February 1, 2018

What is human resources management?

Human Resources Management for the Social Justice Sector

I know the bad reputation that human resources (HR) management has, especially in social justice circles. For many people, HR management is ironically synonymous with the dehumanization of the workplace. Vega (my business and life partner) makes a good point – “human resources management,” by its very name, seems to disempower workers by delegating humans to the ranks of a resource—like equipment, cash, field research, or a box of chocolate. .

Case in point: at one of our Dependable Strengths Articulation Process workshops, the subject of HR came up. Colleagues in the workshop made comments describing HR as “the enemy,” a tool of management against employees, typically staffed by someone who was incompetent and had no HR experience. And to be fair, to the extent that the nonprofit sector has adopted an HR function, it has often been the copy-and-paste, non-people-centric version of HR, adopted by the corporate sector to sustain their oppressive, profit-driven structures.   

As an HR professional focused on values-based, people-centered HR practices, I found myself unable to offer a strong defense–despite the fact that in my MBA program in the early 2000s, my HR classes focused on people development, and despite the fact that I knew countless alumni of my MBA program who wished they’d taken more HR management courses while in school, as those courses held the keys to good leadership skills the alumni were now wishing for.

Had I been able to mount a good defense, I would have argued that HR – despite its name and reputation – is at its root a tool that can support social justice, and can even in practice be social justice work.  

So how to account for this: this stark contrast between my personal, academic, and leadership experiences on the one hand, and what I’ve heard—not just during that workshop, but over and over—about the role of HR, on the other?

Let’s start with a brief look at the history of the field of “human resources management,” to shed some 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 human resources management—or people management as I’m mostly going to call it from now on— 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 horrid conditions of the industrial revolution, when workers demanded better conditions and companies appointed so-called industrial welfare workers to oversee the general welfare of the workers. The constituent elements of people management (or HRM), according to Dr. Akanda, are workers, work, and the workplace, and it is rooted in the ideas of Robert Owen and Charles Babbage, 18th century Europeans, 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 in large part 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, in response to labor movement pressure, to hold companies accountable to better worker treatment. Companies, in turn, adopted internal functions to help manage their people and ensure compliance to these new laws.

Some companies got so overzealous with managing people that they sponsored the study of workers in the form of scientific management theory, a theory formulated by Frederick Winslow Taylor, that suggested by optimizing and simplifying jobs, productivity would increase. Taylorism, as it became to be known, promoted higher levels of management oversight and designed performance pay based on standard measures of productivity, that did not take into account worker differences, labor power, or earnings capacity. The more companies adopted Taylor’s scientific methods in managing people, the more companies focused on extracting productivity from each of its workers. At an excruciating and unsustainable rate. And the people management function transformed into what many people perceive it to be, a weapon to maintain and perpetuate company power and profits.

Shifting Focus

With each name came a change or evolution in thinking about work, workers, and the workplace. For example, in the mid-1960’s, debates about the differences between human relations model and the emerging human resources model, we see human resources framed to include “not only physical skills and energy, but also creative ability and the capacity for responsible, self-directed, self-controlled behavior.”  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. Still at other times, the focus was a concatenation of the two.  As the field evolved, however, with ever-more formalization and professionalization, we are led to the company-centric field of human resources management we’re familiar with today. I believe the pendulum is starting to swing the other way again.

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…hardly at all on how the employees and organization are part of a larger landscape. These interpretations may be sufficient for for-profit organizations or stand-alone organizations whose only concerns are their own survival and competitive edge. By definition, they don’t see themselves as part of an interdependent, intersectional world.

By contrast, mission-oriented, social justice organizations do envision their work as part of a broader tapestry of movement-building. Therefore, social justice organizations 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 are achieved.”

To build on Flippo’s definition, I’d like to offer a slightly broader working definition that centers the people doing the work. People-centered people management can be defined 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-entity relationship and all of the decisions, actions and issues that relate to that relationship.

Defining 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

Current people management practice is still highly focused on practices within a given organization. At minimum, that means to hire, train, and fire employees; manage benefits; and clean up the mess some leaders leave when they don’t know or don’t want to know about how to legally manage people. And when the law requires, it also means that HR trains or notifies employees on their legal protections.

But too often, and perhaps not surprisingly, the HR manager is seen as The Enforcer, enforcing labor laws designed not to protect the worker but to cover the employer’s ass. I can see that. A lot of employers position the HR manager as the Personnel Policies Legalese Cop who serves as the strong arm of the boss (#LeadershipFail).

Furthermore, thanks especially to the anti-labor legislators and the courts, employment laws strip employees of their rights, transfer the burden of proof of discrimination and other wrongdoing from employers to employees, and protect employers.

Honestly though, I do believe that most employers, especially small business owners, want to do right by their employees. They’ll even 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). They therefore naturally maximize ability to reduce labor costs and minimize employee protections. What that means is that even when human resource professionals (I being one of them) work with small organizations and businesses to write employee-friendly personnel policies, their employment lawyers will strike those out. Why? Because writing them down creates the “risk” that the employer will {gasp!} have to act upon them.

Yes, you heard that right.

