HRM in France


Brunstein (1995) characterized French firms as hierarchical and Tayloristic with elitist “grandes ecoles” educated managements. Similarly, van der Klink and Mulder (1995) and Lane (1994) described French companies as being based on the principle of control with power concentrated at the top. According to these writers, a consequence of the strong managerial autonomy is a general lack of trust between employer and employees. Managers seem to be reluctant to grant employees access to information about the production process and managerial matters, since asymmetric information is a precondition for maintaining power. This lack of trust and mutuality is exacerbated by the role of the labor union movement, not least the communist-oriented CGT, which has traditionally been in strong opposition to corporate management (Slomp, 1995).

Although French unions have little influence over corporate management, they do have a substantial impact on the work of the personnel function. Despite the fact that unionization is currently only slightly higher than 10 percent in France, collective bargaining agreements are extended by law to nonunionized workers. This has meant that resources that might have been used by personnel departments to develop collaborative practices are concentrated on overseeing a complex and detailed system of wage bargaining that is carefully scrutinized by antagonistic unions (Brunstein, 1995). Hence, the personnel department has been obliged to have a high level of legal expertise.

An additional factor that constrains French personnel departments in developing collaborative practices is that they are also charged with the important task of maintaining good relations with the Inspection du Travail, a public body that rigorously checks that companies are not contravening employment legislation, particularly with regard to the use of temporary labor (Financial Times, 1996a).

Finally, the function of the personnel department as a means of coping with the legislative context peculiar to France is particularly pronounced in the area of training. Whereas the rational HRM model assumes that training is driven by the firm’s inherent needs for increased competence and flexibility through employee development, in the case of France it is difficult to overlook the impact of the legal arrangements that oblige firms to annually invest a sum equivalent to at least 1.2 percent of their wage bill so as not to be punished financially through the tax legislation. As Brunstein (1995) pointed out, in practice this has often resulted in firms preferring to hand over the economic monitoring of their training obligation to the Fonds d’Assurance to ensure that they remain within the boundaries of the law (see also Jenkins and van der Wijk, 1996).

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