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Human Resource Management in a Compartmentalized World: Whither Moral Agency?


This article examines the potential for moral agency in human resource management practice. It draws on an ethnographic study of human resource managers in a global organization to provide a theorized account of situated moral agency. This account suggests that within contemporary organizations, institutional structures—particularly the structures of Anglo-American market capitalism—threaten and constrain the capacity of HR managers to exercise moral agency and hence engage in ethical behaviour. The contextualized explanation of HR management action directly addresses the question of whether HRM is inherently unethical. The discussion draws on MacIntyre’s (Philosophy 74:311–329, 1999, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Duckworth, 2000) conceptualization of moral agency within contemporary social structures. In practice, HR managers embody roles that may not be wholly compartmentalized. Alternative institutional structures can provide HR managers with a vocabulary of motives for people-centred HRM and widen the scope for the exercising of moral agency, when enacted within reflective relational spaces that provide milieus for critical questioning of logics and values. This article aims to contribute to and extend debate on whether HRM can ever be ethical, and provide a means of reconnecting business ethics with longstanding concerns in critical management studies.

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  1. 1.

    Extract from field notes.

  2. 2.

    This article does not take up MacIntyre’s broader questions of virtuous practice and the pursuit of internal goods in business (see MacIntyre 2000). These questions, while important, have been covered elsewhere (for example, Moore and Beadle 2006).

  3. 3.

    The idea of ‘institution’ used here is that of sociological institutional theory, where institutions are ‘social structures that have attained a high degree of resilience’ (Scott 2001, p. 48). MacIntyre’s use of the term ‘institution’ refers to a specific type of societal form that is concerned with external goods such as material wealth, power, and other forms of individual and organizational competitive ‘success’ (MacIntyre 2000; see also Moore and Beadle 2006).

  4. 4.

    Bhaskar’s idea of critical realism also ties in MacIntyre’s conviction that ‘facts’ should not be seen as ‘independent entities which stand in lordly judgment over mere theories’ (Achtemeier 1994 p. 359).

  5. 5.

    Dobson (2009) has challenged this assumption, but he relies on the selective use of secondary sources.

  6. 6.

    Pseudonyms used in all cases, although each actor’s gender was preserved.

  7. 7.

    Roberts’ use of the term ‘fiddling the books’ amplifies this irony, given that this expression is usually employed to describe dishonest accounting practices aimed at for example, evading tax or enabling fraud. In the case of accounting dishonesty, both ends and means are clearly questionable.


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The author would like to thank participants at the 2011 EABIS/Monash University Research Workshop on Ethics and HRM and the anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Tracy Wilcox.

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Wilcox, T. Human Resource Management in a Compartmentalized World: Whither Moral Agency?. J Bus Ethics 111, 85–96 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-012-1440-1

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  • Moral agency
  • Relational sociology
  • Institutional theory
  • Relational spaces
  • Human resource management