In this chapter, the concept of human resource management (HRM) is defined initially and the various models of HRM are described.

Consideration is then given to its aims and characteristics. The chapter concludes with a review of reservations about HRM and the relationship between HRM and personnel management.


Human resource management is defined as a strategic and coherent approach to the management of an organization’s most valued assets – the people working there who individually and collectively contribute to the achievement of its objectives.

John Storey (1989) believes that HRM can be regarded as a ‘set of interrelated policies with an ideological and philosophical underpinning’. He suggests four aspects that constitute the meaningful version of HRM:

* a particular constellation of beliefs and assumptions;

* a strategic thrust informing decisions about people management;

* the central involvement of line managers;

* reliance upon a set of ‘levers’ to shape the employment relationship.


The matching model of HRM

One of the first explicit statements of the HRM concept was made by the Michigan School (Fombrun et al, 1984). They held that HR systems and the organization structure should be managed in a way that is congruent with organizational strategy (hence the name ‘matching model’). They further explained that there is a human resource cycle (an adaptation of which is illustrated in Figure 1.1), which consists of four generic processes or functions that are performed in all organizations. These are:

- selection – matching available human resources to jobs;

- appraisal (performance management);

- rewards – ‘the reward system is one of the most under-utilized and mishandled managerial tools for driving organizational performance’; it must reward short- as well as long-term achievements, bearing in mind that ‘business must perform in the present to succeed in the future’;

- development – developing high-quality employees.

The Harvard framework

The other founding fathers of HRM were the Harvard school of Beer et al (1984) who developed what Boxall (1992) calls the ‘Harvard framework’. This framework is based on the belief that the problems of historical personnel management can only be solved:

when general managers develop a viewpoint of how they wish to see employees involved in and developed by the enterprise, and of what HRM policies and practices may achieve those goals. Without either a central philosophy or a strategic vision – which can be provided only by general managers – HRM is likely to remain a set of independent activities, each guided by its own practice tradition.

Beer and his colleagues believed that ‘today, many pressures are demanding a broader, more comprehensive and more strategic perspective with regard to the organization’s human resources’. These pressures have created a need for: ‘A longer-term perspective in managing people and consideration of people as potential assets rather than merely a variable cost’. They were the first to underline the HRM tenet that it belongs to line managers. They also stated that: ‘human resource management involves all management decisions and action that affect the nature of the relationship between the organization
and its employees – its human resources’.

The Harvard school suggested that HRM had two characteristic features: 1) line managers accept more responsibility for ensuring the alignment of competitive strategy and personnel policies; 2) personnel has the mission of setting policies that govern how personnel activities are developed and implemented in ways that make them more mutually reinforcing. The Harvard framework as modelled by Beer et al is shown in

Figure 1.2.

According to Boxall (1992) the advantages of this model are that it:

- incorporates recognition of a range of stakeholder interests;

- recognizes the importance of ‘trade-offs’, either explicitly or implicitly, between the interests of owners and those of employees as well as between various interest groups;

- widens the context of HRM to include ‘employee influence’, the organization of work and the associated question of supervisory style;

- acknowledges a broad range of contextual influences on management’s choice of strategy, suggesting a meshing of both product market and sociocultural logics;

- emphasizes strategic choice – it is not driven by situational or environmental determinism.

**********************************************************************the Harvard model has exerted considerable influence over the theory and practice of HRM, particularly in its emphasis on the fact that HRM is the concern of management in general rather than the personnel function in particular.

Figure 1.2 The Harvard model of HRM (from Beer et al, 1984)


The overall purpose of human resource management is to ensure that the organization is able to achieve success through people. As Ulrich and Lake (1990) remark: ‘HRM systems can be the source of organizational capabilities that allow firms to learn and capitalize on new opportunities.’ Specifically, HRM is concerned with achieving objectives in the areas summarized below.

