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Compliance Police or Business Partner? Institutional Complexity and Occupational Tensions in Human Resource Management

The Structuring of Work in Organizations

ISBN: 978-1-78635-436-5, eISBN: 978-1-78635-435-8

ISSN: 0733-558X

Publication date: 17 August 2016


Faced with institutional demands, organizations often create departments whose work is divorced from technical imperatives. This paper examines workers in one such department: Human Resources. Analysis of HR’s recent history and evidence from an ethnographic study of HR work highlight the institutional origins of conflict between HR’s established “compliance police” role and the “business partner” expectations of line managers. The paper outlines a theory of how organizational responses to institutional complexity contribute to persistent tension in HR and other heteronomous occupations.




We are grateful for helpful comments on various drafts of this paper from Steve Barley, Gabby Cunningham, Ruthanne Huising, Woody Powell, and seminar participants at the University of Alberta, the 2013 Structure and Structuring of Work Within and Across Organizations workshop at McGill University, and the 2013 People and Organizations conference at Wharton. Volume editor Mike Lounsbury’s encouragement, critique, and patience were crucial as well. The ethnographic research reported in this paper was funded by National Science Foundation grant number 1157885, from the Law and Social Sciences Program of the Social and Economic Sciences Division.


Sandholtz, K.W. and Burrows, T.N. (2016), "Compliance Police or Business Partner? Institutional Complexity and Occupational Tensions in Human Resource Management", The Structuring of Work in Organizations (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 47), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 161-191.



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