Sunday, 27 November 2011

How can and should HR work in synergy with Line Managers?

HR Professionals should have no doubt about the powerful effects and results an approach based on a combination of actions and initiatives can enable these to yield, compared to a methodology based on a single activity. The “bundle approach”, that is to say an approach based on the simultaneous implementation of a number of consistent and coherent activities, jointly aiming at attaining a single or a number of pre-identified results, arguably represents the most effective method for enabling employers to relatively quickly achieve the desired results.
HRM models are a very good example of that; all of them are in fact aiming at enabling employers to pursue their organisational strategies and objectives by means of different, synchronised leverages, to wit: salary, recruitment, training, development, teamwork, work-life balance and so forth. The same mechanism is indeed at the basis of the total reward idea. In order to help employers to attract, retain, motivate and engage staff the total-reward-based value proposition is formed by a number of different types of reward, divided between financial and non-financial and the sub-categories composing these. Inspired by the positive effects generated by the bundle approach, HR and Line Managers should therefore work together in order to produce synergy and enable employers to attain their intended objectives by virtue of their coordinated, simultaneous actions.

Sometimes HR Professionals find it difficult to determine the right and most suitable way to work together with Line Managers, as if they were working in competition the one with the other. In some instances these devote energies and resources to the identification and determination of a dividing line between the HR function and the line managers’ role. Yet, on occasion HR Professionals investigate whether a general and universal rule may be identified or already exists in order to exactly determine the competencies and limits of the one and those of the others.

As habitually occurs with the HR-related and general-management-related topics, nonetheless, the one-size-fits-all approach is sorely inappropriate. The tasks performed by Line Managers and HR Professionals, as well as the way they should cooperate the one with the others, clearly depends on the different circumstances; what invariably matters is that from the outset the two parties work together having crystal clear ideas about the circumstance that all of them are striving to achieve a common aim and objective. HR and LMs also clearly need to be well-aware of their activities scope in order to avert overlaps, omissions and ultimately failure.

Whether on the one hand the remarkable significance of the role played by the HR function within any organization is unquestionable, it should not be overlooked on the other hand the paramount importance of the role played by LMs for the unfolding of an organisation day-to-day activities and the regular functioning of its operations. Putting aside, but not neglecting the maxim “Employees leave their managers and not their employers” (Buckingham and Coffman, 2005), it has to be duly considered that the findings of many surveys all too often reveal that the employees view of their immediate manager is invariably more favourable than that expressed with reference to the company senior managers and executives (CIPD, 2008). Individuals clearly perceive their LMs as somewhat of a liaison between them and their employer and ultimately as the employer itself; exactly the same as the customers of a business associate a company with its salesclerks and call-centre agents. Line managers are those who spend most of their time with employees, those who more in depth and really know these, those who on a regular basis converse with them and those who build and establish with employees interpersonal relationships, insofar as employees habitually know and trust (or mistrust) them. Consequently, LMs obviously represent potentially important and precious HR professionals’ allies and partners.

 As pointed out by Armstrong (2009), HR can design all the policies and practices it considers important to develop, but in the end the responsibility for their implementation invariably rests with LMs: “HR proposes but the line disposes.” This essentially means that whether LMs do not consider HR policies as valuable, appropriate and as fitting the specific circumstances, they could at best pay lip service to their implementation and at worst completely ignore them.

This is indeed the same issue arising with strategy implementation at large. As suggested by Gratton (2000), “there is no great strategy, only great execution.” The same tenet can be indeed applied to HR policies, which are actually developed and implemented to support organisations in the achievement of their intended strategies. Organisational performance is not achieved by means of well designed HR policies, but rather by the effectiveness of their practical implementation (Purcell et al, 2003). Guest and King (2004), after having carried out a thorough investigation, concluded that better HR does not depends on the quality of the policies it designs and develops, but rather on the LMs better ownership of the policies and on their capability to effectively implement these. All in all, it can be definitely averred that the supremacy of strategy implementation over it design and formulation is undebatable.

The way LMs execute HR policies should enable these to show their leadership abilities, the quality of their interpersonal skills and their ability to exercise control over the other employees; this is indeed the reason why line managers have particularly remarkable significance for employers. Notwithstanding, being constantly in contact with people, these can actually exercise their discretion to prevent a proper and consistent implementation of the HR policies (Purcell et al, 2003) turning to be, as such, bitter enemies, rather than precious employers allies.

As suggested by Guest (1991), HRM clearly has a remarkable significance, and it could also be added that it is too comprehensive and overarching, to be left in the hands of line managers only. Most of the initiatives co-ordinated by the HR professionals have indeed a considerable impact on the activities performed by LMs and vice versa. The recruitment and selection process, for instance, is performed by the HR specialists, but once individuals are recruited these are left in the hands of the relevant line manager who is in charge of “establishing working relationships right from the start” (Acas, 2009). It is in fact the line manager who assumes the responsibility to assess the newcomer attitude towards the role, closely monitors his/her progress during the probationary period (Acas, 2009), decides whether the individual is suitable for that specific position and assesses whether the individual fits the business culture.

In order to investigate and reduce the new starters turnover are indeed important also the additional activities performed by HR in the process, not only as the owner of the recruitment and selection process, but also as the function in charge of eventually conduct, for instance, the exit interviews.

