This paper discusses the convergence thesis using the example of
human resource management in Germany. Convergence theories dominated
social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s. Arguably the most influential
contribution to this discussion was Kerr et al's
"Industrialism and Industrial Man" (1960). They suggested that
technology will, over an extended period, lead to the development of
similar economic, political, social and organizational aspects in all
industrialized societies. It assumed that there is a link between the
development stage of an economy and its dominant managerial practices.
Kerr et al. saw technology as the driving force behind convergence.
Today competition and globalization are more often given as the main
reasons for a convergence of managerial practices (Mueller 1994).
Over the last two decades the concept of HRM (Human Resource
Management) has emerged as one of the most important prescriptions for a
world-wide convergence of managerial practices. Like most other
management concepts it originated in the US. However, HRM (1) not only
offers a range of modern management techniques in much the same way as
lean production and re-engineering, but is also about values. "More
than any of the other innovations, it impacts directly on culturally
specific ways of doing things buttressed by national institutions and
values systems" (Hendry 1991, p. 416). The values of HRM are
essentially unitarist and individualistic. The philosophy underlying HRM
becomes apparent, if one has a closer look at the case studies that form
the empirical basis of the American HRM literature. Most of the
successful and innovative companies which have been studied as HRM
models in the USA are non-union and use sophisticated human resource
management techniques targeting the individual employee (Foulkes 1980).
They do not recognize trade unions and employee relations are determined
unilaterally by management. It has been questioned whether US type HRM
prescriptions should be imported to Europe, because the values of HRM
run counter to European traditions of pluralism and collectivism as well
as a stronger regulated environment for companies (Brewster 1995,
Ferner/Hyman 1992, Guest 1994, Kirkbride 1994, Muller 1999b).
A particularly interesting case for a convergence towards HRM is
Germany. In contrast to the free market US economy, companies in Germany
have to operate in an elaborate institutional environment
(Ebster-Grosz/Pugh 1996, Lane 1992, Warner 1998, Wever 1995). The three
main German labor market institutions of co-determination, collective
bargaining and initial vocational training, in particular, restrict
managerial autonomy and therefore might hinder the application of a
unitarist type of HRM. To be more precise, companies in Germany usually
have a works council. This body has extensive co-determination rights
and plays a crucial role whenever there are organizational changes
affecting the workforce. In addition more than 80 per cent of German
employees are still covered by multi-employer collective bargaining.
This means that their salaries and conditions of employment are
standardized to a high degree (for a more detailed overview of the
German system of industrial relations see Baethge/Wolf 1995, IDE 1993,
Jacobi/Keller/Muller-Jentsch 1998, Muller 1997, Streeck 1993,
Visser/Ruysseveldt 1996). Furthermore, about five per cent of the German
workforce take part in an initial vocational training. This training is
governed and regulated by a tripartite system that involves the state,
employers' organizations and trade unions and therefore also
reduces organizational autonomy (for recent descriptions of the German
system of initial vocational training see Gehin/Mehaut 1995, Steedman
1993). Given this strong institutional environment one could imagine
that it exerts pressures for a convergence of human resource practices
towards a German model.
The next section will present the context of the research conducted
to examine the above issues. The following two parts analyze some of the
data collected. Then a typology will be introduced that helps to
classify the human resource approaches of firms operating in Germany.
The analysis so far raises the question whether there is a
convergence about international forms of management such as HRM or a
divergence centered around national institutions. However, human
resource policies and practices at the company level are influenced not
only by national institutions and opportunities offered by modern
management approaches, but also by factors in the organizational context
(for context factors having a potential influence on human resource
management see Jackson/Schuler 1995, Sparrow/Hiltrop 1997). Consequently
the conceptual framework guiding this research assumes that human
resource policies and practices of individual organizations are
influenced by the national context, the opportunities created by modern
management approaches and the organizational context [ILLUSTRATION FOR
FIGURE 1 OMITTED].
