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HRM - Hard or Soft?

Author: Jim Riley  Last updated: Sunday 23 September, 2012

HRM - Hard v Soft HRM

There are a variety of ways to approach the management of HR in a business.  The business textbooks like to describe two broad approaches to HRM which are explained further below:

  • “Hard” HR
  • “Soft” HR

However, it is important to remember that, in reality, these two approaches are somewhat academic in nature.  In real businesses, an HR department or manager would be likely to adopt elements of both soft and hard HR, and in many cases would not be interested in the slightest in the distinction!

The key features of the hard and soft approach to HR can be summarised as follows:

Hard HR Management

Soft HR Management

Treats employees simply as a resource of the business (like machinery & buildings)
Strong link with corporate business planning – what resources do we need, how do we get them and how much will they cost

Treats employees as the most important resource in the business and a source of competitive advantage
Employees are treated as individuals and their needs are planned accordingly

Focus of HRM: identify workforce needs of the business and recruit & manage accordingly (hiring, moving and firing)

Focus of HRM: concentrate on the needs of employees – their roles, rewards, motivation etc

Key features

Key features

Short-term changes in employee numbers (recruitment, redundancy)

Strategic focus on longer-term workforce planning

Minimal communication, from the top down

Strong and regular two-way communication

Pay – enough to recruit and retain enough staff (e.g. minimum wage)

Competitive pay structure, with suitable performance-related rewards (e.g. profit share, share options)

Little empowerment or delegation

Employees are empowered and encouraged to seek delegation and take responsibility

Appraisal systems focused on making judgements (good and bad) about staff

Appraisal systems focused on identifying and addressing  training and other employee development needs

Taller organisational structures

Flatter organisational structures

Suits autocratic leadership style

Suits democratic leadership style

Which of the two approaches is better?  The answer is – it depends!

The “hard” approach to HR might be expected to result in a more cost-effective workforce where decision-making is quicker and focused on senior managers. However, such an approach pays relatively little attention to the needs of employees and a business adopting a genuinely “hard” approach might expect to suffer from higher absenteeism and staff turnover and less successful recruitment.

The “soft” approach will certainly appeal to the “touchy-feely” amongst us who like to see people being treated nicely! 

And you can also make a good business case for an approach which rewards employee performance and motivates staff more effectively. However, the danger of taking too “soft” an approach is that when all the employee benefits are added up, the cost of the workforce leaves a business at a competitive disadvantage.

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