Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review: The Development of Human Resource Management Across Nations

My friend Bruce Kaufman has produced yet another stimulating and important book. It is easy to think that good human resource management (HRM) practices are universal. Shouldn’t all workers be carefully selected into jobs that are a good fit, provided with feedback and opportunities for development, treated with respect, and rewarded for performance? But too much emphasis on universal best practices can lead to an ethnocentric mindset in which the historical, cultural, and institution-specific aspects of HRM are under-valued and overlooked, if not dismissed and rejected. Indeed, unlike many volumes of labor history and a variety of books comparing industrial relations systems across countries, very little has been written about the history of HRM and its comparative patterns. Into this void steps Kaufman with an ambitious effort to bring together experts to trace the development of HRM up to the present in 17 diverse countries.

The Development of Human Resource Management Across Nations: Unity and Diversity (Bruce E. Kaufman, ed., Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014) follows a one-country-per-chapter structure along with a comprehensive introduction by Kaufman that sets an appetizing table by presenting the multiple contribution of this unique edited volume. I strongly applaud the diverse set of countries included. The roster goes beyond the usual Anglo and European suspects to also include Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey. Moreover, Kaufman intentionally relied on natives of each country to lessen American ethnocentric perspectives and ensure access to materials written in original languages. The result is impressive, including some chapters that represent the first time that a country’s development of HRM has been published, not only in English but in any language.

Some of the details are fascinating. You don’t want to miss influential incidents or phenomena like the Revolta das Panelas, the human capital stock system, “Pali! Pali!,” the Marcia dei quarantamilia, or the Stakhanov movement. More substantively, you shouldn’t miss the commonalities (all organizations manage people in one way or another), but even more so, the unique political, cultural, and historical factors involved in the evolution of HRM across this stimulating group of countries. In none of these countries is HRM a new phenomenon—again, all organizations manage people in one way or another—and nowhere is HRM immune to larger trends like globalization, world wars, and technological change. And I particularly appreciate the extent to which the chapters show that the development of HRM everywhere is inextricably linked to industrial relations and labor movements; HRM is not something distinct and unrelated.

But unique trajectories within the countries really force one to stop and think about the influences on HRM. And while all of this is undoubtedly interesting for those who like history, the importance goes much deeper because all of today’s HRM system are a product of their own development. The successes, failures, and constraints revealed by each historical record has a lot to tell us about today’s strategies, and tomorrow’s possibilities and challenges. This should be very stimulating for researchers and professionals alike. And on a narrower basis, for scholars interested in comparative research or professionals facing assignments in a specific country, this volume can also be tremendously beneficial by providing the institutional background for deeper excursions and successful ventures relating to specific countries.

Kaufman’s introductory chapter to the volume sets the stage for a theme of convergence v. divergence that runs throughout the country-specific chapters. This is important. What’s not made as clear is that the country experiences also all reflect the changing influence of different frames of reference on the employment relationship which translates into different preferred approaches for managing human resources. Neoliberalism, pluralism, unitarism, and in some countries, even Marxist revolutionary thought, all dominate at different times and yield specific HRM patterns and practices. Moreover, a related-yet-unstated theme is that the evolution of different HRM patterns and practices can be understood as the struggle of employment relationship actors to achieve the key objectives of the employment relationship—especially efficiency, equity, and voice—against a backdrop of a particular set of cultural, historical, institutional, political, and competitive factors that prioritize certain objectives while also pointing toward specific strategies for their achievement. In other words, not only do all organizations throughout time have to manage employees one way or another, but they do so, implicitly or explicitly, with certain goals and assumptions in mind and in the face of various constraints. I've written about this in various blog posts (one example, another example), and this volume provides a fascinating breadth of contexts in which we can see these challenges evolve.

