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What about Melissa? A Human Relations case study

Melissa is a go-getter working for an insurance company in 1990, and she’s got a win-win proposition for her bosses with an idea for a new position for her (Melissa wins) and a way to improve communication and productivity in a financially troubled business (company wins).

Working Girl

(sceneshots, 2012)

(OK, this isn’t Melissa, it’s Melanie Griffith in Working Girl,  and it’s 1988 instead of 1990, but you get the picture.)

What about Melissa? And why should we care?

Anyone working for a large (or not so large) company in the US has been impacted by the same management issues and approaches that Melissa faced 23 years ago, approaches that evolved out of management and communication theories that have been around since the Industrial Revolution. Through Melissa’s case study, I’ll demonstrate how one specific approach, Human Relations, might have impacted her experience of job satisfaction, and how we see elements of this approach in the world of work today.

Before presenting the case study, I’ll briefly review the basics of Human Relations and place this approach on the spectrum of Classical Management and Human Resources approaches.

Human Relations–An Overview

Human Relations v Resources

(Miller, 2009, p. 49)

Human Relations (Column 2, Table 3.2)  grew out of a response to Classical Management’s (Column 1, Table 3.2) focus on task and productivity at the expense of worker well-being. Communication was top-down, and no one cared about the emotional or mental needs of the employee. Workers were simply cogs in the machine.  Human Relations moved the needle from the machine and “a belief that ‘workers work’ to a belief that ‘workers feel'” (Miller, 2009, p. 41).  Theorists such as Chester Barnard proposed that organizations were cooperative enterprises, and that the role of management was to use communication channels to persuade workers to accept a common purpose for the greater good of the organization (Eisenberg, Goodall Jr., & Trethewey, 2010, p. 72). Elton Mayo followed with a series of research efforts that came to be known as the “Hawthorne Studies” that he believed demonstrated the influence of social group and managerial attention on worker productivity (Miller, 2009, p. 37). The machine metaphor was fading fast, and even though human relations approach was criticized as “cow sociology” (contented cows produce more milk) (Eisenberg et al., 2010, p. 75),  the family metaphor embraced by Human Relations was gaining momentum (Miller, 2009, p. 41).


(CMDA, 2013)

Human Relations approach continued into the 1960s, with work by Abraham Maslow and Douglas McGregor that connected employee well-being to employee satisfaction as a means of improved organizational productivity. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggested that work could fulfill one of a human being’s highest needs, that of self-actualization. McGregor’s Theory Y asserted that non-managerial workers had the same capacity for autonomy and creativity as did managers (Eisenberg et al., 2009, pp. 75-78). By the mid-1960s, the basic assumptions on the role of the “doers” were that the average employee wanted to do good work, and that a company that fulfilled workers needs for self-esteem and self-actualization would be rewarded with satisfied employees who would produce more (Miller, 2009, p.43).

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

(Gargasz, 2010)

Human Resources approach, the third column in Table 3.2, developed as a way to move beyond the weaknesses of Human Relations, with a focus on simply keeping employees happy, to the recognition of the importance of “the cognitive contributions employees make with their thoughts and ideas” (Miller, 2009, p. 43). Blake and Moulton’s Managerial Grid, with it’s concern for people AND production, and Likert’s System IV theory, promoting the exercise of control at all levels of organizations (Miller, 2009, pp. 48-49) drove the development of a  more integrative approach to the complexities of modern organizations.

Human Relations–A Case Study

By 1990, the year of our case study, managers in a company of substantial size, if not aware of these theories, would certainly have been influenced by this emphasis on employee satisfaction and fulfillment as a key component of corporate productivity. With this in mind, here is the story of Melissa and an analysis of how she may have experienced a Human Relations approach in her work life:

90s girls

(A more accurate version of 23-year-olds in 1990. Pick your Melissa.)

A Human Relations Case Study: “What about Melissa?”

The year is 1990. Simmons Insurance Group is a small, highly respected, A-rated subsidiary of a large British conglomerate. The company is traditionally structured with four departments including marketing, financial, sales, and claims. At one time, Simmons had over 200 employees, but today it has been cut back to about 50.

Melissa, a bright, highly motivated individual, has worked for the Simmons Insurance Group for four years. She started as a summer intern right after college graduation working across departments learning the basics about coverage, investigations, liability, damage assessment and settlement of claims. Melissa was a star performer and, at the end of her internship, she was hired full time as a claims associate. Within a year of her hire date, Melissa was promoted to senior claims associate. Although she works long hours, Melissa enjoys her job for the variety of skills it requires. She is well liked by her coworkers in all departments, particularly for her willingness to lend a hand with any problem that arises. Melissa has hopes of being promoted to claims manager soon. However, due to cutbacks, the claims department recently experienced substantial downsizing and Melissa’s group has already been cut in half.

Fearing that her job is next on the chopping block, Melissa approaches senior management with the idea that a new position be created for Melissa. Melissa witnessed problems arise when there was miscommunication between departments. Seeing a need to break up the silos of the organizational structure, Melissa suggests that her job title be Director of Internal Support and that her job responsibilities would include supporting all departments with whatever needs arise but most importantly to bridge departments to ensure consistent, open communication and excellent customer relations. Senior managers are wary of the new position, particularly given budget constraints. They meet to discuss the matter.

