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Work, Employment and Society Conference, 2007 Beyond these Shores, sinking or swimming in the new global economy

. Stream: Organisational restructuring and its implications for work ‘Structural transformation of HR and the shrinking employee champion role’ Helen Francis and Anne Keegan

Introduction Our paper draws on a purposeful sample of 44 in-depth interviews with human resource (HR) practitioners, to explore some of the social effects of an increasing focus in employment management on new forms of HR service delivery influenced by Ulrich’s discursive modeling of HR practice as ‘business partnership’ (Ulrich, 1997; Beer 1997; Lepak et al 2005; Barney and Wright 1998; Teo and Crawford 2005). Ulrich’s model, described as the ‘shared services model’ comprises a three-legged functional design based on shared services, centres of expertise and the creation of HR business partners (CIPD Report, 2006a), supported by developments in information systems and characterised by an increase in segmentation, devolution and outsourcing of HR work (Ulrich 1997; Ulrich and Brockbank 2005). Here, direct contact between employees and HR professionals in the workplace is removed or reduced, replaced by technology enabled interfaces such as call centres (which may be geographically remote from employees) and intranets. In what follows, we use critical discourse analysis (CDA) to illustrate the strong business framing of these new developments in the eyes of our respondents, and to show how responsibilities of HR professionals are increasingly depicted in terms of primarily working for the business, not employees. Our paper is structured as follows. First we examine the concept of HR business partnership in the current literature, describing how this links into past and current debates about HR practice, noting the significance of the recent shift from labour-intensive to technology-intensive HR service delivery (Florkowski and Olivas-Luja´, 2006; Reddington and Martin, 2006). We then introduce the CDA approach taken to our exploratory study of the changing shape of the HR function within the UK, and move on to present findings from this. Finally we conclude by


arguing that critical engagement with the concept of HR business partnership is warranted as the business-facing facets of HR discursively swamp other concerns, notably about employee well-being and HR’s role in and responsibility for securing it.

The concept of HR business partnership and emergent ‘textscape’ of HRM
While accounts that the HR function is facing intense pressure to become leaner and more ‘strategic’ are commonplace in the literature (Beer 1997; Lepak et al 2005; Barney and Wright 1998), questions of the likely effects on employees are downplayed in the mainstream literature on HRM generally (Legge 1999; Winstanley and Woodall 2000) and to an even greater extent in the literature promoting HR Business Partnership (Ulrich and Brockbank 2005). Here, HR professionals are exhorted to identify closely with line management through enactment of a strategy not unlike that of the ‘conformist innovator’ described by Legge (1978), where dominant business values are treated as a ‘given’ by HR professionals. This is in stark contrast to previous more pluralistic models of people management where the idea that HR professionals faced Janus-like towards both employers and employees was an important part of the talk in and of the employment relationship (Legge, 1995; Watson 1996; Dunn 1990). Models of HRM that are largely unitarist in nature, like HR business partnership, downplay the inherent duality of HR work raised in more critical accounts of HRM. While HR practitioners are urged to take on strategic roles, and the strategic management of both the function itself as well as the employment relationship is privileged in talk of effective HR practice, the fact that people will only come first when it is economically advantageous to pursue such a strategy is obscured (Watson 2004; Keenoy 1990; Keenoy and Anthony 1992; Kochan 2004; Hart, 1993; Francis and Keegan, 2006). Within this genre, recent attention has been drawn to how the business partner modelling of HR developed by Ulrich (1997) specifically works to downplay the responsibilities of HR practitioners in securing and protecting the interests of employees (Francis and Keegan, 2006; Hope-Hailey et. al, 2005) while also failing to adequately consider the difficulties and tensions faced by HR practitioners as they are urged to adopt strategic roles (Truss et al 2002). Recently trumpeted as the ‘practitioner paradigm’ towards which the profession should aspire (Caldwell 2003: 988), Ulrich’s model prescribes that HR practitioners engage in a set of proactive roles defined along two axes: strategy versus operations, and process versus people. The four key roles that emerge are: strategic partner, administrative expert, employee champion


consistent with CIPD research which shows that the strategic partner role is proving the most attractive of Ulrich’s original four roles for most HR people (Brown et. companies have no choice but to try to engage not only the body but the mind and soul of every employee’ (Ulrich. Legge 1978. Caldwell. the ‘regulator’ of Storey (1992) or ‘contracts manager’ of Tyson (1995). Bearing in mind the history of HR practitioner’s struggles for acceptance as key organizational players (Guest and King 2004.and change agent. the employee inherent plurality in managing the employment relationship and the inevitability of trade-offs between employee needs and goals and organizational goals. 2004. The strategic partner role is one in which HR professionals partner with line managers to help them reach their goals through effective strategy formulation and strategy execution (Ulrich and Brockbank 2005: 27). Administrative experts constantly improve organizational efficiency by reengineering the HR function and other work processes such as introducing ‘shared services’. 1997: 125) Here. in that it largely rests on responsibility for eliciting ‘employee contribution’: ‘Employee contribution becomes a critical business issue because in trying to produce less output with more input. noting that it is sometimes used as a synonym for the business partner. Change agents are responsible for the delivery of organizational transformation and culture change. Watson 1977). The employee champion is conceptualised by Ulrich as a ‘partner’ with management in delivering value by 3 . 2003). In Ulrich’s (1997) framework. has become so popular. unlike the employee champion. securing employee contribution (Caldwell 2003: 997). are described in terms of the In contrast. the ‘employee champion’ as discursive object is framed in ways that significantly differs from previous conceptualisations of employee facing roles such as the ‘consensus negotiator’ of Torrington and Hall (2005). Ulrich and Brockbank (2005) remark on the prominence and attractiveness of the ‘strategic partner’ role amongst HR professionals. the employee champion has nominal responsibility for employees. It offers perhaps some hope of escaping the ‘perpetual marginality’ (Watson 1996) of HR practitioners by offering a way out of the dualism when they seek to claim a share of strategic decision making while at the same time attending to the kinds of employee centred and administrative aspects of the role (Barghiela-Chiappini 1999: 149). al. it is hardly surprising that a way of discursively modelling the concept of HR as ‘hard’ and relating it to others concepts such as ‘business driven agendas’ and ‘strategic management’. These latter roles.

