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Societal contingency of HR managerial power sources: The relevance of experience and academic degree of HR executives for HR managers' strategic positions

Conference paper
Authors Astrid Reichel
Julia Brandl
Freddy Hällsten
Wolfgang Mayrhofer
Published in IFSAM – International Federation of Scholarly Associations of Management, June 26th – 29th 2012, University of Limerick, Ireland
Publication year 2012
Published at Department of Business Administration
Department of Business Administration, Management & Organisation
Language en
Keywords HRM, managerial power, HR executives, strategic integration
Subject categories Economics and Business


The pursuit of power is a central topic in human resource management research. Max Weber defined power as "the probability that one actor in a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his (sic) will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests" (p. 152, Theory of Social & Economic Organization). Understanding the factors that shape power is important because the contribution of HR managers depends on their authority in an organization [i.e. ability to exert influence on organizational members]. A well established view among HR scholars is that HR managers have difficulties to acquire authority in organizations by demonstrating the impact of their activities (on organizational performance) because implementing HR activities requires a long-term perspective and allocating responsibility for effects to the HR specialist unit is difficult since many organizational members are involved in managing personnel (Galang & Ferris, 1997; Purcell & Ahlstrand, 1994; Tsui & Gomes-Mejia, 1988). Given the constraints of taking results into consideration, what factors do organizations look at for staffing HR executive positions? Contemporary research examining factors that shape power of HR managers in organizations has pointed to the importance of the HR manager’s expertise and style as important factor to develop confidence that he/she conducts HR work properly. Investigations taking up this view have analyzed the HR manager’s use of impression management tactics (Galang & Ferris, 1997), fit with signals from senior management (Kelly & Gennard, 2000) and negotiated rolerelationships with multiple constituents (Truss, Gratton, Hope-Hailey, Stiles, & Zaleska, 2002). Strong support for the argument that power depends on perceptions of expertise comes from neo-institutional approaches, however with a different view on the locus of power sources. According to this perspective, the sources of power are shaped by rationalities prevailing in institutional settings (Thornton & Ocascio, 1999: 802). The rules that operate in institutional settings shape understandings of organizations about useful characteristics of HR executives. This means that whatever influence tactics HR executives expose, whether or not they are successful relies on the fit of these tactics with distinct rules of institutional settings. [These rules remain largely out of their influence sphere according to neo-institutional approaches.] While the historical contingency of power sources has received some attention in previous 3 institutional research on HR managers (e.g., Jacoby, 2004; Legge, 1987; Trudinger, 2004), the societal contingency of power sources has been largely neglected to date. Exceptions are Brandl, Mayrhofer and Reichel (2008) who focus on gender only and Jacoby’s et al. (2005) comparative study of organizational variables in U.S. and Japan. Against this background this article examines how the distinctive rationalities that prevail in societal contexts shape the determinants of HR executive power. Empirically, we examine the importance of three characteristics of HR executives – gender, academic education and practical HR experience – for becoming strategically integrated in their organizations in Germany, Spain, Sweden and UK. In HRM, strategic integration is seen as an important indicator of HR executive power1 (Legge, 1978); it comprises both, enacted power (through involvement in actual decision-making) as well as potential power (formal status as a board member). The included characteristics of HR executives can be roughly read as representing competencies (education, experience) and personality/traits (gender) of HR executives. The integration of competencies in our study refers to the debate on HR professionalism while the inclusion of gender relates to the (less developed) debate on stratification among male and female HR professionals. We compare patterns in the importance of the three characteristics for becoming strategically integrated at the country level because the conditions under which HRM operates are primarily set by nation states. The property, production and gender regimes of the nation states that we have selected for this study incorporate distinct rationalities that suggest differences in national patterns of HR executive power sources. Our study empirically demonstrates the societal contingency of sources of HR executive power. Assuming that individual background characteristics have symbolic value, i.e. signal appropriateness of HR executives’ for mastering challenges prevailing in distinct institutional settings, we examine how rationalities prevailing in institutional settings enable particular characteristics to function as a source of power. We extend existing research on societal contingency of power sources of HR executives by showing the linkage between salience of enabling HR competencies and rules prevailing in wider contexts.

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