Human Relations

views updated Jun 08 2018


Owners and managers of profit and nonprofit organizations define human relations as fitting people into work situations so as to motivate them to work together harmoniously. The process of fitting together should achieve higher levels of productivity for the organization, while also bringing employees economic, psychological, and social satisfaction. Human relations covers all types of interactions among peopletheir conflicts, cooperative efforts, and group relationships. It is the study of why our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors sometimes cause interpersonal conflict in our personal lives and in work-related situations.

One of the most significant developments in recent years has been the increased importance of interpersonal skills in almost every type of work setting. For many employers, interpersonal skills represent an important category of transferable skills a worker is expected to bring to the job. Technical ability only is usually not enough to achieve career success. Studies indicate that many people who have difficulty in obtaining or holding a job possess the needed technical competence but lack interpersonal competence.


Problems in human relations are not newcooperative efforts carry the potential for conflicts among people. It is only within the past few decades that management has recognized that human relations can have considerable impact on organizational productivity. During this period, the human relations movement has matured into a distinct and important field of study.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the human relations movement began, most researchers agree that the earliest developments emerged in the mid-1800s. In the beginning, the focus was mainly on improving efficiency, motivation, and productivity. But over time, this research became more involved with redefining the nature of work and perceiving workers as complex human beings.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most work was performed by individual craftworkers. Generally, each worker saw a project through from start to finish. Skills such as tailoring, carpentry, or shoemaking took a long time to perfect and were often a source of pride to an individual. Under this system, however, output was limited.

The Industrial Revolution had a profound impact on the nature of work and the role of the worker. Previously, an individual tailor could make only a few items of clothing in a certain time period; factories could make hundreds. Employers began to think of labor as another item in the manufacturing equation, along with raw materials and capital.

Employers at that time did not realize how workers' needs affected productivity. As a result, few owners or managers gave much thought to working conditions, safety precautions, or worker motivation. Hours were long and pay was low.

Around the turn of the century, Frederick Taylor (18561915) and other researchers interested in industrial problems introduced the concept of scientific management. They believed that productivity could be improved by breaking down a job into isolated, specialized tasks and assigning each of those tasks to specific workers. The development of scientific management coincided with the revolutionary concept of mass production. Eventually it paved the way for the assembly line.

Taylor's work was sharply criticized by those who believed it exploited workers. Employees were treated as a commodity, as interchangeable as the parts they produced. Taylor thought that by increasing production, the company would end up with a larger financial pie for everyone to share. Management would earn higher bonuses; workers would take home more pay. He did not foresee that his theories would be applied in ways that dehumanized the workplace.

In the late 1920s, Elton Mayo (18801949) and other researchers from Harvard University initiated what have become known as the Hawthorne Studies at the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric Company near Chicago. The purpose of the investigation was to explore the relationship between changes in physical working conditions and employee productivity. Specifically, Mayo was interested in the effect of different intensities of light on employee output. In one experiment, ample light was provided to a group of six female workers. Later, the amount of light was significantly reduced, but instead of productivity decreasing, as was expected, it actually increased.

The researchers attributed the phenomenon to what has since become known as the Hawthorne effectemployees who participate in scientific studies may become more productive because of the attention they receive from the researchers. This discovery became important in the human relations movement because it has been interpreted to mean that when employees feel important and recognized, they exhibit greater motivation to excel in their work activities.


Human relations is an interdisciplinary field because the study of human behavior in organizational settings draws on the fields of communications, management, psychology, and sociology. It is an important field of study because all workers engage in human relations activities. Several trends have given new importance to human relations due to the changing workplace.

The labor market has become a place of constant change due to the heavy volume of mergers, buyouts, a labor shortage, closings, and changing markets. These changes have been accompanied by layoffs and the elimination of product lines. Even those industries noted for job security have recently engaged in layoffs. As the United States attempts to cope with rapid technological change and new competition from international companies, there is every reason to believe that there will be more volatility in the labor force. Interpersonal skills will be even more critical in the future.

