HR leaders talk

Working with line managers

There are many areas for HR to worry about — recruitment, complying with legislation, avoiding employee lawsuits, enhancing productivity, T&D, change management and anything else the senior team comes up with. It means a lot of HR initiatives, most of which require the buy-in of an organization’s managers. Canadian HR Reporter asked HR executives about how their departments develop relationships with line managers that pave the way for corporate success.

William Pallett
Senior Vice-president, People and Quality
Delta Hotels

The Canadian hotel chain employs more than 7,000 people in about 30 hotels across the country.

In an industry where customer service is everything, the employees at Delta Hotels are expected to attend to every need of guests, says William Pallett, senior vice-president, people and quality.

In return, employees should be able to count on HR to tend to their needs. “One of our values here at Delta is that the way we treat our people — our employees — is the way they will treat our guests,” he says.

Reducing that HR role, be it through self service or outsourcing, would send an important message to managers and employees, says Pallett. It is not good if employees and managers find it difficult to get simple questions answered, he says.

“If we say, ‘Go to the kiosk and punch this in and you will be able to figure it out,’ that is sending a signal about the way we treat them,” he says.

There has been some expansion of manager self service, resulting from changes to the company’s HR management system, but it has been kept to a minimum. Managers are still encouraged to call HR with concerns.

“In some cases it may be that (managers) have to do some of it. But we want them to be able to say (to HR), ‘Can you just help me out here. I can do it, but I just need some help.’

“Some companies say they are really close to their employees. But then every time someone goes to HR, they get ‘Call 1-800 this for your pension plan, or call 1-800 this for your benefits.’” It is difficult for managers to believe the organization really cares about them if that is how they are treated, Pallett says.

On the whole, he says, relations between managers and HR are positive, only because HR has gone to great lengths to keep demands upon managers to a minimum and to ensure that managers are involved with new HR initiatives. “Their involvement upfront is important. Rarely do we implement something where there hasn’t been some discussion or meeting.”

The hotel recently developed a new job evaluation and compensation planning tool, and a selection of managers from across the chain were involved in the pilot project. “Not everyone was involved, but as we went to deploy the plan in other hotels we have been able to indicate to managers that their fellow managers were part of the development team that put the plan together. That is why I think we have got a fairly good level of buy-in.”

Similarly, the hotel implemented “employee service guarantees,” developed with managers’ input. “One is you receive X amount of training per year or you get a week’s additional pay. And (the second is) you’ll get your annual review within 30 days of your anniversary date or you get one week’s additional pay.”

He admits commitments to such deliverables put additional pressure on managers, and in some cases, managers do feel it becomes too much, he says. “So we sit down and talk about ways they can get it done. But we also have to link it back to turnover issues or retention. We link it back to our employee opinion survey results so that it enables them to understand that if you invest in these things upfront, you will save time and energies down the line, because you won’t get that consistent turnover.”

For some managers that is enough. For others, the discussion has to be more in-depth. “It could be more of an issue of, ‘Look, your guest satisfaction scores in your area are disastrous. That is because you have got high turnover or people aren’t trained properly. The customers are telling us that.’”

It may feel like more work, but the extra time and effort managers spend on training and performance review pays off down the road. “This is to help you, not make it worse,” he says.

Still, every effort is made to keep HR-related processes as simple as possible to ease the time and paperwork for managers. This includes a national process team to review all of the “selection, training and development processes.” (“We don’t call it HR, because then it implies that it is our department and nobody else’s responsibility,” he says.)

The process review team is comprised of managers from all areas. “They were able to review processes (related to) recruitment and decrease the number of days that it takes to recruit a candidate by about 30 per cent.” All it took was removing a couple of steps in the process, he says.

“And I think that the managers saw HR as helping them by including them in the problem-solving team and also by HR saying, ‘You are our customer so therefore you have to be involved in helping us fix it because you see it better than we do.”

Brent Gordon
Human Resources Manager
Midwest Surveys

The Calgary-based land survey company has nine offices throughout British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and employs 360 employees.

For close to 50 years, Midwest Surveys, a 100-per-cent employee-owned company, functioned without a human resource department. Line managers, who are mostly office managers, handled their own recruitment and sorted out employee issues themselves.

But continued growth made it less and less feasible to survive without an HR department. Recruiting alone became too great a burden for line managers to handle, especially as some 40 engineering students working on co-ops or placements pass through the company’s doors every year. The board of directors decided to introduce an HR department three years ago.

When Brent Gordon was hired as HR manager, about two years into the formation of the department, he found some line managers “still questioning the value of HR and wondering what HR can bring to the table.”

Gordon’s response was to ask the managers to give it time and observe the work of the department. And he reminds long-time managers how the labour market has changed.

