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[Excerpt] The human resources (“HR”) field can be segmented into three eras. The first era developed in the late 19th century out of labor tensions as public concern grew due to the sometimes violent relations between employers and employees. Some characterize HR’s beginning as a managerial function as well as a steward of the employee experience. As labor and employment laws were enacted HR was also tasked with ensuring firms’ legal compliance. Over time, HR moved into a second era where it developed knowledge in employment staffing activities such as recruitment, training, compensation, and benefits.In the 1980s, the HR function was extended to include the role of strategic business partner. The evolution of HR has been driven by enhanced competition for skilled employees, globalization, increased workforce diversity, and a shift to more technologically grounded positions.

This essay explores the tension between HR’s original role as employee advocate, and the later shift toward HR as business partner. This tension not only has important implications for employee expectations regarding how HR will serve them, but more broadly, what they expect from their firms. The conclusion is that these tensions are so fundamental that while the HR “function” must include both, the roles of individual HR professionals should not confuse the two.


Suggested Citation
Maugans, C. (2015, February 11). 21st century human resources: Employee advocate, business partner, or both? Cornell HR Review. Retrieved [insert date] from Cornell University, ILR School site:

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