Defining The Line Managers Role

“Understanding how HR function equips line manager to deal with devolved responsibility�

Literature review:

Government deregulation, strong competition and big pressure in domestic and overseas market have led many organisations to concentrate on the management of employees in order to meet increasing demands for quality goods and services.

It was posited that HRM represented an opportunity for the function to improve its status by making innovative and positive contributions to corporate goals and business success (Tyson, 1987)

There is however general agreement over one structural change that has taken place, many organisations have devolved manpower responsibility from a function personnel office to line manager ( Hutchinson and wood,1995)

In order to maintain competitive advantage, companies have been forced to come up with a new strategic innovation and devolved some HR responsibility to line managers to keep the business on track and to achieve the overall HRM strategy and thus the business strategy.

This new vision of bringing HR task to the line has been dictated by the fast changing business environment, keenoy (1990) tend to see HRM as an instrumental approach to people management, driven by market oriented activities that affect the business as a whole.

Cunningham and Hymans (1999) noticed that personnel function was being removed from departments and devolved to line managers because it has consistently failed to achieve results in the past, but other causes that helped to build up a new way in how hr function and line managers work together, many changes in the corporate environment like competition, decentralisation, and privatisation has reformed HR function. Another problem is that HR profession does not control access to personnel job, a non HR manager can become an HR manager when the employers decide so. The rational of why line involvement has become more frequent following the idea of (Brewster, Larsen.2000.p196) is mainly because of five factors:

To reduce cost

To provide a more comprehensive approach of HRM.

To place responsibility for HRM with managers most responsible for it.

To speed-up decision making.

As an alternative to outsourcing the HR function.

Defining line managers role :

The literature make a distinction between line and staff function, line function are those who have direct responsibility for achieving the objectives of the organisation (Stewart ,1963). Dalton (1959) said that line officers are lacking skills when translating staff advice into effective working practice. We can notice different layers of line activity within organisations but for the purpose of our research the term line managers refers to section or area heads that exists above supervisory level but doesn’t include senior position within the hierarchy (Noreen, Michael, 1995)

Drucker (1974) views that the management job consist of five basic


Setting objectives


Motivating and communicating


People development

March and Gilies (1983) said that industrial relation and day to day personnel activities lie with line and staff manager and subordinate supervisors. A useful typology of senior/middle line manager was proposed by storey (1992), this typology give us better view about different roles that a manager can do in the organisation, he used two key dimension of the line manager described in the matrix figure 1.

Source : Storey 1992 , Typology of middle line managers .

The first dimension is when a manager is commercially oriented or technically oriented and the second dimension is measuring whether a manager is taking a proactive or reactive attitude. storey’s typology is useful because it let us know different role that a manager can do in the area of HRD which is part of the devolved task to line managers.

The HR role :

We understood from the previous that line manager have the responsibility of HR task in their area, in the other side HR department is responsible for HRM across all the organisation (Henrick , Brewster .2003). Tyson and fell 1992 proposed a conceptualised classification of three models of personnel management as follow:

From 1960s “clerk of works� doing routine works.

From 1970s as a “contract manager�

From 1980s as an architect “ business manager who is responsible of planning , Tyson and fell concluded that personnel managers facilitate other management task to occur, and their most important skills depend in their timing of applying techniques and their ability to sell their services to client line managers.

Storey (1992) came up with the “ intervention /non intervention � dimension and a “strategic/tactical� axis and he presented four main types of personnel practitioner : advisers , handmaiden(reactive, client/contractors of line manager), regulators (intervene to monitor the observance of employment rules) , and last the highest position which is strategic and interventionary change makers, storey findings explain that personnel in the majority of companies wasn’t the main drivers of the change wanted , because the regulator still outnumbered the change makers in most of the companies.

Source : Storey J 1992, four roles of personnel managers.

The HR function is responsible of giving guidance and taking initiative, in order to support and solve all the problems associated to the organisation’s employee. HR function is a very important part in an organisation providing the advice and services that facilitate organisation to get the job done through people.

