Labor process theory (LPT) is a critical approach to studies on work and employment; it is rooted in the Marxist tradition, which addresses conflictual relations between capital and labor and connects work transformations with broader structural contexts. LPT has been one of the theoretical lenses through which critical human resource management (HRM) scholars have attempted to challenge taken-for-granted concepts and approaches introduced by mainstream, positivist, and functionalist HRM research. Yet, an effort to consolidate its significance in critical HRM is missing in the extant literature. Drawing on a systematic review of 103 research articles published from 2000 to 2021, the present paper identified four key themes in previous LPT-informed HRM research, including institutional forces, control regimes, solidarity and resistance, and the deskilling-upskilling paradox. Based on this review, the article discusses what critical HRM scholars can learn from this collective understanding of LPT and how they could also employ this theory to advance critical HRM research. The main argument brought forward is the idea that LPT is worthwhile to challenge the excessive optimism propagated by the pluralist approaches in HRM.
Since the early 1980s, critical HRM scholars have been attempting to challenge the dominant mainstream HRM research characterized by positivistic, functionalist, and uncritical approaches (Keegan & Boselie, 2006; Watson, 2004). At the time, HRM research was significantly led by marketization and ideological individualism (Dundon & Rafferty, 2018), and psychological theories were primarily employed (Vincent et al., 2020), issues that seemingly remain prevalent in the current HRM research (Budd, 2020). Mainstream research in HRM has also been criticized for its “simplified, depoliticized, and one-sided” research orientations (Rhodes & Harvey, 2012, p. 49), supporting a specific social order in which capital interests prevail against workers’ interests (Watson, 2004).
However, academic trajectories in the mainstream HRM research have not historically been straightforward, as addressed in previous studies (Gospel, 2019; Kaufman, 2004). Each specific HRM model – defined as “a particular set of investments, policies, and practices that have emerged for a group of workers” (Boxall, 2021, p. 837) – appearing in the scholarly debates must be understood given the underlying employment relationship models. This way, scholars can more holistically understand and interpret the labor problems concerning each model.
The present paper has reviewed and consolidated past empirical, critical HRM research informed by LPT from 2000 to 2021, thus aiming at helping scholars to gain a collective understanding of its previous results and gaps. By setting an agenda for critical HRM scholars, it argues why and how it is useful and important to employ LPT as an “antidote” to challenge and counteract the optimism predominantly propagated by pluralist scholars in HRM, who still believe that capitalism can become humanistic and balance the fundamentally divergent interests of employees and employers. The present article further highlights the need for (a) adding context to the application of LPT by addressing developing and underrepresented countries as well as the peculiarities embedded in a broader range of professions, and (b) applying quantitative methods as well as comparative analyses to more deeply understand different institutional and organizational contexts.