Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup


Published onSep 19, 2022

Without people getting up in the morning and going to their offices and workplaces, opening their laptops, talking to customers, taking care of patients and students, design products, negotiating sales or booking transactions, nothing much will happen in organizations. Universities, government institutions, hospitals, stores, offices and factories all depend on the daily work activities of people who are able to educate, design policies, care, do business or manufacture products. The effectiveness with which people do their work is therefore an important resource for organizations. Human resource management concerns all activities aimed at managing people who work for organizations, to ensure that all their actions align with the goals of the organization, in such a way that it suits the organization’s context and by considering employee outcomes. This is a challenging task, because unlike materials, machines, money and buildings, people can think, reflect and act. Individuals will not go to work and spend their valuable time and energy if there were nothing in it for them. They work because they have an understanding with the organization about the reimbursements in return for their contribution. These can take the form of salaries, but also of intangible rewards like a challenging job, friendly colleagues and a healthy balance between work and home activities. Human resource management is the art of balancing the need of organizations for good performance with the interests of employees, such that organizations perform well and individuals are happy to contribute.

This book takes the stand that human resource management is an activity that is performed by everyone in an organization who is confronted with situations that ask for directing people who contribute to the organization. Common human resource questions in the everyday operation of organizations are for example how to make people work together, how to find the best person for the job, how to use rewards to motivate people, how to make sure that knowledge is secured, or how to change organizations to enhance innovation. There is no standard recipe to provide ready answers to such questions, because each situation has different requirements and there is always a choice of solutions. However, not all solutions are equally effective.

Over the years, scientists have published a considerable stock of research evidence on more and less effective human resource management activities. Research indicating effective and less effective interventions is useful because it can provide answers to questions about managing people. Given the importance of people management for organizations, one would expect that managers who look for answers to their people management questions would look into this stock of research evidence. However, the opposite appears to be true – the worlds of human resource management practice and scientific research seem to exist in parallel…

An investigation on the knowledge of HR professionals and managers about research findings on effective human resource management showed that on average 50% of the evidence was agreed upon (Colbert et al., 2005; Rynes et al., 2002). This implies that the evidence of another 50% of findings was believed to be ‘false’ (while it is true!) and therefore not used in organizations, which potentially costs organizations performance and makes employees unhappy. A bit more use of scientific knowledge on evidence for human resource management practices, can improve the financial performance of organizations as well as employee well-being (Van De Voorde et al., 2012).

However, the science – practitioner gap exists for a reason. Finding the right research evidence can be a tremendous task. So much research is published in so many different journals, that it is difficult to decide where to begin. Moreover, reading research articles is not as easy as an average management book. Research articles are written for an audience of scientists rather than practitioners. Practitioners simply lack the time and energy to keep up with all the research on effective people management. The good news is that practitioners do not need to keep track of all research; if they use a clever strategy to look up research evidence if they have a challenging people-related problem, for which they can do a just-in-time, specific search for research evidence. All they need is an open attitude to research evidence and a method to find it and tailor it to practice.

Evidence-based management proposes a method to bridge the gap between research and practice (Rynes et al., 2014). The method proposes that practitioners consciously phrase a question about a people-related problem they face, and find information about this issue within the organization as well as in research literature before coming up with an intervention to deal with the issue. The method is easy enough to understand. It is a decision-making procedure with a number of clear steps. The crucial step is combining insights from the organization itself with the findings of a research literature search. However, to understand and find relevant research evidence, practitioners need to have some basic understanding of the key human resource management topics, theories and research domains.

That is exactly why this book was written: to provide undergraduate students with an overview of the key theories used by scholars to research employment relationships; so that they can understand key research findings and practice evidence-based human resource management. After reading the book, prospective practitioners (now students) have the intellectual luggage needed to use research evidence for people-related issues in their jobs and organizations.

Aim and scope of the book

The aim of the book is to provide an introduction to the core theories that inform human resource management research, in order to facilitate the understanding of contemporary research evidence for effective human resource management activities. The most important disciplines that inform human resource management research are economics, sociology and psychology (Molloy et al., 2011). The disciplines find their application in different types of research questions.

For example, theories that originate from economics are predominantly employed in questions that involve the relationship between human resource management and organizational performance. For instance, does it pay off to invest in people, or is it wiser to reduce employee-related costs to increase profitability? How can organizations reap the benefits of the knowledge of individual workers? In such questions, the focus is on improving the effectiveness of the organization by using the skills, knowledge and motivation of employees. In research in the economics domain, human resource management is a means to an end for organizations to meet their objectives.

