The evolution of personnel management in the UK is well known. From its welfare origins before the First World War, it shifted its focus to labour management and staffing to the maintenance of consensus and the balance of interests through joint consultation and on to industrial relations bargaining and manpower planning in the 1960s/1970s. In the process, the range of tasks expanded, the fields of knowledge to support the necessary personnel skills were embellished, and the role shifted.
Personnel management as the satisfaction of mutual interests
The definition of personnel management, which the Institute of Personnel Management (IPM) adopted in 1963, retained much of the image of the personnel manager as the arbitrator, or man or woman in the middle.
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In the sense, by emphasizing the balancing role, this statement was more reflective of the 1940s when the IPM was formed and the emphasis was on managing consensus. The reality, however, was that personnel managers were being forced into giving up pretensions of professional neutrality in the 1960s/1970s by industrial relations strife and the need increasingly to be on the front line in defending the organization against disruption.
Meanwhile, Torrington and Chapman (1983) elaborated this balancing philosophy by proposing that what binds employees to the organizations is a series of implicit and explicit contracts.
Although this overplays the ethical role (as the profession has often tended to) these images of personnel work do faithfully capture the ‘juridical’ element, to do with policing agreements, which dominated through the 1970s. As Torrington has since put it: Legal wrangling became dominant in the 1970s, when a plethora of legislation protecting the rights of workers and trade unions gave managers a fright.
The work of personnel management in the 1970s was thus often dominated by negotiating formal collective employment contracts; ensuring adherence to these; dealing with unofficial action outside procedural agreements; and ensuring that the organization did not infringe individual rights in such areas as dismissal, equal opportunities, and health and safety.
The main difference between reality and the model proposed by the IPM, Torrington and Chapman, was that, rather than standing as a neutral go-between, the role shifted unequivocally towards representing the organization on these contractual matters, thereby counterbalancing the power of trade unions and individual rights enshrined in legislation. In turn, this helped to secure the personnel profession unprecedented status and the first personnel directors were appointed to many company boards.
In saying this, we have to be careful, or course, not to see al personnel work as to do with industrial relations (IR). The more technique-oriented tasks, such as the administration of recruitment and selection, and the management of training, went on largely governed by technique, and in large organizations these were often specialized functions within personnel departments. The IR manager, however, became the most important figure in the department, and IR the aspect of his or her role to which the personnel manager/director gave most attention.
In the idealization of personnel management at this time, there is considerable similarity with Harvad’s philosophy of HRM and its emphasis on mutuality. This ideal of personnel management, however, was being swallowed up by the pressures of industrial relations to become more partisan. By the same token, HRM is also vulnerable to real world pressures. Mutuality and high commitment and liable to be subordinated or distorted by other priorities. For both HRM now as for personnel management then, there is a big question-mark over whether the professional model accurately portrays practice and is sustainable.
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