Organizations are developing an increasing orientation toward service to clients. Relationships are becoming more important than physical products. Restaurants, hospitals, banks, public utilities, colleges, airlines, and retail stores all must now gain and retain patronage. In any service firm, there are thousands of critical incidents in which customers come into contact with the organization and form their impressions of its quality and service. Employees must not only be able to get along with customers, they must also project a favorable image of the organization they represent.

Most organizations recognize improved quality is the key to survival. The notion of quality as a competitive tool has been around for many years, but in the 2000s, it is receiving much more attention. In a period of fierce competition, a consumer may not tolerate poor quality. Human beings are at the heart of the quality movement because workers are given the power and responsibility to improve quality.

Companies are organizing their workers into teams in which each employee plays an important role. If team members cannot work together, the goals of the organization will suffer. In some cases, workers are cross-trained so they can do the work of others, if necessary.

The demographics of the workplace are also changing. Diversity is increasingly typical. In the years ahead, a large majority of those entering the work force will be women and minorities. Passage of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990 opened the employment door to more people with physical or mental impairments. In the future, there will be increased employment of the population over age sixty-five. Within this heterogeneous work force, a variety of values and work habits will be found. Supervisors will need to become skilled at managing diversity.

The leaders of the work force in the twenty-first century need different skills to be successful. Workers are better educated and better informed, and have higher expectations. They seek jobs that give not only a sense of accomplishment but also a sense of purpose. They want jobs that provide meaningful work. Managers must therefore shift from manager as order-giver to manager as facilitator. They must also learn how to assume the roles of teacher, mentor, and resource person.

Few lines of work will be immune from these trends. Employees must be flexible and adaptable in order to achieve success within a climate of change. It is important for everyone to develop those interpersonal skills that are valued by all employers.


Mental perceptions are influenced by everything that has passed through an individual's mind. That includes all of a person's experiences, knowledge, biases, emotions, values, and attitudes. No two people have identical perceptions because no two people have precisely the same experiences.

Mental perceptions may sometimes lead to conflict. Each person has formed mental perceptions relating to a number of controversial issues. For example, most workers have an opinion on abortion and capital punishment, among other issues. When proponents and opponents clash in voicing mental perceptions of controversial issues, conflict occurs. If the issue is one pertinent to the workplace, such as affirmative action, human values have the potential to lead to problems.

Ethics also play a role in interpersonal conflict. Ethics refer to moral rules or values governing the conduct of a person or group. Perhaps more than anything else, an individual's adherence to values related to what is morally right determines the respect that others hold for that person. Lack of respect for one individual by another is likely to lead to poor human relations between the two.

The social dimension of behavior is determined by a person's personality, attitudes, needs, and wants. An individual's personality is the totality of complex characteristics, including behavior and emotional tendencies, personal and social traits, self-concept, and social skills. The objective of many training sessions for employees and supervisors is to improve a person's ability to get along with others. A person's personality has a major impact on human relations skills.

People reveal their attitudes through their personality. An attitude is a mental position one possesses with regard to a fact, issue, or belief. Attitudes that often present problems in the workplace are those that concern biased and prejudiced viewpoints. Generally, employees who possess positive attitudes and who are open-minded are judged to have more desirable personalities than those with negative attitudes who hold biased viewpoints.


Perhaps the single most important aspect of designing any work environment is the plan that links all workers and supervisors with multiple channels of communication. Good communication may be cited as the most important component of sound human relations. Despite the recognition of the importance of communication, it presents one of the most difficult and perplexing problems faced in modern organizations.

Even in small organizations, where only a few people are involved, sound communication is difficult to establish. When an organization expands in numbers, as well as in diversity among its members, the establishment of communication channels becomes even more difficult. Good communication is essential for the smooth functioning of any organization. Managers need clear lines of communication to transmit orders and policies, build cooperation, and unify groups. Employees must be able to convey their concerns or suggestions and feel that management has heard them. Clear communication among co-workers is vital to good teamwork, problem solving, and conflict management. In short, effective human relations is founded on good communication.