In closing, this is an important and interesting book that should be of value to HRM professionals and researchers from diverse fields. The motivation for the volume is compelling, and the execution is well-done. Today’s debates over best practices, strategic HRM, and the determinants of HR practices have finally been given their historical foundations in a diverse set of countries, and scholars and managers should embrace this opportunity to understand the evolution of HRM practices and the implications for today’s research and practice. I would like to see two things, however. First, the publisher should price the book lower to make the volume more accessible, especially to students and to readers worldwide. Two, it would be fascinating to see a second volume that further diversifies the coverage of this volume, especially into Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, and Africa beyond South Africa. But this isn’t meant to take anything away from what Kaufman and his team of authors have produced. I highly recommend The Development of Human Resource Management Across Nations as you will be stimulated by the unity and diversity of the development of HRM—broadly defined to include employment relations and public policy—from many corners of the globe.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Reflections On My Own Work Experiences

In my May blog posting, I reviewed a new book by Grant Michelson and Shaun Ryan called Just Work. In the tradition of Studs Terkel’s famous book WorkingJust Work gives voice to 30 workers. Actually, they gave voice to 32 workers because although they modestly relegated themselves to an appendix, they shared their personal narratives of their own work experiences. Because work can be a deeply personal experience, it was great to see these authors putting themselves into the same position as their research subjects while also self-reflecting as well reflecting. And they inspired me to do the same…

My family tree is full of occupations typical of various eras—homemakers of many types, toolmaker, cigar maker, rope maker, teacher, innkeeper, coal miner, tailor, mariner, produce dealer, farmer, woodcutter, soldier, cemetery-mover (when Lake Zoar was created), laborers of many types, and even a judge. Both of my grandfathers were electricians in the navy yards and factories of the eastern United States (and hence both suffered from asbestos-induced health problems) and both of my grandmothers were homemakers, with one of them becoming a librarian after her children were grown. My father was a Coast Guard officer; my mother was a teacher before transitioning to a variety of administrative positions, one of which she still works at today in her mid-70s. My stepfather is a retired engineer and jack of many trades, and my stepmother is a nurse.

I had my first formal job when I was 14 years old. I was the janitor for the Huntington (CT) United Methodist Church and the preschool that met there during the week. I remember having to delay playing with friends to instead ride my bike there most days after school, and getting chased many times by a dog on Walnut Tree Hill Road. I was there by myself so it was a little eerie, and during the summer it was also particularly challenging fighting with the floor waxing machine. In high school, I followed a friend and his sister to work at Colonial [Caterers] of Hickory Hill in Stratford. This was a free-standing wedding reception hall so the work was exclusively on weekends, usually as a busboy, but sometimes as a waiter or dishwasher. The work was intense. A “four-party weekend” consisted of arriving at 5pm on Friday to set-up for a reception that ran 7pm-midnight, then cleaning up and setting up until 2am for the next one. Then it was a late Saturday morning arrival for a noon-5pm reception followed by intense clean-up/set-up for another 7pm-midnight reception, and then another reception on Sunday. Phew! I remember that all of the busboys, waiters, and waitresses either worked just once, or many times. So it was a good group of regular workers because those who couldn’t take it (like two other of our friends) left after only weekend and never returned. We worked really hard, but had a lot of fun. At that time, I also worked during the week at a correspondence school where my mother was an administrator (County Schools on Main Street in Bridgeport). I did copying, mailroom tasks, and other things that needed doing. We listened to Imus in the Morning on WNBC (AM), had Merritt Canteen chili dogs for lunch, and listened to Howard Stern become famous in the afternoon.

I went to a private high school for my junior and senior years, so I could no longer work at County Schools during the school year. So I gave my job to a friend. The next summer, I didn’t want to step on his toes so I decided to skip working at County Schools and instead got a janitorial job at a real factory via a placement service. I’m not overly social and I’m fine being alone, but for some reason this felt like the two loneliest weeks of my life. I’m sure others worked there (obviously!), but I don’t remember any people or faces, just sweeping and mopping around pallets of things, and eating lunch in my car by myself. Compared to the fun I had with peers at County Schools and Colonial Caterers, this was dreadful. So in addition to working again at Colonial Caterers, I went back to County Schools.