In all of those cases in which individuals decide to leave the organisation, irrespective of the circumstance that this may be due to their resignation or to the unsuccessful completion of their probationary period, it is obviously preferable that interviews are conducted by a member of the HR staff, rather than by the relevant line manager. Whether the individuals concerned would like to report some circumstances which could appear to be unpleasant to the direct person concerned, namely the LM, these would clearly feel uncomfortable and would not tell the truth during the interview. Failing to eventually produce the desired effects, interviews could be considered sorely pointless. By contrast, individuals would clearly have no problems to tell that they misunderstood the real scope of the job and that the actual tasks they had to perform were actually different from those they were expected to perform. This would not be deemed as offensive by the HR professionals, who could rather act on the suggestions coming from the interviewees to eventually amend the communication approach used in their recruitment campaigns and re-formulate their job descriptions.

Recruitment and selection obviously represents only one example of HR and LMs working together to produce synergy. Since the cost associated with the failure of these procedures is in general rather considerable, this synergic approach can reveal to be extremely useful in that it may help organisations to avoid pointless waste of time and resources and enable HR to more effectively and promptly take appropriate action to satisfy the organisation staffing requirements.

The list of the examples of this mutual collaboration is actually rather long. In managing short-term sickness absence, for instance, the line manager can well represent, as is actually occurs in many organisations, the “point of reference” to be called by the absent employees to explain the causes of their absence and with whom discuss whether they have any concern about their illness. Yet, LMs are the most suitable employees to investigate the possible causes of unauthorised absence (Acas, 2009).

Line managers can also be valuable partners for HR in the administration of the disciplinary and grievance procedures. They can in fact try and settle grievances informally and fix thus problems quickly (Acas, 2009).
Another delicate aspect of LMs activity relates to stress management which is, or rather, should be part of their normal general management activities (Yarker and Lewis, 2008) in that LMs should be invariably aware of their “duty of care” for their direct reports health and well-being (Acas, 2009).
The role of these employees is also of pivotal importance to sustain improved organizational performance: “good management can lead to good health, well-being and performance. The reverse can be true of bad management” (Black, 2008). LMs should hence be aware that the health and wellbeing of their reports is under their responsibility and that they have to take action accordingly when these factors are at risk. To properly and effectively manage these aspects LMs should clearly feel confident and adequately trained (Black, 2008); to this extent the HR support is clearly crucial. LMs cannot really improvise and getting along in all of these circumstances without the appropriate knowledge and skills so that organizations have to pay extra care to their training in order to avoid jeopardising the attainment of the intended results and expose the company to reputational risks.
Hutchinson and Purcell (2003) suggest ensuring LMs the necessary time to perform people management duties in addition to their regular and more technical management tasks. The Authors also highlight the importance of the recruitment process, during which particular focus and emphasis have to be provided to the behavioural aspect of the future managers.

As pointed out by Armstrong (2009), nonetheless, in order to favour and enhance the line managers’ cooperation and contribution to the effective implementation of the HR practices, these should be made aware of the practical and actual benefits that HR policies are aiming at bringing to them, too. Whether the LMs would be involved from the outset in the development of the HR policies, these would obviously gain an in-depth and thorough understanding of their mechanism and could be able to play an active role in their execution, never mind their capability to provide clear explanations to their reports.
The HR function clearly has to invariably support and sustain LMs, its role is in fact “to take initiatives and provide guidance, support and services on all matters relating to the organisation’s employee” (Armstrong, 2009).
Inasmuch as LMs’ training is crucial for them to yield the expected results, growth and development, it is important for the entire workforce; the HR function must hence ensure that LMs care about their direct reports development and agree with them a personal development plan – PDP – when appropriate. In any case managers have to invariably and constantly support and guide their direct reports.
More often than not the problem with HR and LMs relates to the identification of the tasks which have to be performed by the one and the others and to the clear determination of where ends the competency of HR and starts that of the LMs. The problem acquires even more importance when the HR function is managed by a very few individuals, sometimes even by a single individual.
In general, and especially in the latter case, it could be considered advisable devolving to LMs as many of the activities usually associated with the HR function as possible, for instance: disciplinary, appraisal, induction, part of the recruitment process, absence management, roles definition, performance review, feedback, coaching, individual development and training needs identification. It also has to be duly considered that LMs have to perform their usual core, or rather, traditional tasks. Such an approach can also enable employers to control the number of HR staff (and related overheads) and HR staff to focus on more strategic activities. Before devolving to line managers some of the tasks traditionally performed by HR, nonetheless, line managers must receive the necessary training. The associated costs have not to be actually intended as an additional burden, but rather as a very good and productive investment.
Under some circumstances, namely when the HR function is formed by a very few individuals, or just one individual, this approach can actually be considered as the only available and viable option. CEOs tend to become increasingly demanding and inquisitive as regards the ROI of every cent spent so that this approach is likely to produce good results in all of the possible circumstances.
After having delegated part of its tasks, HR will have the time to focus on more “strategic” activities and could be able to better contribute to the success and the practical attainment of the organisational objectives.
Whereas LMs can help HR to properly and effectively implement HR practices, HR should work and strive to come up with new and bespoke practices enabling the business operations and all of the other functions within the organisation to yield better results. What matters, is to ensure that everyone involved feel confident about the work s/he is called to perform and have the appropriate skills to produce good results. This is clearly true for LMs but this is also true for the HR professionals, who need to acquaint themselves with their organisations activities and operations. To ensure, or continue to have, a seat on the board HR definitely needs to develop and demonstrate more business acumen and to become more knowledgeable about, amongst the other things, the content of a company balance sheet.
Longo, R., (2011), How can and should HR work in synergy with Line Managers?, HR Professionals, Milan [online].