On the basis of the conceptual framework, three hypotheses can be
developed that will help to sharpen the focus of this paper. Firstly, a
precondition for national labor market institutions having an influence
on human resource practices is that firms comply with their
requirements. Therefore one can formulate the hypothesis that all firms
operating in Germany should comply with the requirements of the three
key labor market institutions of centralized collective bargaining,
co-determination and initial vocational training. A company complies
fully with the German system of multi-employer collective bargaining, as
long as it is a member of an employers' association and follows the
rules set out by the association's agreement. If it has a company
collective bargaining agreement, it only partly complies. Similarly, a
firm fully complies with initial vocational training as long as it has a
significant percentage of apprentices (e.g. more than 3 per cent of the
total workforce). Those with only a few apprentices are considered to
partly comply. Finally, all those companies which have works councils in
all major establishments and which do not avoid board level
co-determination fully comply (Muller 1998).
Secondly, a related hypothesis is that HRM is incompatible with
German labor market institutions. Thus we want to find out whether
German firms use HRM techniques and if this fostered by the
institutional environment. In order to do this, it is necessary to
define and operationalize what we mean by HRM techniques. The classic
statements by Beer et al. (1984) and Walton (1985) mention a number of
HRM practices. Since then various lists of human resource practices
associated with HRM have been drawn up (for recent lists by US
researchers see Huselid 1995, MacDuffie 1995, Pfeffer 1998, Youndt et
al. 1996; and by UK researchers see Brewster/Hegewisch 1994, pp.
247-273, Guest/Hoque 1994, Storey 1992, Wood/Albanese 1995, Wood/Menezes
1998). Although some of the indicators presented in these check lists,
such as employment security, single status and high investment in
training appear to be commonly accepted by most academics that have
drawn up inventories of HRM practices, there is, as Guest (1997, p. 266)
points out, still a lack of "a coherent theoretical basis for
classifying HRM policy and practice." HRM still appears to be an
academically constructed stereotype that is a convenient shorthand for a
number of practices. In the absence of a commonly agreed list of HRM
techniques this research will use Guest's (1987) human resource
policy goals of commitment, flexibility, quality and strategic
integration to judge whether a particular human resource practice is a
HRM technique or not. Hendry (1994) and Legge (1995) have used the same
route to examine HRM in the UK. Particularly in the European context,
where organizations have to operate with restricted autonomy (Brewster
1995), such a normative approach seems to be appropriate.
Thirdly, as mentioned before, HRM is not only about techniques, but
also about values. There is a potential clash of culture between the
unitarist ideology of HRM and the collectivist pressures exerted by
German labor market institutions. If companies operating in Germany
largely comply with the requirements of these institutions, then the
question is what other HRM approach is or can be followed. One which may
be compatible with the German system is to achieve the HRM outcomes of
commitment, flexibility, quality and strategic integration with a
pluralist style of management. Hence, the third hypothesis is that the
German system fosters the development of a pluralist type of HRM. The
term 'pluralist HRM' was coined by Guest (1989) to describe
the combination of a high HRM priority and a high industrial relations
priority. Other terms used to express that HRM and trade unionism are
compatible are "the new realism" (Guest 1995, p. 119),
"the motivated competence model" (Heller 1993),
"pragmatic eclecticism" (Regini 1993, p. 567), or
"mutuality" (Walton 1985). For the UK, survey evidence
indicates that the presence of trade unions has a positive impact on the
introduction of HRM techniques (Guest/Hoque 1996, Millward 1994). If
this is so, one would expect this to apply even more strongly for
Germany. The co-operative style of industrial relations thought to be a
pivotal part of the German system makes it possible for employees in
this country to have a dual commitment to both the company and the trade
union. This at least was shown by a comparative study of workers in the
electronics industry (Guest/Dewe 1991). Hence, the case of Germany could
show that HRM and unions can coexist.
