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Organization Science informs ®

Vol. 18, No. 4, July–August 2007, pp. 711–723 doi 10.1287/orsc.1070.0267

issn 1047-7039  eissn 1526-5455  07  1804  0711 © 2007 INFORMS

Unraveling HRM: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in

a Management Consulting Firm
Mats Alvesson, Dan Kärreman
Department of Business Administration, Lund University, P.O. Box 7080, S 220 07 Lund, Sweden

T his paper addresses human resources management (HRM) systems and practices in a large multinational management
consultancy firm. The firm invests considerable resources in HRM, and is frequently praised by employees for its
accomplishments in hiring, developing, and promotion. However, this general faith in HRM does not align particularly well
with employees’ experiences and perceptions of the specific HRM practices in the firm. The paper critically interprets the
meaning and the functions of the HRM system and the beliefs supporting it. The paper suggests a reinterpretation of HRM
systems and practices based on a cultural-symbolic perspective. It introduces the concepts of excess ceremonialism, identity
projects, and aspirational control to highlight and interpret the significance of organizational symbolism in accounting for
the role of HRM systems and practices, and the various effects of HRM systems and practices on employee identity and
Key words: HRM; assessment; identity; organizational culture; symbolism; contradictions

Introduction 1988, Longenecker et al. 1987, Townley 1999) in favour

The principal resource in knowledge-intensive firms is of emphasizing uncertainties and politics. In a com-
the competence of the work force (Alvesson 1995, plex, ambiguous world calling for pragmatic behaviour,
2000; Löwendahl 1997; Maister 1993). In this sense, it makes sense that HRM practices such as promotion be
knowledge-intensive firms underscore a general trend in loosely coupled with earlier assessments and feedback.
organization analysis: They emphasize the crucial signif- Interestingly, the general perception among organiza-
icance of personnel—or human resources to use a more tional members is not that the HRM system is pragmatic,
contemporary label (cf. Pfeffer 1994, Tichy et al. 1982). incoherent, and politicized. On the contrary, organiza-
Human resources management (HRM) is argued to be a tional members unequivocally express strong beliefs in
core strategic activity (e.g., Boxall and Steeneveld 1999; the HRM system’s capacity to deliver on its promise
Lengnick-Hall and Lengnick-Hall 1988; Tichy et al. in a rational and consistent way. They claim that the
1982, p. 47). HRM focuses on what can be broadly HRM system delivers good feedback, fair assessment,
described as the human side of an enterprise: recruit- input plus resources for improvement, and meritocratic
ment, training, staffing, career planning and develop- promotion. They think it works. As a consequence, the
ment, compensation, and labour relations (Steffy and deviations mentioned above—and fleshed out in detail
Grimes 1992). below—were received as surprising and puzzling events.
In this paper, we investigate the HRM system and We have a similar reaction of surprise and puzzlement,
practices of a large international management consul- but with regards to the predominant trust of HRM. How
tancy firm. The firm claims to have and use a ratio- can we understand that organizational members believe
nal and ambitious HRM system in which people are in the HRM policies so strongly? Why and how do
assessed and developed into a highly competent, moti- they not take the experiences of shortcomings seriously?
vated, and well-functioning work force. People praise This calls for taking the meanings people ascribe to the
the system for its usefulness to junior personnel and for HRM system seriously. Thus, we study HRM from a
its capacity to deliver an effective work force. The firm culture-identity perspective (cf. Alvesson 2002, Brown
seems to be an examplar of an organization benefitting 1995, Czarniawska 1992, Eisenberg and Riley 2001,
from large investments in HRM. Frost et al. 1985, Kunda 1992, Martin 1992, Smircich
However, as one would perhaps expect, there is a lot 1983a). A key dimension here is identity, at individ-
of variation in the application of HRM policies, lead- ual (Alvesson and Willmott 2002, Collinson 2003) and
ing to strong deviations from the suggested normative organizational levels (Albert and Whetten 1985, Dutton
order. This is consistent with earlier in-depth research et al. 1994, Hatch and Schultz 2002). HRM practices are
that has revealed widespread doubt about the rational- viewed as vehicles for the construction of meanings and
ity of assessment and promotion (Barlow 1989, Jackall “stories” about the individuals—who they are—and the
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
712 Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS

