Purpose: This study examines the influence of contextual factors (e.g. age and ownership type) on HRM formality (including the underlying functions of recruitment, selection, training and development, performance appraisal and compensation) in SMEs. Design/methodology/approach: Data were collected through a quantitative survey of 300 owners/managers of services, manufacturing and trade SMEs in Pakistan. Findings: Firm age, association with a larger parent entity, existence of a strategic business plan and the presence of a human resource information system (HRIS) are positively related with higher HRM formality. Firm size, family ownership and exporting characteristics had no association with formality. Practical implications: This study suggests a highly influential role for contextual factors in shaping HRM practices in Pakistani SMEs. Since the lack of a strategic approach towards human resource development is directly linked to the inferior performance of SMEs in Pakistan, this study provides an understanding of the contextual institutional setting that shapes the nature of HRM practices. The findings inform both SME owners/managers and policy makers. Originality/value: Institutional influences on HRM systems have attracted attention but organisational factors are less often studied. Studies mostly relate to Western contexts and lack perspectives from SMEs. The findings of this empirical investigation highlight the importance of context specific research given the different nature of institutional settings.