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SPECIAL ISSUE Frontiers of Business Research in China HR Process Research: Understanding the Role of Context

Karin Sanders, Lynda Jiwen Song, Zhen Wang and Timothy Colin Bednall

Objectives of the special issue

         Since Bowen and Ostroff (2004) published a theoretical article in which they argued that the lack of clarity regarding the relationship between HR practices and performance was the predominance of the content of HR research, theory and research has begun to address the process of implementation of Human Resource (HR) practices as an attempt to explain the relationship between HRM and performance (see for example, Ostroff & Bowen, 2016; Sanders, Shipton & Gomes, 2014).  Bowen and Ostroff (2004) emphasized the need to adopt an HR process approach that pays more attention to the implementation of HR by (line) managers, and to the effect of employee perception and understanding of HR.

         Since that time, scholars have explored the psychological process by which employees attach meaning to HR and has put more emphasize on understanding the role of employee perception of the implementation of HR practices, also known as HR strength, and employee beliefs of organizations’ intentions behind the implementation of HR practices, also known as HR attributions. While HR strength research is based on the co-variation principle of the attribution theory (Sanders & Yang, 2016), HR attribution research is based on the locus on causality dimension of the attribution theory (Nishii et al, 2008). Until now both HR strength and HR attribution theory is mainly considered as a universalistic approach (see Hewett et al, 2018), that is, it has not considered the implications of context. This is problematic as it overlooks a more detailed exploration of the outcomes of HR process in different situational settings.

         Since research indicates that perception and understanding of the world in general, and of HRM in particular, is more of a subjective than an objective process (Fiske & Taylor, 1991), a contingency approach would appear more appropriate to study HR process approach. Although psychology research demonstrates that the way employees perceive their environment is influenced by their context (Johns, 2016) little or no attempt has been made to date to apply this to the HRM system strength field (Sanders, Shipton & Gomes, 2014; Farndale & Sanders, 2017).

         Building on HR process theorizing, we follow here the call by Ostroff and Bowen (2016, p. 199) that expanding on the foundational basis of HR process through greater reliance on different communication […] theories as explanatory mechanisms’. For this special issue we argue that communication and information provision within organizations, which are at the heart of the HR process, are greatly affected by the context, potentially influencing how the HRM process plays out in different countries. Context has a significant role to play as it defines the boundaries of our theorizing (Delery & Doty, 1996), and can be defined as cultural context (Farndale & Sanders, 2017), organizational context and personality and cultural value orientations. By incorporating a national and individual culture perspective into HR process research, we can contextualize theory and provide novel insights into boundary conditions, creating ‘theory in context’ (Whetten, 2009, p. 29).

We have some research questions listed as following:

1.       How do personal, work and organizational factors influence the relationships between intended, the implemented and the experienced HRM within the organization?

2.       How will organizational culture and leadership of senior and line managers influence the HR process, including perceptions, understanding and attributions?

3.       What are the roles of employees' characteristics such as proactivity, personality and learning goal orientation in HR process, including perceptions, understanding and attributions?

4.       What are the impacts of national cultural values in HR process, including perceptions, understanding and attributions?

Bowen, D. & Ostroff, C. (2004). Understanding HRM-performance linkages: The role of ‘strength’ of the HRM system. Academy of Management Review, 29: 2, 203-221.

Farndale, E., & Sanders, K. (2017). Conceptualizing HRM System Strength through a Cross-Cultural Lens. International Journal of HRM, 28 (1), 132-148.

Hewett, R., Shantz, A., Mundy, J., & Alfes, K. (2018). Attribution theories in Human Management Research: A Review and Research Agenda. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 29(1), 87-126.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Cultures Consequences 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Nishii, L., Lepak, D. & Schneider, B. (2008). ‘Employee attributions of the ‘why’ of HR practices: their effects on employee attitudes and behaviors, and customer satisfaction’. Personnel Psychology, 61: 503-545.

Ostroff, C. & Bowen, D. (2016). ‘Reflections on the 2014 Decade Award: Is there strength in the construct of HR system strength?’ Academy of Management Review, 41: 196-214.

Sanders, K., Shipton, H. & Gomes, J. (2014). Is HR process important? Past, current and future challenges. Human Resource Management, 53: 489-503.