al. the distancing of HR from employees and their front line managers. CIPD. a ‘business partnership’ approach based on Ulrichian lines ‘is taken as understood’ by HR professionals transferring from private to public sector organisations. since critical analysts can easily find themselves locked into what Harley and Hardy (2004: 393) describe as a ‘de facto reply genre’ 4 . and an imbalance emerging between peopleoriented and business–oriented HR roles (Hope-Hailey et. 2005. nor why so many firms still operate with a financial rather than people-driven approach (Brown 2005). segmentation of HR roles. Francis and Keegan. guided by the belief that managers. Having said this.champion is framed so as to deny dualism by attending to employees in terms of their contribution to business goals. by making a distinction between the role of ‘human capital developer’ and ‘employee advocate’ and stressing the need for employees to be treated fairly and with dignity (Ulrich and Brockbank 2005). heart and mind’. and ensuring this contribution is achieved with ‘body. While they urge practitioners not to lose sight of the employee champion role. consultants and HR professionals work collaboratively within a unitarist framework to achieve high performance levels according to managerially sanctioned business targets. al. employees. Research has shown there is a powerful coupling of the business partner discourse with the diffusion of structural transformations in the guise of the ‘shared service’ model of HR noted earlier (Losey et. tensions arising from moves towards the shared services model are beginning to emerge from empirical studies that identify. It fails to address in any depth. 2005. Critical scholarship of such tensions is difficult however. Within the UK. 2006b. This framing of the employee champion as a discursive object within a unitarist ideology limits the room for manoeuvre of occupiers of the role to adopting a partner position with management in achieving managerially sanctioned goals.. who are described as ‘bringing fresh perspectives to the place of HR and the way HR operates with the business’ (CIPD Report 2005). in the context of the Government’s reform and efficiency agenda. the real problems HR professionals face in achieving a balance between competing stakeholder interests and values. 2006). CIPD. their modelling of business partnership remains underpinned by a strong notion of mutuality between different stakeholders. Ulrich and Brockbank reemphasise the importance of an employee-facing HR function in their revised typology of HR roles. 2005). for example. The discursive constitution of HR business partnership is also associated with material outcomes in terms of HR service delivery.

such as the creation of e-enabled shared service centres. all relate to the maintaining. al. on HR practice) come to represent particular facets of social and material life. as Fairclough reminds us. This approach helps us draw out some of the political implications of HR practice by examining what HR practitioner language-use. it has to be established through analysis’. Analysing HRM texts using CDA: Examining HRM as Social Practice The question of whether HR discourses are changing in ways that suggest a more prominent role for business partnership models of HR practice is of interest to us in this paper. we assess whether current (re)ordering of HR discourses creates a ‘social problem’ (Fairclough 2001) through the reproduction and sustaining of unequal power relations and what this might mean in terms of the developing ‘textscape’ (context) of HR practice. By bringing an object into being. We build on the notion of ‘discursive struggle’ in HRM (Harley and Hardy 2004). 2005). resisting and challenging of employee-employer power relations. Accepting these difficulties. and challenge the ‘fixation’ with Ulrich’s business partner model noted earlier (CIPD. described by Keenoy and Oswick (2004) in terms of its location within socially and historically produced which the counter story mainly serves to reproduce the first story to be told. and how they ascribe particular positions to themselves and others within the changing employment relationship. We therefore explore what HR practitioner’s talk of HR practice reveals about the discursive framing of that practice. HR service delivery. We examine whether HR practitioners talk of HR practice indicates the presence of vocabularies. The discursive constitution of employees. our aim is to draw on CDA in order to build on recent challenges to the emerging orthodoxy of business partnering (Hope-Hailey et. resulting in reacting to the HRM agenda rather than setting it.g. and HR practitioner roles. Francis and Keegan. 2005. Fairclough (2003. 2006). We examine how HR practitioners discursively constitute their own role. However. These include for example the use of terms like ‘strategic partner’ and ‘business partner’ to create specific discursive objects (Grant and Shields 2002). In line with Fairclough’s thinking. CIPD. 124) states: 5 . as evident in interview texts. reveals about current and emerging models of HR practice and employee-employer power relations (Zanoni and Janssens 2004). 2006b. texts (e. changes to social relations including the segmentation of HR roles and new materialisations of HR practice which reflect a shift in genres (described by Fairclough (2003) as the discoursal aspect of ways of acting and interacting). expressions and activities associated with academic models of HR Business Partnership. (2003: 205) 'we cannot take the role of discourse in social practices for granted.

