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When non-HR professionals do HR work

The role of line managers and others, particularly in smaller organizations

By Brian Kreissl

We’ve all heard the cliché that, “to some extent, every manager is a human resources manager.” In many ways, I believe that’s truer today than ever before.

Human resources management truly is a management function. Where there’s an HR department, line managers can be said to have delegated some of their responsibilities to HR.

The role of line managers

Even in the largest organizations, recruitment, training, compensation, performance management and termination are all at least partially the responsibility of managers. While HR is there to ensure the framework is in place to provide consistency, legal compliance and alignment with the organization’s overall strategy, vision, mission and values, actual decisions are usually made by managers, who are frequently tasked with rolling out HR programs.

In many ways, the role of the HR professional is largely consultative. HR can provide coaching, advice and training, but in most cases managers retain the discretion to make decisions affecting their direct reports.

HR exists largely to build managerial capability. In the past, this was accomplished by completing highly administrative or transactional tasks on behalf of managers so they could concentrate on the actual business at hand.

Today, however, that duty manifests itself more in terms of helping to implement organizational strategy and counseling management with respect to areas of greater value to the organization. Managers are still provided with assistance in completing people management tasks of a transactional nature, but that assistance is often provided by technology through the use of tools such as manager and employee self-serves, and online compensation, performance management and talent management decisioning software.

In an environment of cost cutting and tight budgets, HR is frequently targeted for austerity measures. Because of this, tasks previously handled by the HR department are sometimes “downsourced” to line managers.

An example might be recruitment. Managers in some organizations are now being required to handle at least some of the tasks related to the recruitment process which were previously handled by the HR department. Depending on the organization, these tasks could include creating and posting job requisitions, screening resumés, interviewing, checking references or sending out offer packages.

With appropriate coaching and training, there’s no reason why most managers can’t handle some of these tasks. Yet, proper change management may also be required, as well as full, frank and transparent communications explaining why such changes are necessary.

When there’s no HR department

All of the above is predicated on there being some type of HR function, but what if there isn’t any HR department at all? While a small organization may have an HR department consisting of one “HR soloist,” in the smallest organizations, HR is often handled by the owner/manager, or a financial controller, office manager or administrative assistant.

Such individuals usually do a pretty good job under the circumstances when it comes to transactional HR activities, but some of the more strategic aspects often fall through the cracks. Non-HR professionals may also be at risk when it comes to legal compliance requirements.

For example, how many people without an HR or employment law background are familiar with the new legal requirements for employers in Ontario with respect to violence and harassment (under Bill 168) or accessibility requirements for people with disabilities (under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA))? While employment lawyers and HR outsourcing vendors can provide assistance, many small employers can’t or won’t take advantage of such services.  

While we’ve seen an increase in HR outsourcing over the past decade, paradoxically, the employers most likely to take advantage of such arrangements are larger organizations. Small businesses, which could make the most use of HR outsourcing, seem less likely to do so.

Opportunities for HR professionals

Believe it or not, this presents opportunities for HR professionals. For one thing, I’m surprised there aren’t more HR outsourcing firms offering solutions to small businesses. This is in addition to HR consulting, which seems to be a growing area.

HR professional associations could also be doing more to service the needs of this market. We as HR professionals should also be partnering with other professionals such as accountants, lawyers and payroll practitioners to establish best practices and help deliver the services needed by smaller employers.

Educational institutions could also be doing more to equip non-HR practitioners to better handle HR-related tasks. Degrees, diplomas and professional designations could be enhanced to include more courses in human resources management.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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