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Prof. James Gross: Is H.R.M. a Violation of Human Rights?

Professor James Gross of Cornell was the distinguished Fulbright-McGill University Visiting Research Chair last year.

Here is the link to a taped lecture he gave in which he argues that human resource management is a violation of freedom of association and human rights.   He argues that HRM “can be insidious” because it involves the employer using manipulation to convince employees that their interests are always aligned with those of the employers when they are not.  Moreover, insofar as HRM ultimately intends to make employees dependent upon the ‘goodwill’ and ‘kindness’ of the employer, it may violate the employees’ human rights.  That is because freedom of association requires ensuring that employees have some control over and input into important decisions that affect their lives, including the rules of the workplaces.

Gross argues that only collective bargaining gives employees a real say in their terms and conditions of employment.  That is a strong reason why the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining is considered a fundamental human right in international law and in Canada.  Yet, in North America, the business culture generally perceives unionization to be a symptom of poor management.  Gross tells a story about how the VP of HRM for Estee Lauder announced to a conference audience that the company would fire any manager whose operation is unionized, because unionization is a symptom of bad management.   I’ve seen that happen myself.

What do you think of Gross’s argument?

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3 Responses to Prof. James Gross: Is H.R.M. a Violation of Human Rights?

  1. Ryan Reply

    December 16, 2008 at 12:18 am

    Gross’ argument assumes a homogenous, universal workplace which is patently incorrect. For example, his argument doesn’t consider the individual merits of a non-unionized workplace, such as gaining promotions/bonuses/raises/rewards rapidly based on individual performance that a collective agreement may have prohibited. On one hand seniority rights can properly be regarded as the “corner stone” of labour law, but on the other hand, that same “corner stone” weighs _everyone_ down, whether all employees want to be burdened with a seniority system or not. In other words, there’s little incentive to be a star performer in a unionized system, and this hurts both the employer and potential star employee. Granted my argument’s merits depends on the workplace, but can you imagine a unionized commissioned sales environment?

    I’m not arguing for a generalized benefit of non-unionized workplaces, but HRM plays a huge role in cultivating a culture of achievement, and this can pay pay dividends depending on the workplace. So just as it’s not right to say “all unions are bad” (which they’re not), it’s not right to say “all HRM is bad” (which as I’ve shown, it’s not). Given the right environment and incentive plan (courtesy of HRM), the employer can easily become dependent on the “goodwill” and “kindness” of the employees (that is, to stay with the company!). Hence, generous retention plans and such – is that still insidious?

    Gross assumes a dichotomous power dynamic between employers and employees, and dare I say his views aren’t entirely accurate?

  2. Lena Reply

    December 17, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    Thanks Ryan for your vote of confidence in HRM! I’m sure many students will be encouraged by your argument. It seems like all that is ever heard about is the negative aspects of HR, but never about those instances where alot of good has been done. In my view, a solid understanding of labour laws coupled with carefully selected progressive HR strategies is the key to creating and maintaining harmonious relations between employer and employees. Yes, you do have to work for the employer, but at the same time, be vigilant and prepared to protect the interests and rights of employees.

  3. Alex Reply

    December 19, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Another unfair attack on HRM! Why is HRM the sole offender? We live in a democratic-capitalistic society. Unfortunately, sometimes democracy and capitalism find themselves at odds. I personally believe that this is the reason that the employer/employee relationship is one of the most legislated relationships in law (my industrial relations professor told us that- I hope the lawyers that read this blog don’t jump on me). In democratic societies, we all are equal, and use our votes to influence decision making. Most (not all) organizations rely on hierarchy and rank. Once Joe Six-Pack goes to work, he is expected to obey the commands of his managers. This is an authoritarian relationship with the employer as the dictator. We discard our civil ideology to earn a buck. Doesn’t that make capitalism is the real offender? HRM is as guilty as the gun the murderer uses to kill someone. HRM is a tool for oppression, not the oppressor.

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