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HR Magazine, July 2001 - Management Tools

In your job as a line manager, you've probably been through or observed one of the following scenarios:
  • Once again, one of your employees hasn't shown up for work, and you're angry about it. You go to your desk, pick up the phone and call HR. "John Smith isn't at his work station again. That's the fifth time in two weeks. I need you to counsel him on his poor attendance."

  • An employee walks into the office in a provocatively short skirt. She has pushed the limits in the past concerning her dress. You call HR and ask, "What is the company's policy as it relates to the length of women's skirts?"

In either situation, you're following the example of too many line managers—trying to pass your responsibilities onto HR. Why? Usually because it is easier; frequently because the task is particularly unpleasant; or perhaps because you think you don't have time for these people issues. After all, that's what HR does—deals with people issues.

The Tasks Managers Shirk

Passing the buck happens all too frequently, say HR professionals, especially when it comes to policy issues. "Not all managers are at fault," says one HR professional, "but I spend way too much time directing some of them to read the employee handbook or their handbook." That's particularly infuriating, she says, because the company has offered plenty of training on policy issues.

Job-performance issues are another area where managers often inappropriately turn to HR. They come to HR "when things have gone too far and expect me to 'get rid of Joe,'" says another HR professional.

Another lapse occurs when managers submit incomplete personnel action forms to HR, and thus ultimately delay the action for the employee or may even delay replacement of departing or transferring employees.

Sometimes the extra duties aren't even applicable to HR. According to another HR professional, mundane issues get handed over to HR, "such as my assistant being told to make out the deposits for [accounts receivable], copying all the checks, etc." When the HR professional asked why the task wasn't passed to accounting, the response was, "They just thought we 'had more time.'"

Typically, line managers ask HR to do the following:

  • Counsel non-HR employees on performance issues. This occasionally can result in managers asking HR to write a policy governing a single act by an employee.

  • Counsel employees for such problems as body odor, bathroom cleanliness, littering in common areas, etc. As with performance-related issues, issues of a personal nature that involve employees are the responsibilities of managers.

  • Organize parties and picnics.

  • Track employee use of time-off benefits, Family and Medical Leave Act absences, promotions, pay increases, etc.

  • Conduct terminations. While involuntary terminations are unpleasant tasks, they're the line manager's responsibility. HR professionals are happy to offer advice and should be notified of pending terminations. But, unless a third party is required, it's the manager's job to conduct the termination.

Understanding HR's Role

HR has two distinct roles within the company. In one, HR is a partner to managers; in the other, HR is an advocate for employees. If HR becomes the organization's disciplinarian, it has an adverse impact on the role of employee advocate.

Frontline managers should oversee routine performance matters, communicate expectations, give rewards and handle similar matters because they are in a better position to do so. Their first-hand knowledge gives them a better perspective to assess and to ultimately resolve workplace issues. As an outside third party, HR typically is in a position of having to thoroughly investigate these issues, which could actually disrupt productivity.

As a frontline manager, you not only must protect your role and its responsibilities but also ensure that you have the knowledge and skills to effectively do your job. That's where HR comes in—to provide competency assessment and effective training to ensure that managers are as knowledgeable and effective as possible.

For example, Accenture, formerly Arthur Andersen Consulting, helps its clients establish appropriate hierarchies without creating or enhancing bureaucracy. The intent is to ensure that the most appropriate person at the most appropriate level handles issues from people to productivity. Clients who have made the commitment to handle issues when and where they occur, as opposed to passing these issues on to other centralized functions, are enjoying improved productivity of anywhere from 20 percent to 600 percent, according to Accenture. This also has improved the development of all levels of employees at Accenture, which in turn reduces turnover, enhances internal promotions and significantly reduces the hiring process.

How Passing the Buck Hurts You

Here's another reason why line managers shouldn't shift responsibilities to HR: It's not in their best interest. For example, when managers consistently turn to HR for answers about policy determinations—instead of going to the employment policy—employees ultimately start going directly to HR with their questions, leaving managers out of the loop and unaware of employee concerns.

Other reasons why managers need to perform these tasks themselves include:

  • Credibility. Employees want to know how their manager treats different types of behavior, that managers are involved in the day-to-day people issues of the group and that there are acceptable parameters to conduct and behavior. Managers who clearly communicate their standards, while both rewarding good behavior and correcting unacceptable behavior, enjoy greater levels of productivity, as well as lower levels of employee infractions. Frequently it is management's lack of credibility that employees cite in opinion surveys as a key part of their distrust of management.

  • Consistency. Employees expect managers to treat everyone the same and not to hand out special privileges. Knowing how managers respond to certain issues and how they apply their knowledge not only gives employees pride in their managers but also faith that fairness is a part of the bargain.

  • Commitment. Employees can sense managers' level of commitment simply by observing their behavior and their responses to different issues. It is not uncommon for managers to be labeled as indifferent when they do not address employee issues themselves.

The Right Time to Approach HR

When should managers go to HR for assistance? Certainly managers should seek HR's advice and counsel when the issue involves or could potentially involve employment law. When issues of serious misconduct, such as allegations of sexual harassment, arise, you should contact HR to assist with the investigation as well as to assess the risks involved when determining courses of action. And it goes without saying that any time managers simply do not know how to address an issue, they should ask HR for training.

A good way to get on track with your HR representatives is to ask them when they want to be involved in employee issues. Not only will you gain a clear understanding of HR's expectations, you also will get a better understanding of your individual deficiencies so that HR can help you turn those into effective tools.

Some HR departments are not as experienced as others, and that may result in poor communication between HR and managers. Assertive managers may find that they have to initiate the education process with their HR representatives. Questions these managers should ask are: - What types of situations would HR prefer to handle? - When in the problem-identification process should I notify HR? - What type of documentation should I maintain and where should I keep it filed? - What type of training can HR provide me to ensure that I remain able to handle those employee issues that I should address?

While these questions will not cover everything, they represent a good start toward establishing the most effective relationship between you and your HR representative. Some HR departments are more proactive. They invite managers to participate in the unemployment compensation hearing process. (In some states, this is required.) These same HR representatives develop manuals that provide managers with guidance about how to handle certain situations and when to contact HR for assistance. Some even provide formal contracts that establish professional intra-departmental relationships with HR, ensuring that roles are well defined and clearly indicating level of service.

Regardless of how your HR department operates, the goal is to fine-tune the relationship between line management and HR so that it is mutually supportive and allows for issues to be handled at the level closest to the employee and with the best knowledge of process, law and regulation.

Like the finance and marketing departments, the HR department is a tool to provide you with the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to effectively perform all aspects of your job and to help you attract and retain good workers. It also is designed to ensure that your employees have the necessary skills and that, when skill shortages are found, you will have the means to fill the shortage. Ensuring that you keep your management skills sharp is a shared role with you and the HR departme​​nt.

Donald M. Herrmann Jr., SPHR, is senior HR director at Lexis-Nexis in Dayton, Ohio.


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