The HR function is in place to make sure HR strategies, policies and practices are known by everybody in the organisation and maintained, but also providing the support for everything concerning the employment, well being of people and their development and the existent relationship between management and employee. It plays a major role in creating an environment that encourage employee to realize their potential to the benefit of the company and themselves (Armstrong, 2010)

HR function, line management set up :

Many researchS have been done to prove the consensual relation between hr function and line managers , (Guest 1987) presented a framework which resulted in an HRM approach, according to him the adoption of an HRM should result in “an organisational pay-off ... designed to produce a strategic integration, high commitment , high quality , and flexibility among employees� . guest said that integration as a concept is composed of four aspects, firstly the integration of HR policy making and corporate strategic planning process, second HRM policy should be integrated with one another and with other business strategy in the organisation like finance and marketing, the third one is that it should be an integration between attitude and practices of line managers within the organisation’s HR policies, the fourth aspect is the integration of the employees with the interest of the organisation by showing a high commitment to the organisation. The leadership behaviour and HR practice of line managers will affect the employees commitment, the commitment could be to the organisation or more likely to the line manager as proved by the team at bath university and supported by CIPD, the research showed where people feel positive about their relationship with their front line managers they are more likely to have higher levels of job satisfaction, commitment and loyalty which result in better performance. Sisson (1994) emphasise that the first two aspect of integration are difficult to achieve unless they are seriously managed by top and middle managers in the organisation.

Storey (1992) as well refers to three key elements and suggested to associate them with a distinctive approach of HRM, the first element is that the HRM of an organisation is the one that “makes the difference�. The second element is that in order to make the difference , HRM needs to be managed in a strategic way . The third element is the one that requires line managers to know the link between HRM and the strategic direction of the organisation designed by its top managers. This third element matches the third aspects of integration , and (guest 1987.p514) add that in order to achieve the third outcome of flexibility , managers need to have “change agent � skills.

Hutchinson examined the involvement of line manager in HR and found that HR manager do consult line managers, and some other managers are working in partnership. The empirical evidence from Hutchinson and wood study (1995) shows a joint working between personal and line managers and also an increasing role for line manager in the HR function.

Another study from Cunningham and Hyman’s noted that more line manager are getting involved in HR work, an evidence from “Saragota� study suggested that the extent that line management were involved in HR task was wide with the line doing around third of core HR department roles.(IRS,1995). Torington and Hall (1996) found HR specialist work in partnership with line manager when they design the HR strategy, the study showed that personnel function was involved in strategy at some point and was developed in cooperation with line managers, the conclusion was that the approach was small rather than holistic and personnel was reactive rather than proactive . the impact of this devolved responsibility to the line was that some line managers supported the move, but others taught that it starts “people problem� which is the responsibility of HR to deal with , because line managers didn’t have the skills to take on these new tasks , some other problem was lack of consistency and inadequacy of training and support provided for line management.

Pool and Jekins (1997) analysed the extent of line management responsibility for HR practices concluding that line managers were “far more responsible than might have been supposed with a central pattern of line dominance in operational responsibility on most personnel HR matters. Mc Govern et al (1997) study of line management practice discovered the reluctance of some managers to take on personnel responsibilities, believing that it’s not their job but personnel’s job, as a result many HR department were afraid or reluctant to devolve responsibilities to the line as there was lack of knowledge and ability to take it on. They identified a model of line managers getting involved directly in HR activities with the support of the HR function and personal motivation was the factor motivating the line , but some obstacles were facing them like the quality of practice by line managers, short term managerial approaches another big problem was that the line couldn’t devote much time to HR activities as their return on effort was not directly quantifiable and they concluded :

“ The prospect for full-blown devolvement to the line are not promising given the current priorities of these business , attempts to devolve HRM to the line may be possible but only by providing support from HR specialist� (McGovern et al ,1997 , p 26)

Other researcher report a joint working arrangement at two different level, the first one is at director level between HR and other directors, and the second at a subsidiary company level between line managers and personnel managers (Genard, Kelly , 1997) and this resulted in business driven partnership to improve performance and a big importance was given to the influential role that HR director has to play .

Tornhill and Saunders (1998) came up with the worst scenario for the HR specialist known as The absentee specialist which suggest the complete devolution of HR task to line managers and could result in negative implication for successful HR outputs. Other researcher argued that overall the personnel function is still “vulnerable� even though line manager work in managing subordinates could help the presence of personnel to assist the line in less than a strategic function.

