Strengthen the weaknesses of line managers in HR system

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In Guest's (1987) four components of concept of integration in HRM, line managers were argued that they must undertake their responsibilities in terms of HR work by using supports from specialists, which was commented as critical for succeeding in business management. Indeed, line managers play a significant role in organisational strategy, converting HRM to performance and connecting them by individual response (Boaden et al, 2008). In Purcell and Hutchinson's (2007) casual chain theory, line managers were also defined as a role devolving intended HR practices into actuality. Although positing a crucial status in implemental sense, line managers were found a weak link in the devolvement of HR practices.

This essay is divided into two parts: Firstly, reviewing previous literatures and empirically analysing the weakness of line managers on the theoretical basis of Marchington and Wilkinson's (2008) view. Secondly, exemplifying ways of strengthening line management's contribution in organisations, by trying to address the problems presented in the first part.

Literature Review

A large number of previous literatures argue that line managers are the weak link in devolving HR intention into implementation. In Marchington and Wilkinson's (2008) view the weaknesses of line managers can be primarily put into four components: lack of relevant HR skills, disdain for HR work, competing priorities and increased workload, inconsistencies in application of HR functions. In the past, these four weaknesses were also discovered and demonstrated by many researches.

From McGovern et al's (1997) case study of seven organisations from different sectors, in which semi-structured interviews were conducted after the collection of empirical materials, the fact the low educational and technical skills severely constrained the conversion of HR to line management was exposed in a single case study. According to Maxwell and Watson's (2006) survey in UK Hilton hotels on the level of both line managers and HR specialists, some barriers to line managers involving in HR was examined and the results showed that opinions from HR specialists majorly reckoned lacking of skills in terms of time management, delegation, supporting learning and communication constrained HR to be devolved to line management. While the result also indicated that line managers did not agree with their counterparts in HR departments. Different from McGovern et al's (1997) study, the employees' views, which were more likely to be objective and reliant, were not collecting in Maxwell and Watson's (2006) survey. Nonetheless, in the deep interviews with 40 line managers, the involved interviewees did not see themselves as HR experts and thought doing HR work was difficult for them (Renwick, 2003). Also, in Whittaker and Marchington's (2003) study, it was also argued less skilled and competent line managers were less likely to perform effectively in HR aspects without support from personnel practitioners.

In a pilot case study in NHS Trust conducted by Renwick (2000), one clinical director from the line held an 'old view' of HR that they were 'slow inefficient and made mistakes', surprisingly, a strong hostile description was made as 'they were awful, just absolutely awful'. Regretfully, in this study there was only one case, and, evidence of line managers' disdain for HR work was merely from one individual. However, in his research two years later, in all the negative aspects found though interviewing 40 line managers from 3 organisations, line managers admitted that they 'sometimes slack in completing HR work' (Renwick, 2003). Also, an interesting phenomenon in Maxwell and Watson's (2006) survey was the response rate of questionnaire from HR was notably higher than line managers, which more or less indicated line managers were less interested and enthusiastic in HR issues.

Many line managers also reckon that the converting too many HR work on them might prevent them from undertaking their own duties (Whittaker and Marchington, 2003). From the investigation in non-clinical managers in NHS Trust the conflicting work priorities exposed that HRM concerns were low on the list of priorities (Boaden et al, 2008). Generally, the competing priorities on the line managers' side means they concern more on capturing immediate outcomes. From three groups of 'organisational constraints' in McGovern et al's (1997) study, a 'short-termism' was discovered in line management and line managers were less interested in using their time to do activities without an immediate return. Consequently, the greater workload and pressure was generated if line managers were devolved HR functions (Cunningham and Hyman, 1995; Maxwell and Watson, 2006).

In Bowen's (2004) study, consistency was regarded as a strength of HRM system. However, in practice inconsistencies such as role ambiguity, low efficiency and conflict between line managers and HR specialists often happened. Interesting findings can be extracted in Cunningham and Hyman's (1999) research, in which semi-structured interviews and postal questionnaires were conducted in four cases from different industries. The line managers on the one hand were satisfied with the 'general background' suggestions about administrative issues from HR counterparts; on the other hand they commented the HR functional supports from HR specialists in terms of leadership, training and development were poor and even unnecessary. Obviously, due to the inconsistencies, the line managers preferred to be less involved in HR works.

Strengthen line management in HR sense

As the devolvement of HR functions to line managers is becoming increasingly recognised as important for the raising organisational performance (Guest, 1987; Purcell and Hutchinson, 2007; Boaden et al, 2008), it is essential to strengthen the weaknesses of line managers in HR system mentioned above, which can be regarded as 'suit the remedy to the case', while the remedy is not particular designed to single weakness but comprehensive as the weaknesses themselves are interacting.

