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HR vs. Managers Are They From the Same Planet

August 1, 1999
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article
Pull together a group of human resources professionals, ask them about the state of relations between HR and line managers, and they ll likely tell you something like: "HR has moved away from its administrative role and has become a full and strategic partner in the business." In fact, two-thirds of HR executives recently surveyed by The Conference Board said their companies are now engaged in some type of HR transformation process in order to become more of a "strategic partner," "change agent" and "employee champion." Sounds pretty promising, doesn t it?

But if you want to know what line managers really think of HR, ask someone like Ray Jones (a pseudonym), a manager at American Express Corporate Travel Services based in San Francisco. "HR is out to lunch," he says with disgust. "Because they re sheltered from the real world of irate customers and problem employees, the only way they know how to solve problems is to go by the book."

While it s tempting to disregard Jones comments as those of a disgruntled corporate clone, the fact of the matter is that HR still has an image problem with its chief internal customer: the line manager. Yes, the relationship is getting better in many companies. But work remains to be done. Understanding why the relationship is so tenuous, what the line needs to be successful, and what steps HR can take to be a good partner can help alleviate the decades-old tension between these two entities. The world of business is simply too complex for HR to continue to play mailman to the line manager s Doberman pinscher or vice versa.

A short history.
In the olden days say, 10 to 15 years ago HR was seen as nothing more than an administrative bureaucracy. "We were helpful in processing benefit claims and lining up applicants, but we weren t seen as a mainstream part of the business," explains Frank Z. Ashen, senior vice president of HR at the New York Stock Exchange. In fact, personnel professionals, as they were called at the time, were even taught to think as outsiders.

"In 1978, in my first personnel class in college, my instructor made it very clear that personnel people are not managers, and that we shouldn t regard ourselves are part of the business," recalls Tom Hirons, director of the Graduate Management Institute at Ashland University in Columbus, Ohio. "My professor reinforced the notion that HR is merely an add-on administrative cost."

Because of the administrative slots they had been shoved into, HR had little power and influence. All power resided with line managers, who had very little if any respect for the back office, paper-pushing personnel bureaucrats.

The fact of the matter is that HR still has an image problem with its chief internal customer: The line manager.

But in the last decade, the sweeping changes in business have significantly changed not only the role of HR, but the role of line managers as well. Today, due to such things as downsizing, reengineering and self-directed work teams, there are fewer line managers to go around, and those who remain have much greater responsibilities. They re managing more people and/or bigger projects, and they re being called on to make quicker business decisions. As Steve McElfresh, president and CEO of the Saratoga Institute Inc., an HR consultancy in Santa Clara, California, explains: "Before, line managers were masters of routine. Now they must be masters of change."

But that s not all. The primary responsibility for managing the new deal in employment relationships has also fallen squarely on the shoulders of line managers. They re being called on to develop, motivate and communicate with employees to an unprecedented extent. Why? "Because studies have shown that people don t leave companies, they leave managers," explains Brian Hackett, senior program manager of The Conference Board in New York City.

Because line managers have been saddled with so much more leadership responsibility, they ve started to look to HR for help. No, that s too strong a statement. In most cases, they re not yet reaching out to HR. They are, however, beginning to realize they need assistance with employee-relations problems, as well as general business issues. "Line managers want HR to run fast, talk their language and work very hard to help them meet the ever-changing and escalating demands for productivity, cost control and sales," says McElfresh. "The line just can t do it all anymore."

HR, for its part, is stepping up to the plate to help meet these needs. As The Conference Board study indicates, there s a general awareness among HR executives that they ve got to understand business issues and become more strategic. Unfortunately, they ve got quite a ways to go. The same study reveals that line executives consider HR to be most successful only as administrative experts. When it comes to such roles as strategic partner, change agent and employee champion, only 13 to 18 percent of line executives rank HR as being very successful.

"HR still tends to be reactive and confrontational, and much of the time, line management views HR as the government. The line doesn t want to go to HR, and they certainly don t want calls from HR people," explains Paul Falcone, director of employment and development with Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, California.

Lilly Eng, who spent 10 years in line management at Allstate Insurance Company in Northbrook, Illinois, before transferring to the company s HR department five years ago, agrees with Falcone. "In many respects, HR is viewed as a company policeman who takes away the line manager s flexibility," she says, adding that many managers get tired of HR telling them "no," so managers start to work around HR instead of with HR.

Stories of HR s inflexible, police-oriented, ivory-tower mentality abound. McElfresh tells the story of a university dean who was recently trying to hire a bright staff person from another department and was told by HR that the employee couldn t be elevated two pay grades. The HR staff did concede, however, that the person could quit and be rehired at the new pay rate. "HR s world of standardized linear approaches just doesn t fit with many management needs," McElfresh says.

