· 7 min read · Features

HR and line manager relations showing signs of improvement


There has been a noticeable improvement in the relationship between the line and HR, according to Roffey Park data, released exclusively to HR magazine. But will it last? Peter Crush reports.

This time last year (in Piggy in the Middle, February 2009), HR magazine revealed just how low middle managers' relationship with the HR department had become, when, of the 800 respondents to Roffey Park's 2009 Management Agenda, 45% of middle managers believed HR lacked credibility and less than a quarter (24%) thought HR actually added value. A third at this level thought HR had no influence at all, but such was HR's meddling in their business that middle managers rated their engagement at work far lower than any other grade of manager above or below them.

The findings were a sobering reminder of the burden line managers felt they were suffering, as the boundaries between HR and the line continue to blur and as HR seeks to devolve more of what it see as 'non-strategic' functions downwards. It was a situation Chartered Management Institute CEO Ruth Spellman famously summarised to HR magazine as being "potty", adding "many managers do not now have the skills to do their jobs properly". She said: "HR's role needs to be clarified. There is a minimum amount of 'people stuff' HR still has to do."

So has anything changed one year on? Last month saw the publication of Roffey's 2010 Management Agenda. Again, HR magazine has been given exclusive data relating to the relationship between HR and the line, but this time the story is far less black and white; in fact it is far less doom and gloom.

Even the bad news does not seem quite so bad. Last year 45% of middle managers thought HR lacked credibility; this year the figure is much the same - at 46%. While this is still nothing to crow about (its authors warn 'HR should take note of this repeated message'), what it lacks in image, HR is clearly compensating for by action: more than two-thirds (69%) of junior/middle managers believe HR now adds value to the business - this is double the number that thought so a year ago; 68% agreed HR was influential in the business and, it seems, not in an overpowering way: 76% did not think HR was too powerful, nor did the majority feel HR was out of touch (62% disagreed with this statement). Whereas a year ago, middle managers believed HR produced too many policies for them to implement, this year 69% of respondents disagreed with the notion HR churns out too much red tape.

So has there really been a great middle management revival in the past 12 months, or has HR realised its error and scaled back what it hands down to the line? Surprisingly perhaps, Ben Wilmott, senior public policy adviser at the CIPD, says it is probably line managers, rather than HR departments, that have made more of a change, although what has helped has been the increased profile of HR during the recession. "The backdrop to the past year has been line managers being under more pressure, as they are squeezed by their managers. Because the HR function has got more visible, there has probably been a coming together of minds. Line managers are realising HR can be helpful in enabling them to do their jobs better. Employees are not changing jobs so line managers are realising they have to get the best out of these people somehow and are turning to HR to support them."

What is significant, though, is that this new-found positivity towards HR still seems to be restricted to businesses that are - as far as possible - trying to operate in a business-as-usual manner. For example, according to Roffey Park, the fact there has been a recession has not by itself influenced line managers' views on HR, but where an organisation's response to the recession has been to increase, or decrease HR activity, then this was reflected in their perceptions of the HR function. Where recruitment had been suspended, line managers still believed HR added less value and were less credible; whereas among businesses that were still actively recruiting, this was not the case. Wilmott, however, says he is hopeful the new working partnerships being forged between HR and the line will be a more permanent feature looking forward. "Hopefully we're seeing signs the rest of the business (line/middle managers) understands HR, rather than the usual gripe that HR does not understand the business (them)," he says.

One organisation with first-hand experience of a closer relationship between HR and the line is the British Red Cross. When head of talent management Jon Summerson wanted to introduce a talent management strategy last summer, he knew it would involve "a drain on our line managers' time and resources". He says he was honest with managers and specifically asked them how they would cope with implementing it. Just by doing this he says he immediately overcame any suspicion or disengagement that could have arisen.

"It wasn't that management did not have an appetite for doing it; just that they felt they needed coaching training if they were being expected to act as mentors," says Summerson. "We've now had so much interest we're planning on running extra leadership training groups. There could have been a 'what's in it for me' attitude from managers, but there is genuine buy-in because we see a real appetite to see how they can improve their teams."