organization—its distinctiveness and coherence. HRM is culture are frequently viewed as closely related. Jackson
not viewed as an objective-functional system but as a and Schuler (1995), for example, view “organizational
meaning-creating device, which organizational members culture as inextractably bound to HRM and therefore not
use to develop and reproduce meanings about who they meaningful if separated from it” (p. 238), but they do not
are and what their firm represents. express any theoretical view on culture or use it as an
The paper tells two stories: One about HRM prac- interpretive device. Culture is often reduced to a variable
tices and one about meanings and identities around affecting HRM or as a managerial tool for accomplish-
HRM. The first story tells how the realization of ambi- ing the wanted workforce (Beer et al. 1984). As Bowen
tious HRM designs face formidable problems. The sec- and Ostroff (2004) note, “little attention has been given
ond tells how, despite these difficulties, people still use to the social constructions that employees make of their
HRM systems, practices, and ideologies for the con- interactions with HRM” (p. 206), arguably a key aspect
struction of positively loaded meanings about organi- from a cultural perspective.
zational identity and the identities of the employees. We use the term “culture” as a concept for a way
The observation that failed practices are accompanied by of thinking that particularly highlights symbolic phe-
successful symbolism offers the overall framing of this nomena. Culture is viewed as “a framework of mean-
paper. The theoretical purpose of the paper is to develop ing, a system of reference that can generate both shared
a new, cultural-theoretical understanding of ambitious
understandings and the working misunderstandings that
HRM, emphasizing its role in aligning individual and
enable social life to go on. These frameworks of mean-
organizational identity.
ing are cultivated, negotiated, and reproduced within
behavioural enactments    ” (Batteau 2001, p. 726). Cul-
HRM and Organizational Culture turally speaking, HRM phenomena are understood in
The HRM literature is strongly dominated by the terms of the symbolism and meanings that they com-
assumption that recruitment, assessment, and develop- municate and/or group members ascribe to (or interpret
ment processes deal with people who have stable sets from) arrangements and practices. From this point of
of skills and capacities, and that these characteristics are view, promotion practices are significant not because
necessary to objectively investigate and measure, thus they promote the better candidate, but because they
making so-called job-performance prediction possible tell us what it means to be the better candidate. They
(Steffy and Grimes 1992, Iles and Salaman 1995). Main- articulate and propagate shared understandings on the
stream HRM researchers claim that company perfor- meaning of promotion and candidature in this con-
mance is positively affected by HRM practices (Delaney text. Similarly, cultural resources—rituals, myths, sto-
and Huselid 1996, Guest 1999, Huselid 1995, Huselid ries, language use—are important building blocks in
et al. 1997, MacDuffie 1995; for a critique of method- organizational members’ identity work.
ological difficulties of making such claims, see Legge Based on a cultural framework, we investigate HRM
2005, Marchington and Grugulis 2000, Purcell 1999). as a meaning-creating device for identity construction.
Common distinctions involve soft and hard HRM sys- Identity is often seen as indicating the characteristics,
tems (Tyson 1995), perhaps better labeled as high- and
the coherence, and the distinctiveness of a person, group,
low-commitment ones (Legge 2005, Watson 2004). Soft
or organization (Albert and Whetten 1985). In dynamic
or high-commitment HRM is characterized by long-term
contexts—such as most contemporary organizations—
relationships, caring, and personal development. Hard or
identities are unstable, making it more reasonable to
low-commitment HRM is characterized by exploitative
and short-term relationships. talk about temporary forms of coherence rather than
These broad distinctions say little about the more something fixed and stable (Gioia et al. 2000). This is
nuanced ideas and meanings of how organizations view relevant not only with relationship to constructions of
their employees. Thus, we will follow an alternative what the organization stands for (organizational iden-
route, which suggests that the individual is produced, tity, Albert and Whetten 1985, Dutton et al. 1994, Hatch
rather than discovered, in HRM processes (Deetz 2003, and Schultz 2002), but also in terms of how individuals
Iles and Salaman 1995, Steffy and Grimes 1992, Town- define themselves and their specific orientations (Dunne
ley 1993). HRM practices, in this sense, create what they 1996, Sveningsson and Alvesson 2003). People in orga-
allegedly discover. Although HRM is typically seen as a nizations engage in identity work, aiming to achieve a
functional tool, this perspective indicates that HRM may feeling of a coherent and strong sense of self, which is
be more powerfully understood as a device that provides necessary for coping with work tasks and social inter-
shared meanings about the corporate universe, thus being actions (Alvesson and Willmott 2002). In particular, in
instrumental in sustaining the normative order. occupations and organizations characterized by instabil-
In this sense, HRM practices may be understood as ity and a multitude of groups and interactions, iden-
key providers and manifestations of culture and cul- tity work becomes crucial (Alvesson 2004, Deetz 1998).
tural material in organizations. HRM and organizational Identities are constituted, negotiated, reproduced, and
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS 713

threatened in social interaction, in the form of narratives, kind of study is to look out for significant deviations
and also in material practices. from what could have been expected, given a strong
We pay particular attention to how HRM may influ- familiarity with the literature in a field. This makes it
ence what we refer to as identity projects. This refers to possible to produce a mystery, offering an interesting
individuals’ definitions of their selves in the light of their source of further thinking in itself, but also giving impe-
ongoing development and imagined future (e.g., Grey tus for solving the mystery and thus adding new knowl-
1994 on career as self-projects and Markus and Nurius edge (Alvesson and Kärreman 2007, Asplund 1970). In
1986 on possible selves). Identity projects include long- our case, the mystery was a strong faith among people
term orientations and self-improvement efforts supported in the firm in the HRM system, while at the same time
by cultural norms and guidelines structured by a spe- there was a perception that the system failed in a lot of
cific social architecture (e.g., an HRM system). Identity specific instances.
projects bear the imprints of organizational arrangements The study is comprised of interviews as well as obser-
and are prone to efforts of identity regulation (Alvesson vations of a variety of organizational gatherings. Obser-
and Willmott 2002), rather than emerging more or less vations included closely following a project group at
spontaneously. work during two days (and half a night!), and attend-
The paper is structured as follows: After a brief note ing training sessions, a meeting about promotions, the
on methodological considerations we provide a short yearly meeting of all managerial staff, as well as external
description of the case. This leads to a close reading of events such as presentations of the firm to students, and
actual HRM practices, followed by an analysis of HRM so on (see Table 1 for details). We also studied documen-
in relationship to organizational identity and individual tary material (e.g., manuals for giving feedback, project
identity. Finally, we suggest that HRM aligns construc- methodology). We thus utilized the three means avail-
tions of organizational identity with individual identity able for qualitative research, “asking questions,” “hang-
projects through what we refer to as excess ceremonial- ing around,” and “reading texts” (Dingwall 1997). This
ity and aspirational control. paper reports mainly on the interview material and one
observation, but is informed by other kinds of data.
We conducted 59 interviews with 51 people. All inter-
Method views were conducted in Swedish and took place in
This paper follows an interpretive approach in organi- Stockholm, Güteborg, and Lund. About half were cho-
zation studies (e.g., Geertz 1973, Smircich 1983b). We sen for various specific reasons of being able or willing
employ a hermeneutic reading in which there is a cir- to provide a good overview and/or deeper viewpoints
cular move between part and whole, and the preun- (e.g., contact persons, CEO, ex-students of ours, sub-
derstanding that what the researcher brings with her jects recommended for interviews), and half were cho-
into research is actively used, qualified, challenged, and sen as a matter of convenience (e.g., being available
developed in the research process (Alvesson and Sköld- for interviews during days we were doing fieldwork).
berg 2000). Rather than a straightforward codifying of People from all parts of the organization were inter-
empirical material, one tries to go beyond the surface viewed: the CEO, partners, consultants on various lev-
and look for something less obvious, or less easily els of seniority, support staff, newly recruited organiza-
revealed in a (quick) coding process. The totality of the tional members, and so on. Our interviews covered dif-
text is also borne carefully in mind, which means that ferent business areas and the entire spectrum from job
variation and contradiction within interviews are taken applicants to ex-employees, although most interviewees
seriously. were working in the firm. We worked hard to get good
Fieldwork was conducted using an open and emer- access to a business not well known for its openness
gent approach (Alvesson and Deetz 2000), asking ques- to research or mass media (O’Shea and Madigan 1998).
tions such as, what is going on here? and, what do the Participant observation, contact with ex-students from
natives think they are up to? No specific ideas (hypothe- our department working in the firm, repeated interviews
ses) apart from a broad interest in studying management with people who appeared to have some distance from
and employment practices from a cultural perspective, the firm and were willing to air critical comments with-
guided the study from the start. Exact research ques- out being biased were tactics used in order to facilitate
tions were formulated after a good understanding of the “deep access.”
site being studied had been developed, thus giving space Due to our open approach, we did not restrict our-
for unexpected empirical material to affect the research selves to a strict interview protocol. Instead, we based
process and results. interview questions on different sets of common themes
Interviewees’ references to a so-called feedback cul- that consequently have been adapted to (a) the stage
ture and a strong focus on formal assessments, frequent in the research process, and (b) the particular devel-
promotions, and a preoccupation with career steps and opments of each interview, related to the interviewee’s
titles aroused our curiosity. A useful guideline in this specific work situation, seniority, and experiences. As
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
714 Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS

