HR, Line Managers: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

By Pamela Babcock Jan 11, 2014
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Conflicting priorities, convoluted or outdated protocols, and mutual frustrations largely due to budget cuts and time constraints can hamper relations between HR and line managers. But there are things that can be done by those on both sides to quell the animosity and reduce the inefficiencies inherent to such situations, according to a recent report and experts on the subject.

A November 2013 Hay Group study, Bringing the Line to Life: How Activating the Relationship Between HR and the Line Can Impact Organization Performance, suggests that tension between HR and line managers is stifling employers’ ability to design and implement workforce strategies to achieve business objectives.

The poll of 750 HR directors and line managers in the U.S., U.K. and China found that HR professionals sometimes feel overburdened by everyday requests and queries from line managers. In fact, a third of HR directors estimate that their team spends up to one-third of its time dealing with such matters, which 43 percent agree is too much time and that it prevents them from taking a more strategic role within the company.

Adding to their woes, 71 percent of HR directors said line managers want immediate responses to queries and “are unforgiving if the process takes longer,” the report notes.

View from the Flipside

Line managers see things differently. An overwhelming 75 percent who responded said HR keeps information and data “close to its chest,” and approximately half (48 percent) said HR is slow to respond to their requests. That may be why more than one-third (39 percent) said that Google is a better and more immediate source of information than HR.

Meanwhile, more than half of respondents (58 percent) believe that procedures for hiring, promoting and resource planning are convoluted and inefficient, while just over a third (34 percent) think that HR “actively obstructs them from making these decisions themselves.”

Embracing Resolutions, Solutions

The study suggests that HR should relinquish some of its control to help alleviate the situation, and a resounding majority of surveyed HR directors (88 percent) believe that empowering line managers to make people management decisions should be a key goal. However, 51 percent of responding line managers admitted they don’t feel empowered to do so.

Technology can help to achieve that goal of redistributing some of the control and accountability, but it isn’t the only answer. If problems persist, experts said, a company should examine its corporate culture, ensure that HR staff gets front-line business experience, and continue to invest in training and development.

“With the advent of new technologies, there’s an opportunity to reduce that frustration on both sides,” said Iain Fitzpatrick, vice president at Hay Group. Using technology can help HR transition from spending too much time on “tactical, day-to-day stuff” to “making that more strategic contribution” while ensuring that policies are “implemented and executed in a consistent way.”

Nevertheless, “Technology is merely a tool; it is not a strategy,” noted Rick Dacri, president of Dacri & Associates, a Kennebunkport, Maine-based HR consulting firm. “HR should be taking a leadership role in formulating and implementing workforce strategies, not focusing on methodologies or the latest fad or apps.”

Dacri, author of Uncomplicating Management: Focus On Your Stars & Your Company Will Soar (Just Write Books, 2009), said difficulties between HR staff and line managers often arise because each side lacks a clear understanding of what the other does.

While HR may be concerned with compliance, consistency and fairness, operations may be more concerned with getting things done, profitability and expediting innovation, he explained. HR professionals with operational experience are well versed in all aspects of the business. Mary Barra, the recently named CEO of GM, began her career in engineering and later moved into HR. “She gets it,” he said.

But it works both ways. And sometimes line managers “don’t quite understand” issues that HR grapples with, Dacri observed. “I think there’s a tendency for line staff often to think that they can do HR [work] because that stuff—interviewing and disciplining—is easy, and it isn’t.”

In an e-mail to SHRM Online, Sharlyn Lauby, SPHR, president of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based leadership training and HR consulting firm ITM Group Inc., advised organizations that are experiencing a growing tension between HR and line managers to consider whether the corporate culture is at the root of it, since HR’s role is defined by the culture.

“In my experience, human resources wants managers to manage their departments,” Lauby wrote. “HR does not want to run another manager’s department for them. That being said, managers need to be given the training and tools to run their departments effectively and efficiently.”

Some companies hire and/or promote the most technically competent people to management and then fail to give them the training they need to do the job properly, Lauby said. “Unfortunately, new manager[s are] left out on their own and learn by making mistakes. While sometimes that’s OK, other times it means spending a lot of time in human resources.

“Technology can bring many efficiencies to the workplace, [but its] purpose isn’t to have managers stop thinking,” she continued. “Managers [have to] think in new and different ways, know when technology is the best approach and when face-to-face interaction is best, and [to] understand the logic behind the technology so you can apply the same principles when the technology is unavailable.”

So companies that want to create an autonomous workforce need to teach employees what autonomy means, she said.

“I call it self-management, meaning that I’m aware of my personal strengths and weaknesses, understand how to solve my own problems, and know the best ways to resolve conflicts.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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