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Who has authority for people management decisions?

Exploring the distinction between management and human resources

By Brian Kreissl

Picking up where I left off last week, I have another theme I’d like to explore with respect to who is an HR expert and where decisions should be made relating to issues around human capital management.

This issue relates to a peculiar phenomenon I’ve noticed that touches on the distinction between HR and line management. Like so many issues surrounding HR these days, there are two seemingly polar opposite trends happening simultaneously.

On the one hand, as I've mentioned before, a lot of line managers seem to want HR to do their jobs for them. In many cases, they want HR to make the difficult decisions and complete the unpleasant tasks associated with being a manager. Because of this, there is some dissatisfaction today around the level of service being provided by many HR departments.

However, in spite of the above being a real issue facing HR in many organizations, the opposite is also true. As I mentioned last week, just about everyone seems to think they’re an HR expert, and many line managers are no different in that respect.

Because of that, there’s a tendency for managers to want to get involved in HR-related matters. I’ve personally heard of managers who screen candidates’ resumés and check references when qualified recruiters are available. They also frequently have suggestions and recommendations — which are not always welcome — on how training, performance management and compensation programs should be run.

Running an organization’s ‘people-related processes’

I recently received an interesting e-mail from the consulting company Booz & Co. highlighting how an energy company had restructured its HR department with the basic premise HR professionals are the experts in HR programs and the HR function should therefore run all of the organization’s people-related processes. This was explained as follows:

“Accountants don’t go to the rest of an organization and say, ‘We want to partner with you to do accounting.’ It should be the same with HR: HR professionals should run all people-related processes — coaching, succession planning, recruiting, career planning, and talent management. They should define the goals, measure the outcomes, and be accountable for achieving the company’s core strategy of having a distinctively capable workforce.”

I couldn’t agree more. Part of getting the respect we deserve as a profession is carving out our territory and claiming it as our own.

Yet in certain areas, if HR doesn’t move quickly, others will step in to fill the void. This is especially true with areas that overlap general management like leadership development and corporate social responsibility — or areas like HR metrics where other functions like finance are starting to get involved.

Pushback from managers and senior leaders

I also think a very strong “leaving HR for HR professionals” philosophy might bring some pushback from a lot of senior leaders and frontline managers in some organizations. I’ve repeated this cliché a few times, but it’s so true that to some extent every manager is an HR manager.

HR is a management function, and in many respects senior management has delegated a certain amount of authority over people management matters to HR. We are there to act in an advisory capacity and to create the consistency and infrastructure needed by managers in the form of policies, practices and programs.

HR can’t and shouldn’t be making actual people management decisions about individual employees. While we can make recommendations, it’s generally up to managers to decide who to hire, train, develop, promote or fire.

And even an extremely savvy HR practitioner with a sound understanding of the business lacks context with respect to other departments and the individuals concerned. It’s up to us to create the framework and provide consistency and advice, but the real decisions need to be made by managers themselves.

So, in a sense, we are there to partner with line managers and business leaders. It’s also good to solicit feedback from managers and employees and make changes when needed.

However, the point is well-taken that we need to be more assertive about our roles within organizations. And HR needs to be seen as the experts in people-related matters.

This can be achieved by being confident, capable and well-informed and clearly delineating responsibility and authority with respect to the HR department versus line management. Having the courage to stand our ground when we know we’re right also helps.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit  

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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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