Methods and Data Collection
The research presented here is built on case studies of twelve
German-owned, four British, and nine US companies operating in Germany
(see Table 1). Foreign-owned firms were included as they are thought
more likely than indigenous firms to challenge national labor market
institutions (Ferner 1997). Therefore, their example could help to
illuminate the pressures on the German system. This particularly applies
for US multinationals, as they are renowned for deviating from national
industrial relations and human resource practices (Chi-Ching/Keng-Choo
1995, Muller 1998, Tayeb 1998). In order to facilitate a comparison
between the foreign-owned firms which have a world-wide workforce of at
least five thousand employees, only large German companies were included
in the sample (see Table 1). [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] Among
these were well known firms such as Deutsche Bank, Hoechst, and Henkel.
This sample selection was somewhat biased, as the US subsidiaries in
particular were relatively small, and this has to be taken into account
in the following analysis. Due to sectoral factors having an influence
on the behavior of multinationals in their host country, only banks and
chemical firms were chosen. One reason for selecting these industries
was that in both of them a number of UK and US firms were operating. In
the chemical industry I selected pairs of companies with similar
businesses such as oil companies and pharmaceutical firms. In banking
this was not possible, as German banks are usually universal banks which
offer all types of banking services, whereas most foreign banks in
Germany are merchant or investment banks. It is also important to
acknowledge that the analysis only applies to former West Germany, as
all firms visited were based there.
The company case studies are based on multiple sources of evidence.
Primary and secondary evidence such as company newsletters, annual
reports and works agreements were collected. Between 1991 and 1994 the
sample firms were visited at least twice and more than 150 face-to-face
and phone interviews were conducted. Most of the respondents were
personnel managers. When possible the researcher also talked to line
managers and employee representatives. The interviews were conducted in
a semi-structured style. For each sample firm a case study report was
written and fed back to the key informant. The respondent validation
helped to find out if the understanding of particular company facts and
situations was correct. The case studies contained general information
such as legal form, organizational structure; data about the compliance
of sample firms with German labor market institutions; and details about
the use of human resource instruments such as appraisal and remuneration
systems. The researcher inquired about the instruments used, what they
looked like, whether they had changed and when they were implemented for
the first time. The first part of the data presentation will now discuss
the compliance of the sample firms with German labor market
Compliance with German Labor Market Institutions
In regard to compliance with the major German labor market
institutions of collective bargaining, co-determination and initial
vocational training, the sample firms can be divided into two groups.
The first group consists of all German firms, the British subsidiaries
and three of the US transplants (US Branch Bank, US Consumer Chemicals,
and US Oil). They either fully or partly comply with the German labor
market institutions studied (see Table 1).
In contrast to these firms, six of the nine US subsidiaries
generally do not comply with German labor market institutions. US
Pharmaceutical and US Chemical avoid at least one of them entirely. It
is worth noting that US Chemical is one of the few large companies
operating in Germany that has no collective bargaining at all. The
non-existence of a works council in a company as big as US
Pharmaceutical's German subsidiary is also worth noting. The four
smallest US banks deviate even more from the majority of the sample.
None of them is subject to collective bargaining. Only one deals with a
works council and only one offers initial vocational training.
Employment size is clearly important. German institutions leave more
choice for smaller than for large firms. Nevertheless, unlike the six US
firms in the sample, the majority of firms of similar size in these
industries, do comply (Muller 1998). Furthermore, although employers are
dissatisfied with elements of the German system, there are so far no
serious attempts by them to challenge it. For example, although the
German system of multi-employer bargaining is blamed for causing
inflexibility and a too high wage burden, there is no widespread trend
to leave employers' associations. Adjustment and adaptation largely
occurs within the institutional framework (Muller 1997). Hence, the six
deviant companies in the sample do not appear to provide a model that is
likely to be widely followed.
The second hypothesis, that HRM is incompatible with the
requirements of German labor market institutions, is linked to the first
one. Arguably companies that want to follow a unitarist HRM policy
cannot at the same time comply with co-determination, collective
bargaining and/or initial vocational training. German labor market
institutions restrict management's right to manage. For example, in
those companies that have works councils, management has to negotiate
with employee representatives about the introduction or change of most
human resource instruments and sometimes even has to accept that works
councilors control their operation. Therefore, as the majority of
companies in the sample comply with the requirements of the above
institutions, they cannot follow a unitarist policy. However, six US
subsidiaries appear to pursue an avoidance strategy. Nevertheless, this
does not necessarily mean that they have a unitarist HRM approach, as
they could be high or low users of HRM practices. Similarly, although
the majority of firms in the sample comply with the requirements of the
German system, they could still use some of the techniques associated
with HRM. Therefore the following sections will examine the extent to
which HRM is practiced by the sample firms in the key areas of human
resource flow, communication and rewards.
