitlin Rosenthal demonstrates in Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, summarized here.

The more companies adopted Taylorism, the more they focused on extracting productivity from each of its worker—at an excruciating and unsustainable rate. And there it was: “people management” transformed into what people today perceive it to be: a weapon to maintain and perpetuate company power and profits at the expense and off the backs of the human beings doing the work.

Shifting Focus

I mentioned the evolution of the names given to the people management function. Those changes were not accidental. With each name change came an evolution in thinking about work, workers, and the workplace. At times, the focus has been on supporting, protecting, and empowering workers. At other times, the focus has been on supporting, protecting, and arming companies. At yet other times, the focus was on a concatenation of the two.

As the field evolved, and with ever-increasing professionalization, we’ve now arrived at the company-centric field of HR management we’re familiar with today.

Redefining People Management Within and Beyond the Organization

Traditional interpretations of HR confine the scope of people-management work to within a given organization’s walls. They may focus on the technical skills of the work, inner systems and processes, the relationship between the organization and the employees, and…not at all on how the employees and organization are part of a larger ecosystem. These interpretations may be sufficient for for-profit companies whose only concerns are their own survival and competitive edge. By definition, these organizations don’t see themselves as part of an interdependent, intersectional world.

Movement Ecosystem

By contrast, mission-oriented social justice organizations do envision their work as part of a broader tapestry of movement-building. These organizations therefore need a more holistic definition of people management, one that is multilevel, temporal, and mindful of the social change outcomes embedded in their work.

Edwin Flippo, an early pioneer in Personnel Management, offered a rare definition of HR that addressed not only the hard skills of the field, but also the implications these skills had beyond the organization: Human Resources Management is “planning, organizing, directing, controlling of procurement, development, compensation, integration, maintenance and separation of human resources to the end that individual, organizational and social objectives (emphasis mine) are achieved.” 

People-Centered People Management: A New Definition

I’d like to build on and broaden Flippo’s definition in a way that centers the people doing the work. I define people-centered people management as:

The design of systems and practices in an entity that ensures people who perform the labor have the power, capacity, ability, resources, and motivation to achieve their goals, and that deals with the nature of the labor-employer relationship and all of the decisions, actions, and issues that relate to that relationship.

To be sure, redefining human resources is only the start of reframing our assumptions about HR in the social justice sector. If we really want to re-envision HR management from “the enemy” to being in solidarity with and achieving social objectives – both within and beyond the walls of our organizations – we’ll have to change the way we practice it.

Current Practice

At minimum, the current practice of HR includes hiring, training, and transitioning employees; managing benefits; and cleaning up the mess some leaders leave when they don’t know or don’t want to know how to manage people. And when legally required, it also includes training or notifying employees on their legal protections.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, HR managers are too often seen as The Enforcer, enforcing labor laws designed not to protect workers but to cover the employer’s ass. I can see why. Employers often position the HR manager as the Personnel Policies Legalese Cop who serves as the strong arm of the boss (#LeadershipFail).

Plus, thanks to anti-labor legislators and the courts, employment laws strip employees of their rights and transfer the burden of proof of wrongdoing from employers to employees—i.e., protect employers.

Honestly though, I do believe that most organizations want to do right by their employees. They’ll put time, effort, and heart into writing personnel policies that reflect their values and support their employees.

BUT, employment laws and regulations are written by wealthy leaders of large corporations (and their Congressional proxies). The laws and regulations therefore naturally maximize ability to reduce labor costs and minimize employee protections. What that means is that even when HR professionals (myself included) work with organizations to write employee-supportive policies, their employment lawyers will strike them out. Why? Because writing them down creates the “risk” that the employer will {gasp!} have to act upon them.

Yes, that’s right.

Some employment lawyers stop employers from including employee-supportive language in their policy manuals because then they would, you know, actually have to be supportive—or risk a lawsuit. So if, say, you wanted to offer restorative justice practices in addressing workplace grievances, then some employment attorneys might actively discourage, even admonish, you from doing so, because you might be sued. Even I, as an HR professional, must present potential risks to employers, to avoid my risk of being sued for professional negligence.

So, I get it. HR management, on the face of it, works hand in glove with employers—conscientious, unscrupulous, or otherwise.

But does it have to be this way? No, it does not.

A New Vision for People Management: Where Do We Go From Here?

Social justice organizations are by nature values-driven. They are self-organizing, networked, and movement-oriented. Many strive to be non-hierarchical and center an intersectional lens. They have bold views for social change, recognize that much of it may not happen in our lifetimes, and are therefore in it for the long haul.

In that same vein, social justice organizations could envision people management functions from a long-term, values-aligned, movement-building perspective.

Consider long-term. Today, the tenure of a young employee in a given organization averages around 3 years. If people management remained organization-centric, then it would only be concerned for this employee during their short, 3-year tenure. On the other hand, if people management held a long-term view, it could see the investment in this employee as a contribution to our movement overall— whether the outcome of that investment is retaining the employee, or the employee transitioning to a partner organization and being an ambassador of your organization, or…who knows, the employee returning to your organization as a future executive director. In this context, the value of people management policies expands beyond just retention, and honors the interdependent visions of all of our organizations.

Consider values-aligned. Values drive nonprofit missions. Imagine how transformative our organizations would be if values equally drove internal practices. All too often, nonprofits are so focused on deliverables, they undervalue employee wellbeing. How many times have staff worked late into the night for an annual gala, or staffed a weekend community event, only to be expected to come in the next day at 9:00 a.m.? How many nonprofits with an economic justice/labor rights mission pay unsustainable salaries…and are surprised when their staff decide to unionize?

A values-aligned people management approach operates on the following principles: (1) organizations engage in participatory processes, because social justice values demand that those most affected by a decision or issue lead in finding solutions; (2) organizations create conditions in which workers are empowered and thrive; and (3) organizations model internally the conditions they seek externally.

Consider movement-building. From a movement-building perspective, people management would recognize that learnings from this job are going to be employed in service of future movement organizations. The people management function cannot be channeled into one single person’s role or limited within one single organization.

Instead of being disappointed about an employee’s failure to meet expectations at this job, in this position, in this organization, people management would focus on building leaders across organizations and across movements. For example, organizations may naturally partner with sibling organizations and serve as sites of professional development across a movement employee’s full career.

I know that’s a tall order. But with the rate that social justice nonprofits are chewing up and spitting out employees, it’s urgent. After several unpleasant experiences—or even just one!—working for a nonprofit, someone with enormous potential might throw in the towel on social justice work. Every employee who burns out and bails is our collective failure—to that person as a human being who deserves our care, to their organization’s mission and constituents, to our movements, and to the future we’re striving to create. It’s in everyone’s best interest for organizations to hire thoughtfully, and then invest in their employees—for our collective future, whether in the same or in a different organization.

People management is complex, and the elements of people-centered management are interdependent—because so are we, and so are our struggles. The way we practice people management is vital to our organizations and to effective, sustainable social movement building.

And we must create a different way of doing it. Our liberation depends on it.


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