Helping line managers understand their HR role (Toughest HR question)

Need to understand HR largely consultative
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/25/2011

Question: How does HR get line managers to recognize their role in managing human resources?

Answer: This might come as a shock to some, but HR is a management function. It exists to facilitate increased managerial effectiveness and to assist managers with some of their more sensitive, time-consuming and administrative people management tasks, yet line managers also have a role to play. It’s a bit of a cliché but, to some extent, every manager is an HR manager.

Managers need to understand HR’s role is primarily a consultative one and HR isn’t there to replace managers’ decision-making authority. While HR can provide coaching, guidance and organizational parameters around succession planning, performance management, staffing, compensation, training and development, and termination of employment, line managers exercise significant managerial discretion in those areas.

HR largely exists to support line managers but it’s a two-way street. Most HR programs require input from people managers. HR simply doesn’t have the knowledge of individual employees required to make the decisions that support such programs.

It’s also important to realize HR simply cannot be everywhere. To the average employee, front-line managers and supervisors — not HR — represent the face of an organization. For this reason, line managers have a major role to play in upholding and enforcing HR policies and procedures, rolling out HR programs, managing organizational change, recruiting employees and promoting the organization as an employer of choice.

This information is worth mentioning for a number of reasons. HR is increasingly moving away from the business of transactional processing and recordkeeping so it can concentrate on more strategic activities that bring greater value to the organization. While some of this has been accomplished through outsourcing, a lesser known trend is sometimes called “downsourcing.”

In many organizations, activities traditionally handled by HR are being downsourced to people managers — or even employees themselves. This is largely facilitated through new technologies such as HR and managerial self-service, HR intranets, compensation decisioning tools and talent management software. Such tools can be time-savers for HR but the software needs to be user-friendly and processes need to be streamlined to gain buy-in from line managers.

There’s also the conflict between managerial and specialist aspects of many management roles. Typically, most managers are promoted because of their technical or professional skills. As a result, they continue to focus on their specialty or profession to the detriment of the management side. Issues such as employee development, coaching, mentoring and performance management take a back seat to the more technical aspects of the job.

Managers are also increasingly being asked to do more with less, especially in lean economic times. Many managers are overworked and stressed out. They frequently don’t have the resources needed to get the job done. Their days are spent putting out fires and going from one meeting to the next. If that’s the case, who has time to conduct performance appraisals, interview candidates or meet with employees about the results of an annual employee survey?

HR can help in many ways by implementing effective HR programs and providing managers with the coaching and guidance they need, but line managers also have an important role to play. There are several ways to have them recognize that:

•Communicate regularly with all managers about the importance of completing specific managerial tasks in a certain manner and at certain times.

•Communicate information about important deadlines for HR programs well in advance and throughout the duration of the program. Explain the rationale for any deadlines.

•Develop training programs that help build managerial capability in areas such as recruitment and selection, performance management, coaching, mentoring, diversity management, workplace harassment, attendance management and termination of employment.

•Develop training programs for newly promoted managers and supervisors.

•Create a decision matrix that clearly delineates responsibility and authority for major personnel-related transactions.

•Provide guidance and training to managers on HR programs, policies, processes, tools and technologies.

•Ensure performance appraisals for management roles are based, in part, on the attainment of managerial objectives. Build some consideration of managerial tasks into the annual goal-setting process.

•Compensate and offer incentives to managers for the people management aspects of their roles.

•Create separate competency frameworks for management positions. Ensure promotion to the next level is contingent on mastery of specific managerial competencies.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. For more information, visit

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