The human resources profession has developed in tandem with our changing attitudes towards work, societal trends and the progression of employment-related laws. So to reflect on the past 30 years of human resources that, until the 1990s was called ‘personnel’, is also an examination of cultural, legislative and financial change in Australia.
Filling the jobs
“Thirty years ago it was about making sure the day-to-day operation of the organisation was working efficiently from a personnel perspective,” says Richard Ballantyne, lecturer for HRM and organisation studies at Swinburne University. “Back then we were seen as the controlling arm of the organisation. Now there’s much more of a leadership focus in HR management. Today we advise line management and employees in a consulting arena.”
“Personnel 30 years ago was much more focused on record-keeping and payroll,” says Julie Lander, CEO of CareSuper, who at the time was working in personnel in the manufacturing industry. “There was some focus on recruitment, training, policies and OH&S, but back then HR was seen as an expense, something you had to have but not necessarily as a key strategic asset of the organisation.”
Ross Dill, group OH&S manager at Boral, who has worked across a number of industry sectors in his career including steel and manufacturing, has seen a major shift in businesses’ attitude to people. “The evolution really has been from the personnel and welfare approach to people in organisations, to a more holistic approach to people in the workforce,” he says. “There’s a much larger emphasis on the psychological and sociological underpinnings of why we do things the way we do in the workplace.”
No more personnel
According to a Productivity Commission staff working paper published in 2005, The Growth of Labour Hire Employment in Australia, the proportion of HR managers hired by workplaces surveyed had increased by 12 per cent in the past five years. This was the likely result of structural economic changes, according to the paper, but was also attributed to behavioural factors.
HR was becoming heavily involved in negotiating with unions, negotiating or setting wages and preparing for tribunal hearings. As well, HR managers were involved in career counselling, training, workplace induction and recruitment.
“It was what I term now as the compliance space,” says Dill. “There was a lot of reliance on black-letter law and all of those sorts of areas to give you the legitimacy to do what you do. These days it’s become a much more socially aware space to work in, with less reliance on those sorts of regulatory instruments.”
Lander says, “HR was still considered a bit of a cost. Even if you wanted to get some training done it was like pulling teeth in some organisations to justify the cost. And the training and development was largely very technical or skills based — it might have been in occupational health and safety, how to operate certain machinery or word processing, for example.
“Now, while training has a practical application, it is often delivered in the wider context of the organisation or is designed to develop personal capability, which is applicable in all aspects of a person’s life. The style of training has altered too, to be more interactive, which aids learning. I think there was still a lot of focus on ‘the rules’, whether that be the policy manual or the award or the agreement.”
The explosion of computer technology had a significant impact on the way we worked, with a large portion of the workforce having to learn new skills. A digitalised work structure affected aspects of HR, like recruitment, according to Holmes.
Bill Holmes, who worked for the NSW state government for 42 years, mainly with State Rail, and then in private enterprise for 14 years until he retired last November, has seen significant change in the HR space
“An example is in the recruitment process, where one person is now responsible for the complete process, from advertising, acknowledging applicants, culling, selection, appointment and unsuccessful letters, payroll arrangements, OH&S requirements, termination/discipline, dealing with associated correspondence, etc. Apart from the obvious benefits, the downside is it leaves far less opportunity for us to get out of the office to visit managers and other staff,” he says.
Ballantyne has also seen the profession progress academically. “The profession has really matured, especially from an academic standpoint. We’ve gone from pretty narrow administration subjects to far more dynamic subject matter, including organisational behaviour, ethics, and sustainability,” he says.
But business has had to change its attitude about staff who are no longer simply, ‘a cog in the machine’. “Aware businesses are now valued by the people who work in them. I think the value of a person in the business is more highly regarded than it was in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Dill.