Francis’ (2007) analysis of the role of the human resource development function in shaping organisational change within a large manufacturing firm is a good example of how dominant discourses channel meaning and attention. in contrast to conventional linguistic research that regards components of sentences as the basic unit with ‘limited attention to the social hierarchy or process’ (Wodak. Fairclough draws attention to the broader context within which specific texts arise. which are.‘I see discourses as ways of representing aspects of the world – the processes. Keegan and Boselie (2006) observe the marginalisation of more ‘oppositional’ dissensus inspired or critical discourses by the mainstream HRM discourse.124) and thereby frame how. when and why particular texts are used (Grant et. 2001) ideas on ‘orders of discourse’ is also useful to our analysis. or alternative. Harley and Hardy (2004) observe more broadly the growing dominance of a unitarist ‘high performance’ discourse of HRM in academia that dominates at the expense of more pluralistic discourses such as collective bargaining and personnel management. in turn. is dominance. the ‘mental world’ of thoughts.24). and the social world’. 2005:7). some ways of making meaning are dominant or mainstream in a particular order of discourse. relations and structures of the material world. others are marginal. p. feelings and beliefs and so on. and the possible effects these texts have on that context when he states ‘any instance of discourse is simultaneously a piece of text (written or spoken). One aspect of this social ordering of relationships amongst different ways of making meaning. 6 .e. al. Like Phillips and Hardy (2002). or amongst different genres and discourse. social practices networked together in a particular way. 2004). Orders of discourse have relative stability and durability and play an important role in social organisation and control because ‘these elements select certain possibilities defined by language and exclude others – they control the linguistic variability for particular areas of social life’ (Fairclough 2003. They tell us how diverse genres and discourses are networked together to create a ‘social structuring of semiotic differences’ (Fairclough 2001. Orders of discourse are the semiotic aspect of social orders. CDA allows us to consider the broader effects of talk of HR practice by treating larger discursive units of text as the basic unit of communication. oppositional. an instance of discursive practice and an instance of social practice Fairclough (1992: 4). Fairclough’s (2003. i. p.

In this paper we only report data from a total of 44 interviews held with HR practitioners and consultants carried out in the period 2004-2006. totalising or hegemonic. Keenoy 1999) from which people can draw thereby actively structuring their own realities (Watson. 2003). trade union officials. Methodology The study we present here is part of a larger study on the changing nature of the HR function which involved semi-structured interviews with HR practitioners and others involved in HR practice. Following this line of argument. In fact. including members of the CIPD. Recognising that some discourses are dominant in a particular order of discourses does not mean that those discourses are uncontested. [Insert table 1 about here] 7 . and in so doing privilege some interests over others. Respondents were asked to tell us about their views on HR practice. and also as a ‘discursive resource’ (Watson. we treat discourse as ‘regulated practice’ or set of rules (Fairclough. the roles of others having responsibility for HR tasks (what HR activities are undertaken by your and your colleagues in the HR function? Who else has a role in undertaking HR activities?).The extent to which orders of discourse ‘control linguistic variation’ in HR talk. while recognising that dominance of high performance discourse in HRM is evident. The interviews were loosely structured around a small number of core questions on the roles of the respondents (what is your current role? Can you tell us your job title? What does your role entail?). 2002:119). So. 2003) framing the way people perceive the world. the HR function within which they operated (what is the size of the HR function? Where is the HR function located?) and the changes they currently perceive to HR practice (have there been any recent changes in how the HR function operates? Has the HR function reorganised?). and those involved in education of HR practitioners. Specifically. is an issue we focus on in our analysis. 2004. of altering and shaping discourse and the meaning of particular forms of social practice. albeit difficult to realise. we examine how power relations are played out in HR practitioners’ talk (Zanoni and Janssens 2003). Harley and Hardy (2004) argue it is by no mean a totalising discourse and call attention to the potential. In Table 1 we summarise the profile of respondents to the study. and changes to HR practices they perceived in their environments. ‘hegemonic struggle’ is typical within orders of discourse as discourses compete to frame meaning (Fairclough 1992.

In this paper we focus on five key themes presented in Table 3. see also Fairclough 1995. 2004). Our discourse analysis oscillates between a focus on specific texts (interview transcripts) and the order of discourse within which they are related (Fairclough 2003: 3. and discussing similarities and differences. and the changing landscape of HR. which were then developed into a final coding template (King. HR by remote. In what follows we draw on each theme to illustrate the role of discourse in reproducing or transforming particular understandings about new forms of HR practice at both meso and macro levels of analysis. operational hr activities and constitute employees as a passive ‘resource’ to be used in a dispassionate and utilitarian EMPLOYEE-CENTRED DISCOURSE fashion. These act to close off discussion about more employee focused. which include: Labelling HR practice. HR structures and Communication Technologies. devolving HR to line managers. We worked towards a thematic (coding) framework by comparing and contrasting each others initial categories and analysis. These discussions led to revision of several of the key codes. 2001). and ‘profit’ and expressions like ‘contributing to the business’ and ‘meeting business priorities’. ‘valued added’. Focusing on alternative ‘vocabularies’ (lexical relations) and genres (especially ‘communication technologies’ and social relations as defined by Fairclough 2003). Each of the first ten interviews was coded by the two authors. Table 2: HR Discourses BUSINESS DISCOURSE This discourse is structured round core concepts of ‘strategy’. This discourse is structured round notions of 8 .All interviews were fully transcribed and uploaded to an N-Vivo software programme for analysing qualitative research (Richards 1999). ‘bottom-line’. which we have labeled ‘business discourse’ and ‘employee-centered’ (EC) discourse. we share our insights into the emergence and ordering of two co-existing discourses outlined in table 2.

