The hardest biases of all to overcome are those of which we are not even aware of ourselves. Our readings in human resources management and policy demonstrate this: While writers like Collin (2010) acknowledge the fact that they are writing from one specific perspective, at the same time they may not be aware of exactly how limited that perspective may be. This paper examines a number of the assumptions that come into play in establishing human resources management programs and policies in two different cultural contexts not simply as a window into two different sets of practices (although this would be interesting in and of itself) but also as a way (and this is the primary purpose within the context of this paper) to elucidate the ways in which a larger context must be consider.
The first is that outlined by Collin (2010), a perspective that she defines as applying to British firms. The second is that of the ways in which human resources management is structured and conducted in firms doing business in Hong Kong. The two sets of human resources perspectives allows to one to gain insight into the ways in which cultural and social context can be '"read" from (as well as incorporated into) human resources management policies. Such a project draws on theory from a number of different fields beyond the organizational study of businesses themselves to include anthropology, sociology, and psychology among others.
The purpose of providing an international perspective on human resources management is that such a perspective (in terms of both comparison and contrast) allows for a clearer assessment of how each of these perspectives works on its own. When one considers a human resources management strategy only in the context of a single company, a single industry, or even a single country, it can be very difficult to understand its advantages and disadvantages, the origin of its underlying assumptions, or the culturally values embedded within it.
By placing any set of practices (not only human resources management but any set of organizational practices at all) within a cross-cultural or international perspective, a writer can produce an assessment of those practices that is far more accurate and comprehensive. Such an international contextualization makes assessing human resources management (as a set of organized processes that both reflect and shape a set of complex human behaviors) far more productive.
This paper focuses on one particular pair of human resources management policies: Those of the United Kingdom and those of Hong Kong. A profitable analysis that outlined the cultural and social context of any two countries would prove to be both useful and interesting. However, this particular pairing (the author believes) proves especially educational because of the historical connections of these two nations. Hong Kong was, of course, under British control for a number of years. It now lies under the suzerainty of China, a country whose economic practices and business style lie at fundamental opposite ends of the spectrum from each other.
This said, British business traditions still influence the ways in which business is done in Hong Kong. Moreover, business practices (including human resource management) in all areas of China are changing dramatically and at almost lighting speed at the current time while British business practice (including human resources management) are remaining relatively stable -- both products of the current political and economic climates of the country involved. The differing degree of stability involved in business practices of the two countries is also important in providing a detailed cultural context. Such a cultural context can be seen more in the differences than in the similarities, although given the fact that business practices are becoming more and more similar across the world as our economies become increasingly globalized dictates that there are bound to be important similarities as well.
As Collin (2010) notes, human resources management is more than just a collection of "policies, practices, procedures, and prescriptions" (p. 84) that exist as a way of determining how the relationship between employer and worker should play out. Human resources protocols help define the larger context within which people in a company work together: Human resources management is an essential and central part of the corporate culture that builds up in any given business. Human resource management also reflects larger cultural values: For example, in the United Kingdom, one of the policies that reflects larger cultural values and that also reinforces corporate values is that young children cannot be made (or allowed) to work.
Collin (2010) refers to this as the vital importance of human resource policy as being a core part of the 'philosophy of an organisation'. It follows from this that human resources management must also be seen as one of the most effective tools that a company's management possesses for helping to make public (both to employees and to external stakeholders) corporate values. Companies set human resource policies to maximize their benefits: This perceived potential benefit includes how consonant human resource values are with the overall values of the culture.
One clear example of this is how workers are treated according to gender: In a patriarchal society, women workers may be treated far less well and have far fewer options for redress than is true in a country in which cultural attitudes are on the side of gender equality and legal means exist to right sexism in the workplace. This is one aspect of human resources management that can be all-too-often overlooked because of the ways in which businesses often have ambivalent policies towards women, in part acknowledging the fact that many companies in all cultural and national contexts are not entirely clear on an internal level as to their own belief systems about the way in which gender should be negotiated in the workplace.
One of the most difficult aspects of an analysis of human resources management, Collin argues (p. 85) is that it is like water for a fish: It is very hard to find the right perspective from which to analyze it. The traditional stance for analyzing something is to stand back far enough from it to be able to get a sense of "the whole picture." This is not something that can be done in this case since we (the researchers and writers) are a part of the picture itself. We cannot get far enough back from a picture in which we are part of the framed action. There is no external pinnacle on which to perch and study and analyze the way in which the "natives" work when we ourselves are one of the natives. (Bearing in mind that the term "natives" is being used in a postmodern context here, a context that acknowledges the dismissive way in which this term has often been used in the past.)
Moreover, and this is equally important, we cannot analyze the way in which human relations management works in the ways that traditional research methods are applied to other systems because any social arena as complicated as human resources management is cannot be studies in isolation. Collin gives the example of a child who uproots a seedling to see how it is growing with the result, of course, that the seedling is no longer growing (p. 85).
Collin notes that it cannot be emphasized too strongly that while a holistic perspective (one that considers the whole picture of anything on both a conceptual and pragmatic level) may be unfamiliar as an investigatory tool or overall state of mind, it is important to practice it because it is the only tool that will allow for a proper understanding of the role of context (p. 86). The context of human resources management is "multilayered, multi-dimensional, and interwoven" (p.87), and this is the necessary foundation of any authentic examination of human resources management. And it is not possible to provide sufficient sense of context for such a multi-dimensional approach without considering the cultural context of any set of human resources management policies (Keenoy,1999a and 1999b).
Making it even more difficult to understand the full (and fully necessary) approach to contextualizing human resources policies is a growing acknowledge that all policies (both inside companies and in human society at large) can be understood as not being "real" (that is, as referring to something that exists outside of the context of human behavior and knowledge) but as the product of what scholars refer to as postmodernism.
Within the context of postmodernism, reality is constructed by "discourses," which is another way of saying that people construct reality by the ways in which they talk about the world. The more democratic a society, the more people are "allowed" to have a say in the creation of reality; the more authoritarian a worldview, the fewer the number of groups of people's discourses matter. Thus in the United Kingdom, with a very long tradition of democracy and a current culture that values egalitarianism, a number of different groups are seen as having…