Social Justice and the Rise of Human Resources

Norm Clausen on April 8, 2014 9:37:00 PM EDT

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The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s produced countless benefits to American society.  Aside from the obvious social equalities, this movement quickly spread into the fabric of hiring as equal employment opportunity law.  Not only has this changed the way we hire, it’s changed the actual corporate structuring behind it.

For years, hiring was a decentralized process. Spurred largely by a shortage in the workforce during WWII and continuing unchallenged until the mid ‘70s, third-party agency recruiters were relied upon heavily as a source for new talent. For the most part, individual departments worked with these recruiters and managers generally handled their own hiring with very little oversight.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought anti-discriminatory hiring legislation to the forefront—eventually expanding to level the playing fields across race, religion, gender, and disability.  Still, it was a gradual process, and it wasn’t until regulatory bodies had been established, such as the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP, founded in 1977), that the hiring process became a legally complex endeavor. After this, hiring practices were closely scrutinized, and thus every part of the process—from application to hire—needed to be monitored.

During the same period, regulations surrounding benefits, employee health, and safety were becoming standardized.  And while there was no direct legislation requiring employers to create centralized departments to regulate these legal nuances, human resources departments began to organically spring up.

Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, companies that maintained full time personnel and human resources departments doubled in to 70%, according to a study published in the American Journal of Sociology.  At the same time, benefits departments doubled to 35%, health and safety departments doubled to over 30%, and equal employment departments appeared in 40%.

Centralizing the processes surrounding these legal nuances was the only way to ensure that best practices were being followed, and thus Human Resources departments became universally pervasive.  Over time, management continued to repurpose the human resource department to cover any number of administrative and disciplinary issues, making them that much more indispensible.

Today, it’s hard to believe that the HR department is a relatively recent addition to corporate America, and it took was a social revolution to cement them alongside external recruiting in the hiring paradigms of corporate America.