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Human Resource Management

Human Resource Management

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Similarities and Differences inHuman Resource Managementin the European Union
Lisbeth Claus
Executive Summary 
This study explores similarities and differences in human resource management (HRM) in the European Union (EU). Common factors in the development of European HRM are the importance of consultation, the emergence of flexible work  patterns, the role of work and the employer in the life of employees, and the introduc- tion of the Euro. National, company, and regional factors create divergence in European HRM. National factors include societal hierarchy, different cultures and mental models, societal structure, and language. Company factors include size of com-  panies, public versus private, and multinational or local. Regional factors differenti- ate along north-south and east-west axes. The EU had relatively little impact on HRM in terms of harmonization of labor and tax laws but had major impact on the opening up of markets to foreign competition and privatization of public sector com-  panies. While cultural diversity remains strong, the influence of large multinational companies may lead to more regional integration in the practice of HRM. European HRM is much more comfortable operating in a polycentric mode than U.S. HRM,which seeks universality and standardization. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
here is a simplistic notion among U.S. HR executives that global companiesoperating in Europe can deal with European Union (EU) countries as a region-al entity. This notion has been reinforced by the growing economic and politicalunification of Europe resulting in the free movement of capital, goods, and peo-ple and ongoing harmonization of EU legislation. Some multinational compa-nies assume that their EU subsidiaries can be managed from a regionalperspective through shared HR services and that corporate culture and stan-
Thunderbird International Business Review, Vol. 45(6) 729–755 • November–December 2003© 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. • Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com).DOI: 10.1002/tie.10100
Lisbeth Claus is an associate professor of global HR at the Atkinson Graduate School ofManagement at Willamette University. She previously held faculty and administrative positions at  the Fisher Graduate School of International Business at the Monterey Institute of InternationalStudies and managerial positions with Safeway Inc. and Maritz Inc. She is president of the SHRMGlobal Forum. Her research interests lie in international HR, cross-cultural management, globalleadership, global teamwork, and global corporate social impact. E-mail: lclaus@willamette.edu
Lisbeth Claus
Thunderbird International Business Review November–December 2003
dardized HR practices can be imposed throughout their Europeanoperations without major consequences. Chris Brewster (1994a,1994b, 1995), a prolific academic writer on the subject, makes thepoint that while there are substantial differences between the way human resource management (HRM) is understood and opera-tionalized in each country, Europe as a whole has a differentapproach to HRM than the United States.Keeping in mind this tension between globalization/standardizationand localization/adaptation of HR practices as well as the existenceof a distinct European regional approach, this article focuses on sim-ilarities and differences of HRM in the EU and explores whether ornot there is a European model of HRM leading to greater homo-geneity of HRM across the EU region.
European authors have acknowledged that HRM originally devel-oped in the United States (Brewster & Bournois, 1991; Brewster &Hegewisch, 1994; Brewster & Larsen, 1992). After taking root inthe United States, it spread, first to other nations with cultural prox-imity, then to more culturally distant countries (Clark & Mallory,1996). The claim has been made that U.S. HR models have domi-nated HRM research and practice worldwide (Brewster & Harris,1999; Harris & Brewster, 1999). European writers (Albert, 1989;Bournois, 1991; Conrad & Pieper, 1988; Gaugler, 1988; Guest,1990; Hendry & Pettigrew, 1990; Legge, 1989) have been critical of applying American HRM views to other countries, especially Europe.Such criticism is entirely valid. A theoretical or practice HR modeldeveloped in the cultural context of one country should not indis-criminately be applied to another country without testing the cultur-al biases of its assumptions. While the hegemony of U.S. influence in HRM has been criticized,there is also a particular fondness among some European HRM aca-demic writers (at least those who publish in English) to compare andcontrast European with U.S. HRM (Brewster & Bournois, 1991;Brewster & Hegewisch, 1994; Hegewisch and Brewster, 1993;Pieper, 1990). Brewster and Bournois (1991) posed the followingquestion as a point of departure to justify such a comparison, “To what extent is there sufficient similarity in Europe to require us toquestion whether there may not be significant differences between
 A theoretical or practice HR model developed in the cultural context of one country should not indiscrimi- nately be applied to another country ...
HRM in Europe as a whole and the United States of America?” (p.34). The comparison points out that in Europe, HRM is less depen-dent, companies have less autonomy and freedom of action, tradeunionism is more important, the social partners have more influence,legal regulations are more important, and there is a stronger traditionof employee involvement. Brewster and Hegewisch (1994) push thecomparison between European and American HRM even further and justify the existence of a European HRM model based on these dif-ferences. They conclude that, “There are identifiable differencesbetween the way in which HRM is conducted in Europe and that of the United States, a difference which allows us to speak of aEuropean form of HRM . . .” (p. 5). Brewster and Bournois (1991)also speak of two paradoxical trends that run through HRM inEurope. On the one hand there are clear country differences that canbe understood and explained in the context of each national cultureand its manifestations in history, laws, institutions, and employeeorganizations. On the other hand, there is an identifiable differencebetween the ways in which HRM is conducted in Europe versus theUnited States (p. 47).Brewster has made an important contribution in pioneering thenotion that there is a European HRM tradition distinct from others.He must be credited with being the first to attempt to develop a“European” model of HRM distinct from existing U.S. models. HisEuropean HRM model locates organizational issues within sectorial(organization size, structure, culture) and national influences. Healso spearheaded the development of a large body of empirical com-parative HR research across Europe (Brewster, Hegewisch, &Lockhart, 1991).However, according to Clark and Mallory (1996), Brewster’sEuropean model has four main problems. First, talking aboutEuropean HRM is an example of reductionism that fails to take intoaccount the cultural diversity of the European nations. Second,Brewster overestimates the level of autonomy enjoyed by HR man-agers and organizations in the United States. Third, his model ispotentially culturally conditioned (as he uses the Anglo-American lit-erature) and inherently ethnocentric (as he perpetuates the view that American notions of HRM can be found to a greater or lesser degreein other countries). Finally, Brewster’s most critical problem is thathe does not take into account divergent understandings in differentnational settings. Responding to his critics, Brewster (1999) laterrevised his position and shifted his viewpoint from a European HRM
Similarities and Differences in Human Resource Management in the European Union
Thunderbird International Business Review November–December 2003
“There are identifiable differences between the way in which HRM is conducted in Europe and that of the United States,difference which allows us to speak of a European form of HRM ...” 

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