For Providence voters, some of whom waited hours at the polls to make high-stakes choices on the presidency, Congress and gambling, the questions were head scratchers:
“Shall the term ‘personnel department’ be replaced with ‘human resources department’ wherever it appears in the charter?”
“Shall the responsibilities of the human resources department be changed to eliminate examining and approving all payrolls, and monitoring residency requirements?”
They were among nine 2012 referendums on language and nomenclature meant to “clarify” the Providence Home Rule Charter, the city government’s foundational document.
But what was so pressing about these wording changes – of which voters were given no background knowledge – to add them to an already weighty and long-reading ballot?
In at least four cases, the driver was to bring the city’s personnel department up to date with contemporary industry standards, with adopting the phrase “human resources” foremost among them.
In the private sector, the term human resources emerged in the first half of the 20th century to refer to the management of employees, including their recruitment, training, discipline, and compensation, and became popular in the 1980s.
Although public-sector, human resources professionals deal with most of the same issues as businesses, government offices have been slower to abandon the term “personnel,” especially on the local level.
Of Rhode Island’s eight cities, half currently employ a personnel department and half a human resources department, now that Providence has made the switch. In addition to the capital, those preferring human resources are Central Falls, East Providence and Newport.
Rhode Island’s state government has also switched to human resources.
According to those in the industry, personnel is a narrower term implying purely administrative functions and the move toward human resources was intended to broaden the profession to include responsibilities with a greater strategic role in the organization.
“I would have to say the personnel title has not been used with frequency for a considerable period of time,” said Diane Buerger, president of the Human Resources Management Association of Rhode Island. “I never worked in an office that was called personnel. It was probably phased out in the 1980s.