Strategy and practice
Human resource management and industrial relations
The role of line managers in human resource management
Recent research indicates that there is an increasing trend that human resource specialists and line managers share more effective responsibility for their organization’s human resource practice. However, HR specialists and line managers often have different opinions and implementation on human resource management. Line managers didn’t work well as expected. Therefore, much literature argues that line managers are the weak link in converting HR strategy into practice.
In the first part, this paper analyzed HR specialists and line managers’ perspectives on line managers’ involvement in HR activities. Many literatures and a case study are used to find out the reasons. Line managers who are regarded as the weak part in HR practice implementation can be analyzed from four aspects: the competence of line managers, disdain for HR work, working priorities for line managers, tension and conflict with HR specialist. Secondly, this paper comprised the suggestions which could enhance line managers’ contribution to organizational performance.
Defining line management
It is important to define the concept of line management at the first stage. An early literature described that “the distinction between line function and staff function within organization, despite some speculation, maybe limiting.”( Logan, H. 1966,p.46) It is valuable to distinguish boundaries of responsibilities between line function and staff function. Stewart’s defined line mangers as “those that have direct responsibility for achieving the objectives of organization, and are often identified in production terms (production/ operation/ manufacturing), while staff functions exit to provide advice and service to line functions”. (Stewart 1963 p. 24)
Storey proposed a typology of senior/ middle line managers which is clear to show the role of line managers in organization. (Storey, J., 1992) Firstly, he identified two dimensions of line managers’ role. It was shown in a matrix. (Figure 1) The first dimension concluded commercial oriented and technical oriented. The second dimension is the extent to which line managers’ response to organization: proactive and reactive. Storey defined four types of line managers: business mangers, manufacturing managers, sales managers and production managers. Storey suggested that HR specialists and line mangers share different proportion of HRM responsibility in each type. Production mangers was regarded as the most traditional interpretation of the role, hence, HR specialist takes mostly responsibilities for the HRM. The manufacturing managers share HRM responsibilities with HR specialists. Business managers should have a general insight in the whole organizational business and environment. They are expected to be more focused on strategy version. Here, HRM responsibilities are shared by line managers and HR specialists as well. The last types of line managers- sales managers, Storey have not got clear findings yet.
The role of line mangers in HRM
Much literature noted that the involvement of line managers in human resource management (HRM) has been a heated issue in the past few years (Guest, 1987, Storey, 1992), and HR work are partly devolved to line mangers in practice. The reasons of line managers involvement in HRM have been concluded by Brewster and Larsen’s research (2000) in five aspects: “to reduce cost; to provide a comprehensive approach to HRM; to place responsibility for HRM with managers most responsible for it, to speed up decision making; and as an alternative to outsourcing HR function. (Brewster and Larsen, 2000, p 196-198)
The relationship between line managers and HR specialists is probably clarified as “partnership” in much literature. And a popular view is that line managers should be engaged in particular HR practice, cooperating with HR practitioners. Results from CIPD’s research indicated that HR specialist is more likely to cooperate with HR specialist in resourcing, training and development but undertake alone in employee relations and reward management. (CIPD 2006) Furthermore, what’s the particular work line managers should be responsible for? From Marchington and Wilkinson‘s point of view, the major responsibilities of line managers are: “leading team briefings, problem-solving groups and informal communications; performance review; team/staff development; managing employee absence.” And the shared responsibilities are “selection decisions; induction and ongoing training; disciplinary cases; flexible working patterns.” Lastly, the little responsibilities are: “performance-related pay; recruitment advertising, applications and initial search; promotions’ welfare; organization development.” However, although line managers have always been engaging in some specific HR work, they have been criticized by many researcher and HR managers for less effective performance than they expected. Thus, in the next section, an examples and case were illustrated to analyze these drawbacks from training, appraisal performance, EIP，recruitment and selection, theoretically and practically.
In the next section, the weakness of line managers in implementing best HR practice and strategy will be discussed from many literatures and the results of interviews with line managers on their own experience in undertaking HR work, which is conducted by Douglas Renwick (2002). The research was done in three organizations in UK-Utility Co, Local Authority, Manufacturing Co. All three organizations distribute part of HR work to line managers, “appraisal performance, recruitment, communication with employees, sickness absence, and employee development.” A qualitative method was used to analysis interview resources. Some useful findings from the in case study are: “the line have many duties, and lack time to do HR work well; doing HR work diluted the line’s generalist managerial focuses; significant line inadequacies in handling HR work; tensions between HR and line over transfer and completion of HR duties; the line are reliant on HR to do HR work properly.”(Douglas Renwick 2002 p 271-272)
Combined with these findings, if we look at more literatures, some explanations for criticisms of line managers in the delivery of HR practice can be summarized. (Below)
Lack of competences
Many researchers indicated that line managers don’t have adequate competence and professional knowledge to implement HR activities if they don’t receive supports and advice from HR specialists. Douglas Renwick’s research（2002） typically pointed out that: “significant line inadequacies in handling HR work” Thus, the line sometimes lacked the skills and abilities to do HR work but they still want to speed up decision making. The ineffectiveness of delivery is likely to emerge. Therefore, it is accepted by most line managers that they need proactive support from HR specialists. In Hilton’s case study (Maxwell and Watson，2006)，Maxwell and Watson indicated that HR specialists in Hilton provided large support to line managers on training, coaching, recruitment and retention; staff budgeting; performance appraisals.
