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Line managers in industrial relations:

Where are we now and where to next?

Keith Townsend

Griffith University, Australia

Sue Hutchinson

University of the West of England, UK

Journal of Industrial Relations 2017, Vol. 59(2) 139–152 ! Australian Labour and Employment Relations Association (ALERA) 2017 SAGE Publications Ltd, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC DOI: 10.1177/0022185616671163

10.1177/0022185616671163 Abstract Interactions between line managers and subordinate

Abstract Interactions between line managers and subordinate employees are fundamental to the employment relationship and, therefore, to industrial relations as a field of both study and practice. Human resource management literature has focused on the responsibil- ities line managers have as implementers of employment policy and practice, for exam- ple in dealing with grievance and disciplinary matters, communication and involvement, the application of discrimination policies, and the management of pay. Thus, it is surpris- ing that this body of managers has been neglected in recent industrial relations research. This article fits the theme of the special issue by providing an overview of ‘where we are’ and sets out a research agenda of ‘Where to next?’, for the study of line managers in industrial relations research.

Keywords Frontline managers, human resource management, industrial relations, line managers, management


In the last few decades a growing body of academic literature from a range of disciplines has focused on the increasingly important role line managers play in shaping and managing the employment relationship, through their leadership style and as implementers of employment policies and practices. This includes the domains of sociology, psychology, management, organisational behaviour and


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human resource management (HRM), but notably there is comparably limited research focusing on line managers in industrial relations (IR) research. Theories on social exchange, for example, found in psychology and sociology, such as leader–member exchange and perceived supervisor support, emphasise the import- ance of interactions between a line manager and employee which affects employees’ perceptions of organisational support, employee attitudes and work behaviours (Rhoades and Eisenberger, 2002). In particular, this relationship shapes the levels of trust that are fundamental to co-operative relations (Boxall and Purcell, 2016). More recently the HRM literature has focused on ‘devolution’ to the line and drawn attention to the growing and pivotal role line managers play as imple- menters of employment policy and practice, for example in dealing with grievance and disciplinary matters, communication and involvement, the application of dis- crimination policies, and the management of pay. Thus, it is surprising that this body of managers has been neglected in the recent IR research. This article fits the theme of the special issue by providing an overview of ‘where we are’ which starts by examining the question ‘Why line management?’, and con- siders why it is an important area to study. Here we will discuss two methodo- logical matters – first the origin of line manager studies and then the data collection approaches often used – followed by a discussion on ‘managers and their work’, which asks ‘Which managers?’ and examines the question of what has been occur- ring in managers’ work in recent decades. The next section considers the policy implementation role of managers, before we shift our attention to the status of research on women in management positions. In our final section of the article, we set out a research agenda of ‘Where to next?’, focusing on suggested themes for future research.

Why ‘line management’?

Throughout the world, IR activity is increasingly constrained and restrained and indeed sometimes even improved by regulation (see e.g. Howe, 2017). The ways in which line managers at different levels interact and engage with regulation is an important area of study, not only for the experiences of these managers, but also for their subordinate employees and employing organisations. Over the last two decades, more than half of the publications in the broad HR/IR fields on line managers have come from the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Australia (unpub- lished data collected by authors). Yet there is clear interest throughout the world, with small numbers of publications (in English language journals) coming from countries as diverse as India, New Zealand, Netherlands, Spain, China, Norway, Portugal, the USA, Greece, Canada, Belgium, Taiwan, Nepal, Italy, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Jordan, Sweden, Russia, South Korea and Chile. Clearly, there are great opportunities to internationalise this research agenda. When we consider methodological choices, evidence from this review suggests that researchers tend to embrace a range of approaches, from the analysis of large-scale surveys and national-level data (e.g. workplace industrial relations surveys in Australia and the

