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Deadline: 27 March 2020

Advancing understanding of HRM in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs):

Critical questions and future prospects

The socio-economic significance of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) cannot be understated. Across the globe, SMEs account for over 95% of firms and 60% of private sector employment (OECD, 2015). SMEs tend to be resource constrained and hierarchically contracted, making the prospective impact of HRM more transparent and telling. It follows that successful management of employees can be critical in determining the survival and growth of SMEs (Barrett & Mayson, 2008). Given this significance, it is surprising that SMEs remain marginalised from HRM theory and research (Wapshott & Mallett, 2016).

This special issue seeks to bring leading edge international research together to advance critical questions and future research prospects concerning the nature, determinants and impact of HRM in the SME context. While there have been growing calls for more dedicated SME research (e.g. Festing, Harsch, Schäfer, & Scullion, 2017; Lai, Saridakis, Blackburn, & Johnston, 2016) progress has been hindered by a lack of critical assessments of the nature and applicability of HRM as applied to the SME context. Extant work on HRM in SMEs has been described as ‘underdeveloped and equivocal’ (Chadwick, Way, Kerr, & Thacker, 2013, p. 311) remaining at a very nascent stage of theory development (Barrett & Mayson, 2008). Many studies abstain from theoretical reflection and perpetuate a large firm bias, by either uncritically deploying established research instruments, and/or by casting the small firm as lacking or deficient if they fail to meet normative ideals. While some have found a positive relationship between a suite of HRM practices and SME performance (Razouk, 2011; Sheehan, 2014), for others the very idea that sophisticated, formal HRM adds value in an SME context ‘remains contentious’ (Bryson & White, 2019, p. 750).

In order to make sense of contradictory evidence there is a requirement to move beyond universalistic stances to explore how HRM is appropriately conceptualized and operationalized in the SME context (Allen, Ericksen, & Collins, 2013). This involves a greater accommodation of contextual conditions, exploring what organisations actually do in practice, and the conditions of possibility shaping what constitutes viable or effective HR practices in an SME context (Gilman, Raby, & Pyman, 2015; Harney & Dundon, 2006; Lai et al., 2016). It is clear that, irrespective of the terminology used or expertise involved, all organisations confront and manage HR issues whether in a formal or informal manner. For SMEs, key characteristics likely to shape HRM include informality, resource poverty, the liability of smallness, centralized control and vulnerability to external changes (Cardon & Stevens, 2004). Greater exploration of the impact of SME characteristics would serve to disrupt and challenge some conventional assumptions in HRM research. Renewed and novel means of exploring external HRM challenges and implications may come from empirical applications of context sensitive concepts like owner-manager sense-making and embeddedness (e.g. Mayson & Barrett, 2017). Internally, there is much scope to further explore the role of SME leadership style, concentrated control, and path dependency and their implications for how HRM is managed and received by employees (e.g. McClean & Collins, 2019). There is clearly a requirement for research to better grapple with the formality/informality dynamic, including where and why informality might be preferred, its consequences and potential as a basis for competitive advantage. Allied to this, in the domain of SME growth and development, there has been little sense of how firms might transition into and out of HRM approaches. Relatedly, the categories of small and medium are frequently collapsed, providing a missed opportunity to distinguish between these firm types (for one exception see Della Torre & Solari, 2013).

At the employee level, SMEs offer many surface level contradictions and anomalies which may contribute to our understanding, not simply of HRM practices, but also the enactment and implementation of HRM. Research has long evidenced that employees in SMEs tend to experience less sophisticated HRM (e.g. pay, employee voice and formal development opportunities) relative to those in larger firms, but yet can be more satisfied and engaged (Bryson & White, 2019; Forth, Bewley, & Bryson, 2006). Unpacking explanations, including those related to proximity, values, visibility, autonomy, as well as perceptions of justice and extent of disparity are all likely to hold rich insights for how we understand HRM generally. We should also be cautious not to promote a singular or stereotypical view of SMEs. Paternalistic relations can easily have an undercurrent of control and work intensification. Interestingly, we know very little about what attracts employees to work in SMEs, or critically, what might facilitate with staff retention.


Submission Instructions

Contributions for this special issue must be original research not under consideration by any other journal or publishing outlet. All papers will be subject to a double-blind peer review in accordance with journal guidelines. The guest editors will select and include as many papers as possible in the special issue according to the relevance and quality of the submissions. Manuscripts not included in this special issue may be considered as regular submissions to the journal.

Manuscripts should be prepared according to the Instructions for Authors page. Manuscripts should be prepared according to IJHRM guidelines. Each submission should have a separate title page with author details. Manuscripts should be submitted online using the International Journal of Human Resource Management ScholarOne Manuscript submission site.

To submit your manuscript to the Special Issue on ‘Advancing understanding of HRM in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs): Critical questions and future prospects’, choose the title of the Special Issue from the manuscript type list when you come to submit your paper. Also, when you come to the ‘Details and Comments’ page, answer ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Is this manuscript submitted for a Special Issue’ and insert the title in the text field provided. To be considered for this Special Issue, full manuscripts must be submitted no later than the 27th of March 2020 at 12.00 (midday, noon) Greenwich Mean Time (UK). Papers may of course be submitted prior to this deadline as well. Authors of prospective papers are welcome to discuss their ideas in advance, please direct all queries to Brian Harney

The International Journal of Human Resource Management

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Guest Editor Information

Brian Harney, Dublin City University, Ireland

Mark Gilman, Birmingham City Business School, UK

Susan Mayson, Monash Business School, Australia

Simon Raby, Mount Royal University, Canada


Paper submission deadline: 27 March 2020

Anticipated publication date: April 2021

Focus of the Special Issue

In this call for paper we therefore seek research which advances a more nuanced and considered understanding of HRM in SMEs taking us beyond stereotypes and size determinism.