The sociological discipline appears when questions touch upon which human resource management activities are acceptable in order to survive as an organization. What is allowed in managing people, considering employment law and regulations? What is acceptable in the eyes of prospective employees, customers, and society? Such questions arise because organizations do not operate in isolation, but are themselves part of larger societal constellations. Organizations are social systems in which different groups of stakeholders (shareholders, managers, manual workers, professionals, customers, government, and politics) hold diverse interests in what the organization contributes to them. These interests do not always align and stakeholders may argue about what the organization should do. Human resource management activities happen amidst these disputes. Consider for example the determination of pay, for which the outcome depends on the negotiating power of individuals, the financial means of the organization, pay levels at employers who compete to hire the same employees, agreements with labor unions and directions following from labor law. Such dynamics between diverse stakeholders in the organizational context influence what happens within organizations. To be effective, organizations need to balance their human resource management activities with the context in which they operate.

Finally, the psychological discipline is dominant in all questions involving the consequences of work for employees. What makes work satisfactory? Why do stress and burnout happen? What are the consequences of employee perceptions of their employer for their motivation? Psychological theories provide insight into the employee’s perspective, by zooming in on conditions for happiness, wealth, health and personal well-being of employees. Here, human resource management is less a means to an end for organizational performance. Instead, in this discipline, the goal of human resource management is the means itself: the well-being of the employee and not the human resource.

No doubt, all three disciplines and their questions are related to each other. You will see psychological theories about motivation used in economic studies that concentrate on organizational performance. Sociological theories explain why discrimination may happen in organizations, and psychological theories shed light on the detrimental individual consequences of being discriminated against. If you read human resource management research articles, you will notice that a multidisciplinary approach – the use of theories from different disciplines – is very common. Recognizing the disciplines and having a good understanding of the core theories in each discipline is the starting point for becoming an evidence-based practitioner. This book aims to introduce students to these theories.

The selection of core theories in the book resulted from discussions with renowned human resource management scholars about the question: which theories would you like students to know before they participate in your Master’s level courses? To reduce the number of candidate theories following from these discussions, the author followed up each suggested theory with a bibliographic search. Only well-researched theories made the selection presented in this textbook. Where possible, the selection was validated against published bibliographic analyses about the most used theories. For example, Kaše et al. (2014) analyzed all research publications about the relationship between human resource management and organizational performance to find out who cites whom. The resulting web with connections between all publications shows that some publications are cited in almost all research. These are the publications containing the core theories in this domain. The description of the core theories in the book explains the origins and key logic of those theories. This book refrains from going in depth about the latest additions to the theory, because understanding the basics and the background of a theory will make it easier to understand how it is used today.

In addition to describing the theories, the book also aims to illustrate the research evidence for the theories and to provide examples of the use of the theory in human resource management in practice. These are presented in separate sections at the end of each chapter, which facilitates a practical use of the book as will be explained below. In the selection of research evidence, the book follows the logic of evidence-based human resource management: show reliable evidence. Research findings are more reliable when these are repeated in multiple studies. The presentation of research evidence therefore relies on publications such as meta-analyses and systematic reviews. Each chapter is concluded with a human resource management practice Section providing examples of activities in organizations that use the insights from theory and research to benefit organizations and the people working in them.

A business case and study questions at the end of each part of the book will help students to understand the theories presented in the chapters as input for their own evidence-based human resource management projects.

Overview of the chapters

The book chapters are divided into four parts. Part one comprises an introduction to and an example of evidence-based human resource management. Part two dives into the economic domain by looking at the business case for investing in human resource management. What do theories and research tell us about the relationship between human resource management and various aspects of organizational performance? The third part explicates how the context of organizations matters for human resource management. And the central topic of the final part is the employee perspective.

Part I: Evidence-based human resource management

The Evidence-based human resource management chapter describes how the dissatisfaction of both scholars and practitioners has led to the rise of methods aimed at bridging the gap between research evidence and organizational practice. It introduces students to the essence of research methods by applying each step of the method to a real-life business case.

Part II: The business case for human resource management

When managers are ‘making a business case’ it means they want to show that investments will lead to improved organizational performance. The business case for human resource management implies that investing in people will enhance organizational performance. But does it really? The three chapters in this part of the book present the theories and research evidence for the relationship between investing in people and various aspects of organizational performance, such as gaining a competitive advantage, achieving sound financial results and effectively responding to change. The first chapter - Investing in people and business performance – describes how the view on employees has changed from a cost perspective to a resource perspective. The chapter about Knowledge management shows the importance of knowledge for organizational performance and illustrates how knowledge can be developed and used. The final chapter in this part is about Performance under conditions of change, and illustrates what managers can do to adjust their organizations to changing demands while ensuring employee performance.