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UK) to workplace studies that are both qualitative and quantitative in nature. What is important to note though is that large-scale national surveys are often designed to understand various aspects of employment relations and use line man- agers as a data source. This does not necessarily equate with a strong understand- ing of line managers’ work and their workplace experiences. Before progressing, we must consider ‘who’ these line managers are. Floyd and Wooldridge’s (1994: 53) well-cited definition of those who work between the ‘stra- tegic apex and the operating core’ of the organisation aggregates a wide range of managers operating at different levels, from frontline managers to middle and potentially senior managers. This approach, however, ignores differences across the management levels in terms of responsibilities, influence/power, constraints, and changes to the role (Hales, 2005; Thornhill and Saunders, 1998; Townsend, 2013; Valverde et al., 2006). Significantly, and of relevance to this article, different levels of managers have the potential to have different impacts on the employee experience and the regulation of the employment relationship. In particular, front- line managers (which includes supervisors, first line managers and team leaders) have the potential to have the biggest impact on employees because they are in direct and regular contact with employees and manage the larger teams (Becker et al., 1996). The implication is that any IR research on line managers must dif- ferentiate levels for a more nuanced explanation of the events under investigation. IR theorists from decades past, for example Dunlop (1958), Brewster et al. (1981), Kinnie (1986) and Purcell and Alhstrand (1994) have made managers a key part of their analytical framework. Kinnie (1987: 463) made note some three decades ago that there was a ‘paucity of research’ leading to an ‘ignorance of the role of management’. Throughout the late 1990s and into this century, there has been an increase in knowledge through the use of, as two examples, the UK-based Workplace Industrial/Employment Relations Survey (WIRS/WERS) and the Australian equivalent (AWIRS). Millward et al. (1998), for example, suggested at this time that there were almost 200 publications from the WIRS prior to 1998. However, there is an important distinction to be made between research that uses managers as a data source for what occurs in their workplaces and that which makes line managers the focus of the research as a means to better understand their work, experiences, the management of these employees, and the impact these managerial employees have on the experiences of non-managerial staff. Line managers, the work of these managers, and the management of these managers appear to fit in a zone of neglect (Wilkinson et al., 2015). Furthermore, line managers are not an insignificant proportion of the work- force. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data suggest that the proportion of the workforce employed as a ‘manager’ has hovered consistently around 8% for the last quarter of a century (ABS, 2014). Almost 1.5 million managers in Australia are dwarfed by the numbers in the UK of more than 3.2 million managers employed yet at a similar proportion of 10.3% (Office for National Statistics, 2016). One difficulty that we have here is the aggregation of data – not all managers are ‘line managers’ and these statistics tend to encapsulate everyone, from a team leader


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with some, but limited, managerial responsibilities, to senior managers. Keeping this lack of nuanced data in mind, line managers remain a significant proportion of the Australian and UK workforce. Over the last few decades research has focused on ‘devolution’ of HR activities (e.g. Conway and Monks, 2010; Larsen and Brewster, 2003; Renwick, 2003) pro- viding evidence of the ‘return of HR to the line’ (McGovern et al., 1997). In most countries today line managers are responsible for an array of operational people- related functions including recruitment and selection, training and development, flexible working, performance management, conflict management, employee voice and reward management (e.g. Hutchinson and Purcell, 2007, 2010; Larsen and Brewster, 2003; Perry and Kulik, 2008; Renwick, 2003). Since the early years of this century, empirical research has emerged showing line managers as key to the HR–performance linkage by the way they deliver employment policies and prac- tices and through their leadership behaviours (Purcell and Hutchinson, 2007; Townsend et al., 2012). Line managers can shape employees’ perceptions of employment practices and, in turn, employee attitudes and performance-related behaviours and ultimately organisational outcomes. Because line managers play a central role in the delivery of senior management’s directions, they are in a position of influence over the majority of employees to strengthen or weaken strat- egy and policy (Purcell and Hutchinson, 2007).

Understanding line managers’ work

In terms of detailed studies of what managers ‘do’ there are two streams of research. First, there is the research around managerial work behaviour drawing on the Mahoney et al. (1965) and Mintzberg (1980) traditions. These traditions see people management duties as technical competencies that (primarily senior) man- agers include as one element of their role. Mintzberg argued that the nature of managerial work was highly fragmented and often interrupted. Furthermore, this tradition pays limited explicit attention to the microcosm of line manager respon- sibilities that is the HR/IR function of the workplace and falls into what Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003) might refer to as the ‘extra-ordinization of the mundane’. The second stream views line managers’ duties in HR/IR functions such as deter- mined by their level of responsibility in such activities as recruitment, pay systems, training and development and so on. Within this latter category some important work in recent times comes from Hales (2005) which focused on frontline man- agers. Hales’ findings suggest that the frontline manager was responsible for almost 50 different tasks/responsibilities including, but not limited to, planning/scheduling work, setting priorities, checking work against procedures, giving advice, allocating work, acting as a communication channel both upwards and downwards and assisting with operational work. According to Hales, the supervisory core of the frontline manager role has become increasingly important with the adoption of more stringent controls both internal to the organisation and in relation to people management activities and the influence of external regulatory forces. Existing