Human Resource Practices
Human Resource Flow
We start with human resource flow. Companies that practice HRM
should select new employees carefully, monitor their development with
regular appraisals and also offer them extensive training and employment
security to achieve the human resource outcomes of commitment,
flexibility and quality.
In terms of selection and induction most sample firms put a special
emphasis on the recruitment of school and university graduates.
Apprentices are selected with written tests and management trainees
often with an assessment center. The initial vocational training offers
apprentices a structured induction into the organization, as well as a
training in occupational skills. Newly recruited graduates usually also
receive some form of structured induction. In contrast to apprentices
and management trainees, tests and assessment center are hardly used for
other groups of employees, even for managers. This finding is confirmed
by the more representative Cranet-E data (Brewster/Hegewisch 1994, Table
3.6). Only a few of the sample firms offer any form of structured
induction for this group of employees.
Turning to training, most sample firms offer an initial vocational
training (see table 1). Employees can then acquire further vocational
training qualifications. Almost all sample firms support those who want
to get this qualification financially as well as with time off. In
addition to these general qualifications, technical and non-technical
company specific training is usually extensively provided. In the sample
firms, some change was observed not such much in the extent of training,
than in its form and focus. There are attempts to integrate on-the-job
and off-the-job training more closely, as there is a perception that
off-the-job courses do not necessarily result in behavioral changes,
especially if the environment does not facilitate this process. One
example is team training for all employees working together in a
department, branch or project. Whereas in the 1980s three of the sample
firms offered such training, seven introduced it in the early 1990s.
There also seemed to be a bigger emphasis on job rotation between
Most of the sample firms regularly operate a written performance
appraisal system. Whereas in the past this was usually based on a trait
rating, in recent years most of the companies studied have extended
their appraisal system by introducing new elements. In the 1990s, seven
of the sample firms introduced goal appraisals, five regular career
development talks and three management development assessment centers.
The main reason for this appears to be a dissatisfaction with the
traditional personality and trait rating system's ability to assess
accurately performance and career development prospects. Career
development talks, management development assessment centers and
development schemes are also introduced to identify candidates with
leadership skills and/or develop these skills. This is a break with the
past where progression has depended more on technical skills than
leadership qualities. Whereas the traditional rating appraisal systems
tended to cover all staff, the new elements are often targeted at
managers only (Muller 1999a).
The evidence presented so far indicates that most sample firms
follow an internal labor market policy. This is also supported by the
fact that they have a system of job posting, usually advertise all
vacant positions in the establishment first and have committed
themselves in written documents to a policy of internal promotion. It is
also reflected in outflow policies. Starting in 1992, several of the
banks and chemical firms had to reduce their workforce significantly.
The reductions were achieved by a combination of halting recruitment,
early retirement and voluntary redundancies. Compulsory dismissals were
only used in exceptional cases. A similar picture emerges from the data
of the 1992 Cranet-E survey (Brewster/Hegewisch 1994, Table 9.6).
So far, similarities between the sample firms have been emphasized.
