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The overlap between HR and line management

Becoming a centre of excellence for management and leadership

By Brian Kreissl

I find it interesting how there is so much overlap between human resources and line management. This applies both with respect to real life practice and in the academic world.

I think many people fail to appreciate how HR includes a lot of the same body of knowledge as general management and leadership. But that shouldn’t be a surprise in a way because according to the old cliché, to some extent every manager is a human resources manager.

In an academic context it’s interesting how business students who major in HR end up studying many of the same things as those who major in general management or leadership. There is a surprising amount of overlap in the content.

HR is a management function

I suppose that makes sense because the role of the modern HR practitioner focuses largely on helping to build managerial capability. While there is an advisory component in relation to employees, HR is a management function, and our main loyalty is to the organization and its people managers.

HR is largely there to support an organization’s leadership team. Because of that, it’s important for HR practitioners to understand management and leadership when acting in a consultative capacity to the organization’s leaders.

HR also provides a certain type of leadership within organizations, and HR leaders are obviously in charge of their own people. I have mentioned this before, but it’s important for HR to be able to walk the talk when it comes to having effective people management practices within the HR function itself.

That is important because HR needs to practice what it preaches when it comes to managing its own people. HR is hardly going to be recognized as a centre of expertise for management and leadership if it can’t get its own house in order in terms of managing people.

It becomes difficult to preach to other managers about ineffective management practices if there’s bullying, backstabbing, gossiping, hoarding information, an extremely hierarchical culture or old school command and control style management within the HR team itself.

Not doing manager’s jobs for them

It’s also important to understand that even if there is a great deal of overlap between HR and general management, HR practitioners shouldn’t be trying to do managers’ jobs for them, no matter how much they would like to offload their dirty work to HR.

While HR can and should help empower and provide tools to managers to be able to have difficult conversations with their direct reports about performance management, compensation and other issues, HR shouldn’t be doing that work on behalf of line managers.

HR cannot and should not be the ones to manage poor performance, have a conversation with an employee to explain why she can’t get a raise or make the decision to terminate an employee. Those conversations and decisions should be left up to that person’s manager — especially since HR doesn’t interact on a daily basis with individual employees and doesn’t have nearly the same understanding as the manager in terms of what’s required to be successful in the role.

But because HR has so much in common with general management, we should be able to provide the tools necessary to help managers be successful. This applies with respect to HR programs, policies and tools. It is also important to be able to provide coaching, advice and training on effective people management techniques and guidelines for having difficult conversations with employees.

HR should at least strive to be a centre of excellence for management and leadership. While it isn’t currently the case in many organizations, I believe HR can help prove their worth by really helping to equip and empower managers.

Some of the skills HR practitioners should look at enhancing or acquiring in order to make this a reality include coaching, leadership development, performance management, employee engagement and communications. Above all, HR needs to have a strong understanding of effective management and leadership techniques, and be able to train managers in those techniques.

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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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  • Re: Staff vs. Line function
    Tuesday, February 11, 2014 8:54:00 AM by Brian Kreissl
    My interpretation was always that HR is a staff function, and that the difference is that line functions are revenue generating, whereas a staff function is more of a support role. However, when we in HR refer to "line managers" we often just mean managers outside the HR function, since the managers we are referring to could also be in staff roles (e.g., IT, legal, etc.).