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research would suggest that as we look at higher levels of managers, supervision of individual employees and technical competence becomes less important than policy and strategy design and implementation (e.g. Brandl et al., 2009; Watson et al.,


In the IR context, line managers face multiple challenges as they are themselves ‘employees’ but must also manage employees – colloquial terms like ‘piggy in the middle’ (Hutchinson and Purcell, 2003) are often used in relation to these managers – positions of considerable ambiguity and uncertainty (Hales, 2005). Frontline managers in particular are subject to these tensions, expected to be the voice of management on the one hand, and yet on the other, the champion of the team’s interests (Boxall and Purcell, 2016), and consequently torn in their loyalties (Adler et al., 2007). Since the 1980s, delayering has led to flatter hierarchies, squeezing out many middle management positions (Balogun and Johnson, 2004; Hassard et al., 2011; Worrall et al., 2004). This delayering has been motivated by a perception that it will ‘speed up’ decision-making while commonly the result is work intensifica- tion, heavier workloads, greater spans of control (including people management responsibilities), closer performance monitoring and, all the while becoming some- what of a career trap with decreased opportunities for promotions (Burke and Cooper, 2000; Worrall et al., 2004). Frontline managers oversee the activities of their team or department. This requires a diverse range of skills including technical knowledge, motivational skills, coordination and the capacity to negotiate within their circle of influence (Bozionelos and Baruch, 2015). Managerial roles are complex and not static – some managers are expected to empower their employees, others are expected to main- tain high levels of control over their employees (Tengblad and Vie, 2015). Again, context plays an important role. It is not unreasonable to hypothesise that what may be expected of one line manager throughout economically buoyant times might differ in times of financial contraction and constraint.

Managing policy implementation

As previously discussed, the literature points to growing line manager involvement in the implementation of workplace-level IR policy and practice which can come in many guises, some of which we discuss throughout this section. Practitioners and scholars have long been interested in employee involvement and participation; however, the arguably softer term – employee voice – is increasingly common in our field. Two related phenomena have occurred throughout the last 40 years:

union membership has declined, and HRM has played an increasingly important role internal to organisations. The shift from highly unionised firms has led to a more unitarist approach to the management of employee voice (Kaufman, 2007) and more individualised and informal voice arrangements (Townsend et al., 2013). This means that voice becomes a managerial tool of performance management or enhancement, rather than an opportunity for employees to ‘change rather than to escape from an objectionable state of affairs’ (Hirschman, 1970: 30).


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Wilkinson et al.’s (2004: 313) study makes it clear that voice at a workplace level is dependent upon the HRM systems in operation and therefore reliant upon the motivations of line managers at any given time. While there is a relationship between employee voice and power, Dundon et al. (2004: 1153) note that voice could be seen as a ‘countervailing source of power on management’. The issues arise for both employees and managers when the increasing desire for informal voice over formal voice (see Townsend et al., 2013) might equate with ‘lip service’ rather than real change for the actors involved. Informal voice to a frontline man- ager might be immediate in delivery, but there is limited research to date on its effectiveness in utilising line management in resolving employee problems and con- cerns. Employee voice must be managed so that it not only has an ‘instrumentally effective’ role to play, but also holds intrinsic worth (Budd, 2004: 3). Senior managers often blame line managers for not implementing voice mech- anisms effectively (Fenton-O’Creevy, 1998), but from the line manager’s perspec- tive, cynicism may lead to a lack of commitment which undermines the success of voice schemes (Fenton-O’Creevy, 2001). It is the frontline managers (and perhaps their immediate next-level managers) who have the least to gain and/or the most to lose from employee voice and involvement practices (Kaufman and Taras, 2000). Equally, though, it is evident that when managers do ‘buy in’ they can have a positive influence over employee perceptions through including unions in change, particularly in highly unionised industries (Bryson, 2004). In contrast, a development in the voice literature comes from Donaghey et al. (2011), who suggest that managers should be seen as an interest group in the employment relationship and that their control of the availability and use of employee voice can lead to employee silence, or unwillingness to speak up. For line managers, the silence of employees is not necessarily a bad thing and can act in their favour, as a lack of employee voice and employee desire for change leads to the maintenance of the status quo for managers. Hence, it may not be simply cynicism leading to a lack of commitment, but indeed a strategy of inaction that will assist line managers in avoiding change that effective voice systems may force upon them (Donaghey et al., 2011). Line managers have also played a central role in workplace conflict for more than a century. Montgomery (1987: 92) argues that virtually all industrial dis- putes in late 19th-century America dealt with wages and/or abusive frontline managers, and this notion continues in conflict management research today. Research in Irish firms (Teague and Roche, 2012) confirms that line managers often lack organisational support in training and performance monitoring and lack the confidence to act independently in decision-making. There may be legal consequences of badly handled disciplinary hearings, and workplace grievances may escalate and require intervention from senior managers and HR specialists. Research (see e.g. Teague and Roche, 2012) also suggests that work pressures such as role ambiguity and work intensification indicate that a more nuanced understanding is needed to explain the impact of these constraints and line man- agers’ role in causing conflict.

