Turning Points Timeline

The following timeline represents key events in U.S. history that either changed the way human resource professionals do their jobs or helped shape or define the HR function as we know it today.

Saturday, April 1, 2006
Write To The Editor Reprints

The list reflects input from the Human Resource Executive® editorial board and from a carefully selected panel of HR experts and academicians. The 20 items marked with asterisks were selected, through consensus, as the most significant events or moments in the history of HR.

* 1793. Samuel Slater builds the first successful water-powered textile mill in Pawtucket, R.I., effectively giving birth to the American Industrial Revolution. Following his lead of enlisting entire families -- including children -- to work for him, the American work experience evolves over the next century from small, primarily agricultural yeomen and apprentice functions to assembly lines and factory floors in need of organizational management. Interest in protecting child workers also grows.

* 1886. The American Federation of Labor is born, under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, who shifts the focus of organized labor from "change the (political and economic) system" to "bread-and-butter unionism" and collective bargaining. This marks the first real threat to employers' interests, with aggressive reactions from privately owned or dominated companies.

1890. The Sherman Antitrust Act and subsequent Clayton Antitrust Act (1914) help balance the relative power of management and labor.

* 1890s. John H. Patterson, founder of the National Cash Register Co., creates what is generally considered to the first personnel department.

1907. The Immigration Act of 1907 marks the first major limitations on immigration and the beginning of slower net labor growth.

* 1909. Frederick Winslow Taylor publishes Principles of Scientific Management, thereby laying the groundwork for management service practice and management thought still used today. He also develops a theory of organizations that alters the personalized autocracy of the past and leads the way to a more benevolent notion that put managers more in touch with workers and emphasizes their selection, training and development.

* 1911. The Triangle Shirt Waist Co. fire of March 21, 1911, becomes a catastrophic example of employer indifference and lack of legislative oversight when 146 people, mostly young women, are killed in a New York garment factory. Many are forced to jump from the ninth floor when they could not be rescued. Public opinion and renewed union efforts result in new attention to employee safety and boost the growth of the Ladies Garment Workers Union. This is also the first major example of union organizing based on race and/or religion since most of the women killed were Jewish.

1913. Henry Ford introduces the $5-day wage, creates the Department of Industrial Sociology and creates many modern HR practices, such as tenure-based outcomes, systematic training programs, etc.

* 1914-1918. World War I marks the beginning of a "systems" approach to employment and employment testing, especially for the military. The first Directory of Occupational Titles is created during this period.


1926. The Railway Labor Act is passed to reduce labor conflict in national transportation. It is the first governmental policy to encourage union organization.

* 1930s. Early HR research marks the first inroads into the study of human function in the workplace. Works include Elton Mayo's Hawthorne Experiments (1927-1932) and Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs research (1939-1943). Later works include Douglas McGregor's Theory X and Y (1960), Frederick Herzberg's Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation studies (1960) and George Odiorne's Management by Objectives (1965).

1932. The Norris-LaGuardia Act is signed, controlling the use of injunctions against unions and made unenforceable "yellow dog" contracts.

1932. The Bonus March on Washington. World War I veterans, who had returned home to great acclaim, become unemployed as the Depression worsens. They demand immediate payment of the bonus promised for 1940. President Herbert Hoover brings in troops to put down the marchers. Public revulsion of solders attacking ex-soldiers kills whatever chance Hoover has of being re-elected, thus bringing in the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt.

* 1935. President Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935. This marks the beginning of social welfare programs based on economic models requiring employer support and funding. It is also the first time employee benefit plans are tied to employment (other than workers' comp, which was introduced at the state level in the early 1900s).

1935. The Supreme Court invalidates the National Industrial Recovery Act, the centerpiece of the New Deal, on constitutional grounds. President Roosevelt's work programs ensued.

* 1935. The National Labor Relations Act passes through Congress (via the Wagner Act). This is major legislation that adopts a government policy of encouraging the growth of unions, prohibits employer unfair labor practices and establishes the National Labor Relations Board.

* 1938. President Roosevelt signs the Fair Labor Standards Act on June 25, 1938. This defines employee status as exempt versus nonexempt and also established a minimum wage. Overtime provisions are also introduced through this law. In addition it establishes regulations relating to child labor (after 70 years of social debate on the issue) and recordkeeping requirements.

* 1941-1945. World War II. This period is characterized by severe labor shortages; high, successful utilization of women in nontraditional jobs (a precursor to work/life challenges that persist to this day); a high degree of labor-management cooperation; and significant growth in union membership. It is also a time of price and wage freezes and the resultant introduction of employer-sponsored health-care plans (versus pay increases).

1946. As World War II wartime controls on wages are being lifted, a wave of strikes breaks out in major industries, leading to a sense that unions had gone too far in exerting bargaining power.

* 1947. The Taft-Hartley Act balances union and management rights. Governmental policy changes from favoring unionization to a position of neutrality. It also establishes unfair labor practices for unions and outlawed "sweetheart contracts" and the "closed shop."

1947 and beyond. The Cold War begins with Soviet takeovers of eastern European nations. Some of the leading Congress of Industrial Organizations unions have communists in leadership positions. Fear of communist influence in unions also contributes to the passage of Taft-Hartley and the later Landrum-Griffin Act (1959).