The private high school I attended for two years had extra-long Christmas and Spring breaks. Who needs extra workers at Christmas time? A Christmas tree farm, so I wrote a letter (how quaint!) to Jones Christmas Tree Farm in Huntington, and spent two holiday seasons there. Since I could work all week, I worked the pre-cut lot and remember struggling to pull stout blue spruce trees through the chute to wrap them with mesh for easier handling by the customers. To this day I still have a Jones Christmas Tree Farm knit hat that smells of pine! They also hired me during spring break to walk the farm and put a coffee can worth of lime in a circle around each of the growing trees. I would be white as a ghost at the end of windy days—that was “fun,” and undoubtedly “fun” too, for my mom who was doing my laundry (sorry Mom).

I went off to college at Colgate University, and tried to enjoy my first semester by reading the New York Times and not working at all. But I think I took things too easy, and it was my worst academic semester grade-wise. My later-to-be-wife but then-new-acquaintance was on work-study so she was working a lot of hours in the dining hall, and she teased me about doing nothing except reading the New York Times (hmm…norms about being a productive member of society?). So in the spring of my freshman year, I followed her lead and started working in the dining hall in the Bryan complex (later, a little in Cutten, too). Working in the dishroom was particularly fun for some reason (having nothing to do with the occasional food fight with various college girls I’m sure). I made friends not only with other student workers, but with some of the full-time workers who lived in the area, too—but not with one cook who was particularly nasty. I spent 3½ years working there, including nearly three as a student manager. My later-to-be-wife, of course, became student manager before me. I still remember that I was working in the dishroom at Cutten listening to the radio when the Challenger space shuttle tragically exploded. Looking back, working in the Bryan dining hall was one of the strongest constants of my college life, and was the only thing that connected me to anyone besides students and faculty.  

Like every other economics major in the northeastern United States at that time, I had visions of striking it rich on Wall Street. My mother and stepfather had gone to high school with someone who was a vice president at the investment bank Kidder Peabody when I was in college, and from that connection I spent the summers after my sophomore, junior, and senior years working there in fixed income research. I lived at home in Connecticut and had quite the commute—driving to the Bridgeport train station, Metro North to Grand Central, the Lex Ave express subway to Wall Street, and a brisk walk to Hanover Square in lower Manhattan. As just a summer worker, I was probably the last to arrive and the first to leave, and yet the days were exhausting (and that was without any non-work obligations). Nonetheless, it was a fantastic experience working in New York City. I even got to cover the collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO) trading desk for a couple of hours when the two traders had to be away (probably in violation of some securities law). And I still remember that because the bond traders and salespeople couldn’t leave the floor during the day, every morning we got to fill out an extensive menu choosing whatever we wanted for lunch, and it would be delivered free of charge at lunchtime.

I’m not sure how much value I created for Kidder Peabody. I don’t think my model to predict the BusinessWeek’s industrial production index made them much money. And I think my efforts to predict when a CMO would be called based on identifying the characteristics of the underlying mortgage securities were quite crude (in a retrospect, too bad others didn’t learn a lesson from this difficulty before the 2008 financial crisis). But I learned three important things of value to me. I enjoyed being part of the intellectual workforce, but I hated commuting in such big metropolitan area and I disliked doing what others wanted me to (wearing a suit every day, especially on the subway during the hot evening commute, wasn’t much fun either). So before I even worked my last summer at Kidder Peabody after graduating from Colgate, I knew that I was going in a different direction—onto an economics PhD program. [For completeness, I also had a brief internship in London during a junior semester abroad—I think it was with a tire manufacturer, but my memory is hazy. Too many pints of bitter at lunch perhaps.]

After all those jobs between age 14 and 21, my adult work narrative becomes less varied. I was a research assistant and a teaching assistant at Princeton during my PhD studies, and since then I’ve only had one formal job—a professor at the University of Minnesota. Growing up primarily in the northeastern United States, I never imagined myself living in the tundra—at least that’s what we thought Minnesota was. But here I am, why? Because of work. The University of Minnesota offered me a great job as an assistant professor 25 years ago, and I’m still here. So I guess something must have clicked. Why industrial relations? At Colgate I majored in economics and in math, and then chose graduate study in economics because it seemed more connected to real-world things. Imagine my surprise when I got to Princeton and found out that economics at that level is mostly abstract math. So I gravitated toward labor economics and development economics as being the most grounded, and within that I further gravitated toward labor relations issues as, at first, being fascinating, and then later on, as being more amenable to multidisciplinary study which is something I particular enjoy. 