(Image courtesy of Ambro /

(Image courtesy of Ambro /

Imagining that Simmons operates under a Human Relations perspective, senior managers would want to keep Melissa as happy as possible. She had proven herself an asset to the company, and her continued feeling of self-esteem in her job would seem an important contribution to organizational productivity. Senior managers would have been comfortable with bottom-up communication, and could have been expected to see the value of Melissa’s proposal for a horizontal communication channel in the creation of her new position (see Table 3.2). They may have met with her informally, face-to-face, to make her feel heard and appreciated.

However, a Human Relations approach would not have made senior management particularly receptive to Melissa’s suggestions to restructure the org chart. The risk in a Human Relations approach would be an emphasis on making Melissa “feel” heard rather than actually hearing her. While Melissa’s suggestion of a new, innovative position that could bring her personal fulfillment and could contribute to improved internal organizational communications might sound good on paper, with the company facing financial constraints, their concern might not be on actually gaining insight on the organization from those lower in the hierarchical chain. Human Relations approach would suggest that managers would not look for organizational solutions from below. Chances are, senior managers would have patted Melissa on the head, told her they’d keep her ideas in mind, then would have gone right back to whatever plans had been generated at the top.

(Image courtesy of Ambro /

(Image courtesy of Ambro /

What will become of Melissa?

If Simmons took a classical Human Relations approach, attempting to placate Melissa, they may not have gotten the productivity from Melissa they desired. Melissa may have been content to feel heard, even if her suggestions weren’t implemented. However, subsequent studies of Human Relations theories could never find empirical evidence that happy workers are productive workers. Results showed that “humans are complicated, choice-making animals whose decisions about the amount of effort they should spend on any particular activity are based on a myriad of personal concerns” (Miller, 2009, p. 44). Just keeping Melissa happy probably wouldn’t be enough. No doubt she would realize at some point that she was being pandered to rather than valued, and this would ruin her job satisfaction anyway. She may have decided to take her innovative ideas and find a company more in line with a Human Resource approach, a company that would value innovation from anywhere in the organization.

Beyond Human Relations

The weaknesses of Human Relations approaches led to the development of the more integrative approach of Human Resources. Human Relations was significant in moving the needle away from the oppressive control structures of Classical Management and a focus on pure production to a more human-centered approach. The shift to managers focusing on the human needs of individual workers, trying to create feelings of self-esteem and self-actualization as a means of productivity, was a tremendous improvement on the unforgiving structures of Classical Management. However, Human Relations could be hollow when attention and communication were only done for show. Further, companies still had to face issues of the bottom line, that weren’t necessarily helped by happy workers. Human Relations was the necessary step to get to Human Resources, where managers would value the full participation of workers on every level as true resources of information and ideas for strengthening and growing organizations both internally and externally.

Maybe, there was a forward-thinking manager at Simmons who decided to give Melissa’s ideas a chance. Fast forward 23 years to 2013, and we may find Melissa as a senior manager, even CEO, continuing to bring innovation to a growing company.

(Image courtesy of stockphotos /

(Image courtesy of stockphotos /

What do you think? How could managers operating from a Human Relations approach support Melissa AND productivity?


Ambro. (2011, June 25). Business people talking. Retrieved from

Ambro. (2011, May 13). Woman sitting on briefcase. Retrieved from

CMAB. (2013). Happy cows TV. Retrieved from

Eisenberg, E. M., Goodall Jr., H. L., & Trethewey, A. (2010). Organizational communication: Balancing creativity and constraint (6thed). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s. (2012, April). Female executive posing. Retrieved from

Gargasz, Z. (2010). Understanding people- Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Clayton’s ERG Theory. Retrieved from 

Miller, K. (2009). Organizational communication: Approaches & processes. (5th ed.). NY: Wadsworth

scenceshots. (2012, June 29). Melanie Griffith: Working Girl (1988). Retrieved from



  1. cenevivak says:


    Your blog is amazing! I really enjoyed how you explained the evolution from classical management to human resources management. Your photos are also spectacular!

    You mention that the senior management in Melissa’s company would probably not assign her the new role because they would be too concerned with their financial failings. Utilizing customer reviews and departmental performance indicators and reviews could possibly provide them with an idea as to how Melissa’s new position could potentially save the company money. Firstly, it helps retain a hard-working employee who aligns herself with the company’s goals. Second, the new team could pool their resources and streamline a process for handling problems and providing better internal and external customer services. Happier customers are more likely to keep their business with Simmons Insurance, and resolving problems in a timely manner helps save more money in the long run because it reduces the amount of resources being put out, which would help their bottom line financials, right?

    • Kristin,

      Thanks for your comment. I decided to take the position that Simmons wouldn’t create the new position as a way to explore some of the weaknesses of the human relations approach. Everything you say is true–happier Melissa, improved communication–all could have bottom-line improvements that could actually help address the financial concerns Simmons is facing. Your argument that they would listen to her and institute her suggestions is sound, even as a human relations approach. However, in a true human relations approach, the worker is not considered a source of “cognitive” resources for organizational development. The contentedness of the worker is the focus as the source of productivity, not the innovative nature of her ideas. Human resources was the step that led to embracing the human (worker) as a true resource, viewing the worker not just as doer but also as a thinker (Miller, 2009, pp. 41-42). I wanted to use this as an example of the fine line between these two approaches.

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