Interaction between HR and line managers is essential, says council

In tough times, the HR function in the public sector is devolving people management to the line manager. To avoid them becoming the weakest link, HR must not neglect the 'employee champion' role.


Public services are subject to radical review, following significant budget reductions announced in the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review last October. The HR function across the public sector has been redesigned in many cases, with a view to providing a business-support function, while also devolving people management more comprehensively to line managers. Related literature reveals that there is no absolute consensus about what constitute the respective roles of HR professionals and line managers with respect to people management.

Stockton Borough Council carried out research to support the implementation of the organisational vision to develop the strategic HR function in this way. Line managers at third-tier level were questioned about what they saw as the core aspects of the role of the line manager and that of HR professionals.

The research showed that there was already a culture of line managers working closely with HR in order to address people management responsibilities. However, it was also clear that line managers felt vulnerable about taking on more of what they saw as traditional aspects of the HR role – such as dealing with poor staff performance – without direct access to HR support and undertaking additional training, for example in conflict management. The risk of a lack of consistency in judgement and decision-making by line managers was also highlighted, as was the perceived reluctance of HR professionals to relinquish some of their traditional responsibilities. Managers who took part in the research also expressed concern at expectations of their taking on more duties, when they already lack time and are juggling a number of priorities.

Implicit in the research findings was the acknowledgement that the employment relationship is very complex and that there has been significant growth in employment law that can appear to be contradictory. The economic environment makes it more important than ever that employees are enabled to perform at the peak of their abilities, with public services expected to achieve more with significantly less resources.

Line managers play a crucial role in managing employee relations and performance, but can be described as the ‘weakest link’, as some managers in the public sector may be promoted for their technical expertise, rather than their specific people-management skills and experience.

For the organisation to be fit for purpose in the current and future challenging contexts:

  • The required managerial behavioural competencies need to be embedded into job design and recruitment processes.
  • Good people management needs to be recognised and rewarded.
  • Line managers have to be involved in the development and review of HR policies.
  • These changes need to be embedded, before HR support is withdrawn in a controlled way.

To effect the required changes to the line manger role, it is important that HR continues to provide for the ‘employee champion’ role, particularly until the change is embedded.


Liz Hanley is interim head of adult strategy/assistant director (commissioning) at Stockton Borough Council/NHS Stockton