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Teague and Roche (2012) continue by suggesting a dual role in conflict man- agement: first, preventing workplace conflict by mentoring and coaching to identify employees who might be encountering workplace problems (perhaps with work processes, or interpersonal problems) and intervening early to prevent conflict; and second, resolving workplace conflict. Usually the focus will be at an individual level, but it can also be collective with, for example, line managers having to deal with the consequences of overtime bans, strikes or walkouts. Purcell goes further, suggesting a wider role in workplace conflict ‘whether causing it, experien- cing it, dealing with it or coping with its consequences’ (Purcell, 2014), for example as noted in research that suggests line managers are often reported to be the per- petrators of bullying behaviours (D’Cruz and Rayner, 2012; Einarsen and Skogstad, 1996; Lewis, 2006). Furthermore, line managers are not only a manager of other employees but also a subordinate, and can be in conflict in their relation- ship with senior managers (Purcell, 2014). We would encourage more research to understand the extent to which line managers are able to effectively manage their already ambiguous role of employee and manager. The growth in performance-related pay alongside the decline in collective pay bargaining has increased management responsibility for the implementation of pay systems and other forms of reward. Empirical studies in this area, however, are limited, and largely confined to line managers’ influence in individual perfor- mance-related pay, where they play a critical yet challenging role (e.g. Currie and Procter, 2001; Harris, 2001). Hutchinson and Purcell (2007) show a much wider involvement encompassing many aspects of reward beyond financial. This includes recognition, flexible working, training and development opportunities, and other intrinsic motivators such as more challenging work or more responsibility. The study also shows a preference for more informal or unofficial forms of reward in some organisations, particularly where pay levels were determined by collective bargaining. For example, in one unionised distribution company, an informal system of ‘job and knock’ applied – which allowed individuals to leave early when a job was complete (Purcell and Hutchinson, 2007). This job and knock is a somewhat unusual practice in modern times but common in older IR environments. This preference of line managers for informality in dealing with issues is evident in other IR activities (Edwards, 2000; Jones and Saundry, 2012), partly due to an aversion to the time, cost and complexity surrounding formal procedures, but also to a preference for relying on gut feeling and a lack of confidence in dealing with formal procedures (Jones and Saundry, 2012; Saundry et al., 2015). A managerial- positive reading would suggest that informal approaches allow issues to be dealt with in a more flexible and contingent manner, allowing managers to be more responsive to individual circumstances and the work context. However, there is evidence to suggest a more complex situation with managers facing a ‘paradox’ of trying to balance formal and informal aspects to policies and procedures (Harris et al., 2002). On the one hand they face pressures to adhere to formalised (or regulated) procedure, yet on the other there are expectations to behave proactively and ‘nip issues in the bud’ quickly before they escalate.


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Line managers face additional challenges in reward management (e.g. Harris, 2001; Currie and Procter, 2001). Harris (2001) found a lack of ownership of the processes of performance-related pay by middle managers, significant constraints in its application and concerns about its effectiveness as a motivator. In addition, a complex and diverse set of skills is required to effectively implement individual performance-related pay with tasks, including the setting and communicating of performance standards and behaviours, clarifying the aims of the scheme, making decisions about assessment, defending these decisions and having ‘difficult conver- sations’ with staff. We can see from this section that line managers play an import- ant role in many areas that would be considered IR. Our next section focuses on matters relating to women as line managers.

