Human resource management (HRM) is one of the actively developed areas today because organisations’ need to learn how to use their human resources most efficiently. Therefore, extensive literature and research are available on the topic of HRM policies, practices and principles adopted in different national contexts, including management of human resources in China and the United Kingdom (UK) (Khan et al. 2019).
However, the research on comparing HRM approaches in different countries can be seen as rather limited for recent years, and the lack of literature is observed on the topic of differences and similarities in HRM strategies and techniques applied in China and the UK (Barry et al. 2018; Khan et al. 2019). The purpose of this critical literature review is to evaluate the existing research on the topic of differences in HRM in China and the UK and to conclude regarding the research gaps identified regarding this theoretical field.
The search of the Literature
The literature on the specifics of HRM in China and the UK have been searched in such databases as Google Scholar, ProQuest, EBSCO Host, ScienceDirect and Emerald Insight to choose the articles and reports that were published in 2016-2020. The following keywords were used for searching for appropriate sources: human resource management (HRM), human resources, strategic human resource management (SHRM), China, the United Kingdom and Great Britain. These keywords were combined to find the most relevant scholarly articles. Finally, 185 appropriate sources were selected, and after the review of the abstracts, 16 articles were retrieved as appropriately representing the scope of research on the determined topic.
Specifics of HRM in China
The existing literature on the realisation of HRM in China is focused on examining such issues as changes in HRM associated with alterations in institutional, economic, cultural, and technological contexts, as well as concerning globalisation impacts. Modern HRM in China is a result of the specific impact of Chinese traditions and philosophies on the sphere of management and the impact of the combination of national and Western cultural views and principles (Campbell 2018; Chen, Su & Zeng 2016). Therefore, the critical topics in management include the evolution of HRM, control and commitment HR practices, the governmental impact, retention and promotion practices.
The impact of various political regimes and institutional systems on the development of HRM in the country is considered by researchers as significant. Chen, Su, and Zeng (2016) applied the path dependence theory to analyse the evolution of HRM in the country with a focus on several periods: before 1840, the modernisation period of 1840-1917, the interwar period of 1918-1949, the period of the centrally planned and controlled economy (1949-1979), and the modern period of reformation since 1979.
Referring to historical records, the researchers presented a detailed discussion of the formation of HRM in China, concluding that specific governmental ideologies and different institutional contexts directly influenced the characteristics of HRM. The detailed literature review presented in this study contributes to understanding the historical events and processes that shaped modern HRM in China.
The theory that can explain the modern path of HRM in this national context was also researched by other authors. Ma et al. (2016), the scholars representing universities in Portugal and Australia, focused on examining HRM in China with a particular interest in studying enterprises and applied the theory of new institutionalism. They stated that, during most of the 20th century, HRM in China developed under the impact of coercive mechanisms and accentuated coordination of enterprises’ activities by the government. Normative mechanisms also provided a strict legal framework for managers to follow in their practice. Labour legislation is still severe in China, guaranteeing that employees’ rights in different types of organisations are protected.
However, despite the powerful impact of the government on the development of organisations and HRM in them and strict normative and coercive mechanisms, modern HRM in China is characterised by flexibility, the focus on employee mobility and the application of popular Westernised HRM practices. The reason for such changes in approaches is persuasively explained by Ma et al. (2016) regarding recent market-driven reforms and the support of innovations in management by the country officials.
With the help of their detailed literature review, Zhu and Warner (2019) studied the emergence of HRM in China referring to different historical periods. After reviewing many resources on the topic, the researchers concluded that HRM in China diverged and converged with Western practices. Currently, HRM in China is a hybrid model representing a synthesis of Western, Asian, and Soviet approaches to managing human resources in combination with innovative practices (Zhu & Warner 2019). These researchers’ conclusions seem to be reasonable as they are supported by other authors (Chen, Su & Zeng 2016). Thus, private organisations seem to be more innovation-oriented than public organisations, and popular HRM practices include performance management, retention and promotion.
Another important topic in the literature on HRM in China is the role of control and commitment to HR practices in organisations. In Chinese firms, the competition for skilled employees is high, and much attention is paid to their retention because these resources are usually attracted by multinationals (Ma et al. 2016). While referring to 311 respondents, Ma et al. (2016) found that employees from multinational firms respond more positively to control and commitment HR practices, and turnover rates are lower. In local companies, limited control practices can provoke higher turnover intentions. These findings were explained concerning the impact of institutional mechanisms and policies on the perceptions of HRM practices by Chinese employees from domestic organisations.
These ideas were also supported and developed in other studies on HRM. According to Chen, Su, and Zeng (2016), coordinating and commitment HRM practices in Chinese organisations are also associated with the tradition of lifelong employment. Furthermore, HR managers in these organisations are rather limited in policies to dismiss low-skilled employees. In this detailed analysis of effective HR practices in Chinese organisations, Deng (2018) showed the importance of ‘familiness’ in developing commitment practices to promote retention.
