Human Resources Management for the future: The importance of universities being caring employers

by Dr. Lew Tek Yew

Increasingly, organisations are interested to develop committed workforces to reduce employee turnover and absenteeism while improving the employees’ performance and job-related attitudes. There is also growing evidence that employees’ positive attitudes and discretionary behaviours are important factors affecting organisational performance. Hence, gaining a better understanding of the motivational basis for such work attitudes and behaviours is regarded as an important component of research agendas relating to management practice.

Rhoades and Eisenberger (2002) developed the Organisational Support Theory which suggests that positive employees’ attitudes and behavioural intentions such as affective organisational commitment and turnover intention depend on employees’ perceptions of how committed the employing organisation is to them. In other words, employees are likely to reciprocate the organisation with higher level of affective commitment and lesser intention to leave when they believe the organisation cares for their well-being and recognises their contributions.

Consistent with the arguments of these scholars, I have conducted a study that adopts the perspective of the Organisational Support Theory to examine the process of developing a committed workforce of academics that will have less intention to leave universities. The implications of the theory will be illustrated in the context of Malaysia’s private higher education industry.

In Malaysia, there have been an increasing number of universities set up to support the goal of providing quality teaching in higher education and conducting research to meet the country’s human resources needs in the various sectors of the economy. Academicians have important roles to play towards the success of the universities in providing high quality student experiences. Furthermore, academicians have become the educators and counsellors of other professions because they represent the repository and disseminators of knowledge as well as creators of new knowledge, developing a culture of excellence and leading innovation in arts, sciences and technology.

However, academicians have their own professional, occupational and personal interests in relation to the universities in which they work, which include the freedom to pursue excellence in their academic disciplines of choice, the right to make decisions in relation to curriculum and research agenda, the right to ensure a balance between work and family, and satisfactory pay levels, as well as opportunities for career advancement.

The private higher education sector is operating in a very competitive business environment. Academics are required to deliver high quality teaching to meet the increasing demands from students who pay full fees. They are expected to introduce innovative teaching strategies using technologies and at the same time are expected to perform multi-tasked responsibilities, which include doing research, administrative work and contributing to community service. With the competition for higher student numbers and cost-revenue calculations, however, there may be limited funding available for managing the careers of the academics.

Hence, this article uses the Organisational Support Theory perspectives (Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002) which are based on the Social Exchange Theory (Blau, 1964), the concept of Perceived Organisational Support (POS), and the norm of reciprocity to examine the antecedents of affective organisational commitment and turnover intention of academics in private universities in Malaysia.

The Social Exchange Theory (Blau, 1964) suggests that the exchange relationship between two parties often goes beyond economic exchange and includes social exchange. Hence, organisational studies argue that employer and employee exchange encompass not only impersonal resources such as money, but also socioemotional resources such as approval, respect, recognition and support (Eisenberger, Armeli, Rexwinkel, Lynch, & Rhoades, 2001).

The concept of POS, which postulates the extent to which the organisation values their employees’ contributions and cares about their well-being, has been used to describe the social exchange relationship between the employer and the employee (Eisenberger, Huntington, Hutchison, & Sowa, 1986). Based on the norm of reciprocity, employees who perceive high levels of POS are more likely to develop the belief of felt obligation to reciprocate the organisation with positive attitudes such as higher levels of affective commitment to the organisation and the profession, and favourable work behaviours such as commitment to organisational goals and lower intention to leave, as well as develop trust in management to take care of their well being in the future.

The arguments based on the Social Exchange Theory, the concept of POS, and the norm of reciprocity is further developed into the Organisational Support Theory (Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002):

Resources received from the organisation are more highly valued if they are based on discretionary choice versus a requirement. Discretionary choice implies an investment, whereas legislated or required actions are considered purely costs rather than investments. Thus, HR practices which are intended to enhance the organisation’s human capital (such as career development opportunities and providing good supervision) are an optional investment and discretionary, and should contribute to POS. In short, the underpinning Social Exchange Theory predicts that the exchange of favourable treatment can be prolonged if the receipt of resources from another party is highly in need and valuable and the actions are discretionary.

In Human Resources Management (HRM) literature, researchers argue that the implementation of progressive HR practices that affect employee skills and motivation can create strategic advantage for the organisation (Becker & Gerhert, 1996; Delaney & Huselid, 1996; Delery & Doty, 1996; Snell & Dean, 1992; Tremblay et al., 2010). This is mainly due to the strategic value of HR in creating organisational culture and social relationships that cannot be readily replicated by other organisations.

The Organisational Support Theory (Eisenberger et al., 1986; Eisenberger et al., 1997; Mohamed et al., 2006; Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002) suggest two types of HR practices that are related to Perceived Organisational Support (POS).

The first is discretionary practices which the organisation is not obligated to offer, that imply organisational caring and commitment towards the well-being of employees but not made compulsory by company policy, union contract or laws of the country (for example, career development opportunities and work/family support).

