HR v Line Managers: How to build a productive relationship

The relationship between HR and line managers in an organisation can be complicated. Both have high expectations of one another, there’s friction when demands aren’t met, and sparks can fly when tension boils over.

illustration of 2 cross looking people with arms folded

It’s easy to see why this conflict exists. Managers need information fast and become frustrated when their HR team seemingly take a long time to respond to requests. There’s also a belief that HR guard information data too closely, and are causing a barrier to productivity. HR directors on the other hand see line managers as causing unnecessary tension by demanding immediate answers to questions. Some HRs also feel they constantly have to hold managers’ hands, preventing them from getting on with the more strategic aspects of their work.

Tension in the workplace is common of course, but It’s vital this particular relationship doesn’t become an obstacle to implementing HR strategy. After all, successful people management hinges on both parties working together. HR need managers on their side – they’re the ones who carry out HR policies into day-to-day practice, turning them from a vision into reality. Likewise, managers need HRs backing and cooperation when there’s a disciplinary issue in their team, or a workplace investigation needs to be carried out.

So what’s the solution? My view is that changes in attitude from both parties can go a long way to building a more amicable partnership:

What managers can do

There are still too many line managers who regard managing people as something they have to do ‘as well as’ the day job. They haven’t switched on to the fact that managing people is the day job. Survey after survey has shown that line managers play a critical role in building employee engagement. If companies want to get the best out of their people, they need to make it a priority to equip line managers with the tools and skills they need to manage staff properly. This emphasis on good people management also needs to be reflected in the objectives managers are set and in the way their performance is measured and rewarded.

What HR can do

HR can’t assume that all line managers somehow magically know how to manage people. There are some managers who are naturals when it comes to communication, influencing and motivation – but there are just as many who struggle with these ‘softer’ management skills. Often, people are promoted into management because of their technical expertise or their business nous, rather than for their people management capabilities. HR needs to recognise this and provide coaching and development opportunities to help newly appointed and existing managers improve their practice in this important area.

It’s also important to recognise that managers may want a say in HR policy, considering they’re the ones implementing it in the day-to-day. View them as strategic partners of HR, not a barrier to change. Make them part of the process, listen to what they say and take their views on board.

Can technology help build bridges?

Companies can make better use of technology to streamline and support their people management processes. The sophisticated HR software now available on the market can solve many of the issues line managers are complaining about at the click of a mouse, reducing the strain between the two groups. It can guide them through performance management processes and help them manage absence and annual leave. It can give them an overview of the skills available in their team so they can plan resourcing and training accordingly. Technology, if used to its fullest extent, can put the people-related data managers need at their fingertips. Companies often think that these HR solutions are only for the bigger players and will be beyond their budget. Thanks to advances in technology, however, sophisticated systems are now within reach of businesses of any size.

Technology can’t replace the constructive conversations that need to happen between managers and their people – but it can certainly do a lot to make life easier for the line and to take the pressure off HR.

Are HR and line managers allies or enemies in your business? How do you think working relationships between the two parties could be improved?

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