Managerial Autonomy in Personnel Decisions

March, 2015

The extent to which managers should be given autonomy to make personnel decisions is a matter of debate. Some observers feel strongly that responsibility for hiring, appraising, and compensating employees is the job of the manager, while others believe that a centralized human resources office should relieve the manager of some of this responsibility. Gómez-Mejía, Balkin, and Cardy (2012) set forth a balanced position on this matter, essentially calling for partnership between managers and the human resources department. Similarly, Sims (2002) observed that trends such as globalization, deregulation, and increasing diversity “require HRM to be a strategic partner with other managers throughout today’s organization. The traditional view of HRM as an isolated, recordkeeping function within the organization is no longer viable” (p. 41).

The proper level of managerial autonomy in personnel decisions will vary from one business context to another—a matter that will be discussed a little later in this paper. Nevertheless, it is critical to establish that a firm can achieve greater effectiveness and/or efficiency in certain aspects of human resources management by centralizing them. Potential areas of excellence for a centralized human resources unit include ensuring legal compliance in processes such as selection, discipline, and termination; maintaining internal equity in compensation; providing the infrastructure necessary for a human resource information system; managing benefits; coordinating execution of the company’s labor relations strategy; and providing resources needed to support strategic organization development.

According to Pearce, Xin, Xu, and Rao (2011), “Managerial research has matured in the past 25 years in many ways …. Increasingly research sees managers as operating in complex contexts and has begun to deconstruct and understand those contexts as drivers of managerial action.” In other words, managers’ discretion in personnel matters may be subject to multiple constraints, not all of which are under the direct control of the company’s executives or human resources unit. Quite a number of factors can influence the latitude that a manager has in personnel decisions. One such factor is a firm’s situation within a particular jurisdiction and cultural milieu. For example, discipline and grievance procedures are limited by legal statute in some countries (Klaas, 2010).

The extent to which a firm allows its managers discretion in personnel decisions often reflects the organization’s overall attributes and business strategy. A firm’s decision (not) to standardize human resource practices is essentially a question of centralization versus decentralization. Flexibility in managerial practice is more likely in a company with an organic design—one that seeks to foster adaptability to an evolving environment (Daft, 2013). Latitude is also likely to be found in a large company with a diverse array of divisional specialties (Sims, 2002). On the other hand, if the company is of moderate size or its operations are largely homogenous, it may be quite feasible for it to institute managerial constraints that reduce the complexity of decisions that have to be made repeatedly (Daft, 2013).

Two things are clear from the preceding discussion. First, a number of factors—both within and outside a firm—influence the degree of autonomy that a manager has in making personnel decisions. Second, the extent to which a firm chooses to centralize human resource management, and thus to constrain managerial freedom, is a function of its business strategy. Therefore, there is no level of managerial autonomy that can be construed as universally ideal.

The tension between conformity and autonomy in the life of an organization is not a new phenomenon. In fact, biblical evidence can be adduced to show that this tension is an enduring feature of human community. In 1 Corinthians 12 the Apostle Paul constructed an analogy between local church life and the function of the human body. Verses 4 through 7 of this chapter read as follows:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (English Standard Version)

The overarching message of this biblical passage is that the local church functions best when there is a balance between diversity and unity—when a church’s members use the array of spiritual gifts granted to them in a way that glorifies God and serves the interests of the entire community. This teaching suggests that the management of human resources in a modern business organization should likewise exhibit a balance between unity and diversity. Managers should be united around the firm’s mission and strategy, but the organization should offer enough flexibility to leverage managers’ diverse knowledge, skills, and abilities.


Daft, R. L. (2013). Understanding the theory & design of organizations (11th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Gómez-Mejía, L. R., Balkin, D. B., & Cardy, R. L. (2012). Managing human resources (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Klaas, B. S. (2010). Discipline and grievances. In A. Wilkinson (Ed.), The SAGE handbook of human resource management. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. Retrieved from

Pearce, J. L., Xin, K. M., Xu, Q. J., & Rao, A. N. (2011). Managers’ context: How government capability affects managers. British Journal of Management, 22(3), 500–516. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2011.00756.x

Sims, R. R. (2002). Organizational success through effective human resources management. Westport, CT: Quorum Books. Retrieved from

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