“People are more educated and more aware of their human rights. And the demographics have changed significantly. So one thing we had to help them understand is that they’ve got to deal with people differently, keep them motivated and not expect that they’ll work a nine- or 10-hour day like some of the more experienced workers.”

He points to management training and recruiting as areas where managers needed support when he came. Recruiting was also an area where HR showed its value by taking work off of managers’ plates. Initially, some managers grumbled about an increase in paperwork as, for example, when Gordon introduced an orientation checklist to make sure managers are taking care of their new hires.

His response: “Well, okay, let’s back things up a bit. When Julie goes out to the field, what kinds of things does she know about the organization? What tools did she have to come back to the office to get? Did she have her card key?” He soon found the grumblers saying, “Holy cow. That’s not a bad idea. And hey, by the way, let’s put this thing on, too.”

Managers and HR sometimes got into disputes over employee discipline. There are managers who thought, “I’ve been doing it my way for years and I’ll keep doing it my way,” says Gordon.

“Well, maybe there are considerations they are not aware of. Rather than going through the progressive discipline process in order to terminate some people, we’d want to go through progressive discipline to turn around some of these people. If we’ve put time and money and effort into training them, why would you want to just throw them away?”

Now, most managers are turning to Gordon for direction when a situation arises, he says; in fact, there’s now an unwritten rule that no one can terminate an employee without advising Gordon.

Bringing in a performance management process was one of the mandates that the board of directors spelled out when it hired Gordon. He spent the bulk of last year walking managers through the initiative. A number of managers struggled with identifying a “measurable performance goal,” so Gordon followed up on the training by reviewing individual forms submitted by managers. He also sat in on a number of initial sessions between managers and their reports to help the managers get comfortable with the process.

Despite the newness of HR initiatives such as performance review, Gordon sees people buying into the value of HR. He attributes this to the support of the board of directors.

“Even though I’m not on the board of directors, I attend every one of their meetings. They thought it important that I come and participate and provide advice and guidance to the directors. To me, that’s a really strong signal of the company’s commitment to human resource development.”

Louise Brown
Human Resources Co-ordinator
Calgary Parking Authority

The quasi-autonomous municipal body employs 90 people, not including the crew of about 100 parking commissioners, who work on contract through the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires.

At the Calgary Parking Authority, a small office with seven line managers and five senior managers, the human resource function has evolved slowly and in response to the needs of managers.

Louise Brown, HR co-ordinator for eight years, joined the parking authority 15 years ago as a part-time parking attendant and then moved into a secretary position. While in the secretarial job, she began and completed a human resource management program at the University of Calgary. With a certificate in hand, Brown began to assume HR tasks, starting with payroll and benefits.

Having worked in a variety of positions at the organization helps her stay attuned to the concerns of other managers, says Brown. She encountered little in the way of friction from the line managers as she stepped into the role. Good timing helped her out in part. Around the time she was ready to don her HR hat, the parking authority opened a new parkade and had to hire 10 attendants at once.

“The fact that there was such a huge job for us at the time was probably why the help was welcome,” says Brown. “I think the role evolved so slowly and naturally that it was never awkward.”

Brown still plays a close, supportive role when managers face hiring or firing. During recruitment, Brown typically does a first-round screening of applications, letting the line managers short-list the candidates on the basis of skills and experience. She’s also involved in selecting the behavioural questions to ask during the interview, in which she participates as a member of a three-person panel.

Occasionally, when a manager comes to her with a plan to discipline an employee, Brown has to suggest a different wording. But with an office culture that places considerable attention on employee well-being, she rarely has to assert herself as an employee advocate. She nevertheless works with line managers in handling problem employees. For example, when a line manager was alerted to an employee’s problem behaviour, he sought advice from Brown, who called the counsellor that the parking authority uses for its employee assistance program.

“The line manager, myself, and the (employee’s) direct supervisor met with him, and we were able to offer some options to help him get back on his feet. In that meeting, the line manager took the lead and he did such a great job.”

When it comes to accommodation issues, Brown typically finds managers quite astute about what needs to be done. She works with the manager in deciding the course to take, and making sure the option complies with the law, “because one arbitrator’s decision somewhere could change everything.”

Brown sees her role as fostering and supporting an environment that respects people’s dignity. “When that is the overriding attitude in an organization, the accomplishment of our goals will flow from there.”

Paul Gibson
Vice-president, Human Resources
Palliser Furniture Ltd.

The Winnipeg-based home furniture manufacturer was founded in 1944 and today employs more than 4,000 people.

Paul Gibson admits that, on occasion, line managers frustrate his HR team. But he doesn’t blame them for it.

“Even when (managers) are resisting something that I know needs to be done and making my life more difficult,” he says, “there isn’t a group that has more of my sympathy.”

