Academic journal article Management International Review

What Do HR Managers Really Do? HR Roles on International Projects

Academic journal article Management International Review

What Do HR Managers Really Do? HR Roles on International Projects

Article excerpt


* The contribution of the HR function in supporting international business operations has received limited attention to date, with even less attention paid to HR roles.

* This article seeks to address this by studying the role of HR managers on international projects.

* We identify five IHR roles: service provider, policy police, strategic partner, change agent; and welfare officer.

* We also identify how these roles are enacted, questioning the prevailing divide between strategic and operational roles; and adding another dimension--emotional.

* We also argue that role enactment is context-specific; and show how context constrains as well as enables IHR role enactment.

Keywords: HR roles * Role enactment * IHR function * International project operations * Contextualizing HR


Despite the growth of the field of international human resource (IHR) management, little is known about the role of HR departments and managers in servicing different international operations (Brewster et al. 2005). In a rare contribution on the topic, Stiles and Trevor (2006, p. 63) make the point that "little attention has been given to the delivery of many HR practices and the designer of HR systems, the HR department". In those instances where the role of the IHR function is discussed, it tends to be in relation to the perceived need for a more strategic I HR role. For example, Novicevic and Harvey (2001) advocate that Corporate HR staff redefine their traditional role as bureaucratic administrators and become 'influencers' over areas of subsidiary practices. Yet there is little international research evidence that, in general, the HR department has strategic influence (Stiles and Trevor 2006). Further, it would seem that the push for HR academics and practitioners to consider business outcomes has shifted attention from the implementation side of HR (Khilji and Wang 2006).

In this article, we follow the recommendation of Welbourne (2011, p. 167) and 'get out into the jungle', looking at how HR managers are involved in international business operations. The chosen research site is that of the international project: a temporary organization governed by contractual requirements, and formed to deliver a service to an external client (Welch et al. 2008). By its very nature, the international project is heavily staff dependent and can involve considerable international mobility. Given the emphasis on human resources, one could expect that HR departments in international project companies are actively involved at all stages of the project cycle. Traditional IHR activities related to employee selection, deployment and support are critical to successful project outcomes. International projects utilize the full range of assignment types: traditional expatriate, short term, rotational, and business visits. Furthermore, project operations involve different activities and parties than the traditional headquarter-subsidiary relationship. The international project, therefore, provides a theoretically rich setting in which to examine the following research questions: what are the roles of HR managers in an international project setting? How do IHR managers enact these roles?

Our purpose is to extend existing theory related to the role of HR managers to the international domain, and thus generate new theoretical insights for IHRM. The paper is structured as follows. First, we review the literature on HR roles, which provides the theoretical basis for our investigation. We then introduce our research setting and explain our methodological approach. In our findings section, we identify and categorize the IHR roles across our five participating companies, accounting for cross-company similarities and differences. As a result of our analysis, we modify and enrich the existing literature on HR roles, and question the strategic versus operational divide prevalent in current literature. …

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