Even though I’ve only had one job for 25 years (wow!), of course this one job is much more complex than my earlier jobs, and within it I’ve had varied roles—not only as a researcher and a teacher, but also as a Director of Graduate Studies, department chair, and in various service roles. The rewards are similarly complex. It has allowed me to support my family for which I am grateful. I have enjoyed tremendous autonomy which facilitates creativity and lifelong learning. My job has enabled me to interact with people from many different cultures, whether in classrooms here in Minneapolis or at conference venues, and an occasional pub, scattered around the globe. I have been able to develop teaching strategies and write books to shape student thinking, which has hopefully created more good than working on Wall Street. I have a stimulating set of colleagues who do amazing things in their research, their teaching, or their support of faculty and students (though no friendly food fights). And so on and so forth. Of course, there are many stressors, too, deriving from many of the same factors that generate these rewards, and magnified by the realities of having obligations outside of work (unlike when I worked at my earlier jobs). But I have to say that being a professor is a great job, at least for me. At practical level, it is work unlike any other job I’ve had, and unlike most other jobs period; at a conceptual level, it is work exactly like all other.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Thoughts on an Earlier Book, Just Work

In my previous post, I reviewed a new book called "Just Work." The funny thing is, this isn't the first book that I've reviewed with this title. Here is my earlier review of Russell Muirhead's book Just Work (Harvard University Press, 2004).

The clever title of Dartmouth government professor Russell Muirhead’s book reflects the tension inherent in the nature of work. On the one hand, there is the societal pressure on individuals to “just work”—don’t complain, don’t fight it, just get to work. Work is a necessary evil to support consumption, others, or God. On the other hand, there is the demand of individuals on society to provide “just work”—work that fulfills principles of justice and respects the dignity of workers as human beings. Just Work therefore tackles the centuries-old issue of the meaning of work: “What should we expect from work? Should the promise of work be restricted to its instrumental value—to the wages it brings? Is it right to invest work with the deeper promise of fulfillment?” (p. 3).

The powerful and thought-provoking central theme developed in Just Work to address these questions is “fit”—just and meaningful work is work that fits. As a political theorist, Muirhead’s first task is to justify fit rather than freedom as the standard for just work, especially against the backdrop of the liberal market ethos of the 21st century. The author argues that a liberal political regime provides freedom while requiring citizens to work. The fact that we must work then necessarily gives legitimacy to questions about the quality of that work. Furthermore, democracy is premised on self-determination and equality. Work that degrades the human condition or provides rewards to a lucky few runs counter to these democratic principles. Fit better than freedom also captures the common associations between work and human dignity, and also better recognizes that freedom in the world of work is often imperfect. The quality of work—fit—is thus a legitimate subject for modern democracies; freedom alone does not suffice as the standard for work. These arguments provide the basis not only for a richer conception of just work, but also for re-introducing the subject of work back into political theory. If justice is simply choice, then there is nothing special about work in political theory. But if fit defines work in a democratic society, work deserves special attention by political theorists (and politicians).

So what is fit? Muirhead defines fit through two dimensions, social fit and personal fit. Social fit captures the extent to which individual abilities match what society needs done. Personal fit considers the extent to which work is personally fulfilling. A key contribution of Just Work is exploring the tensions between social fit and personal fit which have characterized visions of work back to at least Plato and Aristotle.

In Plato’s simple city, jobs are all focused on contributing to the common good. Strong but simple individuals are laborers, smart but weak individuals are merchants. Social fit is maximized, but at the expense of personal fit—what if someone doesn’t want to be a laborer, or a merchant? Aristotle, in contrast, elevates the importance of human capacities and by extension personal fit—even if a job serves the common good, it should not be allowed to stunt an individual’s personal growth. The parallels with the liberal market economy of the 21st century are surprisingly striking. The political system of ancient Greece has been replaced by the invisible hand of the market, but the end result is the same. Markets are very powerful for channeling individuals and resources into their socially-optimal uses, albeit with a narrowly-defined construction of social value rooted in consumerism and marginal productivity justice. But what happens when markets produce sweatshops and assembly lines that degrade human capabilities? This again is the tension between social fit and personal fit, with personal fit unjustly dominated by the demands of social fit in today’s global economy.