‘employee interests’. employee 9 . ‘welfare’ and ‘well-being’. These prioritise day-to-day welfare of employees and preservation of (employee-facing) HR roles and structures that allow for a collective ‘voice’ and treatment of employees as active agents who seek to create their own organisational ‘realities’.‘fairness’.

much reminiscent of the shift in titles from personnel to HR practitioners (Caldwell. concepts Titles that include old and new terms/expressions: • Business titles • Project Management titles • HR titles • Personnel titles • Consultant titles • Other HR service structures Shared services • Centres of excellence • Business partners • E-enabled HR Remoteness indicated by: • Removal from shopfloor • Disappearing eyes • The level/expertise of HR staff available to employees • Geographical location of HR (on or offsite) Uptake of HR by line managers • Tasks devolved • Factors influencing o Competence/training o Workload o Priorities (short-termism) o Response Line Managers Importance of changes in: • Employment law o Legal savvy workforce • Social change • Economic • Technological Codes LABELS BUS PROJECT HR PERS CONS OTHER STRUC SHARED REMOVAL BUSPART E-HR SHRINK REM EYES LEVEL LOCATE LINE DEVOLVED FACTORS COMP WORK SHORT RESPONSELM HR structures and Communication Technologies HR by Remote Devolution of HR tasks to Line Managers Changing Landscape of HR LEGAL SOCIAL ECON TECH Textual Analysis Labelling HR Practice Our textual analysis suggests a shift occurring in the responsibilities of HR practitioners. 2003. terms. indicated by changes in the titles given to. HR practitioners. CIPD 2006 a.Table 3: Thematic Framework Themes Labelling HR Practice VOCABULARIES INCLUDING: Expressions. or adopted by. New titles 10 . b).

I was probably 70/30. Well I mean we’re still finding people who primarily. It was completely the reverse to that when I changed job [ Senior HR Advisor]. In addition to new labels for HR practitioners. what shall we say.such as business partner were frequently mentioned by respondents in their talk about changes taking place in the HR world generally. the HR function itself has been reorganised in some organisations to come under a specifically business services label. as illustrated in the following quote from an HR practitioner in a large retail organisation: 11 . you know. and the term ‘business’ was incorporated into the titles of 7 respondents. you know. HR advisor (is the) tag for people who are working for the business. indicating a marked tendency for respondents to use business terms and expressions to frame descriptions of what HR practitioners want or to do.[HR Manager] In this context shifts in job titles appeared to signify a significant move away from a personcentred EC discourse towards a more performance business-focused HR agenda that allowed less time and space for employee concerns and issues. are primarily looking at designing a sort of. As one respondent remarked. you know. [W]e have gone away from sort of staff managers. talk of a shift to ‘HR’ status brought into play images of a significant re-ordering of discourses in which HR practices are being enacted. The difference probably would be that they’re more concerned with their own business skills and being able to make a contribution to the business than perhaps you might find among other. talking 70% of my time with employees and 30% to the managers. strategies or processes for delivery across an organisation. we’re very much business managers now [HR Manager]. HR people in. and be. in their roles. In this context success in HR roles is measured in terms of developing effective ‘business’ rather than people skills. Where the term was not used expressly. less successful companies.

[HR Manager] Restructuring of the HR function in one public sector organisation was similarly described by a senior HR practitioner in terms of being more business-focused. as indicated by the comment ‘those habits do die 12 . they will persist. In this interview the respondent described the appointment of employee directors and a change in her role at this point.I thought sometimes they didn’t. So the argument was always a. you know. for a couple of years. [W]e would say ‘just get that sorted’. Business support comprised of HR and all aspects of HR [T]he person who was appointed head of that service [h]ad had an HR background but [h]adn’t recently been in an HR post…. But. The choice of the respondent to refer to ‘toilet rolls’ is clearly a rhetorical move to frame their concerns as trivial. they [talk] about toilet rolls. In the following extracts. first as a ‘cultural difference’: [W]hen we appointed employee directors….which only came in about 2001. ‘we should have this’. In this way she sets herself and her peers apart from those championing staff or employee needs who are clearly framed as ‘other’. The discourse drawn on by these staff advocates is portrayed by this HR practitioner as a weak or ineffectual one. they’ll bring it to an open forum and those habits really do die hard. do not construct their case according to ‘business rationale’ or in ways that suggest they understand ‘strategic and operational’ imperatives versus issues such as ‘toilet rolls’. they made it sound as if it was. often a moral argument or a em a dependency on. to try and adopt this wider discipline of business support. [i]t should be fixed outside the meeting. you know. it wasn’t done in a business way. Constituted as ‘discursive objects’ they are associated with ineffective action because they rely on ‘moral’ arguments and ‘need’ arguments. then [our] role changed…. she describes differences in the way she and her peers operate and how these employee directors operate. [we] weren’t so much of a staff advocate as we had done before because we had somebody else who is on board who is doing that.For example we talk about strategic and operational. as pursuing trivial issues in an ineffectual way and as incapable of change. I don’t think they did [that effectively] I mean…. [Senior HR Manager] The practitioners in this scenario who could be said to adopt an employee champion role are here called staff advocates. This involved a ‘separation’ of her ‘strategic’ responsibilities from her responsibilities as a ‘staff advocate’ as this role was now separated into a new role. there was a strive to. ‘you’ve got this to give we need it’.At the review the structure was changed and one of the 10 service areas that were created was called business support. it gave the whole focus a business rapport and there was a. rather than give us this and that’s what the benefit will be …It’s a cultural difference…. a role now undertaken by full-time union officials.