Table 1 Interviewee Sample Overview we are hierarchical for sure, but that’s the way we oper-
ate” and that creates a sense of security because you
Level No. of participants No. of interviews
know exactly where you are, and that everybody has the
Consultants opportunity to move up in the pyramid. Expectations are
Partner & Associate 10 10 another central feature. That you, given your role, are
Partner expected to do certain things, and that you meet, exceed,
Manager 12 15 or, in the worst case, fail to meet your expectations. (For-
Consultant 12 12 mer senior manager)
Research (knowledge 4 8 Most consultants are recruited directly from the larger
management) Scandinavian universities. Degrees in business admin-
Finance 3 3 istration or engineering are mandatory. All employees
HR 3 4
(even partners) are expected to take part in various
Outsiders recruitment efforts, such as presenting the firm at univer-
Ex-employees 2 2
Customers 5 5
sities, interviewing and assessing job seekers, and gener-
ally looking out for people to hire. The HR department
Total 51 59
administers recruitment, but consultants decide on who
will be employed. The firm is generally understood to
our understanding of the field developed, our lines of be a career firm. Initial advancement is expected to be
inquiry followed suit. We moved back and forth between swift for the individual. There are five basic levels: ana-
(a) details about HRM practices and how people related lyst, consultant, manager, senior manager, and partner.
to these and the broader organizational context, and New personnel typically start as analysts, are expected
between (b) looking for patterns and coherence versus to master that role within 12–18 months, and after two to
paying attention to fragmentation and discrepancies. In four years as consultants be promoted to managers. After
this way, we were able to refine our understanding of the manager level, advancement becomes more difficult.
the themes that emerged without providing excessive a The employees at Excellence are constantly evalu-
priori closure to fieldwork practices. ated. Evaluation is organized in two main processes.
First, employees are evaluated in relation to their indi-
vidual development. This process is labeled A-sheeting
The Case (A stands for appraisal) and is carried out three to four
Excellence is a large, fast-growing up-market manage- times every year. Second, employees are ranked by their
ment consulting firm employing over 25,000 people superiors in a process labeled banding. Banding occurs
worldwide. We focus on the Scandinavian subsidiary, once a year and influences salary.
which employs approximately 700 people. Excellence Excellence invests heavily in the training and devel-
specializes in management consultancy, with a focus opment of individual employees: courses, competence
on implementation of organizational changes involving development groups, workshops, invited speakers, and
information technology (IT). The firm targets large orga- publications available for those interested. Junior consul-
nizations as customers. It is very successful and has a tants are also paired with a senior consultant, who oper-
positive reputation worldwide. ates as his or her counsellor—which is also the official
The HRM system is, as mentioned above, designed title. The counsellor, who takes on the task as mentor
in a way that closely matches the normative ideal typ- voluntarily, helps the junior consultant with career devel-
ically voiced by proponents of strategic HRM. Recruit- opment, tries to shelter him or her from exploitation by
ment practices, career structure, appraisal systems, and overambitious project managers, and communicates to
development and training are all designed in an elabo- the higher echelons of the firm hierarchy.
rate fashion and allocated considerable time and money.
Below we briefly specify the parts of Excellence’s HRM
system that this study addresses—recruitment, career HRM: Ambiguity, Pragmatics, and Politics
structure, appraisal and evaluation systems, develop- The HRM practices at Excellence may appear to be con-
ment, and promotion. sistent and built into an integrated framework. However,
The HRM system is generally seen as an important a closer look reveals several illuminating deviations and
and vital symbol for the firm, and a key to understanding discrepancies from policies. We discuss two themes in
how the firm works. detail. One concerns the nature and character of the feed-
The career and the pyramid [i.e., organizational hierar- back provided by the HRM system. The other relates
chy] is absolutely central. It expresses the logic for how to the output of the HRM system, i.e., the delivery of
precisely everything works. You almost know this before optimal HR “products” in the form of the promotion
you enter the firm. In the recruitment process there is a and hierarchical location of people to positions matching
lot of talk about “we are a pyramid, we work that way, their competence and contributions.
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS 715

HRM practices at Excellence are replete with feed- you think that A-sheets are the thing. A couple of good
back mechanisms—employees talk about a feedback A-sheets become a good banding. But there is no clear
culture. Organizational members are actively encouraged connection between A-sheets and your banding. Rather,
to give and seek feedback in all situations, but the formal your banding depends on what project managers think
system with frequent appraisals seems to dominate: about you. (Manager)