So instead let’s structure work to be personally fulfilling. Not so fast warns Just Work—a wholesale focus on personal fit is equally problematic as a wholesale focus on social fit. Muirhead shows how Betty Friedan, by largely ignoring the realities of the full range of good and bad jobs that society needs completed and by inflating work to be the single source of human fulfillment, raised the standard of work so high that it was impossible to fulfill. And in her later writings, Friedan abandoned the personal fulfillment element of work and focused instead on pay. Just Work therefore advocates a more nuanced middle-ground—work should contain elements of both personal and social fit. In other words, what’s needed is a balance—consistent with my contentions in Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice (Cornell University Press, 2004). That the competing dimensions will only be partially satisfied is better and more stable than the extremes.

In this way, Just Work provides a reality check for all sides of the employment debate. To the aristocrats of old and the free market advocates of today, the reality check is the issue of personal fit. It is not acceptable to let markets and political systems structure work solely for good of others without consideration for the human effects on individual workers. To social reformers and other advocates of fulfilling work, the reality check is the issue of social fit. The “stinginess of nature” means that unpleasant jobs will always need to be done. We cannot survive by only doing pleasant tasks that are intellectually stimulating and fulfilling. These are very valuable reality checks that we all ignore at our own peril.

What’s murky, however, is the extent to which we have to accept the reigning vision of social needs instead of re-shaping this vision to be more just. This is particularly problematic in the area of traditional work standards. Muirhead forcefully focuses personal fit on the non-material aspects of work. In fact, the evolution (or degeneration) of the Protestant work ethic to the current pecuniary emphasis on work as supporting consumption is roundly criticized for losing work’s intrinsic purpose. It’s unclear then where standards like minimum wages, health insurance, and nondiscrimination emerge—standards that Muirhead admits in passing are also critical for just work. Along these lines, for a book so firmly rooted in the intersection of human dignity, political theory, and the employment relationship, the omission of human rights instruments from the analysis is also surprising.

Just Work simultaneously reveals the power and the frustration of scholarship on work. Scholars from many disciplines work on questions of work. This can be very stimulating as we learn from others with very different perspectives. But with different frames of reference and terminology, communication and cross-fertilization can be difficult. To an industrial relations scholar, Just Work’s omission of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, John R. Commons, and others who championed the moral element of work and analyzed the importance of employee voice and self-actualization misses a rich opportunity for the further development of critical ideas. Yet to an industrial relations scholar, the book’s reliance on Plato, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, Betty Friedan, and Alasdair MacIntyre is freshly provocative and provides new ways to look at traditional employment issues. Just Work is poised to re-insert work back into political theory scholarship, but I hope this future scholarship is increasingly integrated into other perspectives that study work.

Some readers might also be frustrated by Muirhead’s lack of direct discussion of solutions to the dilemmas of work. The disapproval of assembly lines, sweatshops, the hyper-flexible workplace, and a lack of living wage is clear, and the natural next step is to take the author’s framework of personal and social fit and translate it into action for policy makers, unions, human resources professionals, and other actors. For example, one implication seems to be that unions should better promote a balance between social and personal fit. This might be achieved by what I call “employee empowerment unionism” in Employment with a Human Face in which unions negotiate the parameters and provide support for increased individual decision-making in the workplace. Many such implications lie just below the surface of Just Work but drawing them out is not its purpose. Rather, Just Work is successful at fulfilling a more profound goal by showing the fundamental importance of personal and social fit for understanding the meaning of work in modern democracies.

While well-written, Just Work is not an easy read. Nor should it be. Muirhead’s analysis of the tensions—some might say contradictions—inherent in the nature and meaning of work is very thoughtful and realistic. As I also argue in my book The Thought of Work (Cornell University Press, 2009), work is complicated. Freedom can promote fit, or restrict it. Personal and social fit both support and undermine each other. Work should be valued highly so that human dignity is respected, but not so highly that dignity only stems from work. This is not the place for slogans, rhetoric, or simplistic one-size-fits-all solutions. The persistent reader will be greatly rewarded. Just read Just Work.