Part III: Human resource management in context

This part positions the organization in its broader context by zooming in on three aspects: the labor market, employment relations and diversity. The chapter entitled War for talent shows how shortages on the labor market, especially for higher educated professionals, have forced organizations to fiercely compete for the most talented employees. The chapter on the Power of workers describes how terms and conditions for work, such as salaries, result from the divergent interests of employees and employers. Finally, the chapter on Diversity and inclusion pays attention to changes in the composition of the labor market and the consequences of an increasingly diverse workforce in terms of age, gender, race, and (dis)ability for human resource management.

Part IV: The employee perspective

This final part places the emphasis on the consequences of human resource management for employees. The chapter entitled Decent work focuses on the meaning of employment for individuals for their life and well-being. It touches upon the ethical and employee health-related aspects of human resource management.

How to use the book?

The design of the chapters in each part of the book is organized in such a way that it facilitates students to apprehend the theories and to understand how these can be used to conduct evidence-based human resource management.

At the beginning of each chapter you find an overview of the core theories in the chapter. These are described in detail in the theory section of the paper. Key words in the text (in italics) indicate a theoretical concept and its definition. The use of research evidence depends on a clear understanding of the meaning of concepts. Students are encouraged to take notice of the precise definitions of concepts. It is also wise to take notice of specific authors who developed a particular theory. The knowledge of theories in combination with their key concepts, definitions and founding author(s) will prove helpful in finding and translating external research evidence to local organizational issues.

The second part of each chapter provides a synopsis of the research evidence for the theories presented in the first half of the chapter. Students are advised to read the chapter on Evidence-based human resource management to understand the methodological concepts (meta-analyses, validity, reliability) that are used to explain the value of the research presented. When performing their own project on evidence-based human resource management, students can easily look up relevant meta-analyses already collected to this end.

The third part of each chapter illustrates the relevance of the theory and research evidence for human resource management practices in organizations. These are not ‘best practices’ that should all be implemented in all organizations. Evidence-based human resource management promotes that practitioners weigh the situation in their organization against the available research evidence before implementing an activity or a policy in an organization. Some of the presented practices are common, while others are more peculiar to specific types of organizations. Students are encouraged to translate the research evidence into practice by combining it with information obtained in organizations and adjust the practices such that the chances for results are best. The presentation of human resource practices in each chapter is illustrative rather than comprehensive.

Finally, the summary presented at the end of each chapter highlights the core theories, research evidence and practices that were dealt with in the chapter.


Many people contributed to this book, for which I am very grateful. First, I would like to thank my colleagues of the Human Resource Studies department at Tilburg University for sharing their ideas, engaging in discussions and teaching me their views on their areas of expertise. In addition, I am grateful to my colleagues at the University’s Labor Representation Board and Tilburg University’s HR department for our joint efforts to advance evidence-based human resource management in our own organization. A small group of people actively contributed during the writing of the book by meticulously reviewing and reflecting on each chapter. My special thanks go to Dr. Steven Kilroy, a wonderful colleague who critically read all chapters and provided great feedback. Furthermore, excellent young scholars Janna Behnke and Panna Kerti helped me to improve teaching evidence-based HRM by using the book. Many other lecturers and students helped me to improve parts of chapters. Without all your encouraging words and constructive feedback, the book would not have been as nice. Finally, I am grateful to Prof. Dr. Denise Rousseau, for providing me with a constructive review of the final text and for her kind words on the book. Thank you!

A final word

Twice in my career, I crossed the divide between human resource management research and practice. After graduation, I worked for ten years as a human resource management professional before I started my career as a researcher and teacher at Tilburg University. I have seen the gap at both ends. In my first job, I experienced how line managers were struggling with their employees and how executive managers were sensitive to doubtful advice provided by expensive consultants. I started wondering how the things I learned in university about participation, motivation and employee development could be translated into practice more effectively. When I followed my hopes for more analytical depth in my work and found employment at the university, I sometimes found myself wondering why some of the great research performed by colleagues did not find its way to organizational practice. This experience cumulated in a dream to increase the awareness of evidence-based human resource management in as many people as possible: students, managers and scholars. I hope this book will contribute to improved decision-making about people-related issues in organizations.

Good luck studying!

Dr. Brigitte Kroon, 2021

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?