From my personal perspective, the central core of strengthening line management in HR sense is to make line managers realise they are responsible for HR and their duties are important. If line managers cannot realise their responsibilities or even disdain for HR work, the direct result might be that they are not inclined to get involved, and therefore difficult to gain their participation (Boaden et al, 2008). However, in many circumstances we found a reason that line managers neglecting such responsibilities as a result of their bad impression on HR work as well as supports HR specialists, which can be categorised as a kind of inconsistency in Marchington and Wilkinson's (2008) classification of line managers' weaknesses. Actually, sometimes it is not line managers do not want supports from HR specialists but the supports are poor in their opinions (Cunningham and Hyman, 1999). Therefore, the ways of strengthening the contribution of line managers in HR system, which will be exemplified in terms of recruitment and selection, performance management and employee involvement and participation (EIP) in the following paragraphs, can be discussed with HR specialists involved as well.

As for recruitment and selection, on the one hand, the internal recruitment for line management roles might be an effective and efficient way to strengthen the contribution of line managers in HR sense. Nowadays, although the ideal situation is that HR functions can be consistently devolved in line management, it seems not so practical for line managers to spend too much time in doing these. The phase 'time-consuming' was used by clinical director from the line to describe new system introduced by HR (Renwick, 2000). The line manager involved in Boaden et al's (2008) research might represent a usual notion, 'I am realistic enough to know where the priority is going to lie at the end of the day'. Actually, not only line managers are confronted with 'short-termism' (McGovern et al, 1997) problem, but HR specialists also facing difficulties needing to be addressed soon. In Legge's (2005) 'vicious circle' theory, problems happened without getting HR involved, and HR was asked to assist in tackling them and give instantly effective supports, which might lead to potential negative impacts in the future. After this process, HR specialists were more likely to be blamed and given less trust in making important decisions. Therefore, the feasible approach introduced here is recruiting and selecting people within the organisations. Specifically, selecting those who have HR working experience or HR special knowledge and skills beforehand, and moving them to the line management work. By doing this, two difficulties may be eased to a large extent in a short time: the disdain for HR work and the deficiency of HR skills. On the other hand, line managers' contribution can be enlarged in the conducting recruitment and selection of employees for organisations. That is, clear division of work and responsibilities between line managers and HR specialists. What is more, line managers should be allocated with components related to operational work and special skills of candidates, avoiding specialised HR functions that they are difficult to drive.

Performance management is an important aspect in which line managers' role in HR system should be consolidated, as shown in Cunningham and Hyman's (1995) finding that appraisal of subordinates posited the first place in all the main responsibilities of line managers in managing human resources. Example of Selfridge in Purcell and Hutchinson's (2007) can be used to demonstrate the way of improving performance appraisal in line management. In the survey of employees' attitudes in Selfridge, the gap between intention and implementation also existed there and over 40 percent of respondents dissatisfied with the performance appraisal system. The comments and suggestions raised by employees, such as consistent approach and regular appraisal for every employee, more recognition from management, getting employees involved and listening to their voice, working closer to employees, brought company's attention. Therefore, measures such as involving company culture into management, refining the line managers' role to be more integrated and consistent to the HR system, especially, associating performance appraisal more to career development and opportunities.

In Thornhill and Saunders' (1998) case study in 'Newco', a part of large scale organisation in public sector, evidence accumulated exposed that involving and communicating with employees could enhance employees' commitment. Therefore, getting employees involved may be an effective way to improve line mangers' decision and practices relating to HR. From my personal experience, it was also proved to be making sense. One of my college classmates, who works as a line manager in China Mobile, the most powerful telecommunication company in China, complained to me that the policies and objectives made by managers were always failed to be achieved by employees two months ago. However, last week he told me the situation was better after adopting my suggestion that asking for employees' advice and concerning their voice all the time. On the other side, negative effects were generated if integration within management level was insufficient (Thornhill and Saunders, 1998). To resolve this problem, the leader-member exchange (LMX) theory seems to be an appropriate model, in which the inconsistence between line managers and HR specialists are likely to be somewhat eased. Example can be used from Gerstner and Day's (1997) meta-analysis, that the LMX was demonstrated to be positively associated with employees' performance, to illustrate the effectiveness of this model.


As demonstrated by many empirical collections, the devolvement of HR functions to line management is significantly affecting the performance of organisations. While line manager was regarded as weak link in HR system, and, the weaknesses can be found in many previous researches and literatures, in categories of Marchington and Wilkinson's (2008) view. Arguably, the line managers' role in HR sense can be strengthened and they should be conscious that their new role and new responsibilities are crucial. The internal recruitment and selection of line manager from workers with HR background may reduce the prejudice and technical weakness of line management, and clear division of duties in recruiting and selecting can alleviate the inconsistence between line and HR. Furthermore, example from Selfridge researched by Purcell and Hutchinson (2007) demonstrated how the role of line manager can be consolidated in terms of performance management. Also, the significance and effectiveness of EIP was exemplified, and, the LMX model was introduced to consolidate the communication within management level.


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