This is one organisation where relationships are working, but others believe HR must take the opportunity to keep up the momentum, or risk relations reverting to type. "Last year HR helped line managers cut costs," says Dave Millner, EMEA consulting director, Kenexa. "Rightly, HR received acknowledgement from the line for the things it could help them do, but this year the line faces the much tougher challenges of building capability and getting more from employees with less. There is a real opportunity for HR to show line mangers what it can do, but I sense this opportunity could not be maximised. There are still not enough organisations looking at the capability of HR and organisational design work. You can't build capability without this."

But Spellman says the results of Roffey Park are not surprising because CMI members have told her HR has upped its game with management. And she believes the new partnership approach will continue. "The worst is not over yet," she says. "We're not at the end of cost-cutting and we've seen innovative HR policies for keeping people employed, rather than slashing jobs."

Not totally on HR's side, though, she believes HR's involvement with the line is also motivated by their own survival instincts too. "Their jobs have been under threat. It's not just a case of them being philanthropic and helping their line managers," she says. "They've been in dire straits. HR has realised they - as well as line managers - are in it together, so why not be on the inside track?"

One statistic that caught her eye was the finding HR believes 87% of managers don't 'walk the talk' - something she says means HR has to work on empowering managers to be able to take decisions, by giving them appropriate training and support. But one of the greatest gains that should make happier reading is the fact line managers have a vastly improved perception of HR being customer-focused. Last year, just 7.5% of line managers agreed HR was sufficiently customer-focused. This year it jumps to a massive 53%.

"It makes sense that joined-up internal teams will improve relations both internally and externally," says Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service, which last month found the UK's customer service rating had gone up to 75%. "Good HR-line manager relations will follow through to higher employee engagement and service levels. This is a positive sign."

But what is clear is this: while the past 12 months may well have shown some positive signs in HR/line manager relations, the next 12 months will be the true test. Leo McCann, lecturer in comparative management at Manchester Business School, and co-author of Managing in the Modern Corporation, for one needs more convincing the change will be permanent: "I'd be surprised if things improve," he said. "Work actually needs to be taken off line managers if they are to do their jobs properly. Line managers do not lack the goodwill but the time and the skills. I expect the next few years to be bad."

Stress of HR-induced workload

Line managers' opinion of HR might have got better, but there is still significant room for improvement. Top of the list of major stressors for line managers is their increasing HR-induced workload (claimed by 59% of line managers). Reflecting that job distinctions are also blurring, this is closely followed by organisational politics and, significantly, lack of clarity over their role (and then 'lack of support' for it). Top of the reasons for causing conflict was 'different agendas' (73%). When middle managers were asked which factors affected their confidence in tackling one particular aspect of their work - performance management - 41% said procedures were too complicated, while a third said they lacked support from HR.

Despite improved relations, not surprisingly perhaps, HR professionals still have a much better opinion of themselves than line managers have of them.

Roffey's 2010 report makes it possible to compare HR responses with non-HR responses. It found:

- Only 15% of HR professionals thought HR failed to support managers, whereas 33% of managers thought HR didn't support them

- 90% of HR professionals thought they added value to the business; 69% of middle managers thought this

- 78% of HR practitioners thought HR was credible; 57% of middle management thought this

- 73% of HR practitioners disagreed that they produce too many initiatives; 69% of line managers disagreed with this

Linklaters: HR is there to help line managers do their jobs

According to Caroline Rawes, UK HR director at law firm Linklaters, HR business partners have a very clear role: "They're there to help line managers, but they're not there to do their jobs for them."

The company, with offices across the globe, has 10 UK business partners, broadly overseeing 1,800 staff. Rawes says the company did not view introducing business partners (which were only finally all in place two months ago) as adding extra responsibility to line managers' roles, but as a way of "explaining to line managers what their responsibilities are". She says: "The business partnering process has been about helping line managers develop the skills they need to do their jobs; we consulted widely about it, and we believe it has been understood. The whole process is there to support line managers, and for trickier situations, such as conflict, we'll sit beside them. But HR is very much about supporting line managers. Some new work may have been moved to line managers, but that's because it's the best place for it. We expect line managers to tackle people management issues themselves."

Where HR will help is in offering them coaching, creating managers' role plays for meetings they will do for themselves, and providing toolkits for them to refer to. "Some will find the toolkits are all they need; others will need more, but we'll be here to help. It's been a tough 2009 for everyone. There was a heavy realisation that HR needed to step up to the mark to prove its support. We feel HR has delivered this, and established real credibility among our colleagues."