In their systematic review, Cooke et al. (2019) also determined the key topics studied concerning control and commitment-oriented HRM in Chinese multinational organisations. They found that the focus is on studying multiple HR practices, localisation, turnover tendencies, talent management, SHRM, performance management, compensation and rewarding. These researchers’ findings can be discussed as credible and contributing to theory as they are based on the examination of 120 studies.
Retention and promotion practices in Chinese organisations are closely related to control and commitment HR practices in this country because of their impact on turnover rates and job satisfaction. In their detailed literature review aimed at contextualising HRM in China, Sheldon and Sanders (2016) concluded that different cultural and institutional aspects influence HRM in the country, and the key focus is on the fact that China represents a society-culture.
The researchers provide effective arguments to state that Chinese people must work in one organisation for a long time, feel the support of managers, and cooperate in a team. These aspects are important for the development of commitment HR practices in the country. Ma et al. (2016) and Deng (2018) also added to the discussion of control/commitment HR practices, claiming that talent-oriented and supportive practices contribute to improving retention in Chinese firms. However, depending on cultural norms, control HR systems are also influential through monitoring, performance evaluation, rewarding, as was demonstrated by Zhu and Warner (2018) in their comprehensive research. Despite different views on selecting control/commitment HR practices in China, the research supports their popularity.
HRM in the United Kingdom
The literature review on HRM in the UK has indicated that the key topics include the application of HRM practices in the context of trade unions’ activities, the establishment of control and commitment (as well as high commitment) HR practices, the development of socially (ir)responsible HRM, and an employee’s personality. Thus, Hann and Nash (2019) approached the topic of the role of trade unions in HRM in British companies regarding their part in resolving workplace conflicts. Applying an appropriate survey method, the researchers found that when HR specialists co-work with the representatives of unions, conflicts are observed rarer and effectively resolved.
Organisations with trade unions pay more attention to training their HR specialists to work effectively with employees and promote their commitment and job satisfaction. Barry et al. (2018) were the first researchers to study the connection not only between HRM and unions but also between HRM and joint consultative committees’ impact in Britain. They effectively tested the hypotheses and concluded that there is a positive relationship between the work of joint consultative committees and unions, the application of high-involvement HR practices, and job satisfaction.
Thus, it is typical for HRM in UK companies to support employees and increase their productivity and performance with the help of control and commitment practices, along with high-commitment practices. Barry et al. (2018) found that, although the union coverage in the UK is rather low, unions contribute to promoting commitment HR practices in organisations. Thus, researchers agree that, in UK companies, the key focus is on achieving high commitment among employees through promotion, engagement, involvement, training and rewarding (Barry et al. 2018; Forth, Bryson & George 2017). The literature indicates that HR managers achieve better results in UK firms if they try to build effective relationships with employees based not on strict control and regulation but support and promotion.
The problem of in-work poverty led to discussing one more tendency in HRM in Britain: socially (ir)responsible HRM. The role of socially responsible HRM in UK organisations was thoroughly studied by Richards and Sang (2019) in the context of the impact of such practices as promotion, health and safety in the workplace, training, and non-discrimination on employees’ attitudes and well-being. In this study sponsored by the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust, the researchers concluded that the tendency of low wages in UK companies can lead in the future to the development of socially irresponsible HRM.
Richards and Sang (2019) recruited 27 employees that can be characterised by the in-work poverty concept and conducted qualitative research. It was found that the lived experiences of the involved participants can support the idea of the progress of socially irresponsible HRM in many organisations. The results of the research need to be supported by the findings of other studies as the discussion of this concept in the theory of HRM is a new practice.
Researchers specialising in HRM in the UK also accentuated the tendency of focusing on the personality of an employee to determine how to effectively motivate them and increase their job satisfaction to achieve higher results. Williams and Gardiner (2018) studied the use of personality assessment tools in HRM with the help of the British Household Panel Survey to identify how these results can be used for measuring quality in UK organisations.
The researchers provided much evidence to support their claim that HR specialists in British companies are interested in promoting creativity and motivation in firms to decrease turnover intentions concerning the results of such tests. Forth, Bryson and George (2017) also agree that the main focus is usually on the formation of positive work attitudes that are viewed as important to increase job performance and workers’ commitment. When accentuating the personality traits of employees, HR managers work with their motivation, develop recognition and rewarding practices.
The realisation of certain HRM practices in UK companies can be discussed referring to the case study analysis. Ali and Akter (2018) conducted a study in which they analysed the application of HRM practices in Arcadia Group. The case study was descriptive, and the findings indicated that the realised HR practices (recruitment, motivation, retention) were rather inconsistent with the organisation’s strategic goals. Although the results of this study cannot be viewed as highly illustrative, it is possible to state that HR specialists in some UK organisations can lack knowledge and skills regarding the implementation of the most effective HR practices. It is possible to conclude that control and commitment HR practices discussed in theory and research are not always effectively applied in practice in UK firms.