[Y]ou know. and just much more about you know. the human side of things. having already argued that relying on moral arguments is somehow ineffective. dependency EC discourse. arguments drawing on EC discourse described by her in derogatory terms. and then you’ve got your human resource which is a pile of people.’ [Business Partner] He went on to explain that issues such as employee stress and absence did not become a concern at the top table ‘unless it manifests itself in a statistic’. so that’s kind of how I feel it is sometimes. as putting important things on the agenda. we’ve got to think much more about the sort of employee side of things. you’ve got this. By linking ‘moral arguments’ with ‘dependency’ arguments she not only shows her distaste of this discourse but also tries to distance HR practice. You know. she later goes on to say that: Employee champions have to be. and all that stuff. from HR practice linked to ineffectual moral. taking back on the softer skills rather than just seeing HR as a. you’ve got that. [HR Advisor] Acknowledging feelings of ‘guilt’ at no longer having time to ‘create space’ to ‘drop in’ to the shop floor ‘to catch up on gossip’ with employees since the reorganisation of HR in his organisation. Negative facets of what was perceived as an increasingly business framing of HR practice were expressed by several respondents. oh aye they’re taking the person out of personnel or they’re taking the human out of resources. you’ve got your money. a comment that is consistent 13 . [Senior HR Manager] This means that while on the one hand she sees employee champions as pursuing moral arguments. as she sees it ideally. remember the HR as the personnel function (…) and a lot of the jibes you got at the time. who drew on the more humanistic perspective underpinning the EC discourse to directly challenge expressions like ‘contributing to the business’ and ‘meeting business priorities’. While the ‘strategic’ oriented business discourse dominates much of the language used by respondents to describe the re-labelling of HR roles/functions this was not uncontested.hard’. just a resource that fits into the rest of the resources. This bolsters her own identity as ‘strategic’. well seeing people as some kind of a process or a. one business partner working in a large manufacturing plant says: ‘It grieves me because a lot of them have very long service and have got very long memories. would have to have a strong value base I think and a strong sense of morals. Ironically.

you know.with a point we made earlier: the strategic amplification of HR work means that people will not come first unless there is a clear business case for doing so. HR by Remote: emergence of new communication technologies A striking feature of the new forms of service delivery as described by participants was the prevalence of references to instruments and structures designed to mediate the delivery of HR practices from professionals to employees. we could remove ourselves. for example just now there’s a big project on sickness absence management which they’re trying to. well it is computerised. 14 . Evidence suggests that new ‘communication technologies’ introduced alongside new HR structures. is to get. all that day to day stuff. so in some ways. is leading to significant changes in social relations between interactants as clearly emerged from our study. They’re looking at a range of HR processes to try and make them electronic and that includes the training [Business Partner] The HR department’s up on the 6th floor. we spend a lot of time running up and down stairs. although it would have happened anyway. innovative HR policies geared towards enhancing people management activities were closely circumscribed by attention to the ‘bottom line’ so that: ‘At the end of the day I think it has to come down to a cost focus so ‘let’s not take policies that are going to cost us a lot of money’’ [Business Partner] In what follows we show how this marginalisation of the more ‘human’ face of HR is being materially affected by increasing use of e-HR technologies and new structural forms of HR taking shape across both public and private sector firms. we could. they’re piloting it just now. [HR Controller] In the following passage an HR respondent describe how the (financial services) organisation she has recently left restructured the HR department. that’s a major one. But it meant that they could get on with what they did from an operating point of view and…. and also the emphasis on ‘more strategy’. so actually psychologically we were. In this case. to.I’m away from that. to get online stuff. [W]hat they’ve tried to do since devolution. such as HR web-based technology.

‘rather than being face to face’. and I recognise that. She says: ‘That’s where I felt the employee champions eyes had disappeared because I felt like these people were just being treated as call centre workers and were actually using deep skills quite strongly.(Laughter). it seems that one specific aspect of the remoteness was separation of employee champions from employees. and there was a lot of upset about it at the time’ (emphasis added) [HR Policy Advisor] With HR operating more remotely through call centres in her organisation. the respondent explained that business partners were appointed at ‘the top of the HR shopfloor’ while employee champions were principally placed in call centres. we seemed to much more concentrate on being on the end of the phones rather than being face to face.the organisational development department. [HR Advisor] In another interview where the HR practitioner described a reorganisation along specifically ‘Ulrich-model’ lines. and the disappearance of their specific ways of seeing employees and employment issues. She expresses. and these ‘eyes’ disappearing as a result of structural changes is a very powerful image that usefully captures how some respondents felt about the dynamics of the distancing of HR from employees. The symbolisation of employee champions having ‘eyes’ (ways of seeing employees and issues). I mean we lost it….[T]hey took away the recruitment department completely and outsourced that.the ‘Ulrich Model’. there was a lot more call centre work coming in. [HR Advisor]. And the recruitment wing they turned the HR helpdesk into much more of a kind of call centre. but an awful lot more work was put on to the helpdesk which was why we had sort of specialist departments. or were going to outsource it but I understand they’re bringing it back in house now…. Here the respondent constitutes a wide-ranging set of changes as a specific discursive concept . So although we were working on the Ulrich model we seemed to go from I don’t know. [A]bout 2 years ago HR started trying to implement that model with the business partners but there was quite a lot of difficulties in implementing it. and after the strategic review they came up with a slightly different model which still had the business partners. In the passage that follows she elaborates. One Senior HR practitioner/ consultant who trained ‘a lot of people who end up working in HR Service Centres’ was especially concerned about a loss of HR expertise and 15 . that ‘even though’ the company was working the ‘Ulrich model’ it made decisions. as surprise. which are at odds with the ‘Ulrich model’ for example concentrating on remote forms of HR.

