The Grammarphobia Blog

Human resources?

Q: I am an HR manager. Am I a Human Resources Manager or a Human Resource Manager?  I’ve heard that one or the other is correct. I’ve also heard that both are correct. Which is it?

A: The usual term is “human resources manager,” though “human resource manager” is often seen. Both are correct.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the usual term is “human resources,” whether the phrase is used as a noun (“She’s in charge of human resources”) or as an adjective (She’s our human resources manager”).

The OED describes the adjectival use of “human resource” as occasional, but we think the dictionary may be underestimating the usage.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “human resources manager,” 10.3 million hits; “human resource manager,” 3.6 million.

The use of “human resources” to refer to people isn’t as modern as you might think.

The OED says it was first recorded in Britain in World War I, when it meant “people (esp. personnel or workers) regarded as an asset of a business or other organization (as contrasted with material or financial resources).”

Oxford’s earliest published example is from a 1915 issue of the Times of London:

“Side by side with the committees that have been set up to deal with the production of material there should be an organization to take stock of the human resources still at the disposal of the nation.”

The usage soon spread to the US. The OED has this 1920 example from the American Journal of Sociology, which was (and still is) published in Chicago:

“Federalism would have saved the Balkans from devastation and appalling waste of human resources.”

The phrase added a new meaning in corporate America in the mid-1960s, the OED says.

In American usage, “human resources” came to mean “the department in an organization dealing with the administration, management, training, etc., of staff; the personnel department.”

This additional, and more specialized, sense of the term was first recorded in an advertisement that ran in The New York Times in 1965: “Forward complete resume of education, experience, history and salary requirement to: Director Human Resources.”

The OED has an example of the specific usage you ask about. It’s from Business Week (1975): “Results of the experiment, which ended in mid-1974, are still being analyzed, says human resources manager Charles J. Sherrard.”

This corporate meaning of the phrase is now current in Britain too, according to OED citations.

An example of the adjectival usage in the less common singular form appeared in the British magazine Accountancy (1994): “Part of the background to all of this is the growing tendency for the human resource function itself to shrink in size.”

And this example of the noun phrase comes from Turning Thirty (2000), by the young British novelist Mike Gayle: “I would be free to leave as soon as I told Human Resources where I wanted to go.”

The two of us are old enough to remember when companies had “personnel managers” and “personnel departments.” And for a time we regarded “human resources” as jargon. But we’re human and resourceful, so we’ve come to terms with it.

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