What are the Underlying Assumptions of Rationality and Legitimacy in the Employee Selection Process?



Peter Engholm

Monash University, March 2001





This paper discusses some underlying rational and legitimate assumptions of the selection process in contemporary management theory that ensures ‘good’ or ‘best’ management practice. It is argued that best practice is achieved by a scientific and calculative approach, ensuring impersonality, equality and fairness in the selection process. Legitimacy is also assumed if applicants know that assessment methods are fair and just, and that skills, knowledge and experience are the pivotal elements to selection decisions. Although rational and legitimate opinions sometimes do not harmonize, they need to be in balance if ‘good’ management practice is to be achieved.



Rationality, Legitimacy, Management, Selection, Best practice



This short paper looks at the underlying assumptions of rationality and legitimacy in organisations’ employee selection processes. The aim is not to discuss the broad theories behind rational thought (which would lead into the never-ending debate about the balance between impersonal, calculative decision-making and more humanistic and personal values), but rather to discuss some rational and legitimate assumptions of the selection process in contemporary management theory that ensures ‘good’ or ‘best’ management practice.


Although there is a debate going on about what exactly constitutes rationality and rational behaviour, it might be suitable to start off mentioning the sociologist Max Weber who defined rationality in terms of increased management control over and coordination of the workforce, detachment of personal feelings and sentiments from decision-making, clear set rules and objectives, focus on knowledge and expertise, and the absence of traditional, charismatic leadership. Weber observed that modern organisations need to behave rationally in order to become more efficient and effective in an increasingly competitive capitalist market economy (Gert & Wright Mills, 1970; Vaughan, 1989). Hence, in the selection process a rational decision invariably implies choosing the best person possible for the job, as well as using well-proven scientific assessment techniques that ensures an unbiased and impersonal decision. If this is not done, and decisions are based on some form of personal attachment, efficiency will suffer - as rightfully noticed by Blau & Meyer (1987). Therefore, there seems to be no place in the discussion of rationality for employing a person due to, for example, family relationships. Barry (1989) concludes that family firms inevitable will need to develop a more rational organisational structure if they are to survive. In these firms, family members are often selected into managerial positions - not so much due to their expertise, but as a result of personal sentiments. In family firms, legitimacy is often a stronger force than rationality. Sons and daughters in these firms expect to be ‘given a chance’ to take over the business after their parent(s) - they see this as their inherent legitimate right. However, Barry (1989) argues that if these firms want to grow and become more efficient and effective, they need to become more formalised and adopt a rational structure that characterises the modern firm.


So what about legitimacy in the selection process? Legitimacy concerns the relationship between the society and organisation, and may sometimes conflict with rational behaviour although they also can complement each other. For example, if rational behaviour guides the selection process in an organisation, it should also promote legitimacy. If people know that the best person will be chosen for a job, and that the procedure for selecting this person are scientific, impersonal, and rational, not many would argue that it would not be a fair decision. If everyone is given an equal chance, where no one is disadvantaged because of personal characteristics but compete against each other solely based on criteria such as their knowledge, expertise and experience, then legitimacy is assumed. One may also link to the Kantian framework of business ethics in selection methods, which propounds a number of rights, such as the right to privacy and confidentiality of information, and the right to be considered equally to other applicants (Winstanley & Woodall, 2000). Many of these commonly assumed ‘rights’ are in our modern society often legally bound, but still serve as underlying assumptions of legitimacy.


As stated in the introduction, this essay does not discuss the issue whether rationality and ‘human’ issues in organisation are compatible. It is briefly touched upon here, though, as this is the inherent paradox of Human Resources Management and can have an impact on legitimacy in the selection process: On one hand, the organisation strives for effectiveness, productivity and performance, which is informed by a rationalistic view of human action.  On the other hand, Human Resources is concerned with meeting the complex and often ambiguous needs and expectations of employees, which not always follows a rationalistic pattern.


The issue of promotion may serve as a good example of this. An organisation has a choice to recruit internal or external personnel, that is, promote an employee to a higher position or employ a new person that is selected after rational considerations, taking into account the needs of the organisation in terms of skills, knowledge and expertise. Because promotion may not always see to that the ‘best’ person for the job gets it, it can widen the gap between rational and legitimate assumptions about the selection methods. Employees may expect to have the opportunity to make a career and be promoted - which legitimates promotion efforts - but at the same time organisations may have to forego more rational selection methods as a responsibility towards the employees. This is a large issue that shall not be discussed further in this paper, and it is not argued here that promotion cannot be part of a rational, calculative ‘good management’ strategy. It is an example, though, of how legitimate and rational assumptions sometimes differ.


Another issue where rationality and legitimacy are conflicting can be seen in the recent debate about employment of young people in Australia. It has been revealed that many organisations choose not to offer continued employment after a certain ‘test period’ but are misusing the system in order to save cost on full-time employees. It must be argued that these selection and recruitment decisions are not rational as people are not being treated fair or just. It is likewise hard to find any trace of legitimacy in them, and this example only goes to show that organisations are expected to show some degree of responsibility towards society and cannot always fully act according to their own interests.


In conclusion, this paper has strengthened the argument that ‘good management’ in the selection process means the detachment of feelings and sentiments and a focus on satisfying the real needs of the business according to its objectives and goals – as long as the decisions are carried out fairly and just. It becomes rational if scientific approaches are taken when determining the best person to employ, and legitimacy is also assumed if fairness and equality in the selection and recruitment procedure is ensured. If there is no balance between rationality and legitimacy, organisations may find it hard to become effective and successful, and they would not be considered examples of how to practice ‘good management’.


Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the author. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.



Barry, B. (1975). “The development of organisation in the family firm”, Journal of General Management, Vol.3, No.1, 42-60.

Blau, P.M. and Meyer, M.W. (1987). Bureaucracy in Modern Society, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gerth, H. H. and Wright Mills, C. (1970). From Max Weber: Essays in sociology, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London.

Vaughan, E. (1989). “The leadership obsession: an addendum to Mangham’s ‘In search of Competence’”, Journal of General Management, Vol.14, No.3 Spring, 26-34.

Winstanley, D. and Woodall, J. (2000). “The ethical dimension of human resource management”, Human Resource Management Journal, Vol.10, No.2, 5-20.