Professor Paul Gollan puts forward the pros and cons for devolving the HR function to line managers.
For HRM to be taken seriously, HRM managers should give it away. One of the reasons for devolving HR to the line are cost-cutting imperatives, as devolvement would see HR departments becoming smaller. The increasing turbulence organisations face increases the significance of line managers’ roles in managing people… and addresses some of the criticisms of the HR profession. First, that HR managers are not commercially astute and as such their decisions are based on principles that are good in theory but irrelevant to business needs or difficult or inappropriate to implement. Second, because HR is tasked to ensure that employment regulation is followed, it is often seen as constraining the ability of managers to make autonomous decisions. A third line of criticism is that HR is often slow to respond.
As such, devolving some of the HR responsibilities to line managers would enable faster decision-making that is in line with business reality. And because line managers occupy a unique position between the strategic apex and the operating core of organisations they are able to influence strategic and operational priorities. Thus devolvement results in higher levels of motivation and more effective control of employees and sharpens line managers’ decision-making skills and thus prepares them for higher level positions. The HCCP Survey in South Korea, for example, found that line managers’ involvement in HRM creates a strong HR climate by delivering distinctive, consistent and consensus-enhancing messages to employees.
There are noted disadvantages to devolving HR responsibility to front-line managers. On the one hand, line managers are keen to take on HR responsibilities but on the other, they are ineffective in completing HR responsibilities and delivering value. In particular, a gap has been established between espoused and enacted HR practices: the former are designed by the organisation to contribute to the achievement of the business strategy whereas the latter are implemented and may differ from the intended ones. The gap between espoused and enacted practices is common and may result because line managers may lack the skills necessary to perform HR responsibilities, have insufficient interest for people management, have conflicting priorities and a heavy workload.
To ensure the success of devolving HR to the line, line managers must be given training and support from HR specialists so that costly mistakes can be avoided. Overall devolvement is not about HR versus line managers but a partnership, where operational aspects of HR are handled by line managers whereas strategic aspects remain within the HR function. HR has primary responsibility for activities that involve interactions with external stakeholders (such as unions) and activities that involve long-term planning.
In contrast, line managers are primarily responsible for day-to-day people management activities such as disciplinary action, coaching, performance management and promotion decisions.
If we accept that the relationship between HR and middle managers is one of ‘partnership’ as opposed to a ‘trade-off’ then the HR function should be organised in such a manner that HR professionals and line managers work closely with one another.
The full article was first published in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Should HR give it away?’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.