It’s very formalized. Every project feeds a feedback According to our informants at junior levels and in sup-
database consisting of 20–25 preformed criteria, where port functions, it is sometimes difficult to see a pattern or
you are graded based on hierarchical level, summarized specific criteria that apply for promotion to the partner
in strengths, weaknesses, and recommendations that are level.
supposed to be followed by a discussion. This is done [Partner promotion] has signalling effects, for example,
after the project is concluded, about six weeks after. But that the people promoted are skilled in management or
you need feedback and guidance during the whole pro- selling, or can produce the best margins or    it is a com-
cess. On the whole, I think that there is a balance between municative act for the rest of us. But as an observer, you
pointing out when it is not quite good and encouraging can’t really see a natural pattern. There is no established
when you are doing well. (Consultant) truth on what it takes to be a partner here     I don’t
Interestingly, the highly formalized character of the feed- know why Patrick became a partner and why Paul didn’t.
I don’t know what Patrick has done to qualify as a part-
back seems to devalue its effects. Superiors often do not
ner. There is no difference in seniority. Paul appears to be
have time to do it properly. Part of the problem is that very good. Patrick appears to be very good. Why Patrick
it is difficult to provide rich feedback because this may and why not Paul? (Support staff manager)
call for careful monitoring, excellent judgment, language
skills, and the allocation of considerable time. As one This perception is presumably not shared by senior peo-
partner said: “We are too kind. Feedback tends to be ple and may reflect limited insights of the part of those
vague and positive.” The evaluation system rarely pro- not having the entire picture of people’s qualifications.
duces differentiated and nuanced feedback (distinguish- However, an observation of a meeting about promo-
ing between good and bad performances), and thus was tion underscores difficulties in accomplishing rationality
viewed as problematic to use as input for promotion. in the decision process. The meeting gathers about 20
senior people who discuss individuals suggested to be
The problem is that sometimes there is a lot of inflation- considered for promotion. Due to the recession, top man-
ary grading. You participated in a reasonably successful agement has decided that a maximum of three people
project, and you think that you have worked with some- can be promoted from consultant to manager at this time.
body who was really great, and tend to give them good
Chairperson Eva goes briefly through all 21 names on
grades. And then when you look at the whole popula-
tion, if we should just look at the grading, everybody
the list and adds that in several situations the counsellors
would have been promoted and we obviously can’t do did not recommend promotion.
that. (Partner) Chairperson: So, as you can see, we recommend Burton,
Wally and Erik to be promoted. Burton based on his
Another deviation in the system is evident in the way months at level and extensive experience, Wally based
the appraisal and evaluation procedures actually work. on his entrepreneurial skills combined with his ability to
According to the norm, A-sheets are written and per- interact with clients, and finally Erik based on strong go-
formed by project managers. However, it seems that to-market skills and a clear profile within wireless solu-
in practice organizational members often write their tions. There have been concerns regarding why we do
A-sheets themselves. not promote all delivery consultants at our most impor-
tant client, GlobalTech. The answer is that we would like
I wrote my own A-sheet again at the Dairy project. I‘even to promote people with different profiles. Comments?
wrote the evaluation, both contribution and summary.
Then the project manager edited it somewhat. It is not Anton: I am at Product Ltd right now and I would
supposed to work this way, but it does. (Consultant) like to position Jonathan as our number one candidate.
To quote John B.: “I finally have a manager on my
The so-called banding is another example of how prac- team,” and I strongly oppose that we promote Wally and
tice sometimes deviates from the norm. In principal the Erik instead of the implementation people at GlobalTech
banding process is a simple additive process of putting because these are our major revenue generators. It will
together evaluations carried out during the period, in send the wrong signals in the organization.
particular the relevant A-sheets. However, A-sheets have Hulda: I agree with Anton, it would be strange not to pro-
little direct impact on the banding process. mote the SAP people at GlobalTech. I would not know
I was surprised when I became involved in the band- what to say to my counselee!
ing process, that A-sheets meant so little. I thought they Anders: I agree with Anton regarding Jonathan. And then
were important but it was evident that other aspects mat- we have Anna, Cecily, and Clare. These three people
tered more. In practice, it is recommendations and com- have sold more and managed larger projects than most
ments from project managers that decide. As a freshman, of the managers in Sweden.
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
716 Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS

Chairperson: Can you rank them? strong tendency for people to promote those they are
Anders: Well, perhaps Oskar or Anton can do that?
closely associated with—as counsellors, project man-
agers, and/or those working in the same area. There is a
Oskar: Anna, Cecily, and Clare should be treated as a very strong political undertone during the meeting: Peo-
group. They cannot be separated. What line of thinking ple form coalitions and act in line with their own group
do you follow when you say that Wally and Erik should interests to promote their own candidates. There is no
be promoted instead of them!?
explicit challenging of the organizational politics—being
Chairperson: Dick, do you want to comment? loyal to your allies and protogees seems to be a value
Dick: I have worked a lot with Wally. He is an
embedded in the organizational culture.
entrepreneur and has managed to open up a new client Based on the chairman’s initial comments on pro-
for us. He is a key resource at this new client and has motion of the implementation people at GlobalTech,
managed to maintain a good relationship with the exec- followed by Anton’s, Hulda’s, and Anders’s strong reac-
utive team. He has also continuously received very good tions, we can see that the fact that two of three sug-
feedback. gested candidates (Wally and Erik) are picked outside
 GlobalTech is something that is controversial (approxi-
mately 75% of the firm’s Industry Group work at Glob-
Oskar: But Clare is rated higher than Wally. How does it alTech). That might send “strange signals,” i.e., if you
work? I don’t understand! are loyal, chargeable, secure continued assignments, and
Chairperson: As you said, we cannot promote Clare work with relatively standardized tasks (SAP implemen-
alone. Then we must promote the other GlobalTech tation) over a long time at our most important client, it
people. is not necessarily the fastest way to success!
Oskar: Then I don’t think we should promote Wally! After the meeting Burton and Wally are promoted. In
the case of Burton this seems predictable (his seniority
Chairperson: That might be the case. was not disputed), but there was little consensus about
Hulda: We must give credit to those selling at the worth of Wally. Here it can be noted that Clare
GlobalTech. We should not promote Wally if we do not was assessed more favourably than Wally by her project
promote the SAP people at GlobalTech! managers during the time up to the meeting, and a large
group argued against Wally’s promotion, but neverthe-
George: The people who sell shall be rewarded, but
we also need to reward people that can start from less he was the one promoted.
scratch with new clients. Wally has done just that and Political aspects also matter in other contexts, for
I am extremely confident with him. I think we should example, in the tactic of junior people “teaming up” with
shuffle around and promote some additional people at a senior person as a way of surviving in the firm.
GlobalTech, but I’m not able to tell which.
The art of surviving here is to team up with a superior
Sixten: Wally is not as “heavy and sharp” as a few of who has already teamed up with his or her superior. Then
the GlobalTech people at the list. Do not regard Wally’s you work together. (Consultant)
eagerness to get promoted as a reason for promotion!
Coalitions and personal interests generally play a role in
Helmut: Let me emphasize the strength of Clare! We assessments, promotions, and task assignments. Senior
also need to consider Bert. He is performing very well at people want to have discretion and be able to make deci-
GlobalTech in China. sions based on their personal interests and preferences
 (e.g., on who to work with) without being constrained
by aggregates of previous assessments (Barlow 1989,
Chairperson: Thank you for your comments.
Longenecker et al. 1987).
In the meeting a wide span of different, and to There are thus many deviations from the espoused
some extent conflicting, criteria for promotion are ideals and ambitions of the HRM system. This may be
being used, e.g., historical rating, experience (months at reasonable because, overall, pragmatic HRM considera-
level), entrepreneurial skills, loyalty with the “cash-cow tions, and whether this serves the firm better than try-
project,” client interaction, selling skills, project man- ing to maximise the ideal of meritocracy and trying to
agement skills, degree of specialization, but also more reward and promote people based on competence and
metaphorical qualities like “heavy and sharp” and “a guy performance is hard to say. Strikingly, however, and this
that can walk on water” (the latter statement not being is why our case is of great interest, organization mem-
reported in our excerpt). It was emphasized that one bers do not share the world-weary view of the HRM
must promote people working within a special area so systems presented above. Actually, all of our informants
that people will not be discouraged from working there tend to think that the HRM system delivers. Even dis-
in the future. A large number of different names are senters appear convinced that the HRM system works, to
put forward as most worthy of promotion. There is a the extent that they tend to blame it for converting people
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS 717

