Being a line manager is a lot tougher than it used to be. Here’s how HR can help line managers deal with their increased responsibilities.
Over the past few decades, there’s been a steady trend toward HR devolution – a people management approach in which HR professionals become increasingly responsible for long-term big-picture strategic issues, leaving day-to-day people management in the hands of line managers.
As trends go, this is mostly a good one because line managers are usually best positioned to address the needs of their local workforces. In companies that have devolved people management to line managers, employees become more committed to their work and more interested in staying with the organisation long term.
Over time, companies that embrace devolution display higher productivity, greater ability to attract talent, and lower turnover rates.
But HR devolution places a heavy burden on line managers’ shoulders. Today’s line managers have more responsibility, smaller budgets, and less job security than the generations of managers who have gone before them.
In the post-COVID-19 workplace, they manage people who work remotely, on flexible work schedules, and in hybrid-work arrangements. They are expected to protect employees’ mental health and wellbeing even as their employers downsize, restructure and raise performance standards.
However, many line managers don’t receive the basic training they need for effective people management. And high turnover rates among HR professionals can mean that line managers receive little support within their own organisations.
Here are a few ways that line managers’ people management responsibilities have changed, along with some research-backed strategies for helping them to better manage their workloads.
Onboarding new hires
Formal, structured onboarding programs play a very important role in developing positive job attitudes among new hires. But as more companies embrace remote work, centralised onboarding is becoming a thing of the past and it’s left to line managers to onboard their new hires. Onboarding isn’t a place where you want to skimp because even a minimal investment in onboarding can boost employee retention by 34 per cent.
Onboarding has two distinct goals: giving new hires the essential information they need to perform well and helping new hires develop organisational relationships.
Unfortunately, because it’s usually easier to deliver information than develop relationships, line managers sometimes neglect the second goal. Smart line managers will leverage cohorts and peer mentors in their onboarding activities. New hires who are onboarded as a cohort are able to develop wider social networks because they start their jobs knowing people in other parts of the company.
Peer mentors can link new hires to their own social networks and answer the basic newbie questions, such as “Where do I find supplies?”. But it’s important to choose peer mentors wisely. Line managers should enlist mentors who are familiar with the company culture and centrally connected to other organisational members.
Hot tip: HR professionals should encourage line managers to meet new hires early and often. An extensive study at Microsoft demonstrates that new hires who have one-on-one meetings with their managers in the first week become more engaged and develop more collaborations than new hires who don’t.
Coaching for employee performance
Historically, line managers were responsible for accurately judging employee performance, ensuring that the right employees were tapped for promotions or remedial training.
Today, line managers are expected to act more like coaches, providing ongoing feedback (observations on employees’ past behaviour) alongside feeding forward to develop employees’ future behaviour. In fact, one survey reports that since 2018 there has been a 170 per cent increase in organisational leaders who expect line managers to offer feedback to their direct reports at least daily.
This means performance management can’t be treated as a once-a-year formal task; it’s an ongoing cycle of continuous improvement.
“Companies that embrace devolution display higher productivity, greater ability to attract talent, and lower turnover rates.”
Line managers need to be alert for ‘teachable moments’ because feedback has the greatest impact when it immediately follows either effective or ineffective performance. Over time, the one-on-ones that line managers established during employee onboarding become opportunities for coaching and advice.
The steady flow of feedback reduces turnover because managers can tune in to struggling employees earlier and coach them toward improvement.
Hot tip: Line managers sometimes worry they are overdoing feedback. HR professionals should encourage line managers to put that fear aside. Research demonstrates that daily and weekly feedback are particularly effective in improving performance, and there’s no evidence that employee performance is hurt by too much feedback.
Read HRM’s article on how to make your feedback more effective.
Reducing shock-initiated turnover
Line managers often assume that employees leave organisations because they don’t like their jobs. That’s only partly correct. Employees also leave because of shocks – jarring events that force the employee to review their employment situation.
Sometimes the shocks are surprising but not totally unexpected (like when an employee becomes pregnant earlier than they planned), and sometimes they come out of the blue (like when an employee gets an unexpected call from a headhunter). In some organisations, shock-caused turnover is more common than dissatisfaction-caused turnover.
Employee retention is all about helping employees to withstand the effects of those shocks. Line managers need to make their employees more resilient to shocks by deliberately embedding them into the workplace. That means proactively strengthening relationships both inside (with coworkers) and outside (with customers and clients) the company.
One effective strategy is to regularly ask valued employees what motivates them to stick around, what could be better about their work experience, and how they envision the next stage of their career. These questions can be incorporated into regularly occurring one-on-ones between line manager and employee.
Read HRM’s article on how to conduct a ‘stay interview’.
But this kind of long-term thinking is a new challenge for many line managers (who are already very busy putting out fires daily). And, ironically, helping employees to develop long-term careers means also being ready to let go of a valued employee to embrace the next challenge.
Hot tip: Some turnover is a good thing. If a company retained all its employees, there’d never be any innovative ideas sparked by new hires or promotion opportunities for emerging talent.
HR professionals should help line managers practice saying goodbye graciously because the entire team is watching how a line manager handles the exit of a valued employee.
The common denominator
Dramatic changes in the workplace are increasing line managers’ people responsibilities, and they require corresponding shifts in line manager thinking. The common denominator is this: Effective people management in today’s companies hangs almost entirely on the quality of relationships line managers establish and maintain with their employees.
Nurturing those high-quality relationships takes time and effort, but the payoff for organisations is huge. Employees who enjoy high-quality relationships with their line managers display higher job performance and engage in more voluntary behaviours, such as helping coworkers or working overtime. They are also less likely to leave their employers, so managers spend less time recruiting and training new staff.
There’s also a huge payoff for line managers: line managers who are good at ‘doing HR’ receive better performance evaluations, are promoted faster, and get larger salary increases. It’s a win-win!
Carol T Kulik is a Bradley Distinguished Professor at the University of South Australia, UniSA Business and co-author of Human Resources for the Non-HR Manager (Routledge, 2023).
Give your line managers the tools for success by signing them up for AHRI’s ‘HR for non-HR people’ short course.