Why haven't HR professionals made the shift from bureaucrats to strategists? The simple answer is that change takes time. The real reason is more complex.

Hirons tells an even more disturbing tale. "In February, I was consulting at a company and one of the company s buildings burned down, destroying the HR manager s personal computer and all the personnel records," he says. This forced her for the first time in 28 years to interact with employees to gain lost information. After talking with employees in the plant, this woman came back to Hirons saying she couldn t believe the "humanness" of the employees. She was so used to dealing with employees as only names on a computer screen that she had lost sight of them as real live human beings.

Or how about these missives, posted recently on a Web site devoted to discussion about IBM s new pension plan: "The mathematically disadvantaged half-wits in HR can t hold up a conversation on the topic of calculating anything," wrote "IBM-Ghost." Another posting by "Idontknowaboutyou" said: "They re more like used-car salesmen trying to sell a car with a sawdust-filled transmission. (My apologies to any used-car salesmen, as you probably have more integrity than HR.)"

Ouch! Why are such stories still so predominant? Why haven t more HR professionals made the shift from bureaucrats to strategists? The simple answer is that change takes time. But the real reason is much more complex. To begin with, HR and line managers come from different cultures, and their training, experience and objectives are very different. "Most of HR comes from a background that is behaviorally based, as opposed to line managers who are bottom-line oriented," explains Robert Brodo, senior vice president, Strategic Management Group in Philadelphia. "HR wants to talk about resolving conflict, whereas the line wants to know how to drive market share."

Annette Simmons, author of A Safe Place for Dangerous Truths (Amacom, 1999), adds that HR and line managers live in different worlds. "Line managers are concerned with whatever works," she says. "They re concerned with moving ahead and getting the job done because that s what they re evaluated on. People in HR, however, are being asked to manage systems, and they depend upon rules to create fairness within those systems. Line managers don t care about the rules, they care about getting the job done. And when HR tells them no because the rules say so, line managers think HR is out of touch with reality."

It's not enough to blame the rift between HR and line managers on culture alone. After all, cultural differences separate every corporate function.

But it s not enough to blame the rift between HR and the line on culture alone. After all, cultural differences separate every corporate function. Marketing differs from IT. Sales is miles apart from research and development. The difference with HR is that the function isn t standing on a respected platform in the organization. "Engineers may hate what marketing puts them through, but they recognize that marketing is a fundamental and valuable part of the organization," explains McElfresh. HR, on the other hand, hasn t firmly established its value and credibility. Until HR professionals do that, the tension between HR and the line will no doubt remain.

Why should HR concentrate on improving the relationship with the line? For one thing, it ll make the work of HR a heck of a lot more enjoyable if there isn t constant tension between the department and the employees it serves. But more importantly, Falcone says, "HR must improve its credibility because the only job security an HR person has is the loyalty of the line."

Improving relations.
So what can HR do to build its credibility? How do you go about turning around perceptions that are 10, 20 or even 30 years in the making? Sadly, there s no silver bullet or magic pill that will instantly make HR realize its potential. There isn t any one thing that HR can do to improve its corporate standing. Instead, improving relations with line managers takes a concerted effort on many fronts.

Workforce Magazine polled consultants, academics and HR executives at companies where the function is an integral part of the business and came up with the following list of suggestions. The more of these you implement, the better your standing will be.

1. Do the nuts and bolts of HR really well.
To enhance your reputation in the company, you must first do an excellent job managing day-to-day HR operations. Why? Because the first exposure many managers have to HR is when they have questions about policy and procedures. By proving your competence on routine HR issues, you ll increase the willingness of managers to consult you on larger business concerns. "If someone has a problem with a paycheck and we can t help them, they certainly aren t going to ask us to help them improve employee satisfaction," explains Eng.

2. Get rid of HR efforts that don t add value.
Take the time to analyze every HR contribution in terms of what it offers to the organization and whether or not it meets organizational goals. "HR has to get used to setting standards and expectations and holding the department accountable for change," says McElfresh. The way to do this is by being willing to validate every HR effort from child care centers to the employee newsletter and get rid of those that don t make sense.

3. Understand the business.
You ve heard this one a lot, but it bears repeating. For HR people to become strategic partners, they must understand bottom-line business issues. This not only means learning more about the specific objectives of your own company, but also understanding the competitive environment and marketplace trends. After all, how can you begin to determine what competencies employees need if you don t know what business you re in?

At the New York Stock Exchange, Frank Ashen holds his HR team accountable for knowing and understanding and being involved with the business. "They re expected to read the same reports line managers are reading," he says.

