What Is Hard Human Resource Management?

Elizabeth West

Hard human resource management refers to a human resource strategy that emphasizes employees as resources that either benefit or are a detriment to the company. Rarely does a completely hard or soft approach to human resource management (HRM) the best choice; nearly all companies use a combination of the two. Corporate planning in this style of HRM typically has the broader goals of the company at the forefront.

Teamwork may be required in certain businesses in order to achieve set goals of the organizations.
Teamwork may be required in certain businesses in order to achieve set goals of the organizations.

Employees are seen as resources by employers, much like production equipment. Organizational goals of sales, growth and profit are the focus, and personnel issues are short-term, moving people in to do the job and out if they can't. Hard human resource management uses little lateral communication or support. The emphasis is on getting the job done, not rewarding performance.

Companies that use a soft human resource management style focus on employee retention, communication and long-term goals.
Companies that use a soft human resource management style focus on employee retention, communication and long-term goals.

Hard human resource management usually accompanies a pragmatic approach to business management. There is little to no communication from higher echelons to the lowest. Any information disseminated to lesser ranks filters through layers of managerial staff. A small company might directly communicate, but in a very large national or global organization, this becomes impractical. Lower-tier workers are detached from executives; they might not even know who they are.

In contrast, many companies use a soft human resource management style in which employees are valuable resources as people, and the company concentrates on employee retention, communication and long-term goals. Competitive pay and rewards systems are in place, along with comprehensive training and cross-training. Managers encourage teamwork and delegation and enable empowerment —that is, letting employees do their jobs without micromanaging or curtailing their ability to produce or help customers. Soft HRM is easier to implement in a smaller company with less people so one-on-one attention can be given.

Most companies use a combination of both. Hard human resource management is often thought of as autocratic. As a result, a completely hard HRM approach may alienate employees and cause problems in labor relations, retention and production due to absenteeism and resentment. It will cost companies money in terms of retraining frequent new hires and dealing with lost productivity as a result. A totally soft HRM style can produce personnel expenses that can compromise competitive advantage.

A 2011 study by the University College Dublin and Queens University Belfast in Ireland showed that a recession there did not seem to spur companies toward a purely hard human resource management strategy to cut costs. Instead, they concentrated on a combination approach that included assessments, communication, motivation to retain employees they already had. Pay and hiring freezes helped reduce payroll costs while focus on keeping current and competent employees eliminated training and recruitment costs. An HRM plan that takes these factors into account and is specifically tailored to the company’s needs contributes to a better chance of survival in a harsh economic climate.

An HR manager might work with payroll issues.
An HR manager might work with payroll issues.

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Discussion Comments


When I was in college studying business, a professor talked about the difference between hard and soft human resource management. He said that many people don't understand the role human employees play in business economics.

On paper, they really are treated the same as any other business equipment. An assembly line worker who cannot work for six weeks because of surgery is no different economically than a packaging machine that goes offline for a month. They both cost the company money and time.

He said hard human resource management may sound especially harsh or cruel, but it sometimes saves jobs as well. By terminating the services of inefficient or unmotivated employees, the company can reward better performers through bonuses or higher wages.


If you think about it, human beings are the least reliable and most expensive pieces of equipment a company owns. They get sick, they can only work a few hours a day, they cost money in wages and benefits, and they don't always produce at full capacity. Industrial robots by comparison make much more economic sense to a lot of companies.

But human workers also bring native intelligence and experience to the job. A human employee might figure out a more efficient way to do his or her job, and a human employee can become a supervisor or foreman over time. I can see why hard human resource management exists, but I personally wish it didn't.

I've seen people get fired just because a new machine becomes available that can do the same job. There were no tearful goodbyes or retirement parties, just a letter from Human Resources informing an entire assembly line that their jobs were being phased out. It was a harsh thing to watch.

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