The role of line managers in HR

Revised April 2012

In this factsheet
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Who are line managers? The role of line managers in implementing HR processes The qualities and skills needed from line managers Managing line managers CIPD viewpoint References Further reading

Who are line managers?
Line managers are those managers to whom individual employees or teams directly report and who have responsibility to a higher level of management for those employees or teams. The term ‘front-line managers’ is rather more specific and normally refers to line managers in the lower layers of the management hierarchy – that is, where the employees who report to them do not themselves have any managerial or supervisory responsibility. Front-line managers are often promoted from within and are unlikely to have formal management education. Typically the management responsibilities carried out by line managers (particularly front-line managers) might include:
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day-to-day people management managing operational costs providing technical expertise organisation of work allocation and rotas monitoring work processes checking quality dealing with customers/clients measuring operational performance.

As examined in detail below, line managers in many organisations also carry out activities that have traditionally fallen within the remit of HR such as providing coaching and guidance, undertaking performance appraisals and dealing with discipline and

grievances. They also often carry out tasks such as recruitment and selection or pastoral care in conjunction with HR.

The role of line managers in implementing HR processes
Relationship between HR and the line
The relationship between the HR function and line managers has been subject to a number of changes and tensions in recent years. Changes in the delivery of HR has shifted responsibility for many core HR activities, such as recruitment or objective setting, from HR to the line. Furthermore, the trend towards individualisation of the employment relationship has placed new burdens and opportunities in the hands of line managers. An obvious example is that, with collective pay-setting provisions giving way to individual performance-related pay awards in many organisations, the role of each employee’s line manager has become increasingly influential in determining individual pay increases. More information on the individualisation of pay can be found in our factsheet on performance-related pay.

Devolving responsibility down the line
The changing role of the line manager has been assessed in detail as part of the people and performance research programme carried out for the CIPD by a team at Bath University1. The initial research found that front-line managers play a pivotal role in terms of implementing and enacting HR policies and practices. Where employees feel positive about their relationship with their front line managers, moreover, they are more likely to have higher levels of job satisfaction, commitment and loyalty – which are in turn associated with higher levels of performance or discretionary behaviour. Discretionary behaviour is defined as that which goes beyond the requirements of the job to give the extra performance that can boost ‘the bottom line’ (or profit levels). Our subsequent work with Bath University explores in detail the role that line managers play in people management in two key areas: reward, and learning and development.
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View Rewarding work: the vital role of line managers View Learning and the line: the role of line managers in training, learning and development

Our practical tool addresses the role of line managers in workplace coaching.

Go to Coaching at the sharp end: the role of line managers in coaching at work

Line managers and employee engagement
The increasing emphasis on employee engagement in the modern workplace means that this aspect of the line manager’s role in people management can be particularly influential. The latest findings in this area can be found in the final report in our Shaping the Future project, Sustainable organisation performance: what really makes the difference?, and in our Research Insight into management competences for enhancing employee engagement..
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Go to the Shaping the Future final report Go to the Research Insight

As pointed out in these reports, line managers can have a crucial impact on engagement as they act as the interface between the organisation and its workforce. It is therefore especially important to pay close attention to how the organisation selects, develops and manages the performance of line managers to ensure they maximise their potential to be engaging leaders.

Impact of line manager behaviour
Overall, the areas where line managers make a significant difference to people management practices include:
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performance appraisal training, coaching and guidance employee engagement (including involvement and communication) openness – how easy is it for employees to discuss matters with their line manager work-life balance recognition – the extent to which employees feel their contribution is recognised communication – particularly encouraging or reinforcing alignment with business goals or core values.

These are all areas where, although the processes may be designed by HR, they cannot be delivered by HR. The line manager role is crucial in a number of respects:
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enabling the HR policies and practices, or bringing them to life acting upon advice or guidance from HR controlling the work flow by directing and guiding the work of others.

Role of business partnering

A growing emphasis on business partnering, where the HR function is closely involved with supporting business strategy, has been influential in enhancing the people management aspects of the line manager’s role. This approach enables line managers to develop a peer relationship with HR business partners to develop responses and solutions to HR issues in partnership. The arguments in favour of business partnering stress the positive aspects of the partnership, enabling both people and business issues to be considered in a wide range of decisions that will impact on organisational effectiveness. Because the relationship is ongoing, both sides develop a better understanding and develop long-term strategies and solutions rather than HR being brought in to manage issues as they arise. For more on business partnering, see our factsheet on that topic.