into corporate clones. There is a widespread belief that Here it is assumed that the labour market confirms the
the corporate system for selection, ranking, developing, constructions of Excellence as an organization guaran-
and promotion is reliable and that the resulting hierar- teeing the reliable assessment and improvement of peo-
chy expresses valid differences in technical and man- ple. Employment plus a few years at the firm means it is
agerial competence. The elaborate formal differentiation widely recognized that you—and the HRM system—are
system is assumed to register the actual competence of very good.
the employees. How can we understand this in the light of all the
Thus, hierarchy is valued at Excellence, not only reported experiences of deviations from prescribed HRM
because it provides a unitary chain of command, but also policies and ideals? A fruitful path is to view HRM
because it is believed to accurately express competence. not in objective, rational, and functional terms but as
It is the meritocratic value of differentiation that makes related to organizational identity and individual identity
hierarchy—and the differences in power it expresses— constructions.
perceived as legitimate and even necessary among orga-
nizational members.
HRM and Organizational Identity
The reason why it works at Excellence is because peo-
Many functionalist HRM researchers believe that the
ple get promoted, not because they have been working a
certain number of years at the firm, but because they are
success of an HRM system is closely related to the
ready to take the responsibility. They have the experience validity of the practices and the consistency of HRM
and they have the competence. And, usually, you create messages. Bowen and Ostroff (2004), for example, em-
respect in relation to the lower levels of the organiza- phasize the need to establish “an unambiguous perceived
tion, and pay and economic compensation come with the cause-effect relationship in reference to the HRM sys-
responsibility. (Partner) tem’s desired content-focused behaviours and associated
employee consequences” (p. 210, italics in original).
In practice, it seems to be difficult not to use seniority However, in our study it is clear that strong experiences
as an important criteria. This is illustrated by the case of contradicting the perceived instrumentality, validity, and
Burton above, who is seen as well worthy of promotion consistency of HRM do not mean that employees lose
“based on his months on level and extensive experience” faith in the HRM system.
(chair person). One reason for this is the way the HRM system
The confidence in the ability to produce, assess, and communicates and symbolizes the core identity of the
structure competencies in a formal system is worth not- organization. Excellence employees see what is distinc-
ing. Little doubt is raised whether human capacities tive and typical for the firm very much in terms of
are that well-ordered, transparent, and capable of being HRM themes. One interviewee compares Excellence
differentiated along hierarchical lines, or whether the with another medium-sized consultancy firm he worked
assessments and other HRM operations exhibit a high for earlier (Administrative Consulting), and emphasizes
degree of rationality and precision in dealing with these the superiority of the former in its people development
capacities. Several of our informants said, when asked and screening process, resulting in a very fine match
why they have applied for work at Excellence, that between level and capacity of people.
employment in the firm would look good on their CVs
and make them more attractive in the labour market. At Administrative Consulting, there is a hierarchy as
Many, in particular at higher hierarchical levels, credited such, but older people, so to speak, could be in the
the HRM system for being responsible for the good rep- middle of the pyramid. And there was also people who
utation of Excellence’s personnel on the labour market. advanced in the organization, but who lacked the respect
and the knowledge that they should have. So already by
Our reputation is very good concerning our employees. that time, some of the credibility of this project organi-
If you have five years at Excellence on your CV, then zation was damaged, even if there were attempts, during
they don’t care to look at your degree etc. They prac- my time there, to professionalize this approach. There
tically don’t care to look at anything at all, they just were a couple of seniors who didn’t perform very well.
say: “Okay, here is the job if you want it.” They know These people don’t exist at Excellence, or at least they
that the quality of the people we hired is assured, and are extremely rare, they just don’t stay. There is an
that we have trained and developed them. This makes “up-or-out”-system. It is not brutal. People are not sacked
our employees very attractive to everything from head- because they fail in a project. But over a longer period,
hunters or ex-employees to, well, other consultancy firms in one way or another, these people disappear. (Partner)
too, that know us quite well. (Manager)
I am not familiar with any other company that puts in
(Other companies) know that we have rigorously tested so much effort in their rating and promotion processes
them (the employees) before they were offered and that as we do. Imagine all the executives who are involved in
we also have developed and educated them. Our people this process, twice a year, when we go through the merits
are very attractive. (Consultant) of every single person in this company! (Partner)
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
718 Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS

