3 September 2018

Eva Knies, professor Strategic Human Resource Management

“Understanding what you’re working for, that’s what makes your job fun”

Eva Knies

Now summer break has ended, you may wonder: which tasks am I going to continue first? According to Eva Knies, professor Strategic Human Resource Management, job satisfaction is largely produced by the feeling that you are adding a purposeful contribution to an organization’s targets.

How do you achieve this feeling?

“By looking beyond the everyday and setting goals and priorities. It’s pleasant not to mindlessly plough through your mailbox after you return from vacation. Rather ask yourself; What would I like to do until, say, Christmas?; Am I satisfied with my position within the team?; How are we going to work towards this organization’s targets on a daily basis?; How does that improve my situation?; How does that improve the organization’s situation? Answering these questions is important in order to achieve job satisfaction. A lot of questions and requests will seem a lot less intimidating.”

Does that actually achieve happiness at work?

“That takes a little more, but it helps being able to identify with the mission and targets of the organization that employs you. Are they doing things you actually find important and interesting? Do you like being part of them? In the public sector you often see people finding satisfaction and gratification from the fact that they are nursing patients or educating students.”

You study cross-fertilization between management and strategic human resource management for a living. What does that mean?

“The word ‘strategic’ implies coordinating personnel policy with an organization’s targets and the employees’ well-being, getting the best out of people at their jobs. There has been a lot of academic research into strategic Human Resource Management (HRM) in the private sector. Especially in the United States and in recent years in the Netherlands as well. There has been, however, relatively little research into strategic HRM in the public sector. That’s what I’m working on, with use of insights from public management literature.”

Take the police, for instance. They have incredibly diverse targets: fighting as well as preventing crime. That makes personnel policy challenging.
Eva Knies
Eva Knies

“You can imagine strategic personnel policy is different for a public organisation than a private organisation. Take the police, for instance. They have incredibly diverse targets: fighting as well as preventing crime, identifying and addressing derailing youth, being visible and serviceable in the neighbourhood. As a police organisation, you need diverse capacities in your personnel: people that are able to act repressive, but also people that can connect and are capable of having difficult conversations. Moreover, employees will have to be able to work with rules. That makes it challenging to shape your personnel policy, recruitment and selection, determining tasks, providing autonomy. The factor of many rules also occurs in the public sector: ministries, municipalities, education and healthcare. In principle, rules serve a purpose, but can sometimes obtrude personal contact with citizen, student and patient.”

Bureaucracy and job satisfaction do not need to be conflicting?

“No, some rules are important when working a job. It is, for instance, fair that a civil servant is able to give alimony to one person and another as well, provided their circumstances are similar. It boosts equal treatment.”

What are you researching at the moment?

“I’m working on a Veni-funded research project called ‘Capturing the nature of public value creation’, among others. This project centers around the question: What makes good healthcare? And what makes good education? And how can strategic HRM and leadership contribute to the realisation of good quality services? The research is specifically focused on secondary education and elderly care in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Denmark. The project started in 2016 and will last another year and a half.”

What is your part in Utrecht University’s Future of Work hub?

“One of the hub’s themes is sustainable employability of employees. Both employee and organisation interests are at play here. Who is responsible for your employability; you or your employer? In a new PhD project, attached to the focus group Professional Performance, we study sustainable employability of older medical specialists in hospitals.”

A big misunderstanding about sustainable employability is that people you invest in, leave. The numbers prove otherwise: those people stay.
Eva Knies
Eva Knies

What does their well-being at work look like? Are employers investing in their careers? What are their personal wishes? As you get increasingly specialized, your employability becomes less flexible. How do these professionals stay sustainably employable? Sustainable employability should be continuously be on employees’ and employers’ minds, not just when people start encountering troubles at work.”

What is a big misunderstanding concerning sustainable employability?

“The fear of supervisors that people you invest in tend to leave. That fear is, generally speaking, ungrounded. People receiving the opportunity to develop, stay at those positions, according to the numbers. And even if they leave, they make great word of mouth. That investment will pay out.”

You studied Public Administration and Organizational Science here yourself, promoted and are now professor. Wouldn’t you like to leave for a bit, just get a fresh outlook?

“I get this question a lot and I would say ‘yes’ if my tasks hadn’t changed as much as they have through the years. I haven’t been involved in the same work and research for years. That keeps the job challenging and interesting to me.”