What HR crises of the past can teach us about the present, future
In 2020, we all became news junkies. Local news, national news, world news. There was no escape from dealing with the pandemic and no escape from watching, reading, scrolling. News is “the first draft of history,” and watching that first draft written in real-time can be exciting—before it becomes exhausting.
If you need a break from the news of the day, it can be refreshing to get perspective. It can actually be comforting to zoom out and see this time of crisis as just one more moment in time, a moment we’ll get through, just as our grandparents and great-grandparents did. It’s worth remembering that HR professionals have faced down big problems before. Here’s a look at HR moments in time from the last 100 years.
Labor Unrest: The Birth of Modern HR
One hundred years ago, in the wake of World War I, the world was recovering from the Spanish flu. America was all set to emerge into a golden age of prosperity, but there was a problem. Workers revolted against the terrible labor conditions of the 19th century. Mass strikes brought industries to a grinding halt. The forerunners of modern HR, innovative business minds like Elton Mayo, met the challenge with the revolutionary insight that carrots work better than sticks. Mayo and his team conducted productivity studies that would eventually lead to our modern conception of benefits, job security and participation plans. The field of “human relations” was born at a time of crisis.
World War II: Rosie the Riveter
Some crises creep up on you. Others change the world in an instant—Pearl Harbor, for example. Suddenly, American industry was faced with its biggest “purchase order” ever: The government needed 60,000 aircraft in 12 months (plus another 125,000 the year after). And then there was, let’s say, a recruitment problem. Most of the men were fighting overseas. No pressure, but the future of the free world was at stake. Women joined the workforce in droves, filling roles in every industry. Rosie helped the Allies win the war and solved perhaps the biggest talent shortage in world history.
Civil Rights at Work
There’s an ancient curse, attributed to the Chinese, that goes like this: “May you live in interesting times.” We currently live in interesting times, and so did the HR professionals of the 1960s and ’70s. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was passed just two months before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, D.C. The Equal Rights Act, Title VII, came a year later. Looking back, we see these days for what they were: progress. But at the time, business leaders were forced to process and bring order to cultural change, played out against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam. Passing historic regulation is the first step, and it’s the one we learn in our history books. Behind the scenes, it took HR professionals to actually enact the laws.
Today, we routinely manage five generations in the workforce. We adopt different communication styles for the digital natives among us, Millennials and Gen Z, but picture this: In the 1970s, the young Baby Boomer generation was bitterly divided between those who had fought in or supported the war and those who had actively protested the war or lived a lifestyle in open and expressive defiance. They all came to work for companies run by an older generation of World War II veterans. It was HR’s job to make it work. Once again, HR stepped up, in large part by picking up where the Elton Mayos of the world had left off. In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, “feedback” became part of the process of work. Organizational structures became less vertical. Personal and career growth became important. Faced with challenges, HR evolved and helped the world reimagine what “work” could be.
The Information Age: HR Leads the Way
And then the world sped up. Many of the challenges before came at us suddenly. The Information Age came gradually but changed everything. The internet introduced HR and the workforce to the idea of “warp speed,” and while always-on communication took years to become a thing, once it did, we could never go back. The instant exchange of information fundamentally altered the business landscape, and competition went global. Companies needed to find new opportunities and efficiencies just to survive. Technology was the catalyst, but also the solution.
COVID-19: Creating the Workplace of the Future
And now, once again, HR faces a crisis. Transitions that were bound to happen sooner or later (remote work becoming more acceptable, the digitization of business processes), have now been accelerated to a degree we couldn’t have imagined just one year ago. Keeping employees safe, keeping them connected to the mission of the organization, trying to plan in the face of so many unknowns: These are the challenges HR grapples with today.
And that’s why we refresh our browsers or swipe up on our phones to get the latest headlines. It’s our job to stay informed. We need to keep an eye on local and regional COVID data. We need to watch out for new regulations that will impact our industries and influence our decisions. We need to follow experts on Twitter, stay plugged into the conversation. Until the new normal doesn’t feel so new anymore, we need to be news junkies. But as you’re scrolling and swiping, remember that we’ve been here before. We’re standing on the shoulders of business innovators and HR pioneers, as well as so many anonymous HR professionals of the past, who also faced challenges of their times. I find comfort and confidence in that thought, and I hope you do, too.