Think of what would make for a lousy job. Low wages, long hours, little autonomy, autocratic managers. Scholars call this a low-road or hard human resource management (HRM) approach. But is low-road HRM really HRM? In a practical sense, yes it is--it’s certainly one way for managing human resources, so in a definitional way, it's a form of HRM. But intellectually, I think it’s better to reject low-road HRM as HRM so that we can better appreciate the differing assumptions and implications of varied approaches to managing people. For practice-oriented readers, think of this as an opportunity to think about what HRM really means. For scholarly readers, this allows us to see the hard unitarism frame of reference as the oxymoron that I assert it is.
The British industrial sociologist Alan Fox is widely-credited with first identifying the unitarist and pluralist frames of reference in industrial relations, and then adding a third, radical frame. In my own work, I’ve added a fourth: an individualistic, egoist frame that focuses on individual self-interest. In the forthcoming Finding a Voice at Work? New Perspectives on Employment Relations (Oxford University Press), edited by two UK employment relations scholars, Stewart Johnstone and Peter Ackers, I was pleased to see Bruce Kaufman use my four frames of reference. But two chapters continue to use Fox’s three-dimensional framework.
I think this is problematic because both low-road and high-road HRM strategies are forced into the unitarist frame of reference. This is done by distinguishing between hard and soft unitarism. In the words of Johnstone and Ackers (p. 2),
Old fashioned ‘hard’ unitarists assume that...the best approach is for management to command and control the organization. Work rules and strong management are believed to be needed to ensure workers perform as required.
To me, this contradicts the central premise of unitarism that the employment relationship is largely characterized by a unity of shared interests among employers and employees. That is, if workers need to be aggressively controlled and commanded, then there isn't a set of shared of interests. Unilateralism is not unitarism. Admittedly, unitarism can have an element of unilateralism because human resource management is often determined with little employee input. But unitarist human resources practices are designed with the objective of benefitting employees and their organization through high-commitment policies that create win-win interest alignment. A low-road employer that unilaterally slashes wages or benefits simply because it can is exercising a very different kind of unilateralism—a kind that I don’t think warrants the label “unitarism.” Indeed, a command-and-control management strategy is probably better seen as emerging from a radical frame of reference in that this employment relationship is highly conflictual and rooted in hierarchical power differentials.
A second description of hard unitarism in Finding a Voice at Work? is seemingly more congruent with my requirement that unitarism involve shared interests:
There is a ‘hard unitarism’, which typically is grounded in economics and which is most fully developed in the ‘the new economics of personnel’. In this formulation it is the capacity of managers to offer financial incentives on both an immediate and a deferred basis that produces the congruence of interests between workers and employers” (Ed Heery, pp. 21-22).
But this, too, is problematic because financial incentives do not really produce a congruence of interests. Rather, incentives are designed to provide the worker with a self-interest to act in the interest of the employer. Indeed, the need for incentives in the first place comes from a belief that workers and organizations are each selfish and will act in their own self-interest.
Admittedly, this is a subtle distinction, but ultimately this is a different way of thinking about the employment relationship than what underlies the high-road HRM model. So I think it is better replace Heery's version of hard unitarism with an individualistic frame of reference. I call this an egoist frame of reference in which the egoist employment relationship is rooted in the pursuit of individual self-interest by rational agents in economic markets. Employers and employees engage in voluntary, mutually-beneficial transactions to buy and sell units of productive labor based on the what the market will bear. If the organization’s HRM policies are not in the worker’s self-interest, she will quit.
The need for this frame of reference is reinforced by the confusion that can come from mistakenly equating unitarism to neoliberalism. Neoliberalism embraces laissez-faire economic policies and the operation of so-called free markets. So forms of human resource management that emphasize adherence to markets, such as imposing wage cuts when unemployment is high, are consistent with neoliberalism. But they are not rooted in unitarism. So maybe there should be hard egoism (emphasizing markets) and soft egoism (emphasizing incentives), but not not hard unitarism.