When Designing HR Practices, Consider Every Work Relationship

6 mins

When designing HR practices, HR professionals need to consider how the relationship dynamics...

When designing HR practices, HR professionals need to consider how the relationship dynamics between a broad diversity of actors in the workplace can affect the implementation of the practices - and how the HR practices can shape these relationships. This way HR professionals can tailor their approach, with implications for employee wellbeing and organisational performance, a new study suggests. 

A new study highlights the importance of considering work relationships when designing and implementing HR practices. The study suggests that by recognising the interplay between HR practices and work relationships among a broad diversity of actors in the workplace, organisations can cultivate more effective HR strategies that can improve workplace dynamics and enhance organisational performance and employee wellbeing. 

The study was published recently in Human Resource Management. Based on a systematic literature review of 195 quantitative studies published over the last two decades, the study consolidates disparate literature at the intersection of HR and work relationships and reveals what is known and not known about how HR practices and work relationships influence each other. 

“We all have a broad-based understanding that HRM is important for organisational value creation and for employees. So, work relationships are at the centre of everything. We have a vast literature which engages with those two topics. And when you have that sort of disparate literature, there is certainly a benefit of having some review articles to synthesise what we know and what we don't know”, said Hugh T. J. Bainbridge, one of the study authors and Associate Professor in the School of Management and Governance at the University of New South Wales.

One of the key insights the study revealed regarding the association between HR practices and work relationships is that more attention has been given to how HR practices influence relationships than the reverse. However, there is a need to explore how relationships affect HR practices, because in a real world, everything is interdependent. 

“HR practices influence work relationships, but it doesn't stop there. HR practices and work relationships are continuously shaping each other in a reciprocal way”, said Anindita Roy Bannya, the lead author of the study and a PhD candidate in the School of Management and Governance at the University of New South Wales. 

For example, there are times when employees reject or resist HR practices. The kind of relationship which the HR manager has with employees can affect the extent to which employees accept the HR practices. So, there is a clear need for both scholars and practitioners to consider how an HR manager’s network influences employees’ acceptance and use of HR practices, said Bannya. 

For the HR practices to be successful, HR professionals need to identify the types of HR practices that are creating positive and productive work relationships and the types that are creating disruptive work relationships. They also need to leverage work relationships to create HR practice implementation processes that are effective in achieving the intended outcomes. For example, if a mentoring programme positively influences an employee's relationship with their mentor, this positive relational experience can encourage other co-workers to join the programme. However, whether the co-workers listen to this employee and join the programme may be influenced by the strength and centrality of the employee’s position in the organisational network, said Bannya. 

According to Bainbridge, a key problem surfaced by the review is that we don't really know a lot about how different relationship features such as positive, negative, or conflictual relationships, affect how people view and engage with an organisation’s HR practices. Yet, these issues are increasingly prominent as more research accumulates about perceptions of HR.

To understand the bi-directional link that connects HR practices and work relationships, researchers need to examine the dynamic and unfolding nature of the relational HR over time. “There's always a common refrain – ‘we need more longitudinal research.’ It's hard to do, but in the relational sphere it's absolutely essential, because we know that relationships are ongoing, they're unfolding over time, and there are events that shape those relationships. So, moving away from a static perspective to really thinking about what's the history and what is the anticipated future of that relationship, is absolutely central for future research”, said Bainbridge.

The literature review conducted by the authors also identified that most previous studies primarily focused on employee relationships with their managers, especially immediate managers or supervisors and co-workers. “This focus was expected because HR practices primarily concern employees,” said Bannya. 

However, according to Bannya, it is also important to understand and distinguish between other work relationship dynamics, such as that among managers at different levels, between senior leaders and external stakeholders. Different types of relationships may require different approaches to foster trust, collaboration and overall effectiveness in the organisation. 

“Effective implementation of a practice requires frequent, respectful communication among employees, managers, HR, senior leaders and other internal and external stakeholders. When organisational actors foster positive work relationships, marked by, for example, mutual support and trust, it motivates both implementers and the users of HR practice to embrace and advocate for them”, said Bannya.

The study thus moves the employee-centric focus of the previous studies to include a broader diversity of other actors that exist within and outside the organisation. It presents fifteen specific types of relationships in the work setting, with concrete practical examples of HR practices and how they affect relationships, and also the reverse side of that dynamic - how the relationships, whether with HR managers or top managers or supervisors, affect people's engagement with the HR practices. 

“One of the practical implications of the study is to push a bit more consideration towards how an HR practice can shape the relationships that exist between HR managers and top management, or HR managers and first line supervisors, or HR managers and external actors”, said Bainbridge.

Both work relationships and HR practices are extremely powerful tools for organisations to enhance employee productivity and wellbeing and gain a competitive advantage. Traditionally, HR practices were developed to manage human capital. However, in today's knowledge-based economy, individuals are more interconnected, and they require increased collaboration. They exchange information and support constantly. This demands positive relationships among a broad diversity of actors that exist within and outside the organisation, which can be challenging to establish or maintain. So properly designed and implemented HR practices can be a very important tool for organisations to create and nurture positive work relationships. However, it is crucial to recognise that the influence doesn't flow solely from HR practices to work relationships - work relationships can also shape HR practices, said Bannya.

Bannya’s and Bainbridge’s co-author was Suzanne Chan-Serafin, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour in the School of Management and Governance at the University of New South Wales.


Contact Anindita Roy Bannya at a.bannya@unsw.edu.au


Written by Jelena Petrovic, Knowledge Transfer Editor of HRM, j.petrovic@soton.ac.uk