Organizational effectiveness

‘Distinctive human resource practices shape the core competencies that determine how firms compete’ (Cappelli and Crocker-Hefter, 1996).

Extensive research (see Chapter 4) has shown that such practices can make a significant impact on firm performance. HRM strategies aim to support programmes for improving organizational effectiveness by developing policies in such areas as knowledge management, talent management and generally creating ‘a great place to work’. This is the ‘big idea’ as described by Purcell et al (2003), which consists of a ‘clear vision and a set of integrated values’. More specifically, HR strategies can be concerned with the development of continuous improvement and customer relations policies.

Human capital

the human capital of an organization consists of the people who work there and on whom the success of the business depends. Human capital has been defined by Bontis et al (1999) as follows: ‘Human capital represents the human factor in the organization; the combined intelligence, skills and expertise that gives the organization its distinctive character. The human elements of the organization are those that are capable of learning, changing, innovating and providing the creative thrust which if properly motivated can ensure the long-term survival of the organization.’

Human capital can be regarded as the prime asset of an organization, and businesses need to invest in that asset to ensure their survival and growth. HRM aims to ensure that the organization obtains and retains the skilled, committed and well-motivated workforce it needs. This means taking steps to assess and satisfy future people needs and to enhance and develop the inherent capacities of people – their contributions, potential and employability – by providing learning and continuous development opportunities. It involves the operation of ‘rigorous recruitment and selection procedures, performance-contingent incentive compensation systems, and management development and training activities linked to the needs of the business’ (Becker et al, 1997). It also means engaging in talent management – the process of acquiring and nurturing talent, wherever it is and wherever it is needed, by using a number of interdependent HRM policies and practices in the fields of resourcing, learning and development, performance management and succession planning.

Knowledge management

Knowledge management is ‘any process or practice of creating, acquiring, capturing, sharing and using knowledge, wherever it resides, to enhance learning and performance in organizations’ (Scarborough et al 1999). HRM aims to support the development of firm-specific knowledge and skills that are the result of organizational learning processes.

Reward management

HRM aims to enhance motivation, job engagement and commitment by introducing policies and processes that ensure that people are valued and rewarded for what they do and achieve, and for the levels of skill and competence they reach.

Employee relations

The aim is to create a climate in which productive and harmonious relationships can be maintained through partnerships between management and employees and their trade unions.

Meet diverse needs

HRM aims to develop and implement policies that balance and adapt to the needs of its stakeholders and provide for the management of a diverse workforce, taking into account individual and group differences in employment, personal needs, work style and aspirations, and the provision of equal opportunities for all.

Rhetoric and reality

The research conducted by Gratton et al (1999) found that there was generally a wide gap between the sort of rhetoric expressed above and reality. Managements may start with good intentions to do some or all of these things, but the realization of them – ‘theory in use’ – is often very difficult. This arises because of contextual and process problems: other business priorities, short-termism, lack of support from line managers, an inadequate infrastructure of supporting processes, lack of resources, resistance to change and lack of trust.


The characteristics of the HRM concept as they emerged from the writings of the pioneers and later commentators are that it is:

- diverse;

- strategic, with an emphasis on integration;

- commitment-orientated;

- based on the belief that people should be treated as human capital;

- unitarist rather than pluralist, individual rather than collective, with regard to employee relations;

- a management-driven activity – the delivery of HRM is a line management responsibility;

- focused on business values.

The diversity of HRM

But these characteristic of HRM are by no means universal. There are many models, and practices within different organizations are diverse, often only corresponding to the conceptual version of HRM in a few respects.

Hendry and Pettigrew (1990) play down the prescriptive element of the HRM model and extend the analytical elements. As pointed out by Boxall (1992), such an approach rightly avoids labelling HRM as a single form and advances more slowly by proceeding more analytically. It is argued by Hendry and Pettigrew that ‘better descriptions of structures and strategymaking in complex organizations, and of frameworks for understanding them, are an essential underpinning for HRM’.

