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Exclusive report: Line managers think HR is neglecting the 'small stuff'

Has HR been neglecting the ‘small stuff’ in its quest to take a more strategic seat at the conference table? That’s the view of the majority of line managers, according to the findings of Roffey Park Institute’s Management Agenda Report 2013, revealed first exclusively to HR magazine. It paints a worrying picture of disconnection between HR and the line.

Last year, HR magazine exclusively revealed research that suggested line managers were losing confidence in HR departments, as HR tried to move away from the traditional 'hire and fire' function to a more strategic role. This year, the responsibilities of HR versus the line take centre stage in the research.

"We find every year that there's a difference between HR and line managers," says Dilip Boury, researcher at Roffey Park Institute and author of the report. "HR wants to be more strategic, whereas the line likes transactional HR and the support that offers them. As HR becomes more strategic, managers can be left feeling unsupported. This year, we wanted to find out where this was most acute."

When it comes to who 'owns' what, line managers see HR as mainly responsible for interpreting employment law, and also favour HR taking the lead on exit interviews and handling redundancies, although most managers agree they should also play a role here. In contrast, managers think they should take responsibility for performance appraisals, selecting and assessing new employees, writing job descriptions, talking about career development and projecting future workforce planning.

So far, so straightforward – but when questioned on their perceptions of where responsibilities lie, there are some significant "crunch points" between HR and non-HR managers, says Boury. In the matter of determining compensation and benefits and the restructuring of teams, more non-HR managers than HR managers think the line should have greater influence, and the same is true to a lesser extent of workforce planning, selecting new employees and arranging learning and development.

And when it comes to the more punitive aspects of management, such as conducting grievance and disciplinary procedures, it seems that no one wants to do it, with HR and non-HR managers trying to pass the buck to each other. This may well go on to explain why performance management remains a major challenge in many organisations, and underperformance is a key problem (40% of managers say it is not tackled well in their organisations).

"No one wants to do the difficult stuff, and it risks falling down a hole in the middle," says Andy Smith, director of research, practice and qualifications at Roffey Park. "The drive has been for HR to be more strategic, but people are forgetting the basics. HR needs to sweat the small stuff and get the basics right in order to gain entry to the more strategic stuff."

The disconnect could even be "getting bigger", according to Richard MacKinnon, head of learning and development solutions at Talent Q, a talent management consultancy that has carried out its own research into the gulf between managers and HR and reached similar conclusions as Roffey Park. "HR may be becoming more strategic, but managers still want to know how to do things, and know what returns they will see from doing them," MacKinnon says. "Line managers are the biggest components for HR policy implementations, but without guidance and advice, they might not implement them."

"It's not that line managers are conservative and holding HR back," stresses Boury. "It's that they are feeling unsupported and ill-equipped." The fact that the views on the split of responsibilities vary by job seniority lends this credence, with more junior line managers keener on HR looking after more transactional duties. "There is a tension between strategic and transactional HR," adds Boury. "If HR wants to become more strategic, it mustn't forget the basics."

MacKinnon agrees: "There are organisations where HR has tried to adopt a more strategic role and nothing has been done to support the line managers at the coalface. They need training and support in people issues. Without that support, no one's doing the basics and that's where problems arise."

Michael Farry, HR director of online digital photo printing company Photobox, says he finds the report's results "rather depressing". "It suggests there's a lot of energy that is expended in all the wrong places," he says. "It's a team sport – not about 'us' and 'them'. And it's hard enough these days, without making it adversarial. I have a team to manage myself – I am a line manager – so I need to be sympathetic to the realities of what it's like for them.

"On a transactional level, we in HR have to do the basics," he continues. "We have to empower and support the line to do the basics, and remind them if necessary. The basics and more strategic aspects have to go hand-in-hand, because it's the day-to-day business where you're going to make a difference."

Not too surprisingly, when it comes to perception of the function, HR has a higher opinion of itself than those who don't work in HR and scores itself higher in all categories. MacKinnon says: "HR doesn't do a good job of its own PR. In a business, the average line manager is not really aware of the great work that HR does. In good organisations, HR is viewed as a centre of expertise and somewhere to go first for advice; in other organisations, it's seen as a last resort."

Only about half of non-HR managers view HR as strategic, proactive and customer-focused and agree it produces relevant and timely results; around two-thirds see HR as credible, influential and adding value to the business. However, views of HR improve higher up the management chain. "Senior managers are more likely to buy into the idea of HR business partnership," says Boury. "That suggests that at a junior level, it's a lack of support that's making the difference." HR is also viewed more effectively in 'high support' workplaces. And, in a bit of a Catch-22 situation, the function is rated more highly in organisations where it has responsibility for more strategic elements.

Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, believes that HR and line managers should be working in partnership to tackle people and performance issues. "Everyone is struggling with managing people at the moment and almost half of managers are viewed as ineffective by the people they manage," she says. "HR should be providing best practice, coaching and cheerleading line managers, but not doing their job for them. That should be the single biggest strategic contribution that HR can make. If they are not doing that, how strategic are they really being?"

Francke adds that as many managers are promoted into a people management role without being adequately prepared, HR has a crucial part to play in training and developing new managers. "There's a gap in how we promote people," she says. "We promote them because they are technically competent, not because they are good people managers. HR should be making sure that every single newly-promoted manager gets trained in people management. Right now, fewer than one in five people is."

This view is backed up by Roffey Park's findings, which connect how strategic and influential the HR function is considered to be with how supportive the organisation is of employee development and the effectiveness of its learning and development programmes.

At Photobox, says Farry, there is a strong focus on actively developing line managers. "You can fall into the trap of promoting people into roles they don't actually want," he says. "You need people where they can play to their strengths, and win. In 2012, we did formal training and development to help managers identify how they lead and manage. It helped them to recognise that they can find their own personal way of managing others, and don't have to try to be someone they are not. People who were disillusioned are now more energised."

A focus on employee development, from both an HR and non-HR point of view, is also essential if organisations are to tackle the pervasive problem of underperformance. Although slightly lower than in last year's report, underperformance is still much more of an issue for organisations than it was in the years leading up to the recession. "We don't talk enough about the effects of underperformance," says Smith. "If we don't deal with it, people start to wonder, 'what's the point?' You get 'rust-out' rather than burn-out. Good, fundamental management skills are being forsaken, and it's that good, old-fashioned management that we need to tackle this."

There is a direct correlation between effective tackling of underperformance and an effective HR function, and organisations that are seen as highly supportive are the kind of workplaces that are seen to be good at dealing with underperformance. The report finds that 82% of high support workplaces tackle underperformance very well or somewhat well, compared with only 45% of organisations rated as offering low levels of support.

The message that comes through most strongly, then, is one of necessity of support, collaboration between HR and the line, and, for HR specifically, a delicate balancing of strategic thinking with providing guidance on the day-to-day basics.

"Sometimes we get confused about what strategic actually means," says Smith. "Recruitment is strategic, for example: HR needs to collaborate to help managers make the right decision. Overall, what is needed is more collaboration. HR and the line should stop talking about who is responsible for what and think more about working together."