Personnel management by chief executives

Legge identifies three differences between the two terms. Firstly HRM improves personnel management’s employee development by including development of the top management team. Secondly the role of line managers is highlighted as more proactive. Finally, HRM includes the firm’s culture as an important aspect of strategy. Fowler 1987 identifies the real difference as ‘not what it is, but who is saying it.

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In a nutshell HRM represents the discovery of personnel management by chief executives’. Advocators of Boxall’s viewpoint suggest that the terminology has triggered a new sophistication. Whereas advocators of Legge’s view consider it just to be a switch of words. For example, despite taking the other side of the argument Boxall notes that “Some writers have simply adopted the new terminology without radically reappraising the functionalist and prescriptive structure of their work. ‘There are for example a number of long-standing textbooks with new editions containing minor changes but a new title’. Overall Guest argues that the evidence is mixed (Boxall 1992)

HRM has emerged during the 1980s in both the US and the UK. Two new journals have been created: Human Resource Management Journal and International Journal of Human Resource Management replacing the Personnel Review. (Legge,1995) This suggests that HRM has emerged as a discipline. However a WIRSurvey of 1990 and a Warwick Company Levek survey of 1992 showed that only a small minority of personnel specialists have ‘human resource’ in their titles. Nevertheless, Legge (1995) notes that despite this, media evidence was not consistent with it, as the use of the terminology is evidential in news reports and newspapers for example.

The movement to a “new right” is in reference to the election of the Conservative Government in 1979 and its re-election in 1983 and 1987. The right wing were in favour of employees and very much against trade unions. They desired a reduction in trade union power, which reduced employee bargaining power. The view taken by Legge (1995) is that this action triggered the move towards human resource management. Firms took a more individualist approach to the workforce, rather than collective action. They involved workers, increased flexibility and were less afraid to undergo change. The threat of unions were considerably reduced, which meant firms had a greater freedom to launch initiatives. It can be argued that major companies could not have achieved what they have achieved without the agreement and cooperation of their unions (Legge, 1995).

However this is unlikely to be the only reason for the introduction of HRM, and thus it is more than just a reflection of the “new right”. One major reason is that simultaneously to the conservative government’s action, the 1980s experienced a period of high competition. Both business organisations and competition were becoming more and more globalised. This created the need for managers to implement successfully Human Resource strategies, in the hope of creating a competitive advantage. Strategic human resource management is difficult to achieve in the UK. (Storey ; Sisson 1993), “Everyday managerial practice fails to match the ‘beau ideal’ by some considerable measure.”

Overall neither viewpoint is perfect. There is evidence that HRM is becoming increasingly popular – both as an area of academic debate and as a strategic option. The situation seems to be more complex than just a result of the “new right”. Also HRM is not an entirely “new” sophistication, as it largely evolves around the theory of personnel management. I take a different standpoint, recognising the conservatism influence on its advancements, and suggest that it is a new advancement in the area of employment relations.

“As with a hologram, HRM changes its appearance as we move around its image….HRMism appears to be a moving target, and why, empirically, it has no fixed (fixable) forms.” (Keenoy, 1999) HRM is not yet a perfect ‘silver bullet’. There are problems of integrating the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elements of HRM. Also there is a lack of continuity in the literature. (Edwards,1995)


Boxall, P. 1992: “Strategic Human Resource Management: Beginnings of a New Theoretical Sophistication” Human Resource Management Journal, 2:3, pp60-79

Edwards, Paul et al. 1998: “Great Britain: From Partial Collectivism to Neo-Liberalism to Where?” in Anthony Ferner and Richard Hyman (eds.) Changing Industrial Relations in Europe Oxford: Blackwell