Defending and Expanding Boundaries: Exploring How the COVID-19 Triggers Boundary Work Among HR Managers in the Public Sector

  • Daniel Tyskbo Halmstad University
Keywords: COVID-19, change, boundary work, protecting boundaries, expanding boundaries, HR managers, public sector, municipalities


While the existing literature has provided important insights into how HR managers are involved in performing organizational change (e.g., Alfes et al., 2010; Alfes et al., 2019; Brown et al., 2017), much less is known about how HR managers themselves are shaped by change, particularly in relation to large-scale changes or so-called shock events (e.g., financial crisis, natural disasters, and terrorism) (Caligiuri et al., 2020). As with other professional and occupational groups facing these disruptive and highly uncertain changes, we would also expect HR managers to start negotiating their boundaries, e.g., constructing, defending, contesting, or expanding them (see e.g., Abbott, 1988; Ibarra, 1999; Langley et al., 2019; Pratt et al., 2006), but as few empirical studies have been conducted, the extent to which this is the case is unclear. Various calls have therefore been made for research exploring how HR managers are shaped by change, particularly in the public sector (Harney & Collings, 2021; Baran et al., 2019).


In this study, we address this by using a qualitative interview study to explore how the serious and profound COVID-19 pandemic shapes HR managers in public sector municipalities. While adding to the list of shock events (Caligiuri et al., 2020), COVID-19 also stands out in the way it is fundamentally a human one, placing HR managers in a central role (Berry et al., 2022; Collings et al., 2021). A focus on the public sector context is both theoretically interesting and practically important because of several reasons. It is a context generally given little attention in the HRM literature, and more importantly, public sector organizations are in many countries considered having important economic and social roles in managing crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic (Mann, 2014; Schuster et al., 2020). The public sector context is also, traditionally thought of as conservative, bureaucratic, and difficult to change, and given these factors it is likely that HR managers will demonstrate “stubborn traditionalism” (Boudreau & Lawler, 2014), resulting in their negotiations of boundaries, during uncertain and disruptive changes, being particularly evident and heightened (Kettl, 2006). We therefore ask: How does the COVID-19 pandemic trigger boundary work in practice, among HR managers in public sector municipalities?


Our study revealed that the COVID-19 triggers HR managers to enact boundary work in two main ways, i.e. either by defending their boundaries or expanding them. We find that this variation is related to whether the HR managers experience the pandemic mainly as a threat of being forced into unwanted responsibility (including dirty work and difficult/sensitive work), or if they mainly experience it as an opportunity of taking advantage of the situation (including facilitating self-fulfilling and gaining more influence). In showing this, the study contributes to the literature in two main ways. First, it advances understanding of how HR managers are shaped by change, in particular in relation to shock-events. By using the boundary work perspective as regards how HR managers are shaped by change, it sheds light on an important variation in how HR managers enact boundary work (i.e. either by defending their boundaries or expanding them), as triggered by the COVID-19. Thus, the study answers the calls for research exploring how HR managers are shaped by change, particularly in the public sector (Baran et al., 2019). Second, it provides a grounded explanation of why such a variation in boundary work among HR managers exist. More specifically, the study stresses that, how HR managers experience change matters because these experiences serve as a foundation for how they enact boundary work, and consequently for how they handle and manage the changing situation. Thus, while the study stresses the largely disruptive and consequential nature of shock-events, it also highlights the importance of starting with HR managers’ experiences in practice. 

4.2 HRM under Covid-19