In most cases, managers already have too much on their plates, so he understands why they might balk at new requests or programs coming out of HR.

Ideally, a manager should be spending about 30 per cent of the time communicating with employees, listening to their concerns, trying to solve their problems, Gibson says. “And if the tasks of his job take up more than 70 per cent of his time, he is in trouble,” he says.

“Now that is not something (HR) can walk away from. We have to say that is our responsibility from the start, in the structuring of jobs. To suggest that, yes, we have been running this area with four supervisors, but we need five. Because if we don’t have five, the four are running at full tilt and they are not spending any time with people.”

Manager workload is one reason Palliser won’t be making any major strides toward more manager self service, he says. Besides, HR should be able to handle the administrative responsibilities while still playing a strategic role.

“As a manager, I would be happy to come to HR to tell them about a problem with my benefits, and they would say to me, ‘Let’s get that sorted out, and by the way how are things going with your performance improvement program with Bill? Well I have some ideas on his development.’ Why in the world can’t you do both these things? I just don’t get it.”

What’s more, many managers really resent the idea that they have to take time to enter data that HR clerks should be doing for them, he says. “I think a lot of managers, and any managers beyond a certain level, start to look at these things and say, ‘Look I am here to use knowledge and experience and to make good decisions. Banging keys is not why I am here.’”

Another source of friction between HR and managers can be HR’s lack of selling and marketing skills, says Gibson. HR needs to do a better job of explaining the rationale behind its proposal, he says.

If they don’t, the program won’t last. Few will ever be cancelled outright, but they suffer a slow death nonetheless, he says. “Managers don’t need to cancel things, they just don’t need to implement them,” says Gibson.

If the proposal has any merit at all, 40 or 50 per cent of managers will accept it, he says. The tough part is selling it to the skeptics. If a proposal is a harder sell, HR needs to figure out who the management thought leaders are and convince them first. He recalls trying to introduce a new communications program for managers at another organization.

“For the most part, they all considered themselves to be high communicators…But they didn’t realize the effort they had to put into it to make a big impact,” says Gibson.

“They balked at the training and they balked at the programming. In many cases they just gave the passive nod. And for a week or a month or so they held a few sessions for their people but they became uncomfortable because they didn’t plan them. So they very quickly didn’t have anything to say.”

In the end, both sides had to accept a compromise. “In many cases in HR, we create a perfect program and then we need to make it fit. And in some cases it is not about getting everyone to do exactly what you think they should. It is about getting enough people who are sympathetic to it…to get them doing what they are supposed to be doing,” he says.

“The ones who implement it start to see some results. They get some reactions from their people who are talking to another manager’s people saying, ‘Hey you know what my manager is doing.’ And the next thing you know the other manager, who was resisting, is at your door saying, ‘Can I do that too?’

“Why knock yourself out for all 40? Get 10 of them do it and let the people who work for them demand from their managers something of the same.”

Bernadette Mitchell
Vice-president of Human Resources
The Co-operators General Insurance Company

Headquartered in Guelph, Ont., this insurance company employs about 2,900 staff across Canada.

At The Co-operators, human resource managers are seen as more than a supporting cast. They’re partners to the business, says vice-president of human resources Bernadette (Bernie) Mitchell.

Much of the day-to-day work for the HR department involves helping managers and supervisors with performance management and with interpretations of HR policies.

“Particularly with new supervisors and managers, there’s a lot of insecurity around ‘What can I say and what can’t I say?’ They want someone who’s independent to talk with. ‘Am I too tough on this person or am I too easy? How do I coach this person?’” says Mitchell.

“What qualifies for sick leave? Someone has laser eye surgery, for example — do we give time off for that? Where does it fall within the scope of our program? With new supervisors, sometimes what they have difficulty with is we want to treat everybody equitably but that doesn’t mean we have to treat everyone equally.”

Of the 36 HR employees, two are managers working at head office and four are managers posted in the regions. The HR managers sit in management meetings with other functional business units. “As decisions are made within the regions on the goals and objectives of that region, they are expected to give feedback and participate in those decisions,” says Mitchell.

Last year, much of the organization’s focus was on a major change initiative to improve client relationship management. The initiative involved a review of how the organization is structured, particularly the tendency of business units to view themselves as silos.

“So where HR has been active is helping others throughout the organization understand that the organization’s bigger than just their individual business units, their own departments, and that change can be mutually beneficial for all of us in the organization while providing the best service for our clients.”

Throughout the initiative, HR managers sit at the management meetings, participating in decisions about what needs to change, says Mitchell.

“Where we help with individual staff — which we do a fair amount of — is educating staff and managers about cycles of change and their own preferred styles in approaching change. What that does is help staff and managers increase their flexibility and the effectiveness of their response to change and help them understand the reaction of others.”