Nevertheless, there were also differences. One was that modern human
resource techniques such as assessment centers, team training and
management development schemes were more widespread in some firms than
in others. A probably more important difference was that a minority of
the organizations, the three smallest US banks, did not follow an
internal labor market policy. They offered little training, had no
internal job posting system, no written commitment to internal
promotion, a relatively high labor turnover and compulsory redundancies
were not avoided at all costs. Their practices resembled their
affiliates in London and New York, rather than those of the indigenous
In terms of reward, companies practicing HEM will have a systematic
system of pay, will have only minimal status differentials and will
reward good performance in order to achieve the outcomes of commitment
The major determinant for individual salaries in the collective
bargaining firms are multi-employer or in the case of three firms
company level collective bargaining agreements. These agreements
prescribe certain job grades into which employees have to be fitted. To
facilitate the grading they also define bench-mark jobs and give an
indication of the formal qualifications required. The works council
usually takes an active part in the grading process. On an annual basis,
wage increases and many fringe benefits are determined by collective
bargaining negotiations. Others are negotiated at the company level
between management and works councils and thus also apply collectively
to the whole workforce. Furthermore, in banks as well as in the chemical
industry there are the same wage grades for blue and white collar
workers and employment conditions are also equalized. This reward system
only applies for tariff employees, 'exempts' are only
indirectly affected. Exempts (Aussertarifliche Angestellte) are all
those employees who earn significantly more than those in the highest
wage group of the collective bargaining agreement. This group normally
accounts for about 15 to 20 per cent of the total staff. Traditionally,
the pay system used for tariff employees was, by extending the number of
job grades, transferred to exempt positions (Muller 1999a).
All in all, the collective bargaining firms in the sample seem to
have a systematic pay system which, as it is governed by management and
works council, can help to foster commitment and reduce grievances about
pay. The traditional dominance of job-based pay means that
performance-related pay is less important in Germany. Nevertheless it
appears that the ideology of performance-related pay has had some impact
on German managers. Several of the firms in the sample have attempted to
link pay more to performance by introducing analytical job evaluation
for exempts, by changing fixed bonuses into variable ones and by linking
merit increases and bonuses to an appraisal scheme. A growing importance
of performance-related pay in German firms also emerged from the 1992
and 1995 Cranfield surveys (Brewster/Hegewisch 1994, Table 4.2a,
Weber/Kabst 1996, p. 32). However, the question is how much performance
related pay fits into the more collectivist German culture (Trompenaars
1993) or whether it makes sense at all. This may explain why works
councils are critical of performance-related pay and sometimes prevent
Again there were only minor differences between the majority of
sample firms. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, some of the firms had
introduced analytical job evaluation systems to determine exempt pay,
whereas others did not have a formal system. The most important
difference emerged between some of the US-owned firms and the rest. The
five US subsidiaries that avoid collective bargaining appear to pay more
performance related, e.g. salary increases are sometimes not paid and
annual bonuses are directly linked to individual performance. This also
applies to the non-works council firm US Pharmaceutical. Interestingly,
US Oil has a plant agreement with its works council that assures each
manager a certain minimum increase.
An important element of HRM should be intensive employee
communication. The assumption is that this leads to a greater commitment
of the workforce which in turn is expected to enhance motivation and
performance (Guest 1987, p. 513). The following analysis will look
separately at indirect and direct communication.
In the past the German-owned firms, all of which have works
councils, relied mainly on indirect communication. The co-determination
law assures that works councils play an important role in employee
communication. It not only stipulates that management must share
information with employee representatives, but also gives them several
means, such as works meetings, to communicate with the workforce. This
system provides an employee voice system and could explain why company
journals and suggestion schemes were in many of the German-owned sample
firms the only direct communication instruments used. This changed in
the 1980s and 1990s. All but one of the indigenous firms started to use
attitude surveys. Again with one exception all German-owned chemical
companies and one of the banks introduced quality circles. A further
development was that in most firms management started to organize
regular employee meetings. Before, only works meetings, which are called
by the works council and chaired by its leader, took place. However,
this example shows that the increase in direct communication has not
been at the expense of indirect communication, a finding confirmed by
the 1992 Cranet-E survey (Brewster/Hegewisch 1994, Tables 6.4, 6.6). The
employee meetings organized by management are usually confined to
organisational units that do not have their own works meetings such as
small branches or departments.
Not surprisingly, direct communication instruments were more
widespread in some sample firms than in others. It is worth noting that
foreign-owned firms such as US Oil, UK Oil, US Chemical and US
Pharmaceutical have introduced direct communication devises such as
attitude surveys much earlier than the indigenous companies.