Go to our factsheet on HR business partnering

Impact of outsourcing
The practice among many organisations of outsourcing transactional HR activities has also had the effect of devolving more responsibility to line managers to maintain records, input data and manage routine HR activities such as staffing requests, booking training or submitting payroll information. However, when outsourcing is working well, it also enables them to access better and more timely information and support to carry out people management tasks and manage their staff more effectively. More information on outsourcing HR can be found in our factsheet on that topic.

Go to our factsheet on HR outsourcing

The qualities and skills needed from line managers
Line managers exercise a strong influence over the level of discretion that an individual has over how they do their job, as is clear from the research. Some managers can permit and encourage people to be responsible for their own jobs whereas others can stifle initiative through controlling or autocratic behaviour. To encourage the kind of discretionary behaviour from employees that is associated with higher performance, line managers need to:
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build a good working relationship with their staff – they need to lead, listen, ask, communicate, be fair, respond to suggestions and deal with problems help and support employees to take more responsibility for how they do their jobs by coaching and guidance build effective teams.

Many of the qualities and skills that are associated with higher quality line management centre on the behaviours of the line managers involved. It is not enough to educate line managers in the behaviours required; organisations must also ensure they are developing the environment and culture in which line managers are actively encouraged and permitted to exhibit the identified behaviours. Organisations with a strong shared culture, with guiding principles for behaviours that are embedded into practice over time, tend to be more successful in this respect. To deliver good people management in the organisation, line managers themselves need to be managed within a strong supportive framework to enable them to develop selfconfidence and a robust sense of their own role in the organisation. This, in turn, requires strong support and appropriate training and development for those newly-appointed in a line management role.

Managing line managers
Well-managed line managers are more likely to go on to lead high-performing teams. Senior management support and action on the development of line managers is critical. The relationships line managers experience with their own managers and with senior management tend to make a significant difference to their willingness to display discretionary behaviour in their own management activities. Generally line managers are more likely to display the positive behaviours associated with higher levels of performance from those they are managing if they experience:
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good working relationships with their own managers good career opportunities and support to progress their careers a positive work-life balance the capacity to participate and feel involved in decision-making an open organisational culture that enables them to air a grievance or discuss matters of personal concern a sense of job security.

CIPD viewpoint
Line managers need to be carefully selected, with particular attention paid to people management behaviours, and to be supported by strong organisational values that show clearly the behaviours expected and those not tolerated. They should have sufficient skills training to enable them to fulfil the people management requirements of the job, and they also need to feel confident that their own managers will treat them with respect. They should be encouraged to reflect on their own behaviour and how they are perceived by those they manage, to ensure they are managing positively and understand their impact or motivation, and hence performance.

Organisations need to encourage line managers’ buy-in and commitment to people management activities by clarifying their responsibilities through job descriptions, performance appraisal and communications on the importance and value of developmentrelated activities. It is also important for the HR function to be aware that line managers often have conflicting priorities and role overload and that all managers need adequate time to carry out their people management activities.

1. HUTCHINSON, S. and PURCELL, J. (2003) Bringing policies to life: the vital role of front line managers in people management. Executive briefing. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Further reading
Books and reports
TAMKIN, P., HIRSH, W. and TYERS, C. (2003) Chore to champions: the making of better people managers. Brighton: Institute for Employment Studies. Visit the CIPD Store to see all our priced publications currently in print.

Journal articles
DALZIEL, S. and STRANGE, J. (2007) How to engage line managers in people management. People Management. Vol 13, No 19, 20 September. pp56-57. HASSAN, F. (2011) The frontline advantage. Harvard Business Review. Vol 89, No 5, May. pp106-114. HONEY, P. (2006) Line managers need all the help they can get, especially when they don’t realise it. Organisations & People. Vol 13, No 4, November. pp2-8. MILSOME, S. (2006) Devolving HR responsibilities: are managers ready and able? IRS Employment Review. No 842, 3 March. pp9-16. SUFF, R. (2011) Managing underperformance 2011 survey: line managers' role. IRS Employment Review. 21 February. 7pp. CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR. Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

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