Differences in HRM in China and the UK and Gaps in Research
Job satisfaction, employee turnover, and HRM practices oriented towards increasing commitment in employees are studied by specialists in HRM in both China and the UK, but the approaches to analysing and explaining the related issues are rather different depending on the methods’ realisation in practice. In China, the impact of cultural traditions, institutions, and politics created a specific hybrid model of HRM, where Western approaches to managing employees are combined with the policies based on Confucianism, the Soviet-oriented approaches to working with the personnel, and the focus on monitoring (Chen, Su & Zeng 2016; Zhu & Warner 2019).
Additionally, HRM in China is characterised by flexibility and the changing nature because its modern form is in the process of reformation during recent years under the impact of modern tendencies and market changes. Despite being oriented toward traditions, HRM in China also applies innovative methods (Sheldon & Sanders 2016). In this context, researchers accentuate that the HRM system in this country is rather diverse, where Asian and Western principles, traditional and innovative approaches, as well as control and commitment HR practices, are combined most uniquely.
The specifics of the system in China explain why HRM is actively discussed by researchers regarding different theoretical perspectives and with a focus on its historical progress. According to Khan et al. (2019) and Sheldon and Sanders (2016), HRM in China differs from models applied in other countries because of the impact of the national development and globalisation on this sphere, but moreover, this model is also dissimilar in different regions of the country. Chen, Su and Zeng (2016) provide many arguments in their study to support the idea that coordinating and controlling HR practices in organisations are critically important for HRM in Chinese organisations. Deng’s (2018) views also correspond with this vision because, despite promoting the concept of ‘familiness’ in firms, HRM is strictly based on norms and rules.
In contrast to the Chinese hybrid model of HRM, the research indicates that, in the United Kingdom, the HRM system is rather stable. The realisation of policies and practices is based on certain HRM principles and values that are promoted in all organisations of the country, but the system is still less centralised than it is in China. The dependence on widely approved and applied HRM practices in Britain is determined by the necessity of increasing job satisfaction and commitment of employees. HR specialists in UK firms are interested in promoting the well-being of workers to prevent and address turnover intentions (Barry et al. 2018; Hann & Nash 2019).
In the UK, lifelong employment and extremely high levels of commitment despite developed control measures are not typical in contrast to Chinese organisations (Chen, Su & Zeng 2016; Williams & Gardiner 2018). Therefore, HR specialists in UK firms pay much attention to applying the most efficient HRM practices and strategies to influence employees’ attitudes and performance.
Although control and commitment HR practices are promoted in HRM of both countries, there are certain differences in the choice and realisation of them. Firstly, Ma et al. (2016) argue that, in China, employee involvement is not typical in comparison to Western countries. In the UK, the situation is different as employee involvement, engagement and promotion are key commitment HR practices (Gooberman, Hauptmeier & Heery 2018). The voice of employees is important to be heard in the United Kingdom to contribute to their retention (Barry et al. 2018), but the focus on the contribution to a team is more common for collective work in Chinese organisations (Ma et al. 2016).
In addition, the role of unions in influencing HRM in the UK is also significant and historically determined, but this practice is not spread in China (Barry et al. 2018; Khan et al. 2019). Researchers tend to conclude that organisations in China are only at the early stage of implementing commitment HR practices in their HRM to change previous coordinating practices.
The questions raised by the studies, as well as topics discussed by the mentioned authors, represent the scope of research on HRM in China and the United Kingdom. Even though it is possible to determine certain differences in the approaches to HRM in these both countries that were described by the researchers in detail, there is a lack of studies that directly compare HRM in the UK and HRM in China. The application of different theoretical and conceptual perspectives to explain separately the specifics of HRM in two countries does not allow for stating clearly what differences are critical for examination.
Therefore, there is a gap in the comparative literature on HRM in relation to contrasting HRM in Asian and Western countries regarding the examples of the UK and China. As a result, it is important to further research the following topics that were not covered effectively in the reviewed studies: employees’ attitudes toward unions, employee involvement and productivity, the role of performance appraisal and training in increasing commitment as well as labour mobility among others.
The conducted review of literature has presented the critical evaluation of the key recent studies in the fields of HRM in China and HRM in the United Kingdom. The major topics that are identified by researchers for discussing in their studies have been listed, along with the assessment of the quality of selected research articles. The predominant research methodologies applied for this topic are systematic reviews.
The researchers’ approaches to analysing HRM in the two countries are different, but most of them provide credible arguments and discussions to support their views and conclusions. Although much research is available on topics related to HRM in the UK and China, there is still a lack of studies directly comparing these countries’ HRM systems. This identified gap indicates the necessity of conducting more research on the issue of differences in HRM between the UK and China to compare and contrast these systems in detail.
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