Purpose ‐ The purpose of this paper is to explore how a national policy on sickness absence management is translated by HR managers into local human resource management (HRM) practices by developing and applying an analytical framework with three dimensions: individual preferences, strategic reframing, and local grounding. Design/methodology/approach ‐ The paper is based on policy documents and interviews with HR managers in Dutch law firms. The theoretical scope is the debate on HRM and institutional contexts. Findings ‐ The paper uncovers a variety of individual preferences among HR managers' interpretations of the national policy. However, in strategically reframing the policy, the organizations act upon it from a mainly "managerialist" perspective: they focus on reducing absence through increased control of employees, rather than reforming organizational practices that may adversely affect the health of workers. The local groundings reinforce unequal power relations between different categories of employees: HR managers/line managers; professionals/administrative personnel; men/women. The paper contributes to the understanding of how changes in institutional contexts are translated into organizations and the role of HR managers within this process. Research limitations/implications ‐ The paper explores the translation process in a particular setting. It would be fruitful to broaden the scope to other institutional contexts and organizations and to include a diverse range of actors to develop additional knowledge of the interaction in the translation process. Originality/value ‐ The paper develops both empirical and theoretical conclusions on the translation, that is, the sense making of HRM in an uncertain environment of changing national institutions.