Some researchers even suspect devolution of HR responsibilities to the line came from the desire to cut cost and the companies wish to free themselves from some responsibilities. Thus the claim (Guest, 1987,P.51) could mislead the reader because to achieve a successful HRM practices within an organisation a qualified HRM specialist is needed and line managers need the appropriate designed HR practices to use in their management activities. (Purcell , Hutchinson , 2007, p .57)

However there is an alternative that a close participation between line management and hr function can have a mutual benefit and could help to solve business problems. (Gennard, Kelly , 1997)

Partnership between HR and the line :

It’s argued that people responsible for HR are those directly responsible for supervising staff that there primary purpose is to manufacture products , sell goods or equipments or deliver a public or customer service , but the problem could be that these line managers have a lack of knowledge and skills to supervise staff effectively (Sisson , storey , 2000) and this is why it would be more rewarding if HR specialist and line managers work together in partnership (Witacker , Mick, 2003)

Tyson and Fell (1992) noticed that there is no clear communication between management and employee of their personnel function, this gives the opportunity “ to act as partners with senior line managers to create orderly change � storey 1992 called that as “full team member� where the running of the business is shared between line manager and personnel .

Tomlinson (1993) describe partnership as being where HR needs to get involved in more supportive, collaborative relationship with managers. Other researcher described the partnership approach between HR executives and line managers to be an ideal situation, but recognise that we don’t find this partnership happening in all companies.

The idea of HR professional acting in partnership with senior line managers was raised by (Ulrich , 1997) to identify HR practices that achieve business strategy (figure 2).

The HR Business Partner (based on an idea by Dave Ulrich, 1997)

he says that line managers and HR professionals working separately cannot be HR champions, this is why they have to form a partnership and in this partnerships line managers will have authority , power and sponsorship , and have the overall responsibility for the HR community, and HR professional will bring technical expertise which show a competence credibility, Ulrich (1997,2005) pointed four new HR roles which are as follow ( business partners, change agent, administrative expert and employee champion ) those new roles lead to three important HR function :

Centres of excellence.

Shared services.

Business partners.

But this redefinition of roles and reorganisation of HR function was seen by (CIPD 2007) as having some difficulties to define the new roles, to make change, to deal with skills gap and resources deficiency. Maxwell and Watson (2006) argued that the dominant model for HR operation within organisation is the partnership between HR specialist and line managers.

We can understand that the concept of partnership is a good one if everybody is making the effort in the same direction for the benefit of the organisation , we can describe this relation as a reciprocal one , where line manager has to do some HR task but in order to do it properly the right support and training is needed from the HR specialist , but for this partnership to be successful a lot of work need to be done and specially a lot of communication is needed to act fast and solve problems quickly, finally getting the line more involved in HR tasks is not a threat for the HR specialist , because the need of specialist is real and their presence is very important to supervise , help and support the line but also their job will be more strategic.

Line manager role for devolved responsibility and the obstacles facing them:

First of all let see how line manager are involved in making the policy , ( Hutchinson , wood,1995. P. 17) found that HR specialist are the one responsible for making the policy across all area, they noticed that line managers are not leaders in making the policy either on their own or in consultation with personnel colleagues, but in HR practice they found that line managers are more involved in resourcing and employee relation , however in employee development and employee reward the HR specialist had a major role to play .

Hall and Torrington (1998) found that a bigger role is played by HR manager in issues relates to pay and benefit , and the least in appraisal , health and safety , quality initiative and communication . It appears that HR specialist have higher involvement when it’s a matter of consistency and specialist expertise and lower when line managers are dealing with every day responsibilities.

Storey (1992) concluded after doing a survey of fifteen companies that the responsibility of line managers are becoming more important in human resources and their task can include : pay award , training and development , motivating teams , appraisal , on the job coaching , reducing cost , improve the quality , respond to customer service needs , continuous improvement and deploying labour. Another research from Renwick (2002, p. 262) has studied three big organisation which has an HR director on the top team management or board of director and has noticed that the most devolved HR task to the line include :

Grievance management, performance appraisal, redundancy selection , pay award , communication with employee , recruitment , employee development and handling sickness absence . CIPD (2010) supported a research made by team of researcher from bath university and describe area where line managers make the biggest difference in people management are as follow :

Performing appraisal

Training , coaching and guidance

Employee engagement ( communication between line management and employee )

Openness ( how easy is it for employees to talk about problems )

The devolution of some HR task to the line is a fact but many research has identified some difficulties facing line managers while handling performance management system , and Gratton et al (1999) said that managers dislike the bureaucracy involved in this process , in the other side there was a reluctance to accept responsibility for decision and adjustment taken by line manager from HR managers, and Redman (2001) found that where line managers are doing performance appraisal they are doing it poorly . another research has shown manager’s attitude to employee involvement and describe it as no more negative than those of senior managers , and in case of failure of the employee involvement , line manager will be the one to blame (Fenton , O’creavy , 2001) another research concentrate on line management handling of grievance and discipline, the outcomes shows that line managers are more involved than before but not as much as HR managers and this is because of the complexity of the task , and this task being time consuming and the fear of failing in this task which can have a huge impact in the finance of the company (IRS,2001)

Cunningham and James (2001) found that line managers handling of sickness and disability was limited and that was because line managers didn’t want to attend training session.