When people in organizations want to send messages, conduct meetings, or communicate person to person, they have many options. With increased use of voice mail, e-mail, fax machines, and videoconferencing, it is a wonder people have time to read all the incoming information, let alone interpret and respond to it.

Costly communication breakdowns are a prime factor in organizational problems ranging from high employee turnover to low productivity. Poor communication also takes a toll in employee injuries and deaths, particularly in industries where workers operate heavy equipment or handle hazardous materials.

Although some communication breakdowns are inevitable, many can be avoided. Employees who are treated with respect, are empowered to think for themselves, and feel a sense of loyalty are more apt to communicate openly with other workers and leaders throughout the organization.


Human relations occurs on several levels. Individuals interact in a variety of settingsas peers, subordinates, and supervisors. No matter what the setting, relationships are built. All types of groups exist in an organization. Formal groups are officially designated, while informal groups are formed unofficially by the members themselves. Some would argue the informal groups have more power. In either situation, important human relationships are taking place.

Employees relate to their work group, other formal groups, and informal groups. The norms set by a group can greatly influence a person's behavior. Dress and language are two examples. Considering the number of groups in the complex organizations of the twenty-first century, the influence is unlimited.

The organization provides an opportunity for individual satisfaction. To achieve such satisfaction, and to continue as a successful member in the organization, the individual must comply with organizational policies, procedures, and rules. The organization requires certain behaviors from its employees. The rewards for such behaviors are demonstrated in the form of raises, promotions, and continued employment. When the organization promotes an employee, it is relating to the individual.

Complex organizations depend on dividing the work among many formalized groups. Informal groups will also emerge, either positively or negatively affecting organizational outcomes. The relationship between organizations and groups must also be considered when quotas or standards are established. The acceptance or rejection of such standards illustrates the interaction between the organization and the group.

One also has a relationship to one's self. Are you happy with yourself? Are you happy with your relationships with others? With the organization? With your future? If not, perhaps you should analyze your relation-ship with yourself.

Managers and supervisors achieve results through people. Therefore, the complex organizations of the 2000s require managers and supervisors to display a concern for people. The successful leader creates an effective balance between people and productivity, and recognizes human relations as the key ingredient transforming organizational plans into organizational results. Although it is often misunderstood, effective human relations will lead to success.

Human relations is not limited to supervisors. It also applies to every employee in an organization. Statistics indicate that successful people competently practice inter-personal skills, while the incompetent are left behind. Fortunately, these skills can be developed. Good relationships must be built among individuals and within groups of an organization. Although this is not an easy task, success without good human relations in not possible. Every individual must be prepared to meet the challenge.

see also Management/Leadership Styles


Wray, Ralph, Luft, Roger L., and Highland, Patrick J. (1996). Fundamentals of Human Relations: Applications for Life and Work. Cincinnati, OH: Southwestern Publishing.

Patrick J. Highland

Human Relations Movement

views updated May 14 2018

Human Relations Movement A school of the sociology of industry originating in the United States before the Second World War, whose influence spread to Britain for a short period after it. Human Relations (often referred to simply as HR) comprised both an academic literature of varying quality and a set of prescriptions for managerial practice supposedly based upon it. Authority for the ideas in both components was initially developed out of the so-called Hawthorne experiments (or studies) which were carried out in Chicago from the mid–1920s to the early 1940s, under the aegis of the Western Electric Company, and in conjunction with the Harvard Business School.