The second is organisational recognition of the employee’s contribution (for example, pay satisfaction). In the Malaysian context, minimum benefits such as maternity leave, public holidays, sick leave, annual leave and maximum working hours as set out by the Employment Act 1955, Sabah and Sarawak Labour Ordinance and its revisions are mandatory by law and, thus, do not contribute to employees perception of organisation support.

Discretionary HR practices representing voluntary treatment by the organisation that are likely to benefit the employees would serve as indicators that the organisation cares about its employees’ well-being and therefore could be counted on for subsequent rewards, and as a result, such positive valuation would enhance the employees’ judgment about organisational support for them. Furthermore, if these favourable work experiences reflect voluntary and positive valuation of the employees’ contributions, POS would be strengthened (Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002).

A review of HRM literature indicates that certain HR practices reflect an organisation’s concern for their employees’ well-being (including realistic job previews, orientation program, compensation systems, and job security) whereas others (such as performance appraisals, training and development, and career advancement) focus on the developmental initiatives of the employees and reflect organisational recognition for the employee’s contribution. Meanwhile, the Organisational Support Theory suggests that if a particular HR practice indicates positive evaluations of the employees by the organisation, and at the same time, the benefits as a result of the particular HR practice are available to all employees regardless of their performance (for example, retirement benefits), the benefits would not be associated with POS.

In other words, the Organisational Support Theory posits that discretionary actions on the part of the employer that result in more favourable job conditions should be viewed more positively by employees than required actions.

Research suggest that employees interpret organisational actions such as HR practices as indicative of the personified organisation’s support and commitment to them by the organisation’s high level of caring and concern. In return, employees will reciprocate this kind deed by increasing their own commitment to the organisation by being highly involved in the organisation and showing their willingness to work hard to accomplish the organisation’s goals.

This stream of thought argues that how employees interpret and make sense of their employer’s HR practices will affect their psychological contract with their employer, which in turn, affects their commitment to that employer.

The discussion thus far has explained the theoretical and HR perspectives used in this study to select the respective HR practices that would influence POS. In sum, the theories are the Social Exchange Theory (Blau, 1964), norm of reciprocity (Gouldner, 1960), Organisational Support Theory (Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002), and the ‘best practice’ perspective to HR (Pfeffer, 1994).

In this article, pay level satisfaction, career development opportunities and work-family support are proposed to be the antecedents of perceived organisation support (POS) by the employees. The influence of each of these POS-related HR practices are discussed here:

Pay level satisfaction

The Organisational Support Theory suggests that favourable rewards indicate that the organisation values the employees’ contributions to the organisation, which is a dimension of POS (Eisenberger et al., 1996; Eisenberger, Rhoades, & Cameron, 1999).

Organisational rewards represent investment by the organisation in the employee and are interpreted by the employee as indication of organisational recognition and appreciation, which in turn contributes to the development of POS. Organisational behaviour researchers argue that organisational rewards reflect appreciation and recognition of individual performance. As pay increases with tenure, skills and experience, satisfaction with rewards implies willingness of both parties to invest time and effort in the continuation of the employment relationship.

Career development opportunities

Organisations that provide career development opportunities such as recognition, training and promotion indicate that the organisations are concerned for their employees and recognise their contributions to the organisation, which contributes to POS (Eisenberger et al., 1999; Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002).

Career development practices through organisational discretion that provide coaching, personal worth and perceived competence can meet the socio-emotional needs of employees and hence lead to a favourable behavioural outcome.

Work-family support

Work-family support can meet employee needs, and thus, increase POS. As Armeli et al. (1998) suggested, POS may be related to organisational actions that strengthen employee beliefs that the organisation would provide sympathetic understanding and material aid to deal with stressful situations at work or at home.

These factors would help meet the employees’ need for relatedness in terms of emotional support and interpersonal relationships, which in turn contribute to POS. This is because, if the organisation provides a high level of work-family support, the employees will consider the organisation as caring for their well-being, which is a dimension of POS.

Implementation of work-family policies on the part of the organisation represents more than mere policies as it also represents the importance the organisation places on families and is supporting employees trying to balance work and family obligations.

Work-family support HR policies which include programmes to balance demands of dual-career couples, families with children and elderly members, as well as flexible scheduling in the timing of work to spend their leisure time with their families, should be added to the list of the ‘best practices’ of strategic human resource management (Perry-Smith & Blum, 2000). In addition, according to Muse et al., (2008), work/family support benefits should include physical health benefits such as health insurance, medical and fitness centres, and wellness programmes.

Dr Lew Tek Yew is a senior lecturer in management at the School of Business at Curtin Sarawak. He has published more than 30 journal articles and conference papers. His research interests include human resource management practices, perceived organiasational support, employee commitment and turnover. He can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 3123 or by e-mail to