A distinction was made by Storey (1989) between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ versions of HRM. The hard version of HRM emphasizes that people are important resources through which organizations achieve competitive advantage. These resources have therefore to be acquired, developed and deployed in ways that will benefit the organization. The focus is on the quantitative, calculative and business-strategic aspects of managing human resources in as ‘rational’ a way as for any other economic factor. As Guest (1999) comments: ‘the drive to adopt HRM is… based on the business case of a need to respond to an external threat from increasing competition. It is a philosophy that appeals to managements who are striving to increase competitive advantage and appreciate that to do this they must invest in human resources as well as new technology.’ He also commented that HRM ‘reflects a longstanding
capitalist tradition in which the worker is regarded as a commodity’. The emphasis is therefore on the interests of management, integration with business strategy, obtaining added value from people by the processes of human resource development and performance management and the need for a strong corporate culture expressed in mission and value statements and reinforced by communications, training and performance management processes.

The soft version of HRM traces its roots to the human-relations school. It emphasizes communication, motivation and leadership. As described by Storey (1989) it involves ‘treating employees as valued assets, a source of competitive advantage through their commitment, adaptability and high quality (of skills, performance and so on)’. It therefore views employees, in the words of Guest (1999), as means rather than objects. The soft approach to HRM stresses the need to gain the commitment – the ‘hearts and minds’ – of employees through involvement, communications and other methods of developing a high-commitment, high-trust organization. Attention is also drawn to the key role of organizational culture.

In 1998, Karen Legge defined the ‘hard’ model of HRM as a process emphasizing ‘the close integration of human resource policies with business strategy which regards employees as a resource to be managed in the same rational way as any other resource being exploited for maximum return’. In contrast, the soft version of HRM sees employees as ‘valued assets and as a source of competitive advantage through their commitment, adaptability and high level of skills and performance’.

It has, however, been observed by Truss (1999) that, ‘even if the rhetoric of HRM is soft, the reality is often hard, with the interests of the organization prevailing over those of the individual’. And research carried out by Gratton et al (1999) found that, in the eight organizations they studied, a mixture of hard and soft HRM approaches was identified. This suggested to the researchers that the distinction between hard and soft HRM was not as precise as some commentators have implied.

The strategic nature of HRM

Perhaps the most significant feature of HRM is the importance attached to strategic integration, which flows from top management’s vision and leadership, and which requires the full commitment of people to it.

David Guest (1987, 1989a, 1989b, 1991) believes that a key policy goal for HRM is strategic integration, by which he means the ability of the organization to integrate HRM issues into its strategic plans, to ensure that the various aspects of HRM cohere, and to provide for line managers to incorporate an HRM perspective into their decision making.

Karen Legge (1989) considers that one of the common themes of the typical definitions of HRM is that human resource policies should be integrated with strategic business planning. Keith Sisson (1990) suggests that a feature increasingly associated with HRM is a stress on the integration of HR policies both with one another and with business planning more generally.

John Storey (1989) suggests that: ‘the concept locates HRM policy formulation firmly at the strategic level and insists that a characteristic of HRM is its internally coherent approach’.

The commitment-orientated nature of HRM
The importance of commitment and mutuality was emphasized by Walton (1985) as follows: ‘The new HRM model is composed of policies that promote mutuality – mutual goals, mutual influence, mutual respect, mutual rewards, mutual responsibility. The theory is that policies of mutuality will elicit commitment which in turn will yield both better economic performance and greater human development.’

David Guest (1987) wrote that one of the HRM policy goals was the achievement of high commitment – ‘behavioural commitment to pursue agreed goals, and attitudinal commitment reflected in a strong identification with the enterprise’.

It was noted by Karen Legge (1995) that human resources ‘may be tapped most effectively by mutually consistent policies that promote commitment and which, as a consequence, foster a willingness in employees to act flexibly in the interests of the “adaptive organization’s” pursuit of excellence’.