In the case of Excellence, the HRM structures and prac- A key aspect of Excellence is the claim of efficient use
tices go far beyond the requirement to follow broadly of hierarchy. The HRM structures and practices, thus, do
shared myths in order to attain legitimacy (Meyer and not just legitimize hierarchy, but fuel it with value and
Rowan 1977). The firm is seen as extraordinary in meaning associated with organizational identity. Why
its attendance to developing and assessing employees. should one willingly obey superiors, and accept sub-
Even with half of the time, energy, and costs allo- ordination? It is because a lot of brainpower has been
cated to HRM, Excellence would meet expectations invested in building systems that make it possible to
on legitimacy. Compared to what Meyer and Rowan decide the competence of people and because an enor-
have in mind, we can talk about excess ceremoniality. mous amount of energy goes into the activities that make
This involves much more “intense” or “thick” mean- these systems work.
ings, attention, and symbolic output than are needed Hierarchy tends to have negative connotations, but I think
to comply with institutionalized expectations. Excess it has advantages. You take care of your subordinates and
ceremoniality refers to arrangements that gain credibil- your superiors are supposed to take care of you. So you
ity through being detached from operational efficiency, have a caring environment, which I think is good. For
going beyond legitimacy, and standing out as something me, hierarchy is not negative. It provides security. (Senior
special, original, and superior. The concept highlights manager)
the ceremonial underpinnings of HRM practices, such The HRM apparatus indicates to people that they live in
as assessments and development. It is important to point an organizational world where the formal systems guar-
out that ceremony in this context does not refer to win- antee the competence of people, senior people take a lot
dow dressing—as Meyer and Rowan’s meaning of the of responsibility for junior people, that the system is fair;
term may lead us to believe. Rather, excess ceremoni- and that it is the abilities and efforts of the employees
ality draws on an anthropological understanding of cer- that account for their successes or lack thereof. Being a
emony: It points to important nonrational (or situated member of this firm is believed to confirm one’s value.
rational) conduct in the face of unresolvable uncertainty,
aimed to preserve a sacred set of beliefs. The excess They work for a firm with a good reputation. It feels a
bit posh to work for Excellence Consulting. Eventually,
ceremoniality in HRM practices creates a strong connec- one develops a magnificent narcissist disorder, and thinks
tion between organizational identity,1 individual identity that one is a very good person in other areas. I think
projects, and production; this connection is not created that is a satisfying feeling for younger people, “I am suc-
through technical accuracy or relevance, but through the cessful.” And the people we recruit have always wanted
minds and feelings of those exposed to it (living in and to be successful. They have always been dependent on
through it). strokes from the environment. And they get the strokes
Although Meyer and Rowan point at what is general here. They have been A-kids since birth. (Manager)
and average, the idea of organizational identity indicates In a sense, organizational members engage in system
constructions of what is specific and distinct. As will justification (Jost et al. 2003, 2002; Rabinowitz 1999).
be developed below, this self-view affects employees’ System justification occurs when “people    perform
identifications with the firm and their sense of who and cognitive and ideological work on behalf of the social
how they are. The HRM structures signal to external and system to preserve the sense that authorities are fair
internal audiences that this firm knows what it is doing and legitimate” (Haines and Jost 2000, p. 222). Sys-
and that the personnel who are promoted are thoroughly tem justification is typically used to explain why under-
bona fide. HRM is thus about “the creation of the orga- privileged groups embrace the status quo (the working
nization’s view of itself” (Keenoy and Anthony 1992, class supporting capitalism, women supporting patri-
p. 238), i.e., organizational identity (see also Broms and archy, and so on). However, this kind of system justifica-
Gahmberg 1983, who refer to many organizational mes- tion is unlikely at Excellence, at least in undiluted forms,
sages as autocommunication). because all positions—except the partnership level—
There is also an external side to the organization’s are perceived as transitional. Due to the blurring of
view of itself: identity and image interplay (Alvesson boundaries between workers/managers/owners, and the
2004, Hatch and Schultz 2002). How others view one- relentless pressure—propelled by the HRM system—to
self is important for self-understanding. Why buy the aspire to become a partner, system justification blends
firm’s—very expensive—services? Why try extra hard to seamlessly with identification, thus making system jus-
get a job and continue in this firm? One reason would tification a central theme in identity work among orga-
be the beliefs in a high level of competence that the nizational members.
firm develops, maintains, and then offers, indicated by HRM systems and rituals thus symbolize a kind of
the HRM system and all the procedures, time, attention, rationality that makes compliance the only reasonable
and energy that characterize it. In this sense, the HRM response. It encourages a leap of trust that is called for in
system provides both meaning and instruction. settings in which there are no proofs or solid experiences
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS 719