Many constraints face line managers in achieving the goal of this devolution because of many reasons , even though there are a positive aspects of devolving HR task to line managers as described in Renwick (2003) as a career enhancer for them in doing HR work but also line managers are the one who apply the HR strategy in practice and bring the HR policy to life (Hutchinson .Purcell 2003)

One of the major problem is the workload that the line have to perform especially if they know that they are not expert in doing HR tasks, and this workload leads them to be reluctant on doing HR tasks (Brewster, soderstrom.1994).

Another big issue is a lack of training because if line managers have a lack of understanding of HR practices it will prevent the organisation from developing a strong learning culture. This lack of support and training show a bit of confusion because if an organisation devolved HR task to the line , it is to be more efficient and more profitable , but if the line lacks the necessary skills as McGovern et al (1997) describes it that a lack of training can lead to a failure in implementing HR policies, and exposing the organisation to tribunals and this is why the line should be equipped with the right tools to enable them to perform the devolved HR tasks properly which means that continuous and well designed training is needed to be able to achieve the goal set by the organisation. And to be able to achieve the goal , the organisation need to put a special budget for training and development of manager and not leaving them to develop themselves on their own. (McGuire et al 2008)

Another big problem is the lack of specialist expert to support managers when dealing with HR tasks, this is happening because of the downsizing of the HR departments in most organisations ignoring the precious need of the line to the specialist and just focusing on reducing cost , but as Renwick and Brewster (2003. P. 231) noticed that reducing the size of HR department could reduce the cost but could also increase it, if managers make inappropriate and wrong decision. (Henrick, Brewster , 2003 . p30) noted that when an organisation has an HR department with a high number of specialist it is more likely to be able to influence line management practice directly , there is a case study evidence that shows how important and influent are HR specialist and they were given the name of “ strategic change makers � (Gennard , Kelly 1997.p35)

Many of the criticism concerning the lack of contribution from HR specialist to organisational performance were from line managers, firstly personal practitioner are far away from the commercial realities, and it’s difficult for them to understand the business , the customer and the corporate target. Secondly HR stops line manager to make decision that they feel are in best interest for the company. Third HR manager act slowly and always want to check how many options do they have rather than making a series of appropriate actions (Marchington ,Wilkinson , 2003.p248)

The role of line managers in implementing HR policies was not taken seriously by senior managers, or taken for granted by many companies and there is a small evidence of companies that provide a formal training to equip their line manager to undertake the role of facilitating HRM outcomes. (Cunningham , Hyman. 1995) , Brewster and Larsen has identified three main reason for this :

Senior managers presume that line managers already knows the technical aspects of HRM to base their decision.

Senior managers do not offer appropriate training before delegating tasks.

Senior managers believe that line managers will learn HRM by practising it.

Lack of training is a negative factor that make line mangers weak when dealing with devolved HR tasks, but also they are very important for delivering a good HR practice because they are working on the shop floor and they are the one that can make change, which means that an HRM strategy without the line playing a major role would never succeed, in the other side HR specialist will have to equip them with the right training to develop their capacity to deal with people management and excessive stress because of the workload.

Another negative aspect is reducing the number of HR expert that can provide the line with precious advise and help and equip them with the right training, this partnership will give HR specialist to concentrate more on making positive change in the organisation, another important question which is worth to research in the future is whether reducing the number of HR experts really reduce the cost in organisation or is it just wrong and cost more money to the organisation?

Hutchinson and Purcell (2003) proposed the following suggestion on how line manager can better deal with people management:

Provide them with time to carry out their people management duties .

Pay more attention to the behavioural competencies required while recruiting manager.

Support line managers with strong organisational value in relation to leadership and people management.

Develop a good working relationship with different level of management.

Make sure the line receive sufficient skills training to enable them to perform their people management activities appropriately.