Many line managers fell that they don’t have enough time and effort to undertake HR activities when they are responsible for their own business jobs. Compared with their HRM responsibility, they are more likely to consider their own duties first. Using Hilton’s study again, 86% line managers feel that they are enduring “heavy workload” while 78% think they have “short term job pressures.” (Maxwell and Watson，2006). And Douglas Renwick’s interview has similar findings. (2002) “line managers inadequacy in HRM was sometime to lead to problems when they are doing HR work.” As a line managers said in the interview (Douglas Renwick, 2002 p 269):
“Quite often the manager doesn’t have the time to deal with the problem and he’s maybe unaware of it. And some managers are strong characters and give staff a hard time.”
If we look at certain HR practice, Redman’s findings (2001) showed that line managers don’t like some HR activities, for example, in performance management; they think it is time consuming.
Tension and conflict with HR specialist
When HR specialists hold different views with line managers about the responsibility of specific HR practice, tension and conflicts would be emerged. For example, in terms of recruitment, many line managers think that recruiting an excellent employee is HR department’s business, while HR practitioners think Line manager should take more responsibility because they understand clearly what kind of employees are truly needed. Thus, unclear boundaries of responsibility in particular HR practice may lead to conflict and reduce the effectiveness. Furthermore, different reorganization about the importance of particular HR work between the two groups also may result in tension and conflict. Finally, as performers of HR policy, most of line managers feel that some HR policies are unrealistic and hard to apply it into practice.
According to Douglas Renwick’s study, “line managers thought problems in HR policy lead to poor outcomes in HRM”. As some managers from UK-Utility Co, Local Authority, and Manufacturing Co said:
“This is a HR initiative from corporate HR, but something is wrong. You should be developed now.” “If you really fall out- you try to give them a doing and it depends how well you defend themselves” (Douglas Renwick,2002, p.272)
Disdain for HR practice
Bevan and Hayday(1994) found that some lime managers are not clear about their responsibility and role in HRM. Many line managers think that a specialist qualification in HRM is not necessary because they believe that these skills and competence are gained from practical work and experience, not from training and development. Some line managers are even don’t believe that HRM can make contribution to organization performance. Hayman and Cunningham (1995) confirmed that there was a lack of training and development among line managers even they realize the weakness.
In a small organization in which lack of HR specialist, HR work are usually implemented by line managers who may don’t posses any relevant knowledge. But in many cases, the organization still runs well because line managers only focus on routine and easy HR practice, such as regular pay, sickness absence, data collection, payroll management and simple appraisal management. Line managers can do this kind of work easily and well. But situations are totally opposite in a big organization. Operational system and people management are much more systematic. HR presence is essential as they can afford professional advice for line mangers. What’s more important, line managers as performers of HR practice need to handle much more complicated HR affairs than that of small organization. For example, in terms of recruitment, many big organizations adopt professional staff evaluation method, such as assessment centre, which need relevant knowledge and training to make full use of these appraisal methods. Hence, line managers’ disdain for HR training and development inevitable is regarded as an evidence of line managers’ inadequacy in HR implementation.
What line managers should do?
Though line managers are recognized as a weak link in converting HR policy and strategy into practice, we could not deny their contribution and influence to HRM if the delivery of devolution of HR practice is effective. What should line managers do to enhance their contribution to HRM?
First, from the view of line managers, a new perspective of HRM should be established. They need to realize their responsibility and role in HR work deeply. Also, they have to admit that HR work is kind of professional job and requires relevant knowledge and skills. A useful way to test to what extent line managers’ emphasis on HR work is establishing an effective appraisal management system.
Secondly, I think HR training and development system are very crucial for line managers. High quality of skills to handle interview, staff management and a series of HR work can be developed through training and development. In fact, more and more companies are aware of the importance of HR training for line mangers. For example, in order to support line managers to undertake HR issues, Marks&Spencer created an e-learning system, called Line Manager Performance Centre, which is a flexible and creative training system for line managers. The result of feedback from line managers showed that 88% line mangers feel this training improved their knowledge and skills in HRM. And 72% think the training improved employee commitment. Another case in point is Searle, a pharmaceutical company in America, in order to change precious unsuccessful training, they carried out an systematic training program, which include needs analysis; line managers’ fully engagement in training; financial support; professional training in specific field, appraisal, etc. The result is satisfactory; employees’ course satisfaction was increased from 82.5% to 87%.
Except practical work like conducting an interview, absence management, appraisal, etc, focus on employee involvement and engagement does have positive effects. The LMX theory also proposed that a good relationship between employees and their line managers can increase employee outcome and performance. Line managers should held informal meetings with employees to listen to their suggestions and take care of their work-life balance. These small changes can improve their commitment to the organization.
Finally, learning to use information technology has been promoted by many HR specialists. Line managers are required to be trained to use information technology in conducting absence management, personnel records which can greatly increase work efficiency.
Line managers are playing a very important role in human resource management. Their responsibility and performance in HR work have large impact on organization effectiveness. The relationship between line managers and HR specialists is defined as “partnership”. But much literature argued that line managers are the weak link in the implementation of HR activities. The reasons are analyzed from four aspects: Lack of competences, competing priorities, tension and conflict with HR specialist, disdain for HR practice. To strengthen line managers’ contribution to HRM, we proposed three suggestions: establishing a correct perception of HR work, emphasis on training and development, adopting the use of information technology.
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