This study is concerned with the performance of university academic departments and the different cultures and different management practices, labelled ‘human resource management’ (HRM), that correlate with this performance. Departments are considered high or low research performers according to their assessment by the external Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) exercise, and the study aims to see if the practices and culture in high performers differs to those in the low performers. Seven academic departments classified as being high or low performers were examined. In-depth interviews were conducted with heads and faculty from each department. Using content analysis, the features present in successful departments and absent from lesser performing departments were identified. These included a strong culture comprising collegiality and a quality focus, along with an emphasis on recruiting for high performance and fit, as well as an enabling environment promoting autonomous work habits.