* 1948. Harry Truman integrates the military, marking a transition from legislation related to labor rights to legislation related to civil and individual rights. Events that followed through the years included the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, which integrated the schools; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the ADEA of 1967; and Equal Pay Act of 1963.

1954. The first computer sold to a non-government organization was the UNIVAC-1, goes to General Electric in 1954. GE takes it to Kentucky and applies it to its payroll function, making payroll the first non-governmental computer application in the world. This is the start of what would become the early paperless HR systems of the early 1980s, which in turn would give way to significant growth of HRMS and HRIS systems.

* 1964-1965. The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson led to the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965 refocuses employers' roles and responsibilities in seeing to it their businesses are free from discrimination on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion and sex.

* 1970. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is formed through President Richard M. Nixon's signing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, spawning a string of historic benefit and employee protection laws, including ERISA in 1974, the WARN Act in 1988, ADA and OWBPA (older worker protection) in 1990 and Family & Medical Leave Act of 1993.

1973. The Financial Accounting Standards Board begins governing financial accounting in the private sector, in response to pressure by global competition to reduce costs and increase quality and productivity. HR is slow to react to such things as health-care-cost escalation and post-retirement medical needs (which FASB 106 is ultimately required to address).

* 1977.The formation of the Human Resource Planning Society marks the emergence of the strategic perspective in HR. This is followed by the creation of the Society for Human Resource Management, changing its name from the American Society for Personnel Administration, and the emergence of many other HR-related societies and professional organzations, improving HR's status as a profession.

Newsletter Sign-Up:

HR Technology
Talent Management
HR Leadership
Inside HR Tech
Special Offers

Email Address

Privacy Policy

1979. The Office of Personnel Management is created, taking over many functions formerly performed by the Civil Service Commission. This gives the personnel function much more visibility and credibility as a key component of organizational structure.

* Early 1980s. The stock option is developed as a means of compensating high-level executives. This begins the process of focusing the attention of top HR executives on CEO compensation, instead of organizational effectiveness.

1981. Nearly 13,000 of the 17,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization walk off the job, hoping to disrupt the nation's transportation system to the extent that the federal government would accede to its demands for higher wages, a shorter work week and better retirement benefits. Little did they know then-President Ronald Reagan would call their bluff and fire them, a moment widely seen as the beginning of the ongoing decline of the union strength.

1985. Sperry Rand and Burroughs merge to form Unisys Corp. This marks the beginning of a spate of mergers and acquisitions, some of which worked out, many of which didn't. The disruption to employees and communities put a great strain on HR. This also sparks the early 1990s HR outsourcing era tied to cost-cutting efforts that were linked with mergers and acquisitions.

* Mid-1980s. The era of corporate downsizings is perhaps best represented, indeed is sparked, by Jack Welch's reorganizing at GE in the 1980s. Following Welch's lead, many CEOs set about "trimming the fat" within their organizations, including Al Dunlop at Sunbeam. HR entered a new chapter in American outplacement services.

1987. Dave Duffield founds PeopleSoft Inc., 10 years before PCs, Windows and LANs were considered serious business tools. His goal is to apply young technologies to corporate applications. Shortly thereafter, PeopleSoft delivers its first human resource management software. Unlike those of its mainframe-based competitors, PeopleSoft's product is built on a platform of PC networks and relational databases, a move that kick-starts the client/server revolution.

Late 1980s. Global competition and the resultant requirement to reduce costs, especially labor costs, becomes increasingly challenging, and those challenges continue to escalate. Unlike senior HR executives in previous eras, HR professionals in the United States are now required have comparative HR global policy, legal and practice knowledge to match their global accountability.

1991. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings put workplace sexual harassment on the HR radar screen in a whole new way.

* 1994. Jeff Taylor launches The Monster Board as a new recruitment tool for his clients. TMP Worldwide buys the enterprise a year later. Since then, online recruiting has changed the recruitment and employment function greatly.

* 1999. BP Amoco and Exult enter into a landmark $600 million HR outsourcing arrangement, the first large-scale, multifunction HR outsourcing partnership. This would pave the way for what is now being called "end-to-end HR outsourcing," of which BP (now BP America) and Bank of America are early adopters. To date, there have more than 70 large HR business-process-outsourcing contracts worldwide ("large" being defined as organizations having 10,000-plus active employees) in both public and private sectors. Many industry watchers believe these end-to-end mega-deals represent the future of BPO, particularly for HR.

2001. The Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack kills thousands of people at their jobs, but also shows many companies the hidden and often untapped sense of community and shared purpose in the workforce. It also ushers in new priorities for HR, from physical security to global information management.

October 2001. Fraud at Enron is revealed to the public when the company announces that it is actually worth $1.2 billion less than previously reported. This prompts an investigation by the SEC, which in turn, leads to convictions. It also marks the beginning of a series of cases of corporate wrongdoing, including Arthur Andersen (linked to Enron scandal), WorldCom, Tyco, Global Crossing, Marsh, Adelphia and many more. The cumulative effect was disastrous for both employees and shareholders and led the way to reforms, including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, that have greatly impacted HR. The long-term impact and success of these reforms have yet to be fully realized.

January 2006. Announcements are made by IBM and others that they will permanently stop providing defined-benefit pensions for new workers.

Copyright 2017© LRP Publications