The best books about managing people and working lives

Why am I passionate about this?

My grandfather was a labour activist in Hull in the UK and my father had many classic labour texts such as the book by Tressell, listed below. That got me interested in the world of work and later more specifically in managing people. I moved from studying economics to employment relations /human resource management. Given that most of us (workers) spend 80,000 hours of our lives at work - more time than we are likely to spend on any other activity during our lifetimes - how we spend these lives has remained a source of fascination


I wrote...

Human Resource Management: A Very Short Introduction

By Adrian Wilkinson,

Book cover of Human Resource Management: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

Adrian Wilkinson reviews how changes in political, legal, and macroeconomic spheres have shaped how human resources are managed and asks how HRM makes work less dehumanizing. This includes designing better systems and practices so as to produce good outcomes for employers and employees that combine profitability and well-being, where workers do not regard work as a grind, but where they can fulfill their potential and be respected. The book is full of interesting and lively examples to illustrate the main challenges in managing people. It is part of the Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions series.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do

Adrian Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

It is a rich and memorable oral history of America told by more than a hundred workers across a huge slice of American working life including those of paperboys, photographers, switchboard operators, actors, writers, executives, barbers, sanitation truck drivers, stockbrokers, professional athletes, teachers, grave diggers, lettuce pickers and many more.

It shows how work is a search for both a daily crust and meaning. The book inspired a musical and a recent Netflix series with Obama as the host.

By Studs Terkel,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Working as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Perhaps Studs Terkel's best-known book, Working is a compelling, fascinating look at jobs and the people who do them. Consisting of over one hundred interviews conducted with everyone from gravediggers to studio heads, this book provides a timeless snapshot of people's feelings about their working lives, as well as a relevant and lasting look at how work fits into American life.



Book cover of Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice

Adrian Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

This is a brilliant scholarly book (which has been valuable in my own work) arguing that the traditional economic view of the employment relationship needs to be balanced with employee entitlement to fair treatment (equity) and the opportunity to have meaningful input into decisions (voice). 

The aim is to strike a balance between efficiency, equity, and voice and give employment “a human face”, allowing for shared prosperity and human dignity.

By John W. Budd,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Employment with a Human Face as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

John W. Budd contends that the turbulence of the current workplace and the importance of work for individuals and society make it vitally important that employment be given "a human face." Contradicting the traditional view of the employment relationship as a purely economic transaction, with business wanting efficiency and workers wanting income, Budd argues that equity and voice are equally important objectives. The traditional narrow focus on efficiency must be balanced with employees' entitlement to fair treatment (equity) and the opportunity to have meaningful input into decisions (voice), he says. Only through a greater respect for these human concerns can…


Book cover of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Adrian Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

It was on the shelf at home (a big red covered book with very small print!) and is very much seen as a classic of working-class literature.

Tressell wrote this semi-autobiographical account of his time as a housepainter and presented the workers as philanthropists who work desperately hard to enable profits for the bosses. The book was rejected by publishers in his lifetime and only published after his death, his daughter having saved the book from his desire to burn it after rejection from several publishers.

By Robert Tressell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a classic representation of the impoverished and politically powerless underclass of British society in Edwardian England, ruthlessly exploited by the institutionalized corruption of their employers and the civic and religious authorities. Epic in scale, the novel charts the ruinous effects of the laissez-faire mercantilist ethics on the men, women, and children of the working classes, and through its emblematic characters, argues for a socialist politics as the only hope for a civilized and humane life for all. This Wordsworth edition includes an exclusive foreword by the late Tony Benn.


Book cover of Parkinson's Law

Adrian Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

Most people will have heard of Parkinson’s law: the idea that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, but he (drawing from his time as a naval historian) also developed the law of triviality: that an organization typically give devotes disproportionate time to insignificant issues.

The short book is full of many other insightful observations about organizational life and bureaucracy, including the tendency for officials to make more work for each, other leading to the famous prediction that the Royal Navy would eventually have more admirals than ships.

By C Northcote Parkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Parkinson's Law as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Parkinson's Law states that 'work expands to fill the time available'. While strenuously denied by management consultants, bureaucrats and efficiency experts, the law is borne out by disinterested observation of any organization. The book goes far beyond its famous theorem, though. The author goes on to explain how to meet the most important people at a social gathering and why, as a matter of mathematical certainty, the time spent debating an issue is inversely proportional to its objective importance. Justly famous for more than forty years, Parkinson's Law is at once a bracingly cynical primer on the reality of human…


Book cover of The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work

Adrian Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

Much work on management talks of talent and people being the most important asset, whose ideas and skills should be fully utilized.

This book points to another side of organizations, where stupidity and idiocy reign despite the presence of smart workers (think of people who have important information to convey but are quiet at meetings as they are worried about not being seen as team players). This can help organisations in the short run (less conflict and everyone getting on with the job) but in the long run is problematic.

The authors point to how top-down management marginalizes critical voices and reinforces conformity to existing practices, and in so doing can embed stupidity.

By Mats Alvesson, Andre Spicer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Stupidity Paradox as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Functional stupidity can be catastrophic. It can cause organisational collapse, financial meltdown and technical disaster. And there are countless, more everyday examples of organisations accepting the dubious, the absurd and the downright idiotic, from unsustainable management fads to the cult of leadership or an over-reliance on brand and image. And yet a dose of stupidity can be useful and produce good, short-term results: it can nurture harmony, encourage people to get on with the job and drive success. This is the stupidity paradox.

The Stupidity Paradox tackles head-on the pros and cons of functional stupidity. You'll discover what makes a…


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A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

By Victoria Golden, William Walters,

Book cover of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

Victoria Golden Author Of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story teller Book fav swapper Movie buff A writer’s daughter Escapee from Beverly Hills

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What is my book about?

Four years old and homeless, William Walters boarded one of the last American Orphan Trains in 1930 and embarked on an astonishing quest through nine decades of U.S. and world history.

For 75 years, the Orphan Trains had transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West, sometimes providing loving new families, other times delivering kids into nightmares. Taken by a cruel New Mexico couple, William faced a terrible trial, but his strength and resilience carried him forward into unforgettable adventures.

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What is this book about?

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From 1854 to the early 1930s, the American Orphan Trains transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West. Unfortunately, families waiting for the trains weren’t always dreams come true—many times they were nightmares.

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Interested in oral history, organizational culture, and presidential biography?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about oral history, organizational culture, and presidential biography.

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