Some employment lawyers *stop* employers from including language in their personnel policy manuals that is supportive of their employees because, you know, then they would have to be supportive or risk a lawsuit. So if, say, you wanted to employ restorative justice practices in addressing workplace harassment, discrimination, or poor performance, then you might be actively discouraged, even admonished, by some employment attorneys from doing so, as the organization might be sued. Even I, as an HR professional, am obliged to present potential risks to employers to avoid the risk of being sued for professional negligence.

So, I get it. Human resources management on the face of it works hand in glove with employers, unscrupulous or not.

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

A New Vision for Human Resources Management

Social justice movements are by nature values-driven. They are self-organizing, networked, and cross-organizational. The best of them strive to be non-hierarchical and center an intersectional lens. They have bold views for social change, and though much of it won’t happen in our lifetimes, nevertheless, they are in it for the long haul.

In that same vein, social justice sector organizations need to envision people management functions from a long-term, values-based, networked, and movement-building perspective. People management tools and interventions exist are connected and interdependent across time and space and at multiple levels (individual, interpersonal, intragroup, organizational, movements or networks of organizations, and institutional/systemic).

Consider long-term. The tenure of a young employee in any given organization averages something like 2 years. This is in contrast with the bygone days when workers would stay with their companies their whole life. If our people management interventions followed the trend, then people management would only be concerned for the young employee during their short tenure of two years. If we think long-term, people management could see the young employee as the future executive director of this very organization. In this context, people management might consider what professional development opportunities are possible during the employee’s first tenure and how this relationship can be nurtured in service of that future relationship.

Consider values-based. Values drive nonprofit missions, but imagine how transformative our organizations would be if values also drove internal practice. All too often, nonprofits are so focused on deliverables, they don’t consider employee wellbeing. How many times have staff worked late into the night for an annual gala or staffed a community event over the weekend, and then were expected to come in the next day at 9:00 a.m.? How many nonprofits focused on economic justice and improving labor practices pay their own employees terribly…and repress their attempts to unionize? People management from a values-based perspective would first seek to recognize where there is value alignment between the individual and the organization and where values diverged. If social justice values demand that those most affected by a decision or issue are a part of the solution, then people management would strive to engage in participatory management.   

A values-based, people-centered management approach operates on the principle that the leader’s role is to create the conditions in which workers are empowered and thrive. Happily, more organizations are exploring how to collectively commit to creating decent workplaces. It’s heartening to witness a return to the field’s roots, as people management professionals increasingly focus on organizational culture, healthy workplaces, and work-life balance.

Consider networked. The fact is that for today’s workplace, the people management function cannot be held single-handedly; it can no longer be focused on any single organization or channeled into one person’s role. It must be distributed across the network of individuals within an organization and across organizations. For example, a job description may be developed by an HR professional with a single organization, or it can be developed in conjunction with an employee, their manager, and other similarly-positioned movement colleagues. Organizations may naturally partner with another movement partner organization and serve as sites of professional development across a movement employee’s career.

The concept of networked positions uses roles strategically across movements to help grow both individuals and movements. Networked positions that connect people in similar roles across organizations is especially important for employees in small organizations that, like many grassroots social justice groups, offer low salaries and very little career mobility. Networks create the experience of a larger team and provide communities of learning, where employees could naturally learn from colleagues with similar job functions. Perhaps a group of Operations Coordinators meet and notice a resource they could be sharing, identify ways to reduce expenses, and even tap potential new talent for their own organizations.

About that new talent…with a workforce that is increasingly moving from organization to organization as well as increasingly “self-employed,” networked positions can also help workers deepen their relationships with others in the field and find their next role. Of course veterans are important for an organization’s stability. And of course employees can be expected to take on increasing responsibilities within their current positions. But the reality is that employees of small organizations too often must move to another organization in order to achieve the job titles, salaries, and benefits associated with greater responsibilities and authority. Within a network, workers could move into another position at a different organization, gain deeper experience in the field, and even return to their original organizations in a more senior role.

Consider movement-building. From a movement-building perspective, people management demands us to see and operate beyond the organization level. People management would recognize that learnings from this job are going to be employed in service of future movement organizations.

Instead of being disappointed about the employee’s failure to meet performance expectations at this job, in this position, in this organization, or their fast transition to another organization, people management would focus on building leaders as a cross-organization, cross-movement function.It’s helping employees and leaders go beyond the rules of the position (e.g., performance management has to look like X, leadership looks like Y) and instead translate that to understanding what context are you operating in, what rules you’re trying to apply, how those rules do or don’t apply in that context, and what does leadership need to look like in that context.  All that learning requires failing, getting up and trying again.

I know that’s a tall order. But with the rate that social justice nonprofits are spitting out employees, we must act soon. After several – or even just one! – terrible experiences working for grassroots nonprofits, someone with a great deal of potential might throw in the towel on social justice work. Every worker who burns out is a loss to the future we are trying to create. For the social justice sector, it’s in everyone’s best interest for managers to hire thoughtfully for the role they need now—with reasonable expectations of what workers can accomplish given their current experience and compensation—and then grow the employee for the movement overall, whether in the same or in a different organization.

Ultimately, 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 things. Our liberation depends on it.

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