appears to be shaped by ongoing devolution of HR responsibilities to line managers. I train in other companies and I know that they’re well meaning but the calibre is not necessarily there. [HR Consultant] She went on to explain that the management of day-to-day employee issues is increasingly being framed as a largely ‘administrative’ task relegated to junior personnel in call centres who are unable to ‘cut their teeth’ by working directly with employees and their line managers and ‘getting get to know what conflict’s all about’. between those that work in HR services and those who use these services. 16 . you know. and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to get the best out of people. to understand the complexities of managing people and to look them in the eye and see the whites of their eyes. Voicing her ‘concerns with this whole idea about the HR and strategy’.understanding about the ‘complexities of managing people’ as they lost direct contact with staff. In the next section we shall explain how the professional distance noted here. We have to be very careful that we don’t throw the baby out of the bath water and we forget about all the fundamentals of HR. it’s done on a computer. I think that’s just going to lead to more conflict. [HR Consultant] […] It’s done over the phone. it’s done like a question and answer session and it doesn’t begin to put the human element into consideration. she considered that.

all their sort of basic admin themselves because we’ve given them the templates. the respondent describes much more favourably the ‘very much strategic approach’ and uses argumentation to constitute as positive a HR model involving large-scale devolution of HR tasks to the line. I guess. moving on training and development. not experience as such but being able to deal with the HR issues on their site. you know. we are looking. for their support etc. we see an interesting account where a HR officer contrasts two businesses within one company and describes what she sees as their contrasting styles of HR. absence management. in ways that are creating fractures in the social and practical support provide by HR staff to employees. in the business helping the managers because they were put in the role of. you know. has a number of different skills including some HR experience or. the [BUS1] is more. currently and also in a manner respondents suggest is set to intensify. this emerges as a broadly shared understanding of HR practice. managing. you know. …. traditionally HR roles like recruiting [HR Business Partner] In the quote that follows.they only come to us. much more. you know. They do all their recruitment letters. ….Devolution of HR tasks to Line Managers Another clear theme to emerge from our data is that devolution of HR tasks to line managers is a core facet of how HR practitioners currently view their roles and the challenges to their roles. because at the end of the day it’s their people. you know. a very much strategic [approach] but. We spent a lot of time coaching round the roles that were. performance management was going back into the business and a lot of the managers were quite uncomfortable with how to deal with these situations. very much. their job is to maybe [oversee the products] but a manager should be someone. [O]ur roles were definitely. I don’t see them every day. I mean there’s 2 sides to the business that are run completely separately. that. we were looking at how we could introduce more for the employees. that’s the [one] side of the business and I should say the line managers [in that side of the business] are self sufficient. in my opinion.The [other side of the business] is very much all staff personnel. and moving things forward. the HR team doing everything for these managers because they see their managers as only being there to grow [the products]. Once again. you know. By constituting some managers as ‘self-sufficient managers’. [HR officer] The description of how HR is run on the two sides of the business is clearly biased in favour of one type of HR and away from another. HR advisory service and business support. Whereas my managers. The expression ‘moving things forward’ is a rhetorical device to frame the 17 . the managers do.

While respondents commonly remarked on the significance of line mangers in the new modelling of HR service delivery. need counselling. in this case to ‘employee forums or communication groups’. rather than a central or core aspect of current HR work. there was always the one to one stuff of course and people would come forward and. Similar views are expressed by another respondent familiar with the Ulrich model (1997 version. amenable to separation from what are framed as core HR tasks in ‘strategic partnership’ and ‘change agency’ suggests that HR. I think the focus is on that. as well as allowing things to progress. one related to routine administration. but you know the employees forum or communication groups as they were then took on that employee champion piece [Business Partner] The discursive constitution of employee facing roles as being ‘displaceable’. their emphasis has been on ‘hitting targets’ and ‘balancing budgets’. or decidedly business rather than people management 18 . The contrast of the ‘self-sufficient’ managers with those for whom HR ‘is doing everything’ reveals clear preferences in terms of a how HR should be organised. The HR advisory model where the HR officer does ‘not see people’ is clearly assumed to be the superior model. does not necessarily have responsibility for that ‘employee champion piece’. in its ‘new’ and contemporary form. you know. yes. Not that the employee became unimportant but because the line manager took on more responsibilities then the interaction with employees was much more about. capability and training were common themes raised by those who expressed dissatisfaction with the effects of devolution to line managers who have not been trained or oriented. at least traditionally. consistent with extant research (add ref). and indicating that there is less ‘one to one stuff’ now. a lack of ‘engagement’. four roles) who described the changes she had seen in her organisation. Here. towards effective people management. the ‘employee champion’ role is specifically shown as ‘displaced’ to another location.HR approach of devolving extensively to the line as positive and progressive. As a discursive concept. Moreover. the ‘employee champion’ (and his/her work) is presented as a discrete and separable ‘piece’ of and old and perhaps dated model of HR practice. Rather. she locates new HR roles firmly within a business strategy discourse with talk of ‘moving away’ from transactional and employee facing roles to ‘strategic partner and change agent’ roles being made possible by line managers taking on more responsibilities. I believe it has actually moved to being the strategic partner and change agent. In 18 years I think we had moved from almost being the admin expert and employee champion.

