How Real Is the Rhetoric? A Survey of American HR Managers' Views about HRM

Article excerpt

One of the criticisms that has been persistently levelled against Human Resource Management (HRM) is that it represents an academic as opposed to applied discipline. The paper recognises the criticism that there is a distinction between the rhetoric and the reality of HRM. It attempts to contribute to a broader understanding of HRM primarily by focussing attention upon the thinking of HR practitioners. The paper reports the results of a survey of HR managers' views about key issues pertaining to HRM literature, for example, reward systems, employee participation, training and development, and the role of trade unions. Generally, the survey revealed that these HR managers (N = 110), who are based in the United States of America, considered both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards as important, had favourable attitudes to employee participation, and recognised the strategic nature of training and development. Further, the responses of the HR managers supported the view that trade unions should be concerned with issues beyond pay and working conditions (indicating some support of trade unionism), though the respondents also tended towards the view that trade unions do not act in organisations' economic interests. The implications of the findings are discussed in relation to the rhetoric/reality debate.

Over the last two decades, Human Resource Management (HRM) has attracted tremendous attention from researchers, theorists and practitioners. HRM has developed into a major academic discipline in its own right. Arguably, HRM has become one of the most widely researched topics in the field of management and organisational theory: as Becker & Huselid (1999) point out, the field is 'coming of age'. Theories of what constitute HRM abound (see Storey, 1995; 2001). Further, debate continues regarding issues such as: the definition of HRM (Storey, 2001), the most efficacious model of HRM for organisational performance (Boxhall, 1996), the universal applicability of Anglo-Saxon models of HRM (Budhwar & Debrah, 2001), and the extent to which HRM should be considered strategic at all (Porter, 1996).

The attainment of consensus over these issues may be seen by some as fundamental to the recognition of HRM as a recognisable managerial, as opposed to academic, discipline. Yet, for those who are keen to establish the identity of HRM, there is another issue that casts a long shadow over the HRM discourse. One of the most poignant debates that has emerged in HRM literature in recent years surrounds the 'rhetoric/reality distinction' (for example, see Guest & Peccei, 1994; Legge, 1995; Francis, 2002). This debate centres on whether a polarisation has occurred between writers and practitioners in the field: in the words of Foley, Maxwell & McGillivray (1999: 164), HRM literature has "...largely focused on defining the meaning of HRM while eschewing the central concerns of HR practitioners... ".

In essence, there is an existent viewpoint that academics and practitioners constitute two discrete groups that exert minimal influence on the other, that is, that academics produce their HRM 'rhetoric' whilst the HRM practitioners get on with the 'reality' of managing people in the workplace. As Kane, Crawford & Grant (1999: 496) state: "A number of studies of HRM have found that in spite of the amount of theoretically and empirically-based advice available in the literature, many organisations fail to take up what are seen to be effective approaches to HRM". Similarly, Armstrong (2000) argues strongly that a rhetoric/reality distinction has become apparent in the field. He cites a range of writers who: "...mention the 'rhetoric' of HR practitioners, but should more accurately have referred to the rhetoric of the HR academics who have been debating what HRM means, how different it is, whether or not it is a good thing, indeed, whether or not it exists, endlessly and unproductively. Practitioners have pressed on regardless, in the justified belief that what the academics were writing about had little relevance to their day to day lives as they wrestle with the realities of organisational life" (p. …