Paying Attention to Anthropologists May Be Important to HR

Paying Attention to Anthropologists May Be Important to HR


In our HR classes we are taught to engage in environmental scanning as a way of anticipating areas that may hold some importance. To many people this means paying attention to business news, perhaps some economic news, what is happening with demographics and employment law cases. What about paying attention to your local anthropologist? They may be able to identify trends that will have an impact on what you do in your HR department in the next five years.

The Definition of Marriage

Marriage has certainly been a hot topic in the news and it has had an impact on many an HR department. The changing definition of what a legal marriage is has required many HR departments to alter benefit plans to accommodate individuals that had previously been excluded. This has often caused a variety of emotions and reactions from joy and happiness to rejection and defiance.

Anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher has studied the changing nature of interpersonal relationship, especially marriage, and she feels we are on the verge of a major disruption in business and social traditions. She said, in an article in The Futurist, that “Marriage has changed more in the past 100 years than it has in the past 10,000 years, and it could change more in the next 20 years than in the last 100.” We have already seen huge changes in the acceptance of changing definitions of virginity, dating, marriage, fidelity, wedlock, single parent families, multiple marriage, even multiple partners. All of these have been changes that HR departments have had to adapt to over the past two decades.

The Past Speaks

Dr. Fisher says that “primordial habits” are returning. In the past, human society had trial marriages; many involving infidelity, which is common in all extant 42 societies. When people were unhappy they just walked away. Many anthropologists believe our forebears would have multiple long term partners over a life time.

She says that the profound trend that is now arising is what is being called the “companionate” which is described as a symmetrical or peer marriage between equals. This reflects the past when “the double-income family was the rule, and women were just as economically, sexually, and socially powerful as men.” She says “we are returning to the lifeway, leaving in the dustbin of history the traditional, male-headed, patriarchal family – the bastion of agrarian society.”

Do Current Trends Reflect This?

I think Fisher is on to something that HR needs to pay attention to and I think it reflects something we already see. Increasing female economic power, increasing demands for more corporate representation, for more economic equality along with changing definitions of family and marriage. All of these things will change the nature of how people will want, nay demand, to be treated in the workplace. The more we can anticipate these things the better prepared we will be.

Will these changes occur without resistance?  No, change is always resisted. This will be resisted for religious reasons, for economic reasons, for ego reasons, for reasons of tradition and just because. HR will need to be prepared for that as well.

So dust off that anthropology tome and do some reading.

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Mike Haberman

Michael (Mike) D. Haberman, SPHR is a consultant, speaker, writer of HR Observations, and co-founder of Omega HR Solutions, Inc. After over 30 years in HR he got tired of the past and focuses here on the Future of HR. Connect with Mike.

Reader Interactions


  1. Jessica Miller-Merrell says

    I love this post for a lot of reasons especially since I have an Anthropology degree and much of my HR time has spent using cultural anthropology in my study of the workplace. It’s a fascinating thing and very interesting to watch how people rely or are tied to certain traditional practices like marriage as well as women and their roles in relationships and the workplace. We are living in a time of major cultural change a lot of it is driven by technology, information and access to a more diverse group of experiences and perspectives.

    Thanks for the post here. I agree!



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