On H.R.’s dominance in the workplace.

There was no such thing as “human resources” before 1958, when the term first appeared in print in an academic paper. The art of keeping one’s workforce in good order used to be called “personnel management” or “industrial relations,” and before about 1920 there was no such thing as that, either. It was not thought to be a separate type of management or something one could specialize in. For most of human history, workers and their bosses had face-to-face relationships. Only when corporations became so large that an owner could no longer learn the names of all of his employees did anyone start to talk about “human resources” in the abstract.

And even then it was hardly inevitable that the systematic science of selecting and managing workers would end up looking like the schoolmarmish, therapeutic, risk-averse paper-pushing that characterizes H.R. departments today. One textbook defines H.R. as “a largely behavioral science approach to the study of nonunion work situations, with particular emphasis on the practice and organization of management.” This is a pithy way of saying that H.R. sees bosses as economic actors and workers as psychological ones. From the beginning, H.R. has been the discipline addressed not so much to workers’ welfare as to their feelings.

As soon as the field of human resources was isolated from the rest of management, extravagant claims started to be made on its behalf. Henry Ford II said in 1946 that “solving the problem of human relations in production” could be as big a revolution as the assembly line. “Our task is nothing less than to rehumanize industry,” one psychologist declared in 1919. More recently, Silicon Valley C.E.O.s have mixed human resources with California-style spiritualism. Tony Hsieh of Zappos called his management system, Holacracy, “the next stage in the evolution of human consciousness.” His book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, spent twenty-seven weeks on the New York Times best seller list.

Zappos employees were not quite as enthusiastic about Holacracy. When the company offered buyouts to anyone who would not commit to the system, nearly twenty percent of employees took the money and quit. In November 2020, Hsieh barricaded himself inside a pool shed in New London, Connecticut, got high on nitrous oxide and marijuana, and burned himself and the shed to the ground. He was forty-six.