Evolution of the HR Profession

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I bet if I ask you who you associate the HR department with 30 years ago, you will mostly answer “With “female payroll staff (pol. :“pani z kadr”)”.  Indeed, at the time, the HR activities were limited in Poland to payroll and administrative work, and these staff were seen as merely dealing with formalities and paperwork without much influence on the company’s strategic decisions. Since then, the HR profession has come a long way through political, economic and social changes. I remember the moment when a friend of mine asked me what exactly I was dealing with at my work – I took a moment to tell her about my broad role. To her surprise – it wasn’t pay slips. So, let’s see what it looks like in practice.

Timeline

I will try to describe the historical course to you quickly and painlessly. After the Second World War, the economy was subject to central planning. HR professionals were like bureaucratic robots – they had a severely limited role, mainly reduced to paperwork. It was not until closer to the 80s that trade unions and organisations associated within political parties to win their ground in workplaces. A few years later we saw first signs of liberalization and economic reform, and a gradual opening up to more modern management methods, but nothing more than gradual!

The first breakthrough was the fall of communism and the transition to a market economy. Old, rigid, state-owned companies were being restructured and new private companies, full of enthusiasm and innovative ideas, were emerging on the scene. Between 1990 and 2000, the private sector skyrocketed, and with it the importance of modern human resource management techniques. The first consulting and recruitment agencies, such as the Spencer Stuart branch, were established. HR professionals focused on the areas of training, appraisals and motivation.   Then came the EU era, which accelerated adaptation to modern standards, e.g. the need to comply with EU regulations such as gender equality or health and safety at work.

Nowadays

Recent years have brought strong challenges for HR departments in companies around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the introduction of remote and hybrid working, which has necessitated a reorganization of the management model and taking care for employee welfare even more than before. This was particularly difficult at a time when the boundaries between work and private life began to blur and employees had to find their ways around the new realities of working from home.

Today, we are seeing HR working with newer and newer technologies including artificial intelligence. We are going through a digitisation of processes – in those past days this would have been unthinkable 😉.  How so, no more piles of papers? That’s correct! Because HR is no longer just HR, and  it is clearly reflected in the division between soft and hard HR.

Soft HR focuses on people and organisational culture management and includes recruiters, training coordinators, internal trainers, HR managers, HR Business Partners and People & Culture specialists. These professionals are concerned with talent acquisition, developing employee skills, building engagement and shaping organisational culture, among other things. Their tasks also include supporting employees in their professional development, which has a direct impact on their satisfaction and efficiency.

Hard HR, on the other hand, focuses on the administrative and legal aspects of employment. It includes payroll specialists (Payroll), HR administrators, data analysts, employment law specialists and an HR Generalists. Their work includes, among other things, managing payroll, maintaining employee records, analyzing data to improve processes and ensuring compliance with labor legislation.  Why such a division? Companies need the support of experts in various HR fields to manage their human resources effectively. Each of these specializations brings unique competences that together are capable of meeting the challenges of today’s labor market.

Summary

From the bureaucratic functions in communist Poland, through the dynamic development and professionalization during the transition period, to today’s high-tech approaches…the HR profession has become central to the strategic management of organisations, adapting to changing market and technology-related conditions. Companies are beginning to understand that investing in HR is investing in the future and the success of the organisation. After reading this short article, if someone asks you what HR professionals do, you will know that the answer is “It depends” 😉.