The history of HR in the UK

The history of HR in the UK - Centric HR

Throughout history, the management of employees has always been of paramount importance to business operations. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the concept of human resources emerged as a formal and distinct field of study. In the UK, the history of HR can be traced back to the industrial revolution, when factory owners began to recognise the importance of managing their workforce effectively.

How HR evolved

It was not until the 1980s that the term “human resources” became commonly understood. Whereas “personnel” describes a workforce adequately, accepting the “human” and the “resource” banners shows an acknowledgement of the humanity and the value of a group of employees.

When Human Resource Management (HRM) was not prevalent, then the staffing and payroll of the employees were taken care of, by the Personnel Management (PM). Human Resource Management has emerged as an extension over the traditional Personnel Management.

As businesses grew in size and complexity, HR evolved into a specialised field concerned with a wide range of employee-related tasks including recruitment, training, compensation, performance management, and employee relations. Today, HR is a critical function of every successful organisation, providing strategic support to senior leaders and operational support to front-line managers.


In the post-war era, HR in the UK underwent a significant transformation. The focus was on improving working conditions, increasing productivity and treating workers more fairly and later, the 1970s saw an even more substantial reshaping, with the introduction of employment legislation that aimed to provide greater protection for workers. This period led to the creation of several bodies such as the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It also laid the foundations for the modern-day workplace in the UK whilst providing the basis for good people management and fair treatment today.

The rise of technology and globalisation in recent years has seen the scope and complexity of HR’s role increase significantly. As the world has become more connected, multinational organisations need to ensure they are compliant with varying legal frameworks, ensure their workplace cultures are consistent and promote the alignment of their multi-national workforce.

Advantages for businesses

In addition to the considerable benefits HR can provide for individuals, there are also significant advantages for businesses themselves. These include:

  • Enhanced productivity and performance – productivity and performance can be improved through effective recruitment, on-boarding, and training of employees, as well as the facilitation of ongoing professional development and engagement.
  • Better culture and retention – building a strong culture and retaining talent both support business growth over the long-term, and help to attract the best employees who will help to ensure the business achieves its goals.
  • Cost savings – efficient HR processes can help to minimise absence, reduce turnover and limit conflict – in turn, cutting costs for businesses.
  • Mitigating risk – HR can oversee compliance with employment law and regulations to reduce risks to the business, with preventative management of workplace disputes.
  • Future-proofing the workforce – HR is typically the first port of call when predicting what the skills of the future will look like and planning to secure them competitively.


At its core, HR is about aligning people with the strategy of the business and it is also responsible for ensuring that employees feel valued, engaged and can contribute to the business achieving its objectives. HR provides the right training and development opportunities to help employees grow and progress, alongside helping the business retain talent at all levels.

In conclusion, HR is a crucial part of any successful business in the UK and underpins the efficient and effective operation of workplaces everywhere. Through its history in the country, HR has evolved to become a key discipline in achieving business success, and those leaders and organisations that prioritise this area will benefit in numerous ways over time.

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Sandra Berns

Centric HR was founded by Sandra Berns, a confident and versatile Human Resources and Organisational Development Practitioner with 25 years demonstrable experience and a Fellow of the CIPD. Sandra has both Operational and Strategic HR expertise across Public and Private sectors and has assisted senior teams in meeting challenging workforce objectives in many corporate environments.