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Human resource management practices and performance link: Applying critical realist meta-theory

Dirpal, Ganess

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Ganess Dirpal


Many of those who conduct empirical research in the field of human resource management (HRM) believe that a quantifiable and statistical, relation, association or link exists between HRM practices and organizational performance, and can be discovered using ‘scientific’ (looking) methods and the `usual´ statistical techniques. I refer to this as empirical research on the HRM-P link. The results have been poor – in two senses. First, the evidence of the link is, at best inconclusive, and at worst casts doubt on its existence. But, second, even if this was not the case, even if a statistical link or association between HRM and performance could be shown, this empirical research cannot explain it. It cannot tell us why HRM practices are linked to performance.
Fleetwood & Hesketh (2010) have diagnosed these problems as rooted in meta-theory – i.e. ontology, epistemology, aetiology and methodology. More specifically, they see the fundamental problem as the commitment by empirical researchers to some version of positivism, or `scientism´ as they prefer to call it. In addition to their critique, they have gone on to advocate an alternative meta-theory for research on the HRM-P link, namely, critical realism. This thesis takes Fleetwood & Hesketh´s work as its starting place. It accepts their argument that evidence of the HRM-P link is problematic; accepts that empirical research cannot explain why HRM practices are linked to performance; accepts that positivist/scientistic meta-theory is the problem; and accepts that critical realism might have more to offer in terms of meta-theory.
But, and this is important, this thesis goes beyond Fleetwood & Hesketh´s work. It re-describes and retheorises HRM practices to develop the concept of an `HRMechanism´ - i.e. HRM practice + causal mechanism. This allows us to use critical realism´s meta-theoretical ideas of causal mechanisms in general to understand HRMechanisms specifically. It uses critical realism as a meta-theoretical basis to conceive of, and apply, qualitative research techniques to investigate what would commonly be considered a quantitative research programme. It conducts empirical research into the HRM-P link without falling back on the `usual´ statistical research techniques that have, hitherto, failed to offer evidence either way. This thesis is, therefore, a (meta) theoretically informed piece of empirical work.
The empirical research consists of qualitative research into six HRMechanisms (and their associated sub-HRMechanisms) in operation at Aero Ltd, namely: team working, corporate culture, empowerment, work-life balance, performance appraisal and reward. Interview data reveals two things. First, that team working, performance appraisal and work-life balance generate powers/tendencies to increase organizational performance; whereas corporate culture, empowerment and rewards generate neutral powers/tendencies vis-á-vis organizational performance. Second it generates causal-explanations of exactly what these HRMechanisms do to generate these
powers/tendencies. In conclusion, this qualitative research is able to do what quantitative empirical research on the HRM-P link cannot, namely, explain why HRM practices are linked to organizational performance.


Dirpal, G. Human resource management practices and performance link: Applying critical realist meta-theory. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date Jun 6, 2019
Keywords human resource management, performance, meta-theory
Public URL
Award Date Mar 26, 2015


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