The HR role of line managers

The HR role of line managers

The HR role of line managers

HR can initiate new policies and practices but it is line managers that have the main responsibility for implementing them. In other words, HR proposes but the line disposes. As Guest (1991: 159) observed: ‘HRM is too important to be left to personnel managers.’

If line managers are not inclined favorably towards what HR wants them to do they won’t do it or, if compelled to, they will be half-hearted about it. On the basis of their research, Guest and King (2004: 421) noted that ‘better HR depended not so much on better procedures but better implementation and ownership of implementation by line managers’.

As pointed out by Purcell et al (2003), high levels of organizational performance are not achieved simply by having a range of well-conceived HR policies and practices in place. What makes the difference is how these policies and practices are implemented. That is where the role of line managers in people management is crucial: ‘managers… play a vital role in making involvement happen, in communicating, in being open to allow employee concerns to be raised and discussed, in allowing people space to influence how they do their job, and in coaching, guiding and recognizing performance and providing help for the future’ (ibid: 40). Purcell and his colleagues noted that dealing with people is perhaps the aspect of their work in which line managers can exercise the greatest amount of discretion and they can use that discretion by not putting HR’s ideas into practice. As they observed, it is line managers who bring HR policies to life.

A further factor affecting the role of line managers is their ability to do the HR tasks assigned to them. People-centred activities such as defining roles (job design), interviewing, reviewing performance, providing feedback, coaching, and identifying learning and development needs all require special skills. Some managers have them; many don’t. Performance management systems and performance-related pay schemes can easily fail because of untrained line managers. The implementation of policies to enhance engagement levels  depends largely on line managers.

Hutchinson and Purcell (2003) made the following recommendations on how to improve the quality of the contribution line managers make to people management.

Source review

Improving the quality of line managers as people managers – Hutchinson and Purcell (2003)

  • Provide them with time to carry out their people management duties, which are often superseded by other management duties.
  • Select them carefully with much more attention being paid to the behavioural competencies required.
  • Support them with strong organizational values concerning leadership and people management.
  • Encourage the development of a good working relationship with their own managers.
  • Ensure they receive sufficient skills training to enable them to perform their people management activities such as performance management.

To which can be added that better implementation and better ownership by line managers of HR practices is more likely to be achieved if: 1) the practice demonstrably benefits them; 2) they are involved in the development and, importantly, the testing of the practices; 3) the practice is not too complicated, bureaucratic or time-consuming; 4) their responsibilities are defined and communicated clearly; and 5) they are provided with the guidance, support and training required to implement the practice.

Key learning points: Delivering HRM – systems and roles

HRM delivery

HRM is delivered through the HR architecture of an organization, which includes the HR system, HR practices and the HR delivery model adopted by the HR function.

HR architecture

HR architecture includes the HR systems and processes and employee behaviours as well as the structure of the HR function.

The HR system

The HR system as part of the HR architecture consists of the interrelated and jointly supportive HR activities and practices, which together enable HRM goals to be achieved.

The HR delivery model

The HR delivery model describes how those services are delivered by the HR function. The best known model was produced by Ulrich in 1998; he suggested that HR could be delivered by specialists in four ways: strategic partner, administrative expert, employee champion and change agent.

The ‘three-legged stool’ model of the HR function

This model identifies three areas of HR activity: centres of expertise, strategic business partners and shared service centres.

Roles of HR professionals

They can act as business partners, strategists, innovators, change agents, internal consultants, facilitators and coaches.

Ambiguities in the role of HR practitioners

The activities and roles of HR specialists and the demands made upon them appear to be quite clear cut but in practice the role can be ambiguous.

Professionalism in HR

Professionalism is defined generally as the conduct exhibited by people who are providing advice and services that require expertise and that meet defined or generally accepted standards of behaviour. HR professionals are required to uphold the standards laid down by their professional body, the CIPD, but they must also adhere to their own ethical values.

The HR role of line managers

Line managers play a crucial role in implementing HR policies but they are not always committed or qualified to do so.


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