Changing patterns of human resource management in construction

Wilkinson, Adrian and Johnstone, Stewart and Townsend, Keith (2012) Changing patterns of human resource management in construction. Construction Management and Economics, 30 (7). pp. 507-512. ISSN 0144-6193 (

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Recent years have seen increased emphasis on the need for construction organizations to be more client and market oriented—a tantalizing vision of a new quality world driven by clients with an emphasis on best value. This is likely to have significant implications for the business model and management in the industry. However, while construction constitutes an important component of global economic activity, and the very nature of the work is labour intensive, there has been a lack of attention given to the study of human resource management issues. Yet it has long been recognized that the way employees are managed can have important implications for organizational performance, and can even be a differentiator between successful and unsuccessful organizations (Marchington and Wilkinson, 2012). Context-specific factors are believed to partly explain typical approaches to managing people in the sector. These include the nature of complex project-based environments, ingrained cultural norms, cyclical demand and structural flexibility. Delivery of construction projects often requires the coordination of a multiplicity of actors, within a largely fragmented, transient and heterogeneous workforce. The construction industry therefore offers a rich and distinctive context for the study of employment issues, and an interesting counterpoint to the employment models traditionally associated with many manufacturing or service contexts. Much of the existing research tends to paint a fairly bleak picture of employment practices and industrial relations in the construction sector, often depicted as an informal, casualized and even cavalier approach to the management of people with long working hours (Lingard et al., 2008; Townsend et al., 2011) and high rates of health and safety incidents (Loudoun, 2010). Though management styles clearly vary between firms and across countries, thus making it difficult to generalize, the construction industry has been beset by a poor image in relation to approaches to human resource management and workforce relations (International Labour Office, 2001). In contrast to the model of HRM developed by Storey (1995) which emphasizes an approach to people management concerned with developing and utilizing employees in pursuit of organizational objectives, people management in construction is often characterized as a ‘black hole’ or ‘hard HRM’. Perhaps it is a by-product of the gendered nature of the construction industry, but Ness and Green (2012) report hostility of project managers towards HRM as a concept, citing evidence from managers who described investment in HR as ‘a luxury’, ‘namby-pamby’ and viewed HR practitioners as ‘pen pushers’. Indeed the British government has published various reports exhorting the need for a review of traditional employment practices, for both economic and social reasons. Encouragingly, there is also some evidence of the existence of more ‘enlightened’ approaches to managing people. This special issue aims to take stock and evaluate such changes.


Wilkinson, Adrian, Johnstone, Stewart ORCID logoORCID: and Townsend, Keith;