When HR and Line Managers Fight

August 1, 20148:22 am2818 views

HR departments and line managers are both working towards the advancement of their firms’ interests. But sometimes, their decisions can conflict.

Many line managers are ambivalent about the function of Human Resources. On one hand, most of them want their HR people to be involved in key strategic decisions; conversely, they want to ensure that whatever they do is not perceived as an “HR program.”

Managers often rely on HR partners to help them build an effective team, but then chafe at HR for forcing them to “follow the process.” Ram Charan, an Indian-American business consultant, argued in a recent HBR article that many line managers are disappointed in their HR people.

Many factors influence this complex, multi-dimensional relationship, but it seems three distinctive factors contribute the most to it. These are: role confusion,  lack of understanding of human capital processes by line managers and a lack of understanding of business processes and pressures by HR.

Role confusion

Dave Ulrich, a management professor based at the Ross School of Business, studies how organisations develop capabilities of their personnel through leveraging human resources.

He pointed out almost 20 years ago in his book, “Human Resource Champions”, that HR has four roles: administrative expert, employee advocate, strategic business partner, and change agent. In some cases, an HR person specializes in just one of these roles (e.g. manager of an HR call center is basically focused on the administrative role).

Other HR professionals function as generalists, switching between the roles. When they and their management partners are not explicit about which role is being played, this creates misunderstandings.

For example, an HR practitioner helping a team streamline a number of key planning activities switches the discussion from process mapping to employee performance assessment. Managers can become puzzled and frustrated by this shift, because they felt that this HR task is hindering them.

However, the HR practitioner is simply concerned about whether team actions will eliminate some positions and wants the matter handled in a fair and equitable manner. The role shifted from “change agent” to “employee advocate”.

Because this role shift is not communicated explicitly, teams can become upset at the abrupt change. This tends to happen frequently with HR generalists who play multiple roles. When roles are being played at without rationale or by explicit communication, managers can become confused and frustrated. HR is then blamed by managers for ineffective support

Human capital

Many managers don’t accept their own accountability for managing human capital. Rather, they want to shift responsibility to HR.  They avoid or delay HR activities (e.g. candidate interviews, performance assessments, employee feedback discussions, compensation reviews, responses to engagement surveys, etc.)

This avoidance is often based on a lack of time, skills or interest. Or rooted in anxiety moving into challenging interpersonal territory. This leaves HR people acting like “process police”, chasing after recalcitrant line managers. Naturally, this doesn’t enhance the relationship.

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Business processes

Many HR people lack understanding of their company’s business, or the pressures facing its managers. Many HR people can’t explain their firm’s business model, competitive industry context or critical product issues. The firms key financial metrics may as well be quantum physics to most HR practitioners.

Few organisations encourage rotation between HR and line business roles. Due to this, most HR practitioners become functional or technical experts, missing out on fundamental principles of the business.

In the absence of this understanding, it becomes difficult for HR practitioners to contextualise the critical human capital processes for managers. In turn, managers don’t know how to prioritise human capital processes or use them as a value-added function.

In Summary

These issues aren’t impossible to resolve. Both sides have to make an effort at understanding each others roles. Line managers have to accept that human capital management is a significant aspect of their job that can’t be delegated or deferred.

HR professionals have to understand with greater depth the business need and performance challenges facing line managers. Additionally, both stakeholders need to be explicit about what specific roles HR needs to function in at any given time.

HR managers need to engage and interact with their business peers, spending more time with businesspeople and less time with HR counterparts. Aim to understand their job roles, concerns and aspirations. Ultimately, its about a rapport with them and insight into their role in the organisation.

Line managers need to ensure HR colleagues are engaged in their business reviews and encouraged to contribute in both human capital issues and business decisions. Their insights and background in human-driven processes may even come with fresh perspectives.

Ultimately, this communication benefits not just both sides of the divide, but the company as a whole.

This article is adapted from “Why Managers and HR Don’t Get Along“, over at the Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Any questions? Contact Shiwen at shiwen@hrinasia.com


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