they didn’t focus the training on them hard enough to say well look you’ve got to be 2 things here [Business Partner]. [T]hey need a lot of hands on managing. a lot of hands on and they shouldn’t. against which its strategic amplification can both be legitimized and challenged. which are described as combining to ‘force’ significant changes at the workplace and in HR practice (see Marchington and Wilkinson. you get promoted [HR Advisor. legal and economic structures are important features of the emergent textscape of HR. discursive practices that are consistent with a performance-oriented business discourse. until we were in (the change programme) about a year. We do not promote the people who grow and develop people. Some respondents found it difficult to find the opportunity or ‘permission’ to engage in a rival employee-centred discourse characterised by terms such as ‘employee 19 . you hit your targets. Shared Services].) Some would be so task focused that it didn’t matter what the employees thought of them because they were just hell bent on getting the business KPIs out and they didn’t actually.[Senior HR Manager] It was very difficult to balance the good cop. We have shown how respondent’s talk about the changing shape of HR work was typically framed with expressions like ‘cutting costs’ ‘contributing to the business’ and ‘meeting business priorities’ and these imperatives were generally understood to be factors beyond the immediate control of business /HR managers.. HR practitioners working in the private sector stressed increasing competitive pressures facing their organisation which they see as inevitably leading to a greater need for HR to be ‘strategic’ and to use technology in ways that make them more efficient and effective. they all seem quite nice on the phone but sometimes you wonder have they been selected because they did well in sales? Which I think probably happens in a lot of businesses. Changing Landscape of HR Changes in technological. I mean. I’m not saying anything’s wrong with any of them. 2005). In our sample..priorities. the other thing we fed back as well was how do they select the managers? Em. you know. Such understandings are consistent with academic accounts of changes in technology and heightened competitive pressures brought about by internationalization. bad cop thing that you have to do when you’re doing line management (. If crunch time comes who do we promote? We promote the people who balance their budgets. political.

000 employees we had something like 40 people (…) we’ve now got a team of 17 (for 1. [HR Director] 20 . not HR’. in an HR and L&D function for 2.where the language is getting more common and I thought well I need to look a bit more into this and see is it just a label is there something beneath it. [long pause]. ‘employee welfare’. when being asked why his organisation was changing along these lines. One just general adverts for posts. On describing moves to outsource and devolve HR work to line managers and the creation of business partners.300 staff) [Business Partner] The diffusion of what is generally being understood as ‘best practice’ amongst private and public sector HR professionals was a common theme emerging in accounts about the context of changes taking place in the landscape of HR. And I suspect there’s a bit of both actually. This was the task of an employees’ immediate line manager. For instance. It’s funny how it was only 4 or 5 years ago. or shop steward in that: ‘It’s a strange word but I don’t think there’s anybody got permission to be an employee champion in our sort of set up really (…) the unions see it as their role for the employees to come to them to tell them about their problems. one HR director working in Education says: Em. Consistent with recent CIPD research.well-being’. and ‘employee advocacy’ as well as the concepts of ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’. [Business Partner] He went on to explain that his organisation had undergone several mergers and acquisitions during which times the HR function was streamlined. because we were looking at the numbers and it seems so archaic now. There just seems to be more of a proliferation if you look through the IPD press and you know the terminology but also talking to organisational development consultants. I probably picked it up in two ways. one business partner talked of how he was now positioned within the new HR structure in ways that no longer provided him and his HR colleagues with the ‘ permission' to advocate employee interests. the presence of talk and ideas about business partnering appears to be as strong a driver for change in the public sector as the so called business imperatives (CIPD 2005: ix). On talking about the disappearance of informal face-to-face contact between HR and employees. we had around about a. speaking to people and companies in the private sector companies like where they seem to have a different approach and terminology and that’s where the language started to a combination of the two .. he explains how ratios between HR and staff were significantly increased in line with what now appears to be normal (unquestioned) practice within the profession.

