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Human Resource Management (HRM) has different connotations for different people and does not yet constitute a unified theory. People are familiar with such statements as “our human resources are our most important asset”. In some cases, acceptance of the principles of HRM goes to further than this. Others emphasize that it is about matching employment practices to an organization’s strategy. A corollary of this is that, taken as a whole, employment practices should combine together to reinforce one another.

Part of this is that employment decisions should not be conceived in isolation, but ideally should be integrated through mechanisms such as personnel planning. At the same time, reward systems, the way promotions are made, who gets trained and why, all have affects on motivation and say something about what kind of organization it is and what behaviors it wants to promote. HRM is about making sure such personnel practices convey a consistent message.

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A third connotation is to present HRM as having a distinctive philosophy understanding it, not just any set of values. This philosophy emphasizes securing employee commitment and motivation in organizations characterized by high-trust relations, with scope for employees to exercise influence. Management style and organizational culture then become an important focus for action in their own right. It is not enough that employment practices do not cohere, nor even that they should express the values of the organization. These values are of a particular kind.

These are the three common expressions of HRM. However, they cannot simply be added together to produce a complete theory or prescription. While the first proposition sits comfortably with the last, it is very easy, for example, to conceive of employment practices conditioned by a business strategy that depends on producing at lowest cost in an unstable product environment. Such a business might rely on low pay, part-time working, and hire-and-fire arrangements which enable it to respond rapidly to fluctuation in orders – in other words, to use casualization as an employment strategy.

Dock work once used to be like this, as the movement of cargo vessels changed by the day. If, on the other hand, employees have craft skills and/or high levels of effort are required in a concentrated period, casualization may be accompanied by high levels of pay – as in the construction industry. By this yardstick construction firms could be said to practice a kind of ‘HRM’.

When someone talks therefore about ‘creating excellence through a culture of commitment and managing cultures to create excellence, while arguing also for personnel policies being linked with corporate objectives and strategic plans, we should beware. Such rhetoric obscures potentially incompatible definitions and ignores the reality of employment systems. Let us look a little more closely, therefore, at what is contained in these definitions and begin to sketch some of the potential weaknesses in the principles themselves.

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Kylie Garcia

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