indicating what to expect from the future (Möllering HRM as a Source of Receiver Identity. Identifica-
2001). It allows people to rationalize their position tion also occurs through outcomes of HRM activi-
in a system that may appear to be old-fashioned— ties and the general idea (identity) of the firm as an
particularly in the professional sector—in terms of for- ambitious competence-developing system. Individuals
mal hierarchy and preoccupation with rules, standards, are constantly worked on through feedback, evaluations,
and titles. mentoring, and allocation of increasingly demanding
The Excellence people use this symbolism to help con- work and training; this indicates a specific trajectory in
struct a positive, secure view of themselves, as well as which possible (future-directed views of) selves (“I will
for their organization. This means that (inter)subjectively become    ”) are also a part of their self-view (Markus
gratifying meanings, rather than distanced observation and Nurius 1986). Direction, progress, and future posi-
and reasoning, guide construction processes. As fused tions are key aspects. HRM activities and the construc-
with and, in a sense “subordinated” to (a key aspect of) tion of the organizational identity increase the credibility
organizational identity (who we are), HRM is not sub- of career steps and titles, and boost self-esteem.
jected to “reality tests” (critical scrutiny) in such a way
The Excellence brand stands for professionalism. It
as may be the case with issues less close to a sense of means that I’m serious and professional in my work.
who we are (I am). I must confess that I like the aura of the Excellence
brand. I know that I was recruited to an elite and that
HRM and Identity Constructions of I am still considered to be worthy of an organization that
recruits the best students, has the best clients, and makes
Individuals a lot of money. We hire one out of hundred who apply
Obviously, people typically draw on a variety of social for work here. We have long and trying tests and evalua-
categories in doing identity work. In professional orga- tions and I have passed them all. Excellence is successful.
nizations like Excellence, people tend to invest a lot of We have passed ThinkIT as the most attractive employer
themselves in work and in their careers (Grey 1994). among students at this country’s leading business school.
Because they enter the firm after university, and do in (Consultant)
most cases expect to progress in the organization, the
Of course, a large part of the personnel, the most junior
employment in Excellence forms a basis for individual
and senior excluded, are interchangeably and regularly
identifications and provides cultural meanings and com-
positioned as both producers and receivers of HRM:
petences for the formation of selves.
They give feedback and receive it, decide on promotion
The many, frequent, and, for the individuals, important
of juniors, and are subjects for the promotion decisions
activities associated with HRM are central here. This
of their seniors. HRM activities, then, affect identity
is the case from a senior, as well as a junior, position.
from two angles. HRM becomes fused with strong
The HRM—manifesting and reinforcing organizational
identity-loaded meaning and plays an important role in
identity—affects the identity constructions through par-
who people think they are and how they see themselves.
ticipating in the production as well as consumption of
feedback, rankings, promotions, assignment planning,
training activities, and so on (Covaleski et al. 1998 make The Alignment of Organizational Identity
a similar point about mentoring). Of course, both senior and Individual Identity Projects
and junior people contribute to the construction of HRM Thus, in this paper, we conceptualize (high-commit-
in interactions, but people in senior positions tend to pro- ment) HRM as an identity-aligning project. As such, it
duce more feedback, advice, assessments, and decisions, works as a major linking mechanism between organi-
whereas junior people receive or consume their seniors’ zational identity and individual identity regulation (see
feedback to a higher degree. also Covaleski et al. 1998). It means organizational iden-
HRM as a Source of Producer Identity. Given the tity claims about what the organization stands for are
significance ascribed to HRM and the frequency and expressed in a clear, distinct, and coherent way. From
ceremonial thickness of many HRM activities like the this point of view, it becomes easier to understand the
promotion meeting we briefly described above, these widespread cognitive dissonance on HRM matters at
activities offer material for identity constructions of Excellence—why the people at Excellence tend to cover
senior people. When people offer feedback and coun- up and rationalize discrepancies in the HRM system.
seling, do the ratings, and decide about promotions, There is simply too much at stake; the motives and social
they constitute themselves as devoted facilitators, care- mechanisms tend to privilege positive meanings and save
takers, developers, and evaluators of others. HRM, then, identity (at organizational and individual levels). In this
is enacted as identity projects not only for people at sense, the HRM system is partly secured through the
the receiving end of HRM, but also at the producing social psychology of self-serving bias (Babcock et al.
end of such activities. They may act politically, but this 1996, Sedikides et al. 1998).
is not how they construct themselves or their corporate Whereas an outsider sees discrepancies in HRM prac-
practices. tices, the insider experiences discredit to an integrated
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
720 Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS

system of faith. In this sense, the HRM system employs and tools for how to manoever in a complex organiza-
organizational identification cuing through the embed- tional world. In Bourdieu’s (1979) terms, HRM activities
ding of employees within the organizational community can be viewed as concentrated lessons in the learning of
(Scott and Lane 2000). Excess ceremoniality fuels and the social field in which people act, and the habitus—
expresses organizational identity and makes it possible cultural disposition—needed to make people appear to
for people to retain their faith despite experiences of operate competently in it.
HRM practices deviating from the plan. The fusion of • Normative ordering: in HRM discourse and practice
identity and HRM make questioning the latter an unwel- normative elements are being highlighted and embraced,
come option—it would imply also questioning oneself not just in terms of competence, hard work, and devel-
and would undermine vital resources for identity con- opment, but also in terms of order, structure, and so
structions. on. This underscores communal aspects of the identity
The HRM system not only embeds stakeholders within projects, fostering a sense of solidarity and loyalty to the
the organizational community, it also is highly involved firm and to colleagues. The normative ordering provided
in constituting the community, in terms of construction through the HRM system makes temporary stations in
of the organization and individual identity projects. This, individual identity projects legitimate and meaningful,
in combination with the ubiquitous and all-embracing even at subordinate levels, thus counteracting oppor-
framing of HRM practices as identity-regulating tools tunism.
The alignment of identity projects clearly involves
(feedback systems and sessions, competence develop-
the exercise of organizational control. However, the
ment programs, promotion, and so on), makes the pre-
main mode of control operating here differs from tradi-
scribed “reality” signified by the HRM system far more
tional forms of control such as behavioural, structural,
plausible and pervasive than the run-ins organizational
output, and normative control, as well as disciplinary
members have with actual HR reality—with its share of power. What is at stake here is neither time independent
weak feedback, the porosity of competence claims, and like “pure” normative control (where internalized values
ambiguous and politicized promotions. Because HRM reach beyond time and space), nor fairly precise future
as system and policy are strongly communicated in the directed control as most instrumental and performance-
organization and people’s individual experiences of prac- related motives are (where the bonus/wage raise, pro-
tices are not—they are hesitant in raising skepticism— motion, or visible result is targeted). Here we instead
these experiences tend to be compartmentalized and have the fusion of a sense of self (identity), the strug-
carry less weight for beliefs than prescribed HRM real- gle to maintain and improve skills, the prospect of real-
ity. izing objectives and get (instrumental) rewards (wage
HRM, thus, seems to work in ways that make organi- increases, rapid promotion), and the desire to comply
zational life easier for the individuals through structur- with and live up to a specific normative order (being a
ing, supporting, and constraining their identity projects. blend of instrumental and value-oriented elements). We
Key elements here seem to be: label this aspirational control.2 Put bluntly, aspirational
• Emotional coping: uncertainty and existential an- control occurs through tying the self with a particular
xiety—key issues around identity struggles (Knights and career idea and prospect, linked to a prescribed identity
Willmott 1989, Collinson 2003)—are being reduced but project, thus forming a trajectory, including a sense of
also channeled through the ingredients of “balanced a projected self (associated with anticipated position).
feedback,” regulated promotion, and the use of ritualistic The HRM part of aspirational control is supported by
form. HRM offers a clear structure for dealing with inse- material forms of power involved in the structure around
curity. Although the HRM system may lead to surprises identity projects and in the exercise of aspirational con-
in practice, it provides powerful instruction on how the trol. As one interviewee remarked about problems of
world ought to work: Hard work pays off, hierarchy mir- raising critique,
rors competence, and merits prevail. It provides meaning To use a typical Excellence expression: You must be con-
to temporary stations for the individual’s identity project: structive. It means that you must contribute in a way that
As a junior consultant this and this is expected, seniority leads forwards. If not, you’re seen as destructive. And
means that and that. that is not good. In the end it may effect your banding
• Providing cognitive clues: HRM as a symbol sys- and also the wage. (Consultant)
tem and a set of practices facilitates people’s to develop- Thus, there is careful surveillance of people express-
ment of the cultural competences necessary for handling ing negative opinions or telling nonaffirmative stories,
adaption processes to the corporate career world prop- and regular exercise of sovereign power—senior peo-
erly; thus dealing better with emotional, relational, and ple having control over promotions and other material
practical matters. As Swidler (1986) points out, culture rewards. Thus, they are able to, both subtly and not so
influences action not primarily by providing values and subtly, prevent those who potentially obstruct the domi-
norms, but rather by providing particular competencies nance of this culture from doing so.
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS 721