they’ve got a very different perception of the workplace…. Still in the public sector. predominantly big parts of the NHS and local authorities there’s still a lot of the employee champion side in HR because they feel that the public persona would be. and central. There are a lot more legal interventions because they’re not managing some of the people issues (…) you’ve got issues of stress. especially if you look at the younger generation and all the studies done on generation x and generation y. people who suffer from depression. they’re obviously trying to save money. to HR expertise. we can see scope for some reassertion of talk about employee needs. and on doing so will be in a position to ‘fight back’ to assert their interests.I think that we are building up problems for the future because. would be castigated if they’re seen to be bad to their employees. you know. One respondent who specialises in employment law talks of the inevitability of a marginalisation of the ‘employee champion side of things’ in public sector organisations as cost reductions become more manifest.Cost drivers are also seen by respondents to be significant contextual features shaping interest and uptake in new models of the HR function along Ulrich Ian lines. they will stick to their contracts and they will fight back. She describes how employees are becoming more aware and adept at drawing on an increasing array of employment rights at the workplace.they’ve come from a very different schooling system…. they’re trying to be first in the marketplace and their goals are constantly changing…. Linked with this she explains that employees are more likely to expect a better quality of working life generally and greater autonomy at work. the respondent proceeded to present arguments which suggested that the changing social and legal landscape contains aspects that are so important. you’ve got issues of long hours culture. [HR Consultant] 21 . you’ve got the links with society. interests and ‘voice’ as employers are being faced with wider institutional frameworks that set limits on the choices they make about people management such as setting limits on working hours and pay rates (see Marchington and Wilkinson. so they will answer back…. In the quotation below. But there is beginning to be a tension because of the cost of it all [HR Consultant] While the dominant business framing of HR practice is evident here. I think that because businesses are obviously striving to be successful they are. 2005). that these have potential to discursively mediate any wholesale shift to the adoption of business partner type roles and tasks.

work stress. expressions and material practices becoming more prominent. such exhortations are rarely placed in an historical context which remembers that all attempts to frame the employment relationship. in this way or that. Beer 1997). This concern derives. and observed the dominance of business facing discourse at the expense of an alternate employee champion discourse. 22 . losers and tradeoffs. our study focuses on the potentially negative consequences of growing professional distance that is emerging between those that work in HR services (professional and administrative workforce) and those who use these services. alienation and other outcomes that systematically threaten employee well-being We have described how the ‘strategic amplification’ of structural changes and the turn to business partnership in HR are being construed as an ideological common sense which holds for everyone within an organisational setting. raise serious questions about winners. Discussion While there has been much discussion within the mainstream literature about how the function can transform itself in ways that will improve organizational performance (Ulrich and Brockbank. cannot escape ‘the major contradiction embedded in capitalist systems: the need to achieve both control and consent of employees’ (Legge 1995: 14). there exists also concern that employee’s rights in the workplace are under-emphasised within a HR system privileging employer interests. Rooted in CDA. 2005. We have shown how the particular order of discourse in which these structural changes are emerging (here as ‘business’ and ‘employee-centred’ discourses) have a strong controlling influence over the ‘linguistic variability’ (Fairclough 2003) within HR practice in that it acts to close off possibilities for understanding and dealing with inevitable tensions in meeting employee needs and aspirations and business objectives. we have focused on how Business Partnership features in the talk of HR practitioners. Claims that such changes are ‘imperative’ and ‘unavoidable’ obscure their potential to produce increased labour intensification. even within the context of a changing ‘textscape’ where business partner language becomes more prominent.While the landscape of HR might be changing and HR business partnership and related terms. from a deterioration of employment conditions driven by cost cutting and increasing work pressure. Barney and Wright 1998. Following Fairclough (2003). Lack of trust or confidence in the HR function may emerge from a more ‘legal-savvy’ workforce which could act as a counterbalance to developments showing that HR practice. as this respondent suggests.

changes in the wider textscape of HR inevitably create spaces where credibility and support for alternate HR practices and the discourses within which they are constituted. However any reordering of HR discourses means a significant shift in language-use about the championing of employee interests at the workplace. which we have shown as being largely framed as administrative ‘back office’ work. are driven by social values rather than strict economic criteria. and no longer accepted as being at the heart of HR activity. 23 . While the Ulrichian discursive template has been shown to objectify individuals in particular ways.Our analysis points to a dynamic and dialectic relationship between the local construction of HR and wider social practices such as changes in legislation and societal values (Harley and Hardy. This emergent nature of social practice is important to the study of how HR discourse is played out in a local setting. 2004). relegated to junior HR staff located in Service Centres and to line managers.

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Table 1: Profile of Respondents Female/Male F F F F F F F M M M M M F M F F F F F F M F F F F F F F F M M F F M F F M M F M M M M M Organization Type Retail Retail Retail HR Consultancy HR Consultancy HR Consultancy HR Consultancy HR Consultancy Public Sector (Local) Authority Public Sector Health Authority Educational Institution Public Sector Institution Educational Institution Educational Institution Educational Institution Financial Services Institution Public Sector (Local) Authority Public Sector (Local) Authority Public Sector Health Authority Public Sector information Provider Financial Services Institution Financial Services Institution Financial Services Institution Financial Services Hotel Hotel Leisure and Tourism Organisation Leisure and Tourism Organisation Law Firm Law Firm Clothes Manufacturer Food Manufacturer Electronics Manufacturer Petrochemical Manufacturer Drink Manufacturer Drink Manufacturer Car Manufacturer Drink Manufacturer Media Company Media Company Outsourcing Agency ICT Company Career Advisory Energy Company Title Personnel manager Senior HR Advisor HR Controller Director/Consultant Director/Consultant Director/Consultant Director/Consultant Director/Consultant HR Manager HR Director Business Partner HR Officer Management Development Officer HR Director HR Manager HR Advisor HR Manager HR Officer Senior HR Manager Head of Training and Development HR Project Consultant HR Advisor HR Advisor HR Business Partner HR Manager HR Manager Head of HR HR Policy Advisor Project HR Manager HR Manager HR Manager HR Manager HR Advisor Business Partner Business Partner HR Director HR Director Operations Head of Business Support Services Regional HR Manager (Business Partner) HR Director /Consultant HR Manager (Business Partner) HR Advisor Head of Network Development Non-executive Director 28 .