But this emphasis on commitment has been criticized from the earliest days of HRM. Guest (1987) asked: ‘commitment to what?’, and Fowler (1987) has stated:

At the heart of the concept is the complete identification of employees with the aims and values of the business – employee involvement but on the company’s terms. Power, in the HRM system, remains very firmly in the hands of the employer. Is it really possible to claim full mutuality when at the end of the day the employer can decide unilaterally to close the company or sell it to someone else?

People as ‘human capital’
The notion that people should be regarded as assets rather than variable costs, in other words treated as human capital, was originally advanced by Beer et al (1984). HRM philosophy, as mentioned by Karen Legge (1995), holds that ‘human resources are valuable and a source of competitive advantage’. Armstrong and Baron (2002) stated that: ‘People and their collective skills, abilities and experience, coupled with their ability to deploy these in the interests of the employing organization, are now recognized as making a significant contribution to organizational success and as constituting a significant source of competitive advantage.’

Unitarist philosophy

The HRM approach to employee relations is unitarist not pluralist – it is believed that employees share the same interests as employers. In the words of Gennard and Judge (1997), organizations are assumed to be ‘harmonious and integrated, all employees sharing the organizational goals and working as members of one team’.

Guest (1987, 1989a, 1989b, 1991) considers that HRM values are: unitarist to the extent that they assume no underlying and inevitable differences of interest between management and workers; and individualistic in that they emphasize the individual–organization linkage in preference to operating through group and representative systems.

HRM as a management-driven activity

HRM can be described as a central, senior-management-driven strategic activity, which is developed, owned and delivered by management as a whole to promote the interests of the organization that they serve. John Purcell (1993) thinks that ‘the adoption of HRM is both a product of and a cause of a significant concentration of power in the hands of management’, while the widespread use ‘of the language of HRM, if not its practice, is a combination of its intuitive appeal to managers and, more importantly, a response to the turbulence of product and financial markets’. He asserts that HRM is about the rediscovery of management prerogative. He considers that HRM policies and practices, when applied within a firm as a break from the past, are often associated with words such as ‘commitment’, ‘competence’, ‘empowerment’, ‘flexibility’, ‘culture’, ‘performance’, ‘assessment’, ‘reward’, ‘teamwork’, ‘involvement’, ‘cooperation’, ‘harmonization’, ‘quality’ and ‘learning’. But ‘the danger of descriptions of HRM as modern bestmanagement practice is that they stereotype the past and idealize the future’.

Keith Sisson (1990) suggested that: ‘The locus of responsibility for personnel management no longer resides with (or is “relegated to”)
specialist managers.’ More recently, Purcell et al (2003) underlined the importance of line management commitment and capability as the means by which HR policies are brought to life.

Focus on business values

The concept of HRM is largely based on a management- and businessorientated philosophy. It is concerned with the total interests of the organization – the interests of the members of the organization are recognized but subordinated to those of the enterprise. Hence the importance attached to strategic integration and strong cultures, which flow from top management’s vision and leadership, and which require people who will be committed to the strategy, who will be adaptable to change and who will fit the culture. By implication, as Guest (1991) says: ‘HRM is too important to be left to personnel managers.’

In 1995 Karen Legge noted that HRM policies are adapted to drive business values and are modified in the light of changing business objectives and conditions. She describes this process as ‘thinking pragmatism’ and suggests that evidence indicates more support for the hard versions of HRM than the soft version.


For some time, HRM was a controversial topic, especially in academic circles. The main reservations have been that HRM promises more than it delivers and that its morality is suspect.

HRM promises more than it can deliver


Noon (1992) has commented that HRM has serious deficiencies as a theory: ‘It is built with concepts and propositions, but the associated variables and hypotheses are not made explicit. It is too comprehensive… If HRM is labelled a “theory” it raises expectations about its ability to describe and predict.’ Guest (1991) believes that HRM is an ‘optimistic but ambiguous concept’; it is all hype and hope.