Nevertheless, there were also differences among the foreign firms.
Whereas the non-works council firms US Pharmaceutical and US Chemical,
which has no works councils in its headquarters, extensively use direct
communication methods, the four smallest US banks do not operate any
sophisticated employee involvement instruments. The findings presented
so far will now be summarized with the help of a typology.
A Typology of Human Resource Management Approaches
The classification presented in Figure 2 is intended to summarize
the data and to show the options for human resource management in the
German context. Being aware of the problems associated with the
construction of typologies (for a summary of this critique see
Kitay/Marchington 1996) and the small sample, this simplification does
not entirely represent a more complex and less clearly defined reality.
However, it helps to group otherwise unique cases for the purpose of
comparison. The typology was inspired by Guest (1995, p. 118) and
contrasts the sample firms compliance with German labor market
institutions with their HRM priority. HRM priority is defined here as
the extent to which HRM prescriptions are implemented. The
classification results in four different quadrants. Each is now
discussed starting with the first option 'traditional personnel
Companies in the first quadrant 'traditional personnel
management' largely comply with the key German labor market
institutions examined, but at the same time practice little HRM. This
represents the stereotypical view of human resource management in
Germany in the comparative HRM literature (see for example, Begin 1997,
Sparrow/Hiltrop 1994). It is mainly based on a 1982 study by Lawrence
(1991) which suggests that German labor market institutions prevent
German companies from using sophisticated human resource techniques. As
many of the companies have only recently introduced modern human
resource instruments such as attitude surveys, development assessment
center and performance-related pay, Lawrence's findings may well
have been valid at the time of his research. In the early 1990s, only
two of the sample firms fall into this category. However, the use of
instruments may well be less important than broad human resource
policies, as even they fulfil major HRM prescriptions such as providing
extensive training, employment stability and offering an employee voice
The companies in the second quadrant, 'pluralist HRM,'
practice HRM, but at the same time comply with German labor market
institutions. Most British- and German-owned firms, as well as all but
one of the large US subsidiaries, fit into this category. Such a human
resource approach fits well with the high cost, high quality business
strategy pursued by German industry (Porter 1990). It is worth noting
that in the 1990s some of them have started to use human resource
techniques such as goal-based appraisal, attitude surveys and
performance-related pay. This development suggests that there is room
for the introduction of HRM elements that are not clearly supported by
the German system. Firms can apply techniques associated with HRM and at
the same time comply with the requirements of the German system. As
discussed in more detail later, employment size may at least partly
explain whether firms pursue this option for the management of their
human resources. Again it depends on the importance one attaches to the
use of human resource instruments as opposed to broad policies whether
one perceives the predominance of a pluralist HRM approach among the
sample firms as a recent development encouraged by the opportunities
created by modern management approaches or something already applied for
a long time. Even in the 1950s, labor management in large German firms
was characterized by internal labor-market type training, good promotion
prospects, the existence of internal employee voice systems and job
security (Gospel 1999). On similar lines, some German academics
suggested that there has traditionally been an orientation in personnel
management in German firms which is in line with many HRM prescriptions
(Garnjost/Wachter 1996, p. 805, Staehle 1988, Streeck 1987,
Turning to the third quadrant, three of the firms in the sample, US
Pharmaceutical, US Chemical and US Merchant Bank, have a 'unitarist
HRM' strategy. These US subsidiaries show little compliance with
the requirements of German labor market institutions and seem to follow
a non-union policy. They also have a relatively high HRM priority. Their
example demonstrates that a unitarist US-type HRM can be applied in
Germany and thus they contradict the second hypothesis. Nevertheless,
there appear to be only a few companies operating in Germany that follow
such an approach. Although in the absence of more detailed empirical
data one could speculate about how widespread the unitarist HRM approach
is, it is interesting that neither the three US subsidiaries in this
quadrant nor any other company operating in Germany with such an
approach has emerged as a model for a unitarist HRM. Even the German
subsidiary of Hewlett Packard, which is widely known for its excellent
human resource management, is not associated with or described as a
model for a unitarist management approach. For example, it is not
generally known that it is one of the largest companies in Germany
without collective bargaining. This is different to the UK or the US
where a number of large, well known companies have been presented as
successful models for a unitarist HRM. One reason for this could be that
the costs of such a deviant strategy are too high in the German context.