Sanders, K.  & Yang, H. (2016). The HRM Process Approach: The Influence of Employees’  

       Attribution to explain the HRM‐Performance Relationship. Human Resource    Management, 55, 201-217

The theoretical contribution and practical importance of the special issue

As indicated above, there is scope to develop a better understanding of the determinants of HR process (both HR strength and HR attributions), to explore a wider range of HR practices in the analysis of HR strength and HR attributions, to analyse the consistency of understanding and attributions between employees and line managers and how this relates to signalling theory and notions of a ‘strong’ HR system, and to set HR attributions in the context of other influences on HRM implementation to address their distinctive contribution. The papers published in this special issue will contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms that shape the relationships between HR and employee and organizational outcomes. Specifically, the special issue will utilise attribution theory and research to extend Bowen and Ostroff’s (2004) theoretical framework. By analysing contextual influences, including cross-cultural factors, organizational environments and personality and individual cultural values and orientations, on HR understanding and attributions and on their consistency across levels in the organization, the papers will develop our understanding of the boundary conditions that determine the impact of HR attributions on outcomes In summary, we seek papers that expand theory about HR understanding and attributions and evidence about the impact employees’ context as part of the development of a fuller understanding of HRM implementation.

            The Special Issue focus on understanding and attributions also has potentially significant practical implications. It turns attention to the way in which managers at all levels communicate the purpose of HR practices and promises to highlight in a practical way how to implement some of the elements proposed within the notion of a strong HRM system such as consistency and relevance. Alongside this it directs attention to the role of line management in the implementation process. HR professionals and (line and senior) managers should be more aware how employees perceive, understand and attribute HR within their organization. It is not sufficient to assume that employees perceive, understand and attribute HR in the same way as HR professionals or managers do. Results from the different studies are likely to have implications for the way HR professionals and managers communicate HR practices to employees, while taking into account of contextual differences.

Important dates for the special issue

Deadline for submission: October 31, 2020

FBR Symposium on HR Process Research: November 20, 2020 (Renmin University of China)

Deadline for R&R: February 28, 2021

Tentative publication date: June 30, 2021

Guest Editorial Team

Karin Sanders is professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behavior at the UNSW Australia Business School, and Head of School of Management. Her research focuses on the HRM process approach -in particular, the impact of employees’ perceptions and understanding (attributions) of HRM on their attitudes and behaviours. Her research has been published in such scholarly outlets as the Journal of Vocational Behavior, Organizational Studies, HRM, HRMJ, and Academy of Management Learning & Education. Karin was a guest editor for special issues, among others with Peter Shelden and James Sun on “HRM in China: Differences within the country” in International Journal of Human Resource Management (2016), with Helen Shipton and Jorge Gomes on “Is HRM Process Important?” in Human Resource Management, in 2014, and with Steve Frenkel on “HR-Line Management relations: Characteristics and Effects” in International Journal of Human Resource Management in 2011.

Address: School of Management, UNSW Australia Business School, Sydney, Australia,

Lynda Jiwen Song is an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at the School of Business, Renmin University of China. She received her PhD in organizational management from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Her research interests include leadership, employment relationship, creativity, emotional intelligence, and diversity. Her research has appeared in the Administrative Science Quarterly, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of International Business Studies, Journal of Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Management and Organization Review, Human Relations, Human Resource Management, and Frontiers of Business Research in China.

Address: Renmin University of China, Beijing, China,

Zhen Wang is an associate professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management at the Business School, Central University of Finance and Economics. He received his PhD in HRM from Renmin University of China. His research interests include ethics-and service-based leadership and human resource management. His research has appeared in the Human Relations, Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Business Ethics, among others.

Address: Business School, Central University of Finance and Economics, Beijing, China,

Timothy Colin Bednall is an organisational psychologist and HRM/OB academic. He joined the Department of Management and Marketing at Swinburne University in February 2014. He previously worked at the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales. He has also worked in industry for the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and Chandler Macleod. He is the former national Chair of the APS College of Organisational Psychologists (2015-2018). Dr Bednall's broad research area is employee learning and innovation, and how these activities may be encouraged through human resource management. His research has appeared in Human Resource Management, Academy of Management Learning and Education, and the British Journal of Management.

Address: Department of Management and Marketing, Swinburne University, Australia,