At The Co-operators, there’s no such thing as HR goals — only “goals of the organization,” says Mitchell. There are six strategic areas, approved by the board of directors. Every quarter, business units have to report on their progress in those six areas — from the CEO, who has to report to the board of directors, down through all the levels of management.

One of the strategic areas is human resources, which refers to the quality of people, the quality of service, the level of communication and teamwork, the culture of high performance and accountability. Businesses have to report on what they do each quarter to support these areas.

Another measure every level of management has to report on is employee engagement. “And it starts at the board level. The CEO is measured by the board of directors on engagement on an annual basis. Senior managers are measured on engagement in their particular areas. We give managers and supervisors feedback on how engaged their staff are.”

Engagement measures are tied to bonuses for executives and managers. As well, the organization is starting to use 360-degree feedback to measure how well managers are doing.

The reason why The Co-operators pays attention to how managers manage “is the overall expectation of staff has changed,” says Mitchell. “Staff expect more from supervisors and managers than they did 20 or 25 years ago. People aren’t staying with organizations because of pay alone or because of blind loyalty. I think they’re more selective with their employers, and I think a lot of the times, they’re choosing their managers. The managers represent the organization.”

Linda Lupini
Senior Vice-president, Human Resources and Organizational Development
QLT Inc.

The Vancouver-based biopharmaceutical employs about 330 people and specializes in developing treatments for cancer, eye diseases and dermatological and urological conditions.

In the past, biopharmaceutical firm QLT had a fairly typical model of HR, with functional specialists in each area: a training specialist, a compensation specialist and so on. But a little more than three years ago, Linda Lupini, vice-president of HR, changed all that.

The goal was to develop a true partnership between managers and HR, she says. “We took our people who were functional specialists, made them generalists and embedded them in the environments they work in.”

At first, some of her HR staff were skeptical and a little nervous, she says.

“I would say to them, ‘Don’t worry, you will learn employee relations. You will learn conflict resolution. You will learn performance management. We will share information and you will learn.’ Now they absolutely love this model.”

The job of the three generalists, each supporting a group of about 110 employees, is to learn first-hand everything about the business and provide managers with as much information as possible, while encouraging managers to make HR-related decisions themselves.

“The concept I use — and it is just a philosophical statement, it is not literal — is try to put yourself out of business. Keep transferring the way you make judgments. Keep transferring compensation strategies. Keep transferring all of those skills, so that business managers are actually doing things for themselves. And of course you are there as a coach and consultant and facilitator,” she says.

Do managers resent the extra responsibility? Not at all — actually the opposite, she says. “You can’t separate business decisions from people decisions any more. It is impossible,” she says.

In this model both HR and managers are better off because HR staff learn more about the business and the line managers learn more about good human resources management.

“My first instruction to my generalists is understand that function from a business point of view, inside and out,” she says. “Because that is going to give you the context to help them make decisions, and to help them understand how to implement HR programs. After that, what starts to happen is line managers will say, ‘Can you come to my staff meeting every week?’

“There may not be an HR issue at the staff meeting, but our HR person is sitting there and might (for example) hear that the group is going to move into dermatology. That HR person comes back and sits in our HR meetings, and says, ‘You know what I am thinking here, I’m thinking we don’t have a dermatologist in the whole company. Maybe we should think about looking for one because they are pretty close to going ahead.’”

Aside from the three generalists, there are three people doing HR database work, and three HR associates. These are junior people and each is assigned to assist one of the generalists.

The associates are also responsible for most of the HR paperwork. “I don’t think you get any value having managers doing HR administration. You are better having an HR department that is 30 per cent bigger than everyone else’s, with three or four admin people doing the work. And if you are going to push administration out into the organization, my own view is you have to make it as simple as possible and make it something (that) also adds value.”

For example, during salary review time, each manager is sent an electronic spreadsheet, with guidelines, available bonus amounts, possible salary bands and ranges all entered. “All they have to do is pull up a worksheet and play around with the numbers — because they have to stay within a certain pool — but they are allowed a certain amount of independence,” says Lupini. “They actually like that because they can do a bunch of what-if scenarios.”

Taking compensation planning out of HR and into the hands of managers helps them “use compensation as a motivator or an award system,” says Lupini.

When HR professionals are embedded in the group and understand managers’ concerns and objectives they can provide the managers with the information and assistance to make good decisions on their own.

“When it comes to salary increases…we can say, ‘Look, these are your decisions in the end. But if you give everyone three per cent or five per cent, our HR knowledge tells us that you just de-motivated the person who killed themselves for the organization last year because you didn’t show any distinction and we reward for performance.’”

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