It is worth emphasizing at this point that three of the four large US
subsidiaries in the sample, US Branch Bank, US Oil and US Consumer
Chemical, follow a pluralist HRM strategy. This is of particular
interest as their parents are known in the US as models for a unitarist
HRM. Therefore, at least for large firms, the German system appears to
leave little room for maneuver.
Organizations that avoid both German labor market institutions and
HRM are classified in the fourth quadrant, 'market-type personnel
management.' The three smallest US firms are in this category. In
comparison to the other sample firms they have a more market-type
employment system (Delery/Doty 1996) by extensively using external labor
markets, offering little training and strongly emphasizing
performance-related pay. As all three banks are big international firms,
each employing at least 5,000 people world-wide, a conscious strategy
rather than employment size is more likely to account for their
behavior. Nevertheless, for small firms operating in Germany a
market-type personnel management rather than the pluralist HRM approach
may be the dominant human resource strategy. Survey evidence shows that
only a minority of firms with less than 100 employees have a works
council (Mendius/Semlinger 1991, Table A3.15), many of them are not
subject to collective bargaining (Kohaut/Bellmann 1997, p. 323) and they
are also less likely to offer initial vocational training
(Mendius/Semlinger 1991, Table A3.17). In regard to human resource
policies, large firms are much more likely to offer further training, to
use a written performance appraisal and to have an internal job posting
system than small firms (Mendius/Semlinger 1991, Tables A3.06, 3.09,
3.18). Therefore, even in the institutionally strong German context, at
least for small firms that want to follow a low cost, low quality
strategy, it is possible to opt for a human resource approach that fits.
The research presented here examined the management of human
resources in Germany. In contrast to previous research which suggested
that companies operating in Germany are low users of HRM, this research
found that several of the policies and techniques associated with HRM
are widely used. It seems that the German system even fosters the use of
some HRM practices. For example, initial vocational training contributes
to a relatively high emphasis on training. Co-determination exerts
pressure on German companies to guarantee employment security and offers
a significant mechanism of employee involvement. Over the last decade
the companies that participated in the case studies introduced HRM
techniques such as development assessment centers, performance-related
pay and attitude surveys that were not used in the past. Such attempts
can meet with resistance by employee representatives who have the power
to stop the introduction or change of human resource instruments.
This observation directly leads to the second main finding. The
German system favors a pluralist approach to HRM. Medium and large sized
firms operating in Germany can hardly avoid the labor market
institutions of collective bargaining, co-determination and initial
vocational training. Hence, their autonomy is restricted in several
pivotal human resource management areas. Either decisions made by
external bodies such as the collective bargaining parties, the state and
the chambers of industry and commerce are imposed on them, or the
introduction and operation of human resource instruments has to be
negotiated with employee representatives. Therefore, although German
companies can use practices associated with HRM, they can generally not
adopt the unitarist values of HRM. Consequently, a unitarist type of HRM
can hardly be followed in the German system. This suggests that the case
of HRM in Germany does not support convergence theory. Nevertheless, the
data presented indicate that German firms are relatively open to
managerial ideas originating from the US. The sample firms already apply
or are currently introducing many of the techniques associated with HRM.
However, this is a "constrained convergence" rather than a
full convergence. Far from supporting convergence thinking, the human
resource management of companies in Germany remains distinctively
different from US practices.
