Value of personnel experts attacked

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The Independent Online
INDUSTRIAL relations are at their worst where there is a senior personnel specialist at the workplace. The indictment of the profession is contained in a report by the independent Employment Policy Institute, published today.

It examined data from the Government's third Workplace Industrial Relations Survey, arguably the biggest regular investigation of employment practices in the world, and found that labour turnover was the highest and productivity at its lowest when a personnel officer was involved.

Anticipating arguments from practitioners, the report, written by Sue Fernie, David Metcalf and Stephen Woodland of the centre for economic performance at the London School of Economics, says that there is no evidence that personnel managers are employed where labour relations are at their most difficult. 'Some years ago US personnel specialists were famously dismissed as 'big hat, no cattle' by Harvard management expert William Skinner. These results suggest that such a description is pretty appropriate for today's British personnel professionals,' the report says.

The study will reinforce widespread suspicions among managers that labour relations issues are a question of common sense and that over-intellectualisation can be counter-productive.

More supportive towards the specialism however was the finding that the fashionable philosophy of 'Human Resource Management', espoused by many personnel managers, contributed to a 'good economic performance'. The techniques of HRM, such as profit- sharing, employee share ownership, merit pay and various employee involvement schemes, boosted productivity, the study found.

Nevertheless, the institute's latest economic report contended that HRM 'makes little or no contribution to good industrial relations'. It adds: 'The climate of relations between management and employees and the quit rate are both worse in workplaces practising HRM than in other workplaces, and the absenteeism rate is only the same as that in the average workplace.'

The Institute of Personnel Management said last night that the findings conflicted with those of another London University survey, which showed that firms with 'clear innovative' HRM policies performed better.

Economic Report, Volume 8; Employment Policy Institute, Southbank House, Black Prince Road, London SE1 7SJ.

View from City Road, page 37