Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Soft or hard? – that is the question...

There are two versions of Human Resources Management:

The hard approach to HRM emphasizes the quantitative, calculative and business-strategic aspects of managing the headcount resource in as ‘rational’ a way as for any other economic factor. It adopts a business-oriented philosophy that emphasizes the need to manage people in ways that will obtain added value from them and thus achieve competitive advantage. It regards people as human capital from which a return can be obtained by investing judicially in their development. Fombrun quite explicitly presented workers as another key resource for managers to exploit. As Guest comments: “The drive to adopt HRM (…) is based on the business case of a need to respond to an external threat from increasing competition. It is a philosophy that appeals to managements who are striving to increase competitive advantage and appreciate that to do this they must invest in human resources as well as new technology.” He also commented that HRM “reflects a long-standing capitalist tradition in which the worker is regarded as a commodity”.

The emphasis is therefore on:

  • the interest of management,
  • adopting a strategic approach that is closely integrated with business strategy,
  • obtaining added value from people by the processes of human resource development and performance management,
  • the need for a strong corporate culture expressed in mission and value statements and reinforced by communications, training and performance management processes.

The soft model of HRM traces its roots to the human relations school, emphasizing communication, motivation and leadership. As described by Storey it involves “treating employees as valued assets, a source of competitive advantage through their commitment, adaptability and high quality (of skills, performance and so on)”. It therefore views employees, in the words of Guest, as means rather than objects. The soft approach to HRM emphasizes the need to gain the commitment – the ‘hearts and minds’ – of employees through involvement, communications and other methods of developing a high-commitment, high-trust organization. Attention is also drawn to the key role of organizational culture.

The focus is on ‘mutuality’ – a belief that the interests of management and employees can, indeed should, coincide. It is therefore a unitarist approach. In the words of Gennard and Judge, organizations are assumed to be ‘harmonious and integrated, all employees sharing the organizational goals and working as members of one team”.

It has, however, been observed by Truss that ‘even if the rhetoric of HRM is soft, the reality is often hard, with the interests of the organization prevailing over those of the individual”. Research carried out by Gratton found out that in the eight organization they studied, there was a mixture of hard and soft HRM approaches. This suggested to the researchers that the distinction between hard and soft HRM was not as precise as some commentators have implied.


Armstrong M., Strategic Human Resource Management. A Guide to Action., Kogan Page Ltd 2008

Read more: Strategic Human Resource Management

Fombrun Ch.J., Tichy N.M., Devanna M.A., Strategic human resource management, John Wiley & Sons 1984

Read more: Strategic human resource management

Gennard J., Judge G., Employee relations, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development 2005

Read more: Employee relations

Guest D.E., Human resource management - the workers' verdict [in:] Human Resource Management Journal, Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006

Read more: Human resource management - the workers' verdict

Storey J., Human Resource Management. A critical text., Thomson Learning 2007

Read more: Human Resource Management. A critical text

Truss C., Gratton L., Hope-Hailey V., McGovern P., Stiles P., Soft and Hard Models of Human Resource Management: A Reappraisal [in:] Journal of Management Studies, Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2007

Read more: Soft and Hard Models of Human Resource Management: A Reappraisal


  1. That's very useful info, thank u!

  2. I’ve heard before about soft and hard HRM, now I know exactly what does it mean

  3. ı realy lıked thıs ınformatıon realy usefull for me thanks

  4. I'm really glad that those informations are so useful for you!

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