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Research project

Do? Should? Could? Investigating the relationship between HR practice and the self-employed

  • Research groups:
  • Lead researcher:
  • Research funder:
    Chartered Institute Of Personnel And Development
  • Status:
    Not active

Project overview

There is a tension at the heart of HRM. It is a field of practice and theory that professes to be concerned with the people, workforces, and human performance that organisations need (Boxall and Purcell, 2015). Yet it appears to ignore or neglect a vital group: the self-employed. However, as recently argued HR could, and should, take a more prominent role to address individual, organisational, and societal concerns (Cross and Swart 2021). This project seeks to empirically develop these arguments by understanding the boundaries between HR and the self-employed, the actual engagement that takes place, and the barriers and enablers to this engagement. The research design draws on interviews with, as well as a survey of, practitioners and key stakeholders. It will develop knowledge of management practice and contribute to the goal of improving relationships, experiences, and outcomes for all parties.

Research Focus
The solo self-employed, freelancers, and independent contractors, incorporate 15.3% of the UK labour force (ONS, 2020) – more than the whole public sector. They do work of core and strategic importance across the full occupational range (Bidwell, 2012; McKeown and Pichault, 2021). They help lower costs, enable flexibility, and meet demand surges (Adams et al., 2018; Flinchbaugh et al., 2019; Spreitzer et al., 2017). They are a resurgent and essential aspect of work organisation. Yet they rarely encounter HR. 
This research focusses on the relationship, or lack of, between HR and the self-employed. As such it looks to examine some of the fundamental issues that Professor Marchington was also concerned with and made canonical contributions to (Marchington et al 2020; 2005). In essence, the fragmentation of work, the changing employment relationship, and HR across boundaries but here with consideration of the self-employed who fall through regulatory and practice cracks. Fundamentally, the neglect of the self-employed is perhaps a symptom of HR becoming focussed on narrow performance goals and neglecting its more long-standing ethical responsibilities and values – the ‘human’ side of things (Marchington, 2015; Cross and Swart, 2021). As such, examining the relationship – and asking the questions of do, should – could provide ways of thinking about how the HR profession is changing, and how it could further adapt to the current context.

Rationale and practical importance
While an HR ecosystem approach has recently been proposed that recognises the various ways that organisations can secure human capital resources (Snell and Morris, 2021; Camuffo and De Stefano, 2019), the traditional view of HR (Lepak and Snell, 1999) positions the self-employed as ‘low strategic value’ and ‘low uniqueness’. They are dealt with as a commodity, transactionally, and at ‘arm’s length’ (Dundon and Rafferty, 2018). These interactions, and indeed the absence of HRM, can add to the stress and feelings of precariousness for individuals, can challenge the moral responsibility of organisations, and even increase societal inequality and poverty (Butterick and Charlwood, 2021; Cross and Swart, 2021; Dundon and Rafferty, 2018).
Yet there could, and should (Cross and Swart, 2021), be a role for HR as a people champion in organisations with regards to the self-employed. To do so, we first need to understand the boundaries that exist between HR and the self-employed to establish whether they are considered to be within the remit of the HR profession. This project will examine this through the lens of practice and professional jurisdiction (Abbot, 1988; Susskind and Susskind, 2015) to understand what is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the jurisdiction.
We then need to see how, if at all, HR practice engages with the self-employed in order to understand if there really is neglect (Cross and Swart, 2021). This project will empirically establish the nature and range of relationships so that we can help improve practice. Finally, we need to understand the barriers to and enablers of HR engagement with the self-employed in order to identify ways to remove or ameliorate these respectively. 
The project design has three stages that blend complementary qualitative methods to gain a depth and breadth of understanding. It will work with key stakeholders including the CIPD, the Association for Independent and Self-Employed Professionals (IPSE), academics, and HR practitioners.
This project is part of a plan of future work and impact that will seek to establish firmer links between these fields and draw attention to the management of the self-employed.

Research Questions
This project asks the question – what is the relationship between HRM and the self-employed from the perspective of HR theory and professional practice?
The project’s three objectives are:
1. To understand the professional and practical and boundaries between HR and the self-employed.
2. To understand the ways in which HR practitioners engage with self-employed individuals.
3. To understand the barriers and enablers of HR engagement with self-employed individuals.


Lead researcher

Dr David Cross PhD, MSc, BA

Associate Professor

Research interests

  • Self-employment
  • Commitment
  • HR Profession

Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

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