Academically, HR sought both causes and solutions within the workplace, for worker dissatisfaction, trade-union militancy, industrial conflict, and even anomie within the wider community. Because, for a time, human relations and industrial sociology were virtually synonymous, the latter also tended until recently to study in-plant factors in isolation. However, human relations theorists have also been noted for a willingness to downplay the role of economic motivations even within the workplace itself, and to stress instead the supposed logic of sentiments affecting worker behaviour. Sentiments, and work-group norms deriving from them, create an informal structure within any organization that cuts across the goals and prescriptions of the organization's formal structure, which is dictated by the contrasting managerial logic of efficiency.

Within this broad analysis there is considerable variation. The naïve ideas of Elton Mayo, based on vulgarization of the social theories of Vilfredo Pareto and Émile Durkheim, are commonly taken as the major theoretical statements of the movement. They assert that market industrial societies suffer from a loss of empathy and community feeling that is (mistakenly) characterized by Mayo as anomie. Workers attempt to compensate for this by seeking social satisfactions in the workplace. But the formal structures and payment systems established under the vogue for scientific management fail to meet this need, with the result that supervision and productivity goals are resisted.

Mayo's analysis depends on an interpretation of the results of the Hawthorne studies which does not wholly coincide with that of F. J. Roethlisberger and W. J. Dickson, the authors of Management and the Worker (1949), the main report on the experiments themselves. In turn, the compatibility of their own interpretation with the actual findings as presented in the report itself, has been challenged by various authors. In particular, it has been argued that the findings do not confirm the authors' thesis that workers attach more importance to the social than to the economic rewards of work. The main interest of Management and the Worker today is, first, as a historical document showing the reaction against behaviourist and economic approaches to the industrial worker in social science; and, secondly, as a warning of the methodological traps awaiting unwary field-workers, especially in the industrial context. The most famous of these is the so-called Hawthorne Effect, in which the very act of setting up and conducting research produces reactions in the subjects, which are then reported as findings about social reality.

Greater methodological sophistication is to be found in the various ethnographic studies of W. Lloyd Warner, Melville Dalton, Donald Roy, and William Foote Whyte. All of these researchers developed or modified Human Relations doctrine in some way. Warner conducted a classic study of a major strike, caused by job losses and de-skilling characteristic of industrial decline and recession, among a hitherto quiescent labour-force. Dalton and Roy both carried out influential research by means of participant observation that showed how this method could illuminate the behaviour of industrial work-groups. Roy's work, especially, demonstrated that workers' treatment of pay incentive schemes is economically rational once allowance has been made for their long-term income expectations. Whyte's studies were among the first to acknowledge the effects of technology and work organization on industrial behaviour and job satisfaction.

Very little of the above work was carried out as entirely disinterested science: the search for successful management techniques to boost worker productivity is often explicitly acknowledged by Human Relations writers. This aspect was so prominent at one point that the perspective was dubbed ‘cow sociology’—from the saying that contented cows give the most milk. Managements were urged to enrich the experience of work by enlarging its content and understanding workers' problems. For Mayo, therapeutic counselling was the principal means of mollifying workers' antagonism to managerial plans; for other writers, effective employee-centred supervision provided the key. Increasingly, theorists working within the tradition prescribed participatory styles of management or even self-supervision by workers, in order to give a veneer of industrial democracy and to humanize employment (especially in factories). Nevertheless, no writer within the movement abandoned the idea that management constitutes a legitimate scientific élite, or ever proposed a permanent shift of effective control to the workforce. Ultimately, therefore, human relations managerial techniques were criticized as manipulative and as a classic example of a method of managerial control which one author has called management by responsible autonomy. The much later Quality of Worklife Movement is thought by some observers of management theory to be a recrudescence of Human Relations. The same might be said for the 1980s fad for so-called Japanization and for post-fordist management styles. Indeed, Japanese quality circles are a development of human relations prescriptions imported into Japanese companies from the United States after the Second World War, and developed there more successfully than in their country of origin.

There is an excellent account of the human relations approach—or, rather, two excellent accounts—in separate editions of Michael Rose's Industrial Behaviour (1975, 1988).

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Human Relations