Conclusion quality or rationality of the HRM arrangements, and

Overall, we make three points in this paper: (1) the more on their sheer quantity and intensity and the back-
actual practices of HRM can easily fall far behind and up of supportive ideologies. This empowers the HRM
contradict ambitious HRM objectives, ideologies, sys- system with a rich symbolic density that is highly per-
tems, and procedures; (2) HRM may feed into orga- suasive. The large amount of people-processing systems
nizational and individual identity projects; and (3) the and practices circling around in the firm strongly commu-
success of HRM—the inclination of people to take this nicates cultural meanings and values such as rationality,
seriously and ascribe positive meaning to it—is contin- improvement, effort, individualism, fairness, compliance,
gent on social mechanisms, such as excess ceremoniality order, differentiation, and transparence. This forms the
and aspirational control, that facilitate the willing sus- basis of what is distinctive about the organization and
pension of disbelief. All this indicates the need to rethink how people relate to it, i.e., organizational identity.
conventional ideas about HRM. We also suggest that HRM is instrumental in consti-
HRM researchers feel that they “now can say with tuting and sustaining the identity projects of the employ-
increasing confidence that HRM works” (Guest 1999, ees based on these meanings. This concerns efforts of
p. 188) and they can mobilize empirical studies indi- constructing identity of individuals within the frame of
cating that ambitious use of HRM practices has posi- organizational identity and of HRM providing a facili-
tive effect on performances (Huselid 1995, MacDuffie tating and controlling structure for these projects. HRM
1995). Perhaps it (often) works, but how? Mainstream involvement in individual identity projects affects both
HRM research views this to be a matter of the competent those subordinates being processed and those superiors
realization of plans and intentions, leading to a sys- doing the processing. The frequent HRM activities links
tem characterized by instrumentality, validity, and con- ideas about the organization and the individual; they
sistency (Bowen and Ostroff 2004). Our study suggests provide points and mechanisms of identification, where
that other mechanisms may be even more important. organizational identity and cultural ideas become man-
It also demonstrates the usefulness of observing actual ifested and attached to the identity constructions and
HRM practices, rather than treating them as a black- aspirations of the individuals.
boxed phenomenon that reliably converts particular input The symbolic significance for identity constructions
to predictable outcomes. may mean that detached observations and logical rea-
We have studied a large, successful management con- soning play a limited role in the formation of beliefs.
sultancy firm with very ambitious HRM systems and HRM is enacted for the telling of positive stories about
procedures, characterized by experiences of frequent the organization and its members (e.g., no other com-
deviations from policies in feedback, ranking, promo- pany puts so much effort in their rating and promotion
tion, and assignment planning. Our study once again processes as we do). HRM is used by people in their
reminds us about the difficulties of organizations ful- meaning constructions against the ambiguity, fragmen-
filling technocratic fantasies when it comes to people tation, and arbitrariness of the social world in general
issues. It confirms the common experience of in-depth and the consultancy work in particular. Constructions
case studies that “organizational life seldom lives up to of HRM reduce insecurity, facilitate cognitive-cultural
the facade of order it presents” (Batteau 2001, p. 728). competence, and exhibit the normative order. From this
At Excellence, this does not prevent people from follows an inclination to suspend doubt about the tech-
having faith in the HRM system on a general level, nical efficiency of HRM practices.
indicating discrepancies between an overall assessment The impact of the HRM systems and practices is thus
and specific experiences. This indicates that HRM may not necessarily only, or even mainly, about developing
“work,” not in a technical-rational sense, but in terms people with potential. The impact may be as much in
of people sometimes using it for the constructions of terms of affecting motivation, self-confidence, and com-
meanings, values, and orientations that help them cope pliance: We suggest that this occurs through aspira-
with work and develop a positive self-view, partly asso- tional control. This is the management control aspect
ciated with organizational affiliation. We thus suggest of identity projects. Self-esteem becomes tightly linked
a reconceptualization of HRM from a system of struc- to career progress. The elaborated HRM systems make
tures and practices leading to effective people processing you get what you deserve, it is assumed. There is lit-
through techniques to a set of meanings and symbols tle socially acknowledged space for people to rationalize
that organizational members draw on in producing a par- failures. Apart from encouraging and maintaining high
ticular view of the organization as well as themselves. ambitions, it thus makes it difficult to retreat from these,
This view means a certain selectivity and closure in how at least within the specific organizational context. The
people make sense of their experiences. disciplinary effects are often strong when people con-
We particularly emphasize the existence and impor- nect their self-esteem and ambitions—i.e., their identity
tance of excess ceremoniality. The concept suggests that projects—closely to the HRM systems and the organi-
the success of the HRM system depends less on the zational hierarchy.
Alvesson and Kärreman: Identity, Ceremony, and Control in a Management Consulting Firm
722 Organization Science 18(4), pp. 711–723, © 2007 INFORMS

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