Empirical Research on Human Resource Management as a Production of Ideology**

By Nienhueser, Werner | Management Revue, October 1, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Empirical Research on Human Resource Management as a Production of Ideology**


Nienhueser, Werner, Management Revue


The article argues that empirical research on Human Resource Management creates a one-sided, distorted image of the reality of work and thus generates ideology. Such an ideology legitimises HR practices and favours the interests of entrepreneurs and managers. This assertion is illustrated and discussed using the case of empirical research in HRM in German-speaking countries, although the ideology assertion should also be valid for Anglo-Saxon countries. It is shown that HRM research mainly follows employer objectives; it primarily analyses performance-related variables. The surveyed HR practices focus on "High Performance Works Systems", while other HR practices are largely ignored. Mainly organisational elites (managers, experts and other highly qualified employees) are surveyed as personnel and provide information about the situation in companies. Empirical research paints a unitaristic picture; depicting the employer and the role of HR management positively. Deviations from an employee-friendly HR strategy are overlooked or seen as relatively rare anomalies.

Key words: ideology, power empirical research, images of work (JEL: C80, D22, M12)

So few reports. So few questions.

(So wenig Berichte. So wenig Fragen.)

(according to Bertolt Brecht and Volker Braun)

1. Research objectives and approach

The thesis of this article is: the empirical research in Human Resource Management1 creates a wrong image of the reality of work. This image serves as the affirmation of relevant actions and values related to human resources - especially in the interest of entrepreneurs and managers. In short - current empirical research in HRM is generating ideology.

I contend that research in Human Resource Management (HRM) mainly focuses on economic aims and employer objectives and rather neglects employee interests as a starting point for research. Mainly those variables are analysed which refer to work performance. Priority is given to "High Performance Work Systems", i.e. clusters of HR practices including comparatively favourable features for employees. Less favourable HR practices, which are by no means characterised by a careful handling of "human resources", are omitted. HR strategies which run contrary to employee interests and can be observed at discount chains like Aldi, Lidi and Schlecker (see e.g. VossDahm, 2009; Bormann, 2007) or at companies like McDonald's (Royle, 2000) - to take just a few examples here - are ignored to a large extent. When these strategies are brought into focus, they seem to appear as rather scarce and disappearing phenomena in the general view, and which are practically swept away by the competition for "valuable human resources", the so-called "War for Talent" (von der Oelsnitz, Stein, & Hahmann, 2007). The information generating the empirical view, i.e. the image of corporate HR management, mainly derive from the organisational elites which also form the group that empirical HRM research focuses on. All these points together generate an euphemistic view of corporate HR management which also contributes to firewalling given practices against criticism and changes.

Such ideological HRM research2 would clearly contradict the ideal conceptions, which may be shared by many, if not most people engaged in empirical HRM research (for aims and objectives of HRM research cf. e.g. Matiaske, 2004; Drumm, 1993; Martin, 1994): The purpose of empirical research should be to formulate (theoretically based) empirical hypotheses and test them in order to describe and explain reality. Empirical statements can be interesting as descriptions of conditions, changes or relations between elements of reality and can be consulted in order to corroborate theories (or as some would argue: in order to develop theories on the basis of empirical data). In addition, they could form the starting point of the development of practical respectively social-technological statements or the criticism of conditions.

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