Human Relations (HR) : Its Characteristics and Criticism – Explained!

Read this article to learn about the Human Relations (HR) : its characteristics and criticism!

The Human Relations (HR) approach is in some ways a contrast to the two approaches discussed earlier.

This grew out of investigations at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company at Chicago.

The study was conducted by a team of social scientists headed by Elton Mayo, the sociologist regarded as the founder of industrial sociology, who was a professor of Industrial Relations at the Harvard Business School.


The huge Hawthorne plant of Western Electric had adopted Tayloristic practices in totality. Workers were guided in their work by supervisors, and they were rewarded when productivity increased. They were given proper rest and the dining facilities were good and reasonably priced.

Despite all these facilities, it was found that productivity was falling. Whenever some facilities were provided or the existing facilities were improved, productivity showed an increase. However, after a few weeks or months, the situation was back to square one.

The management was quite confused about this. They had tried various positive measures but these helped only for a short period of time. It then decided to approach Prof. Mayo to help them out. The study was known as the Hawthorne experiment. Mayo and his team started their work in 1927 and ended in 1932. During this period, the team had many hits and misses in their investigations.

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Mayo’s team started with the assumptions of scientific management. They tried to improve the work environment and also provide incentives to workers for raising production. A group of workers was selected and the lighting was improved. It was found that soon after this change, productivity increased.

However, shortly afterwards, it was found that productivity of workers in other groups also increased. This appeared puzzling for the team. They tried to establish a relationship between other factors such as length and frequency of rest periods, monetary incentives, better meals, etc. The results were inconclusive because there seemed to be no clear relation between productivity and the incentives offered.

The team then selected two girls working on the assembly line manufacturing electrical components. They asked these girls to form their own working groups and start work. Changes were introduced in the working conditions. The rest periods were increased and the workers were also given the freedom to improvise on their activities.

Facilities such as free meals, better lighting, etc., were introduced. This resulted in an increase in productivity. The next task was of trying to isolate the factor(s) responsible for this increase. This was sought to be done by withdrawing all facilities for a specific period. The work could be then observed and after the period was over, the facilities could be reintroduced one by one. This would help in finding out which of the facilities were responsible for the increase in productivity.


The production team withdrew the facilities for a period of twelve weeks. To their bewilderment, they found that despite the withdrawal, productivity continued to rise. It later dawned on them that since the girls could form their own team, their enthusiasm had increased.

They were more at ease while doing their work, because they were also allowed to improvise. Hence, to them, work was no longer a monotonous carrying out of the supervisors orders: they could think of themselves as responsible human beings.

This was an important lesson that the team learnt. Mayo then changed the direction of his research and, instead of stressing on the principles of scientific management, examined the workers’ attitude towards work and their behaviour as members of informal work groups.

The first experiment was carried out in the bank wiring observation room, ‘bank wiring’ referring to the attachment of wires to switches for certain parts of telephone equipment. This comprised wiremen who connected wires to the terminals and soldiers who each soldered the work of the wiremen.

In addition, there were two inspectors who tested and completed the job. The output of each person was carefully measured and tests were conducted to measure their skills and mental abilities. The researchers were surprised to note that there was no connection between the results of the tests and the output of the workers.

A similar experiment was carried out with regard to the workers’ pay. The team introduced the concept of incentives to the group. The pay of each worker was in accordance with the efficiency of his group: the more productive the group, the higher would be the pay.

They found that this experiment too failed. They had assumed that each individual worker could maximise their output in terms of their capabilities. In reality, it was observed that the individual worker restricted their output so as to maintain a uniform weekly rate of production for the group.

The team also found that each group set up its own norms of production based on what it defined as the basic wage. In other words, it was the income which each worker defined as a fair day’s wage. The workers’ groups did not follow the standards set by management for increasing production and wages; it was their standards that determined the output.

In such a situation, providing incentives to individuals would fail. The individual worker was more loyal to the informal group and was governed by the norms set by the group. Hence if the group decided that the productivity would increase, all its members would follow suit.

If any member disobeyed these norms, she would be ostracised as a ‘chiseller’ (one who hinders the group’s production standards). Similarly, if the group decided on a particular target and one worker worked harder to achieve more, they would be called ‘rate-buster’. In both cases, the concerned workers were defying the norms set by the group.

The team came to the conclusion that productivity was determined not through incentives to individual workers but by respecting the work-group. The main incentive given to the work-group was in terms of consultation and assessing what their aspirations were. The study realised the importance of the informal group in the production process.

This was an important lesson because the worker should not be looked at as some instrument in production, but as thinking individual whose ideas are determined by the interactions they have with their co-workers. This also meant that management must consult workers in matters relating to production.

Later, when Mayo wrote his book, Social Problems of an Industrial Civilization, he emphasised that consultation with workers regarding the work hours, rest, and improvement in working conditions was absolutely necessary for maintaining industrial harmony and higher productivity. These activities would increase the sense of belonging of the worker.

Stuart Chase, a member of the Human Relations team, wrote in his book, Men at Work, that the factory performs two major tasks. The economic task was of producing goods (Rose 1994). Every factory would like to increase its production and this is a very important economic task. The second task was a social one.

He stressed that an equally important role of the factory was of creating and distributing human satisfaction among the various people in it. Unfortunately, he asserted, managerial experts spent more time in analysing factors related to production. The Hawthorne experiment showed that the two were inseparable.

