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Jo Radford

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The fine line between managers and HR


Where is the line drawn between direct line managers and HR – and where can a balance between the two functions be found? Jo Radford investigates.

A common issue for HR functions is how to ‘up-skill’ line managers to perform their role as people managers.  In most cases, this translates into skills programmes focused on coaching and performance management, handling sickness and so on. Interestingly though, few organisations seem to start with a clear definition of exactly what is expected of a line manager in terms of managing their people. A job profile may include lines such as ‘manage the team effectively to deliver its objectives’ but does little to define what this means in terms of actions and behaviours.

For HR functions this is a big problem and for HR functions who are looking to or have already transformed to more streamlined, three part models (HR Business Partners, Shared Services and Centres of Expertise) it can be an even bigger issue. The challenge here is not just that there may be disagreement over where the dividing line between line manager delivered activity and HR delivered activity should be: it is that without first getting agreement to what exactly the role of the line manager is in delivering people management processes, the HR function cannot organise and skill itself correctly. In addition, HR professionals may run the risk of being maligned by their organisations for ‘pushing’ HR work on to managers. Finally, and most importantly, without a clear definition of the manager role, the right people will not be being recruited to such roles, nor will the right training be available for them.

So what is the solution? In designing or realigning the HR function, while it is becoming more common to start by asking the business what service it needs, much  more needs to be asked about how much ‘doing’ of people management processes the line manager should deliver.

The questions to ask your organisation concern not only what the direction and strategy of the organisation is and therefore the HR structure and activity required to achieve it – to decide how much of a disciplinary or recruitment process should be completely in the hands of a line manager, you need to uncover three further things:

1.The level of acceptance of risk/risk aversion held by your organisation at senior levels.
In Europe at least, employment legislation is now so labyrinthine that line managers cannot be expected to be aware of it all. Depending on how much they are left alone to deal with issues and how much HR input is made, the organisation will be open to varying levels of risk in terms of claims. Some risk may be acceptable in order to deal with situations quickly and it does not need to be excessive but, without the backing of senior teams, line managers will not have the confidence to make decisions.

2.How much investment can be made in manager capability to deliver people management?

Here the question is not so much about cost (although that is a factor) but about time and if your senior management team will acknowledge that time to build these skills is important and that it should be prioritised.

3.What value is placed on the time of the managers vs. the time and cost of HR?
You need to agree if the principle of all managers delivering the same elements of the process should apply regardless of cost. For very senior managers – whose time will be expensive – to deliver every aspect of a lateness investigation may not be cost effective. This is a great approach if you want to embed the change in your organisation’s culture and signal to the business how important people management is as an aspect of line manager capability. If this is not critical to your organisation, you may need to start asking where the dividing line should be drawn. If you have a split population between fee earners and non fee earners for instance, what would the impact be on the bottom line of asking the fee earners to complete every investigation? 

How your organisation answers these questions will have a direct bearing on how your HR teams are structured and how they interact with line managers.

Your answer to the risk level question tells you how much you need to train managers on process, the level and type of training they will require and how much ‘hand holding’ capacity your HR teams will need built in to them.
The investment question tells you how to talk about the line role in people management. Is this a case of ‘it was always part of your role, just get on and do it’, a common and not often helpful message, or is it about investment in the skills and support for the broad and complex roles of your line managers.
In terms of structures, your value questions will tell you where you need to invest HR resource close to managers to ‘do’ some elements of the processes, for instance picking up investigation meetings or first round interviews.  It will also tell you where you can focus on streamlining activity perhaps removed from physical location with line managers, e.g., taking out the process support to a shared service and leaving small numbers of business partners near the business.

Why bother asking these questions at all?  Many HR functions probably feel they know their organisations well enough to answer them on their own but doing so is a sure fire way to, at best, a lack of engagement and, at worst, some serious falling out further down the road. Talk to your organisation about what they are prepared to make sure is a vital part of a line manager’s role and you won’t end up with an HR function that looks like the textbook version. What it will be is a way of delivering HR and of managing people that delivers what your business needs and will put the cost, resources and skills of both HR and line managers in the place where they can do the most good. You might just avoid those ‘but this is HR’s job, not mine’ conversations too.

Jo Radford is a senior consultant at Orion Partners LLP

2 Responses

  1. HR- In Search of Meaning ?

    HR is probably the most "confused" and misplaced function in the organisation. The article succintly captures the blurring line on how HR serves it’s principal customers – management and employees. Yes, HR sits right smack between two "opposing" interest groups, in the traditional Employer vs Employee setting. And what does HR do in keeping both parties happy?.

    Sometimes, I laugh at all those "super-hero" generalist roles that HR is expected to play out, as advocated by David Ulrich via his 5 competency model – Business Partner, HR Expert, Leader, Change Agent, Employee Advocate. 

    Not all HR have the priviledge of being invited to the Exec table to present their business case or discuss its impact on the bottom line. (Anyone who says HR must "earn" their way to the Exec table don’t know a thing about leadership, collaboration, teamwork and Human Capital) In most cases, the function of HR remains very much operational focus and the relationship is predominantly advisory to line management on compliance to company’s stated values, regulatory measures, policies, KPIs, best practices and upholding integrity. Training and policies have a place in providing system and transparency in managing people, just as coaching and counselling does. Training is nothing but a learning platform and opportunity to address problems – including people issues. Training should not be undermined if the learning is not transferable to the workplace. That fault lies with lack of management foresight and commitment in measuring the ROI. By management, do I mean HR or HOD?. This is best be answered by asking, "who is the ultimate beneficiary of the learning?". I say, the hole is more important than the drilling.                  

    It is critical that people understand the systemic or ecological environment in which the realm of management operates. If one does not understand the purpose, strengths, benefits and limitations of the components that make up management, then you will face chaos and turbulence in your role, function, tasks and behaviour. HR must seek clarity over what they can and should do in performing their job. And, central to this is knowing what are the Responsibility, Authority and Accountabilities, in terms of KRA/KPIs. This is even more imperative in HR’s case where the separation of duties between line and staff function can be nebulous and "risky" to one’s own survival.  

  2. Focus on people issues, not policies

    Jo points out (quite correctly) that European employers are faced with a welter of legislation which exposes them to high levels of risk. Unfortunately, the HR solution to this is often to develop finely crafted policies responding to individual Acts of Parliament. People issues, however, rarely present themselves as simple "one policy" situations. For example, underperformance in an employee could be caused by anything from a lack of capability through to extreme stress or health problems covered by the DDA.

    Rather than churn out policies and training programmes which explain policies, HR must help managers to understand how best to tackle issues in their broadest sense.


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