A number of HRM scholars are critical of the unitarist ideology of
the HRM model. They suggest a pluralist HRM model as an alternative. The
case of Germany, where at least among large firms pluralist HRM seems to
be the dominant model of human resource management, illustrates that
such an approach can work in practice. Despite high unemployment rates,
German companies have remained competitive and the German system, which
is in many respects a refined version of the European Union's
Social Model, remains robust. Nevertheless, as the German model limits
organizational autonomy, it might threaten rather than appeal to
employers. It is not unreasonable to assume that only if there is
institutional pressure on companies will they follow a pluralist HRM
approach. Such a condition may well be fulfilled in Europe, as European
concepts of HRM need to reflect key values such as pluralism and
tolerance, a balanced stakeholder philosophy and the concept of social
partnership (Brewster 1995, Guest 1994, Sparrow and Hiltrop 1997,
Thurley and Wirdenius 1991). A pluralist model of HRM may well become
the preferred option for European companies that follow a market
strategy based on high quality and could offer a serious alternative to
the unitarist US type HRM model.
Although differences between the human resource practices of
individual companies might as a result of the relatively strong
institutional framework not be as marked as in other countries, this
research found some diversity. Firstly, the US subsidiaries in the
sample show that it is possible to transfer to Germany techniques
developed and applied in their home country. Some of them even manage to
follow a unitarist HRM approach. This makes them different not only from
the German-, but also from the British-owned firms studied. Secondly,
small firms appear to be under less pressure to comply with German labor
market institutions than medium and large sized companies. They are less
likely to have works councils, to be involved in collective bargaining
and are under less public pressure to employ apprentices. Thirdly, in
contrast to ownership and size, industrial sector seems to be less
important. Hardly any differences between banks and chemical firms
emerged in regard to their compliance with collective bargaining,
co-determination and initial vocational training.
The study inevitably has limitations. One problem is the lack of
good outcome data that would have enabled an assessment of the success
of different human resource approaches in the German context. In
particular, it would have been interesting to find out whether companies
that comply with the requirements of German labor market institutions
exhibit better outcomes than those who follow an unitarist HRM or a
black hole approach. A second limitation is that on the basis of the
data collected it has not been possible to distinguish between those
companies that merely comply with the requirements of the German system
and those that are committed to it. A final weakness is that there are
hardly any UK and US banks operating in Germany that from their size and
the type of their business can easily be compared to indigenous banks.
Hence, it was somewhat difficult to assess which differences are
accounted for by national ownership and which by other factors and in
particular employment size.
Emerging from this study, there appear to be four priorities for
future work. Firstly, findings that at least among large firms the
pluralist HRM model is predominant in Germany need to be tested by more
representative survey data. Secondly, insights about the future
direction of HRM in Germany could also be gained from more detailed
studies of the human resource and industrial relations practices of
German firms abroad. How do they behave when they are 'freed'
of institutional constraints (Ferner/Quintanilla 1998)? A third valuable
area of further research would be to study the human resource management
of small companies in Germany, whose practices will in several ways be
different from large firms. It is widely assumed that such companies are
one of the main factors accounting for the success of German industry
(Porter 1990). A fourth priority for research would be to collect
similar data in other countries to contribute more directly to the
theory of comparative HRM. To build such a theory, there is a need to
study models of human resource management in different countries and to
analyze how these are shaped by actors such as the state and labor as
well as cultural traditions (Boxall 1995, Muller 1999b). In line with
these recommendations it would be of particular interest to study the
dominant options for the management of human resources in other European
countries to find out if a European model of HRM is emerging.
The authors owes a profound debt of gratitude to David Guest who
gave extensive comments over the entire course of this research. Chris
Brewster, Howard Gospel, Frank Heller, Riccardo Peccei, an anonymous
referee of this issue, members of the research seminar at the
"Department for Business Education and Human Resource
Management" of the University of Innsbruck, and participants of the
1996 conference of German human resource management academics made
useful remarks on earlier versions of this paper.
1 In the following the abbreviation HRM is only used when there is
a reference to the HRM debate or a specific HRM concept. In contrast,
the term human resource management is used as a modern expression for
2 Originally it was aimed to include organizational outcomes as a
further dependent variable to test the effectiveness of the human
resource management practices identified. During the course of the study
the researcher realized this was not feasible. Information about
outcomes such as labour turnover, absenteeism and profits was not
available in all sample firms and/or not possible to compare across
them. Furthermore, there is a range of factors that influence these
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