4. Develop relationships throughout the organization.
Just about everyone Workforce talked to says it is HR s responsibility to cultivate relationships throughout the organization. Don t wait for line managers to come to you with problems. Seek them out and learn about their business issues. Get yourself invited to department meetings. Volunteer for task forces. Ask for managers advice. "Don t sit in your office and wait for the phone to ring," Eng says. "Get in their face."

5. Help line managers become more confident in their HR role.
"I can t tell you how many times I ve heard HR make comments about how stupid line managers are," says Falcone. "Well, they re right. Line managers are stupid because HR hasn t trained them to be competent in their HR role. We can t expect managers to know how to do such things as interviewing, hiring, progressive discipline and running staff meetings unless we train them."

Ironically, the more you help managers do the work of HR, the more valuable HR will become.

Eng agrees. "Instead of fixing problems on the back end, HR can help managers avoid problems and become more competent by providing them with coaching and training," she says. Ironically, the more you help managers do the work of HR, the more valuable HR will become. Why? Because helping managers become more competent at routine HR tasks frees up your time for more strategic, value-added work.

6. Develop the ability to articulate your point of view using the language of the line.
"If managers haven t listened to you, it may be because you ve been speaking the wrong language," Simmons says. "Line managers care about outcomes, not rules or fairness. You need to be able to articulate your point of view using those terms." Just as if you want to be heard in France, you speak French, if you want to be heard on the line, you need to use terminology they understand.

7. Become more flexible.
Although HR has had to establish policies, rules and procedures in an effort to create fairness, HR professionals need to understand that rules can and should be broken when an individual situation calls for it. "HR is used to creating universal policies and initiatives," McElfresh says, "but managers are looking for assistance that is finite and granular." In other words, line managers want HR to tailor solutions to their particular needs, not offer one-size-fits-all programs.

8. Become generalists who understand big-picture HR issues.
Ashen says one reason his HR team has become a strategic part of the New York Stock Exchange is because each member of the team is a generalist. "It helps our relationship with the line to have generalists who can problem solve in a broad sense," Ashen explains. "If the comp-and-benefits person is dealing with the line and an issue related to organizational structure comes up, that person can deal with it. This helps build our credibility."

9. Focus on same goals.
For line managers to trust you, they have to know you re working toward the same objectives they are. In most companies, this means focusing on bottom-line goals such as customer satisfaction, competitiveness and profitability. How can you ensure that you re working toward the same things? Joan Hoffmaster, HR generalist at W.L. Gore and Associates Inc., in Elkton, Maryland, suggests getting involved in the business-planning process. "Here at Gore, we not only have an HR segment in our business plan, but there s also an HR component to each line business plan," she says. "Because HR is involved in the business-planning process, we know what we need to do to be competitive and profitable."

10. Remember the three Cs: collaborate, cooperate and communicate.
For HR to become more visible and less misunderstood, HR staffers must talk, work and communicate with line managers on a regular basis. In theory, it sounds simple. In practice, this kind of regular contact is much harder to maintain.

In fact, when you look at all the individual suggestions for improving HR s relationship with the line they look pretty simple. But as anyone who has been in the profession for any length of time can tell you, HR s job is anything but simple. "It was very eye-opening when I got to HR from the line five years ago," says Eng. "I d never realized how difficult it was to be in HR and juggle so many balls. It s tough being an advocate for employees while also protecting the company, management and company assets."

McElfresh agrees. "Most people get to serve one master," he says. "HR doesn t have that luxury. HR people must service the line, employees, management and stockholders. It s a terribly difficult balancing act."

For line managers to trust you, they have to know you're working toward the same objectives.

But it can be done. By focusing on business drivers and understanding what the line needs to be successful, HR can not only make itself an indispensable part of the business, but also have a profound impact on the business itself. Just take a look at Allstate. Five years ago, the company s HR function wasn t seen as an integral part of the business. Then, HR managers started to assert themselves. They started sitting in on business meetings, talking to line managers, and analyzing every aspect of how the company s people strategies impacted larger business goals. Today, according to company surveys, a whopping 84 percent of line managers are "completely satisfied" with HR services a 23 percent increase from just four years ago.

If the suggestions mentioned earlier seem like more work than you re willing to tackle, just take a moment and think about how much easier your job would be if, like at Allstate, 84 percent of your internal customers were completely satisfied with the work you re doing. Just think about the headaches you d avoid, the conflicts you d escape and all the rolling eyes you wouldn t have to face at meetings where HR is mentioned. If improving the state of relations with line managers seems like a lot of work from a corporate standpoint, do it for purely selfish reasons. Let s face it respect feels a whole lot better than contempt.

Workforce, August 1999, Vol. 78., No. 8, pp. 32-38.

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