Mabey et al (1998) follow this up by asserting that ‘the heralded outcomes (of HRM) are almost without exception unrealistically high’. To put the concept of HRM into practice involves strategic integration, developing a coherent and consistent set of employment policies, and gaining commitment. This requires high levels of determination and competence at all levels of management and a strong and effective HR function staffed by business-orientated people. It may be difficult to meet these criteria, especially when the proposed HRM culture conflicts with the established corporate culture and traditional managerial attitudes and behaviour.

Gratton et al (1999) are convinced on the basis of their research that there is ‘a disjunction between rhetoric and reality in the area of human resource management between HRM theory and HRM practice, between what the HR function says it is doing and that practice as perceived by employers, and between what senior management believes to be the role of the HR function, and the role it actually plays’. In their conclusions they refer to the ‘hyperbole and rhetoric of human resource management’.


There is no doubt that many organizations that think they are practising HRM are doing nothing of the kind. It is difficult, and it is best not to expect too much. Most of the managements who hurriedly adopted performancerelated pay as an HRM device that would act as a lever for change have been sorely disappointed.

But the research conducted by Guest and Conway (1997) covering a stratified random sample of 1,000 workers established that a notably high level of HRM was found to be in place. This contradicts the view that management has tended to ‘talk up’ the adoption of HRM practices. The HRM characteristics covered by the survey included the opportunity to express grievances and raise personal concerns on such matters as opportunities for training and development, communications about business issues, single status, effective systems for dealing with bullying and harassment at work, making jobs interesting and varied, promotion from within, involvement programmes, no compulsory redundancies, performancerelated pay, profit sharing and the use of attitude surveys.

The philosophy of HRM is indeed aspirational, but what is wrong with trying to do better, even if success is hard to obtain? The incessant reference to the rhetoric/reality gap by academics suggests that there is a deeply held and cynical belief amongst them that managements never mean what they say or, if they do mean it, don’t do anything about it. This may be so in some cases but it is not a universal characteristic.

Academics often refer to the ‘rhetoric’ of HR practitioners, but should more accurately have referred to the rhetoric of the HR academics who have been debating what HRM means, how different it is, whether or not it is a good thing and indeed whether or not it exists, endlessly and unproductively. Practitioners have pressed on regardless, in the justified belief that what the academics were writing about had little relevance to their day-today lives as they wrestle with the realities of organizational life. They did not suddenly see the light in the 1980s and change their ways, for better or for worse. The true personnel or HR professionals just kept on doing what they had always done but tried to do it better. They took note of the much wider range of publications about HR practices and the information on socalled ‘best practice’ provided by management consultants and conference
organizers, and they learnt from the case studies emanating from the research conducted by the burgeoning academic institutions. They also recognized that to succeed in an increasingly competitive world they had to become more professional, and they are encouraged to do so by bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. They took account of new ideas and implemented new practices because they were persuaded that they were appropriate, not because they fitted into any sort of HRM philosophy.

The morality of HRM

HRM is accused by many academics of being manipulative if not positively immoral. Willmott (1993) remarks that HRM operates as a form of insidious ‘control by compliance’ when it emphasizes the need for employees to be committed to do what the organization wants them to do. It preaches mutuality but the reality is that behind the rhetoric it exploits workers. It is, they say, a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Keenoy, 1990a). As Legge (1998) pointed out:

Sadly, in a world of intensified competition and scarce resources, it seems inevitable that, as employees are used as means to an end, there will be some who will lose out. They may even be in the majority. For these people, the soft version of HRM may be an irrelevancy, while the hard version is likely to be an uncomfortable experience.


