The Human Core

Human resources management is an essential skill, but few b-schools teach it thoroughly, argues Lisa Burke-Smalley of UT Chattanooga.
The Human Core

“TODAY EVERY MANAGER, regardless of his or her functional specialization, is on the front line of people management.”

That statement was offered by Elissa Perry and Carol Kulik in a 2008 article in The International Journal of Human Resource Management. It’s spot-on. Despite a popular theory that “managing people is all just common sense,” the bulk of managers face perplexing trials when it comes to managing employees. In fact, in the 2013 Conference Board CEO Challenge survey, 729 CEOs reported that their most critical challenge is “managing human capital.” In addition, business alumni, business leaders, policymakers, and business faculty all supply bountiful data about the importance of managing employees.

Even so, the human side of business typically is subjugated, sidelined, or flat-out ignored in business schools’ core requirements. Indeed, it is rare for business programs to require a human resource management (HRM) course except for students who major, minor, or complete a specialization in HRM. I believe that, as a result, business schools are failing to prepare graduates for the real world of work.

One reason HRM is so overlooked is that many business school administrators aren’t sure what it is, so they assume that HRM courses are interchangeable with courses in organizational behavior (OB). While there are important synergies, the two disciplines are different—and, just as important, not all HRM and OB faculty can commendably teach both. OB is to HRM as economics is to finance; one lays a foundation for the other more applied course.

Furthermore, some programs and faculty approach HRM solely from the viewpoint of managing the human resources department. But the more valuable perspective, particularly for broad-based business programs, is to teach it from the perspective of managing human capital in the organization. HRM is essential to the organization, which means it should be central to business education. 


Because there are so many different aspects to managing people, HRM is one of the few knowledge domains that truly transcends function. If the subject is to be thoroughly covered in the classroom, a wide number of topics should be addressed. These include:

  • The role of HRM in organizations, including the ways it supports business strategy and workforce planning.
  • Demographic, economic, social, political, and legislative trends.
  • Global HRM challenges.
  • The legal environment, including equal employment opportunity laws; basic wage, hour, and benefits laws; employment at will; and safety rules and risk management.
  • Job/competency analysis and job descriptions.
  • All aspects of talent management, such as recruiting, interviewing, training, and compensating employees; measuring performance and offering performance counseling; and developing and retaining employees, as well as disciplining or terminating them.

It can take a significant amount of time to address those HRM topics adequately, and most business programs are already packed with required courses. Still, a school can introduce HRM into its core curriculum in a variety of meaningful ways.


Business schools can adopt one or more of the following strategies to bring HRM into their programs. Each approach comes with some advantages and possible drawbacks.

Reduce elective hours in the business degree. While this option makes room for HRM courses in the business core, it does reduce opportunities for students to customize their degrees.

Allow students to choose OB or HRM. Schools that place a high value on student choice could allow students to decide whether they take OB or HRM courses in the business core. Unfortunately, some students might not choose wisely, merely selecting the course that fits conveniently into their schedules. This option is also imperfect because, as previously mentioned, there are significant differences between OB and HRM, and students who study only one or the other will learn only part of what they need to know to become effective managers.

Reduce the credit hours for courses in the core. This option requires faculty to streamline their classes, as professors and administrators do the tough work of determining the essential skills, experiences, and content that business graduates actually require. The result is likely to be a mix of two-, three-, and four-credit courses, which might be a challenge for administrators to schedule, but which will allow for valuable room to introduce new courses, such as HRM.

Require HRM in a “department core.” If faculty resist giving up core courses in their own disciplines, another option is to make HRM a requirement only in a single major, such as management. The disadvantage is that students majoring in other disciplines, such as accounting and marketing, will not learn critical HRM skills.

Combine HRM with an existing core course. If there’s still no room for HRM in the business core, schools can consider combining it with other related core material, such as analytics, information systems, or organizational behavior. Unfortunately, this choice sends a weaker signal to students about the importance of HRM skills. Another downside is that most faculty will merely teach the content they are most comfortable with, and each domain might get only superficial coverage. Schools could counter this disadvantage by embedding and evaluating learning goals in the course to make certain students acquire the requisite knowledge of HRM.


Once administrators decide how to integrate HRM content into the curriculum, they must determine how to deliver it. One option is to offer modules on key topics such as performance coaching, communication, conflict management, internal consulting, interviewing, feedback, negotiation, and teamwork. Depending on how much time or money they want to invest, schools can create these modules internally or use pre-existing ones available from vendors such as Skillsoft, MindLeaders, and NetCom Learning. Such learning modules can be delivered in the classroom, online, or through a hybrid format.

At the University of Tennessee- Chattanooga, we recently proposed a modular HR skills-based course that covers feedback/coaching, teamwork, and leadership skills. The three-credit course is divided evenly among the three skills, and each section can be taught by a different faculty member who specializes in that skill.

I plan to teach the first module on feedback and coaching and incorporate many hands-on application exercises, lab simulations, and role-playing activities. I’ll also incorporate reusable learning objects, which are short, self-contained, web-based learning units that include content, practice, and assessments. In addition, I will administer frequent skills tests to evaluate student learning. Currently the course is an elective, and we anticipate that many HRM majors as well as general management majors will be interested in it.

We originally developed the module as a one-week intercession course to nurture students who had enrolled in summer school, although some campus administrators aren’t sure how to schedule such a compressed and creatively timed course. Long-term, my desire would be for such a course to become a required part of the business curriculum.


As we have learned at my school, substantive curricular changes won’t happen quickly and will always entail politically motivated starts and stops. Therefore, faculty champions need to be patient, courageous, and well-informed as they overcome resistance and entrenched bureaucracy, deal with faculty turf battles, and continually point out the importance of HRM in the workplace.

But when champions exhibit these traits, they can accomplish a great deal. For example, at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, the business school first launched a three-credit OB/ HRM course that later evolved into two separate two-credit courses. More recently, UWO expanded each of these courses into three-credit classes; in this format, each content area receives its due focus and faculty course loads can be maintained smoothly. All of these classes are required for all business majors. Therefore, in this case, combining HRM and OB was a short-term option that ultimately led to a standalone HRM course—although the process took 22 years.

While faculty champions sometimes must battle to get HRM into the core curriculum, I believe it’s a noble fight. Because HRM has become decentralized across organizations, business leaders across all disciplines need to understand how to manage human resources. Managers in every functional area of the firm share responsibility for dealing with employees. If business graduates are going to succeed in the contemporary workplace, all of them must be exposed to human capital management.

That’s a point made extremely clear by Maggie Carrington, vice president of human resources for CBL & Associates, which owns and manages shopping malls across the U.S. In today’s work environment, she points out, it’s critical for managers to mitigate risk, and managers who don’t have a full understanding of HRM are inadequately prepared to deal with certain potential hazards. Managers also must understand HRM, she says, “so that they’re truly able to capitalize on what is essentially an organization’s last remaining competitive edge: its people.”


The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers a number of resources for educators. These include overview materials for graduate and undergraduate courses, which are available for a fee, as well as the National SHRM white paper “Executive Briefing—Moving HR into the Business Core: Critical Information & Creative Ideas” by Lisa Burke-Smalley and Barbara L. Rau. Contact [email protected] for more information. Additional resources—such as cases, lectures, and experiential exercises—are available at and

More information about covering human resource management in the classroom can be found in “Making HR part of the core business curriculum: A case study,” a working paper by Dale Feinauer, E. Alan Hartman, and Barbara Rau. Those interested in reading the study can contact Rau at [email protected].

Lisa A. Burke-Smalley is a professor of management and UC Foundation Professor in the College of Business at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.