What are soft HRM and hard HRM?

Soft and hard HRM are two different approaches to Human Resource Management. Human Resource Management (HRM) is the strategic approach toward acquiring, hiring, training, engaging, and retaining personnel.

Let’s take a look at this table to understand the differences between soft and hard HRM better:

Traits Soft HRM Hard HRM
Employer perspective Employees are individuals to invest in Employees are a resource
Management style Collaborates with, guides, and leads people Delegates tasks 
Work culture Productivity and wellbeing-centered High intensity, task-driven environment
Career development Prioritizes learning and development Prioritizes getting the job done
Recruitment method Depends on the candidate’s potential to succeed in the job, integrate with team members, and contribute to the company Depends on the candidate’s skills and competencies
Organizational style Autonomous Traditional hierarchical format

While soft HRM emphasizes that professionals are individuals with inherent ambitions and emotions, hard HRM treats people as commodities that exist to help the company meet business goals. 

What are some examples of soft and hard HRM?

Soft HRM focuses on the human side of HR. This method prioritizes people’s need to actualize their potential and find meaning in their jobs. Soft HRM includes practices such as:

  • Two-way communication 
  • Business transparency
  • Higher wages
  • Investing in employee wellbeing
  • Training and career development programs
  • A democratic management style

Hard HRM, in contrast, is more task-focused than people-focused. It doesn’t recognize individuals’ needs for self-actualization. Thus, it often encompasses:

  • One-way communication between management and professionals
  • Performance reviews that fail to motivate or provide constructive feedback 
  • Minimum wages
  • High turnover 
  • Hierarchical leadership system

Why should HR leaders care about soft HRM and hard HRM?

HR leaders can evaluate soft and hard HRM methods to determine which aspects of each fit the company’s needs. While Millennials often gravitate to organizations that embody soft HRM, elements of hard HRM may be necessary for companies to reach profit and productivity goals. Thus, it’s essential to consider which specific practices work pragmatically for each organization. 

For example, a well-established software company may want to improve engagement and retention with soft HRM methods. New small businesses in the service industry may implement primarily hard HRM practices to ensure productivity and profit.

What can HR leaders do to incorporate soft HRM and hard HRM into their strategy?

Industry, business goals, and company values determine how an organization fits HRM to its needs. HR leaders can incorporate these practices to reap the benefits from both soft and hard HRM:

  • Set the direction.  An HRM strategy can serve as an anchor within a shifting job market. Aligning the HRM strategy with the business strategy can help HR leaders determine which hard or soft HRM practices to implement. Also, a checklist can help HR leaders decide in which direction to navigate the HR ship.  
  • Always consider the budget. Whatever approach HR leaders take, it must be budget-based. Ultimately, the company has to have a high return on investment (ROI) to make the chosen HRM method worth it. 
  • Consider the industry. Each industry is different. For example, while soft HRM has spread like wildfire in the high-tech industry, this people-oriented approach has not taken hold as quickly in the manufacturing industry. HR leaders can look to competing businesses and current trends and ask: What are applicants and professionals expecting from their employer and position? Usually, integrating a combination of soft and hard HRM can entice potential new hires, boost retention, and help achieve business objectives.

How can soft HRM and hard HRM improve company culture?

Soft and hard HRM represent two opposite ends of the spectrum. Implementing just one of these methods may not be realistic. People want their employers to treat them  as humans, not robots, but companies must focus on achieving business success. However, tailoring an approach that integrates the beneficial components of both soft and hard HRM could help companies nurture a culture that values individuals’ successes alongside the company’s success.