We especially encourage approaches which critically question and explore the applicability and logic of HRM theory and practices when applied in the SME context, including by engaging with key tensions and paradoxes related to SME characteristics. Contributions are encouraged as related, but not limited, to topics such as:

  • Novel theoretical and methodological approaches to conceptualize and understand HRM in the SME context
  • Dedicated research on the impact of specific HR practices, especially whether the introduction of HRM contradicts or corrects existing relations and employee outcomes
  • Explorations of the formalization of HRM, including balancing formality versus informality
  • Key determinants of HRM in SMEs e.g. the influence of owner-manager philosophy and the proximity of relationships
  • A critical examination of HR challenges resulting from key SME characteristics, including gender and other dimensions of diversity



  • A comparative assessment of HRM approaches across countries, varying SME contexts and/or that distinguish between small and medium sized firms
  • The role of HRM in supporting growth and innovation of SMEs, including investigations of the dynamics and implications of growth, transition and contraction
  • Employee experiences of HRM and the nature of work in SMEs
  • An appreciation and/or comparison of the HRM challenges and requirements of SMEs with different ownership structures and missions

The above list is by no means exhaustive, but represents potential topics where critical questions on HRM in SMEs remain. The emphasis is specifically on the liability of smallness, focusing on established SMEs as opposed to the start-up process (liability of newness). We welcome conceptual, empirical and methodological papers that will help advance our understanding of the application, challenges and prospects for HRM in the SME context.

While we are open to a spectrum of methodologies, we are especially interested in contributions which move beyond surface level and traditional understandings of HRM to provide novel pathways and prospects for future research. We also invite comparative work which opens up greater appreciation of cross-national, sectoral, or firm type differences in HRM across SMEs (Gilman & Raby, 2013).


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Allen, M, Ericksen, J, & Collins, C. (2013). Human resource management, employee exchange relationships and performance in small business. Human Resource Management, 52, 2, 153-174.
Barrett, R., & Mayson, S. (Eds.) (2008), International Handbook of Entrepreneurship and HRM, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Bryson, A. & White, M. (2019). HRM and small-firm employee motivation: Before and after the great recession. ILR Review, 72, 3, 749-773.
Cardon, M. & Stevens, C. (2004). Managing human resources in small organisations: What do we know?. Human Resource Management Review, 14, 3, 295-323.
Chadwick, C. Way, S. Kerr, G. & Thacker, J. (2013). Boundary conditions of the high-investment human resource systems-small-firm labor productivity relationship. Personnel Pyschology, 66, 311-343.
Della Torre, E. & Solari, L. (2013). High-performance work systems and the change management process in medium-sized firms. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24, 13, 2583-2607.
Festing, M, Harsch, K, Schäfer, L, & Scullion, Hugh. (2017), ‘Talent management in small and medium sized enterprises’ In The Oxford Handbook of Talent Management, eds. D. G. Collings, K. Mellahi & W. F. Cascio, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 478-493
Forth, J. Bewley, H. & Bryson, A. (2006), Small and medium-sized enterprises: Findings from the 2004 workplace employment relations survey, National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
Gilman, M, Raby, S. & Pyman, A. (2015). The contours of employee voice in smes: The importance of context. Human Resource Management Journal, 25, 4, 563-579.
Gilman, M. & Raby, S. (2013). National context as a predictor of highperformance work system effectiveness in small-to-medium-sized enterprises (smes): A UK–French comparative analysis. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 24, 2, 372-390.
Harney, B. & Dundon, T. (2006). Capturing complexity: Developing an integrated approach to analysing HRM in SMEs. Human Resource Management Journal, 16, 1, 48-73.
Lai, Y. Saridakis, G. Blackburn, R & Johnston, S. (2016). Are the HR responses of small firms different from large firms in times of recession?. Journal of Business Venturing, 31, 113-131.
Mayson, S. & Barrett, R. (2017). A new argument using embeddedness and sensemaking to explain small firms’ responses to employment regulation. Human Resource Management Journal, 27, 1, 189-202.
McClean, E. & Collins, C. (2019). Expanding the concept of fit in strategic human resource management: An examination of the relationship between human resource practices and charismatic leadership on organizational outcomes. Human Resource Management, 58, 2, 187-202.
OECD. (2015). Taxation of SMES in OECD and G20 countries, OECD Tax Policy Studies No. 23. Paris, OECD.
Razouk, A. (2011). High-performance work systems and performance of french small- and medium-sized enterprises: Examining causal order, International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22, 2, 311-330/
Sheehan, M. (2014). Human resource management and performance: Evidence from small and medium-sized firms, International Small Business Journal, 32, 5, 545-570
Wapshott, R. & Mallett, O. (2016). Managing Human Resources in Small and Medum-Sized Enterprises, New York: Routledge.