F. J. Roethlisberger and W. J. Dickson who were also part of the team wrote a detailed report in their book, Management and Worker (ibid). They stressed that the behaviour of individual workers ‘could not be understood without considering the informal organising of the group.’ Informal groups are important as they meet many of these needs and the workers should also become a part in the decision making process.

The informal organisation becomes important to the worker as it formulates norms which the workers abide by which may be different from formal norms but they regulate performance of the workers. The worker is thus dependent on other members of their group for meeting the needs of production.

Both Taylorism and Fordism had focused their attention on improving the individual worker. They assumed that the individual worker would work harder if he/she was assured that he/she would be rewarded for this. The Hawthorne experiment showed that this was incorrect. It was not the individual but the group which decided on the workers’ behaviour. Rewards given to individual workers would have no effect unless these are ratified by the group.

Basic Characteristics of Human Relations:

Based on the elaboration of the HR approach in the above section, we can summarise it in the following manner:

1. Managers and workers have a mutual interest in promoting production. These interests are not identical in the sense that both hold the same interest for there may be conflict between the two, as also between groups of workers. Hence, neither side should assume that their aims and goals are identical. They must accept that there is commonality but not ‘commonness’. The main point is that if both sides agree that there are common goals, this would create grounds for solving problems together instead of creating problems for each other.

2. Though HR stresses the role of the work group, it does not deny the role of the individual worker. The group cannot act on its own for it is not a collective that can take decisions on its own. Leadership in a group is important, because it is the leader who encourages others to take initiatives.

The leader shapes the group’s behaviour and helps to initiate new steps by motivating the group members. This is a vital aspect of group behaviour. There could be differences among individuals but these could be sorted out by the leadership. Therefore another key point of the HR approach is the role of the leadership within the group.

3. The third aspect of HR is motivation which is directly related to goal analysis. The company has a goal or several goals. This idea may be shared by the management, since it shapes the goal. Workers, on the other hand, may not be aware of the goal/s. In order to have inclusive development in the company, management must inspire the workers to share the goal(s).

Workers must be motivated so as to create the desire to achieve a planned goal. The goal could mean anything from an increase in production by a certain percentage by a specific period to the industry’s wanting to be the leader and excelling in superior sales practices. Whatever the goal, it cannot be achieved if workers are not actively involved with management in attaining it.

4. Finally, HR suggests that the most important aspect of work is maintaining human dignity. People, more so the workers, want to be treated with respect and dignity. One of the ways of achieving this is by ensuring that supervision of work is employee-centred and not job-centred. The supervisor must treat workers with dignity, only then will the workers be motivated enough to get involved in the goals of management.

Job-centred supervision implies that completing the job is more important than looking at issues concerning employee satisfaction. The earlier methods such as Taylorism and Fordism were job-centred where supervisors were only interested in attaining the production targets set by management. They were told that all problems could be solved through monetary incentives. HR has proved this incorrect.

Criticism of HR:

Though HR looks like an improvement over the other two approaches, there are certain problems in its implementation. The positive aspect of HR is that it emphasises the role of the informal group in industrial relations. However, the worker cannot be seen only within the precincts of the factory.

Just as the group influences the workers’ behaviour and choices, the workers’ life outside the factory too influences their behaviour. Workers are members of larger communities. They have families; they interact with their community and with kinsfolk. They could be a member of a club or a political party.

Life in the workplace is just one type of the different experiences they undergo. All these collectively shape their consciousness. The reaction of workers to the goals may not be the same for each one of them. Some may be influenced by the common goals set by the management others may be suspicious of these motives.

What happened in the Hawthorne plant may not be replicated elsewhere because of these issues. In fact, this is precisely what happened. This approach had mixed responses when it was replicated in other factories. In some cases, it succeeded, but in most cases, it failed.

From the above discussion, it seems that the major assumption of the HR approach is that workers accept management goals and they can be manipulated by the management. This may not be correct. Workers in general are not so gullible.

Even if they themselves cannot understand a situation, there are other influences that determine their conduct. The major drawback of this approach is that it fails to take into account the role of trade unions in the workers’ lives.

Mayo could have considered it because he was conducting his researches when the trade union movement was taking shape in the United States but the earlier two approaches may have ignored trade unions as they did not exist in the US at that time. Mayo somehow ignored the existence of these bodies. The trade union as we know exerts a great deal of influence on the workers’ perception of work.

Hence, if we have a situation where the group decides on a certain path and the trade union takes a totally different view in all likelihood the workers will follow the directions of the trade union rather than the group. In fact, the work-group itself would depend for directions from the trade union and not from the management in deciding the nature and pace of work.

Related to this issue of trade unions is the issue of collective bargaining and industrial conflict. Conflict resolution in most industrial societies can be attained through the intervention of management and the union. Similarly, in the case of collective bargaining, it is not the collective of the workers that bargains with the management for certain facilities including better pay, lighter work, etc., but the trade union which becomes the mouthpiece of the workers at such times. Hence, the idealised situation put forth by the Hawthorne team may not reflect reality.

Finally, the premise of HR is to treat workers with dignity. This may lead to more pleasant social conditions. Workers may temporarily feel that they have been treated appropriately, but it does not reduce the tediousness of the work itself. Hence, the HR approach basically tries to change the relations between worker and management without changing the nature of work.

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