Navigating emotion in HR work:
caring for ourselves?
Huddersfield Business School, Department of Management,
University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, UK
Purpose –The purpose of this paper is to understand how human resource (HR) practitioners subjectively
experience emotions in their working lives and how they navigate emotionally challenging work.
Design/methodology/approach –A narrative methodology and participant-led photo-elicitation methods
were used with five HR practitioners from different sectors to uncover experiences of emotion in their work.
Findings –Participants describe themselves as perceived by non-HR employees as non-emotional human
beings, expected to “take”emotional expression from others, but to display little themselves. HR practitioners
use emotion-focussed coping strategies, both self and team-care, to cope with the emotionally challenging
work inherent in their role.
Research limitations/implications –As a pilot study of five participants, further research is needed to
strengthen the findings; however, the in-depth qualitative methods used provide rich insight into their
Practical implications –HR practitioners’well-being should not be taken for granted or overlooked in
organisations. Opportunities for informal networking with HR communities and training/coaching
interventions could provide support on approaches to the emotional challenges faced.
Originality/value –This paper provides insights into how HR practitioners experience the challenges of
their work, in contrast to mainstream research emphasising the impact of human resource management
policy and practices on employees and organisations. Attention is drawn to the subjective experience of
emotion, rather than the mainstream objectification, managerialisation and generalisation of emotion.
Keywords Qualitative, Narrative, Emotions, Emotion-focussed coping, Human resource practitioners,
Participant-led photo-elicitation, Working lives
Paper type Research paper
Human resource (HR) practitioners hold emotionally challenging roles in organisations.
They are expected to handle difficult and sensitive people issues (Frost, 2003), yet little
academic research considers the impact and influences of performing the HR role on
themselves or how they do this (O’Brien and Linehan, 2014). This is surprising given the
welfare roots of the role and increasing contemporary interest in organisational well-being
(Kowalski and Loretto, 2017). In addition, HR practitioners are not at the forefront of
emotion research because they are not in “front-facing”service roles nor deemed to face
particularly intense emotional or life and death situations. Within the human resource
management (HRM) literature debates persist as to where HR is positioned in organisations,
further complicated by a plethora of role typologies (Marchington and Wilkinson, 2012),
rather than considering the experiences of practitioners themselves. The contribution of this
paper lies at the intersection of HRM and organisation emotion literature, uncovering the
emotional challenges HR practitioners face in their day-to-day working lives. The aim is to
better understand participants’subjective experiences of emotions in HR work and how
they navigate such work: an area underexplored to date.
Legge (1978) was one of the first scholars to draw attention to the ambiguous nature of
the “Personnel”role over 40 years ago. She found personnel managers’work reactionary
due to a lack of success criteria, duplication with line managers’responsibilities, and role
holders viewed as representing both management and employees. The shift from what was
an administrative “Personnel”function to an increasing strategic HRM focus in the 1980s
Vol. 48 No. 6, 2019
© Emerald PublishingLimited
Received 11 July 2018
Revised 4 February 2019
Accepted 4 April 2019
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emotion in HR