The Personnel Management Function in Ireland: Models and Prospects

Article excerpt

Patrick Gunnigle*


This paper reviews the development of the personnel function in Ireland, considers some key challenges facing the function and assesses prospects for the function as we face the next century. In tracing its development as a management function in Ireland, it is argued that the personnel function evolved towards a prevailing industrial relations ' orthodoxy. However, as a result of increased competitive pressures, we are now witnessing a dismantling of such orthodoxy. As yet no clear alternative path to IR orthodoxy is discernible. Rather, a range of alternative approaches are emerging, with the role of personnel function varying according to organizational and environmental contingencies.

Industrial Relations as the Key Personnel Activity

A critical theme emerging from a review of the historical development of the personnel function in Ireland is the predominance of industrial relations as the most significant area of personnel activity (see, for example, O'Mahony 1958; Shivanath 1987) . The growth of an industrial relations emphasis in personnel work was a direct result of the increasing influence of trade unions (McNamara et al 1988). After some initial opposition, employers came to accommodate the reality of organized labour and responded through multi-employer bargaining via employer associations and the employment of personnel practitioners whose primary role was to deal with industrial relations matters at enterprise level. The primacy of industrial relations within the personnel role reflected a widespread acceptance of the `pluralist model' incorporating primary reliance on adversarial collective bargaining.

The pluralist tradition was underpinned by public policy support and employer acceptance of trade union recognition and collective bargaining. For the personnel function, industrial relations became the priority with personnel practitioners vested with the responsibility to negotiate and police agreements. Industrial harmony was the objective and personnel specialists through their negotiating, inter-personal, and procedural skills had responsibility for its achievement. This industrial relations emphasis helped position the personnel function in a more central management role, albeit a largely reactive one.

A related factor which helped consolidate the personnel function as an important feature of the Irish management landscape was the major growth of employment legislation in the 1970s primarily focused on extending the individual employment rights of workers. These developments provided a industrial relations and quasijuridical basis of `expert power' for personnel practitioners: handling the complexities of collective bargaining and employment legislation.

The Lessons of the Market

While the historical development of the personnel function have helped shape its role, the most salient challenges for personnel management in recent years emanate from changes in market forces. The '1980s heralded a period of considerable turmoil for personnel management. A depressed economic climate together with increased competitive pressures, helped change both the focus of personnel management and the nature of personnel activities. Competitive pressures combined to set new priorities, forcing the personnel function to act under tighter cost controls and to undertake a wider range of activities. The harsh economic climate dramatically changed the industrial relations environment. Widespread redundancies and high unemployment significantly altered the bargaining context. Increasingly employers sought to address issues such as payment structures and levels of wage increases, the extent of demarcation and restrictive work practices and, ultimately, the erosion of managerial prerogative. In Ireland trade union membership fell significantly and industrial unrest also declined. At the same time increased market competition forced many organizations to seek ways of establishing competitive advantage. …