The accusation that HRM treats employees as means to an end is often made. However, it could be argued that if organizations exist to achieve ends, which they obviously do, and if those ends can only be achieved through people, which is clearly the case, the concern of managements for commitment and performance from those people is not unnatural and is not attributable to the concept of HRM – it existed in the good old days of personnel management before HRM was invented. What matters is how managements treat people as ends and what managements provide in return.

Much of the hostility to HRM expressed by a number of academics is based on the belief that it is hostile to the interests of workers, ie that it is managerialist. However, the Guest and Conway (1997) research established that the reports of workers on outcomes showed that a higher number of HR practices were associated with higher ratings of fairness, trust and management’s delivery of their promises. Those experiencing more HR activities also felt more secure in and more satisfied with their jobs. Motivation was significantly higher for those working in organizations where more HR practices were in place. In summary, as commented by Guest (1999), it appears that workers like their experience of HRM. These
findings appear to contradict the ‘radical critique’ view produced by academics such as Mabey et al (1998) that HRM has been ineffectual, pernicious (ie managerialist) or both. Some of those who adopt this stance tend to dismiss favourable reports from workers about HRM on the grounds that they have been brainwashed by management. But there is no evidence to support this view.

And, as Armstrong (2000) pointed out:

HRM cannot be blamed or given credit for changes that were taking place anyway. For example, it is often alleged to have inspired a move from pluralism to unitarism in industrial relations. But newspaper production was moved from Fleet Street to Wapping by Murdoch, not because he had read a book about HRM but as a means of breaking the print unions’ control.

Contradictions in the reservations about HRM

Guest (1999) has suggested that there are two contradictory concerns about HRM. The first as formulated by Legge (1995, 1998) is that while management rhetoric may express concern for workers, the reality is harsher. And Keenoy (1997) complains that: ‘The real puzzle about HRMism is how, in the face of such apparently overwhelming critical “refutation”, it has secured such influence and institutional presence.’ Other writers, however, simply claim that HRM does not work. Scott (1994), for example, finds that both management and workers are captives of their history and find it very difficult to let go of their traditional adversarial orientations.

But these contentions are contradictory. Guest (1999) remarks that ‘it is difficult to treat HRM as a major threat (though what it is a threat to is not always made explicit) deserving of serious critical analysis while at the same time claiming that it is not practiced or is ineffective’.


A debate about the differences, if any, between HRM and personnel management went on for some time. It has died down now, especially as the terms HRM and HR are now in general use both in their own right and as synonyms for personnel management, but understanding of the concept of HRM is enhanced by analysing what the differences are and how traditional approaches to personnel management have evolved to become the presentday practices of HRM.

Some commentators (Legge, 1989, 1995; Keenoy, 1990b; Sisson, 1990; Storey, 1993; Hope-Hailey et al, 1998) have highlighted the revolutionary nature of HRM. Others have denied that there is any significant difference in the concepts of personnel management and HRM. Torrington (1989) suggested that: ‘Personnel management has grown through assimilating a number of additional emphases to produce an even richer combination of experience… HRM is no revolution but a further dimension to a multifaceted role.’

The conclusion based on interviews with HR and personnel directors reached by Gennard and Kelly (1994) on this issue was that ‘it is six of one and half a dozen of the other and it is a sterile debate’. An earlier answer to this question was made by Armstrong (1987):

HRM is regarded by some personnel managers as just a set of initials or old wine in new bottles. It could indeed be no more and no less than another name for personnel management, but as usually perceived, at least it has the virtue of emphasizing the virtue of treating people as a key resource, the management of which is the direct concern of top management as part of the strategic planning processes of the enterprise. Although there is nothing new in the idea, insufficient attention has been paid to it in many organizations.

The similarities and differences between HRM and personnel management are summarized in Table 1.1.

The differences between personnel management and human resource management appear to be substantial but they can be seen as a matter of emphasis and approach rather than one of substance. Or, as Hendry and Pettigrew (1990) put it, HRM can be perceived as a ‘perspective on personnel management and not personnel management itself’.

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