· 3 min read · Features

Line Management: The blame game

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Transfer of traditional HR functions to the line has been accelerating as HR strives to become a strategic business partner. Peter Crush reports on the tensions between the two camps.

If only more companies had the same relationship that ITV's line managers have with its HR department, the world would be a happier place. When the broadcaster's diversity and development manager, Sara Hanson, wanted less of HR's time spent dealing with routine calls, and more of it done by line managers, an online HR Tookit combining e-learning and web content was developed. One year on, and 90% of the company's middle and senior management signed up to it.

Sadly ITV seems to be a rarity. In most organisations, line management and HR seem locked in a bitter battle about just where their respective roles start and finish and, if anything, each camp seems intent on digging itself in for the long haul. You only have to look at a surfeit of surveys, that shows this. So is anyone right, and is line management really getting such a raw deal?

Transference of HR responsibility to the line has been accelerating as HR seeks to become a strategic partner. "In principle, giving managers more power to make decisions about people is the right thing to do," says Steve Foster, HR strategist at NorthgateArinso, but he says he has noticed a doubling of calls from befuddled managers asking how to perform typically HR tasks. He adds: "We're seeing junior managers stumbling through people practices, so HR will have to pick up the pieces. Firms are in danger of seeing a rise in middle-manager mishaps. In trying to step away from the detail, HR may be causing bigger problems for themselves."

The statement 'people leave managers not businesses' has led to greater focus on line manager responsibility, but even this, says Ron Edwards, founder of people retention consultancy TalentDrain, must be challenged. "This is simply not true," he says. "Lack of promotion (61% of respondents) and inadequate pay (49%) are still the top two drivers by a long way according to our research." It is still HR that sets the parameters of why people leave, not the line, he says. "'Bad managers' was cited by just 7% as the main reason they left."

The problem with the management/HR department debate is that the data is contradictory. A CIPD report, Line Managers in Reward, Learning and Development, 2008, specifically concluded that the line is still seen as the most important.

Victoria Winkler, CIPD's learning and training development adviser, says: "The major obstacle rests with the balance between what are/should be HR and line manager responsibilities for people management."

Several organisations are currently battling this exact problem. The NHS's ongoing Workforce Management Project uses software called Intelligent HR from provider AdvisorPlus. Line managers are provided with NHS Trust-specific information about day-to-day HR issues, but the HR team is still only a phone call or email away.

But with many line managers ambivalent about HR to start with (see our exclusive Roffey Park research p34), one radical solution being proposed is for HR practitioners to bypass them altogether. Paul Thomas is head of DNA Wales, the organisation backed by the Wales Management Council, that advises companies on their 'human management'. He says: "HR is finding there is a mindset barrier with line managers, so they are going to front-line staff direct to assemble people champions who will work with the rest of the organisation on single issues." He says firms already doing this include engineering company JW Morris and Blaenau Gwent County Council. "Line management is welcoming it, because it didn't want the responsibility anyway," he adds.

Some might say that by doing this line managers are passing up the chance of making their position within the business more visible. However, others are more sceptical. "I can empathise with line managers," says Mark Leomouth, associate professor at Nottingham University Business School. "I can't see how taking on the unwanted jobs HR is shedding to make them look more strategic can possibly help line managers. Everyone can see the tension. It must de defused soon for the good of all."

HR blames management

- 75% HR managers believe the largest skills gap is in middle management (source: actuarial company EMB, November 2008)

- HR directors want line managers to handle at least 80% of day-to-day people issues, including managing high performance (68%); addressing difficult conversations (71%); and developing people (52%) (source: Full Potential Group, interviews with 100 HRDs, July 2007)

Management blames HR

- 75% of managers are being asked to undertake tasks they are not trained in (source: Skillsoft December 2008)

- 61% of line managers say they want more involvement in conducting interviews and are excluded from the process (source: SHL, July 2007)

- Only 23% of senior managers are confident that their company's talent management processes will deliver the leaders the organisation needs (source:Hay Group research and Management Consultancies Association)

- Just 21% of managers are satisfied with their organisation's approach to strategy (source: Edge/Cognosis Consulting research of 1,600 managers, July 2007)