Women as managers

As previously discussed, research on line managers has been criticised for treating them as a homogeneous group and differences also need to be considered between male and female managers. In terms of percentages, the UK has more female than male managers across all age divisions up to the 45–49-year-old age group, which is then maintained through to the 70+ age division (Pardey and May, 2013). In Australia, just over one-quarter (27.4%) of management positions are held by women, and across all management levels women make up just over one-third of positions (36.5%). When executive and senior managers are removed from the analysis the number rises to 40%, while women comprise 48.8% of all employees. In European countries, 33% of employees (European Working Conditions Surveys, 2015) have a woman as their immediate line manager, although different data collection protocols mean that we must be cautious in making accurate inter- national comparisons. This underrepresentation of women in many areas of management in many countries is a complex issue resulting from demand- and supply-side factors, as well as cultural, institutional and structural factors including organisational cul- tures that favour masculinity and outdated organisational structures and rules, preventing progression (Kramer, 2015; Murray, 2011). Women in management also face more ‘hindrances and interruptions’ to their careers and thus the path- ways along which their managerial careers develop differ from those of men (Burke, 2007; Mainiero and Sullivan, 2005). This may account for the proportional decline in women managers aged 45+ in the UK. Clearly, this is a complex picture and an important area for further investigation. Questions to investigate include the extent to which the sectors in which women managers are predominate are neglected by these studies, and indeed, why there is a tipping point to more male managers in the 45+ age bracket. Another potential area for further study is on gender differences in managerial responsibilities. In a study of Danish organisations, Brandl et al. (2009) found that the importance assigned by female managers to people management was signifi- cantly higher than the importance assigned to this by their male counterparts, with

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the greatest differences in areas of staff well-being and staff development and com- munication. A surprising finding was that male managers are least interested in handling conflict compared to other issues. The question of whether men and women ‘manage’ differently remains under dispute, though Konrad et al. (1997) found minor gender differences in the approaches that Australian and US man- agers held in their preferences to the type of managerial work they preferred to do. Some examples of the differences found in this study include that men were more likely to prefer decision-making, and monitoring and controlling activities, while women were more likely to prefer desk-based work and informing activities. Equally as important, Konrad et al. (1997) found that the differences between the genders narrowed as managerial careers developed upward throughout the organisational hierarchy. This article now shifts attention to the future directions of research on the role and experience of line managers in IR.

Future directions

There is diverse research in a range of areas about line managers and their work, yet contemporary researchers from the IR field do not tend to focus on these managers or their work. This provides a significant area to develop a research agenda to improve our knowledge of line managers in the modern era. While we are somewhat guilty of it in this review piece, it is important that further research focusing on managers does not treat them as a single, homogeneous group (Townsend, 2014). There are many levels of line managers and indeed, many types of line managers. For example, the managers of small firms have different experiences from the many line managers in large firms, and franchise firm man- agers again would face issues specific to their context. It is context that is critical in understanding the issues that relate to line managers and their experiences and how this influences employee experiences. As researchers we must not use context as an excuse for not offering answers to complex problems, but equally, we must not allow the aggregation of managers to overshadow the nuances and differences between their experiences. Recently, Kilroy and Dundon (2015) presented a con- ceptualisation of different frontline manager roles; similar work is required to better differentiate the issues line managers face as both ‘the managers’ and ‘the managed’. More research is needed to understand the role of line managers in a range of IR activities such as the determination and allocation of reward, redundancy, discrim- ination and equality policies. As we mentioned earlier, line managers can often be faced with ambiguous and/or competing responsibilities when they manage and are managed. This is particularly the case for frontline managers and leads to some very clear and important areas of future research. We must understand better how managers are managed, for example what the terms and conditions of the various levels of line managers’ employment are, how their performance is managed and supervised by senior managers and how this impacts on line managers’ own man- agement style. Additionally, there remain questions regarding how line managers


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negotiate the demands of senior managers, particularly in a context of uncertainty of ownership, for example franchise firms (see Kellner et al., 2016) and networked firms (see Rubery et al., 2010). When employees step from the shop floor into their first frontline manager position, it could be the start of an upward career path that involves many different managerial roles. Once in this position they are faced with role conflict and ambi- guity, where operational issues and pressures may take priority over the manage- ment of people (Gilbert et al., 2011). While there has been some research on career progression through internal versus external labour markets (see e.g. Grimshaw et al., 2001), this is an area that warrants further investigation given the rapidly changing nature of the economy (including blurred boundaries of organisational structures in networked firms) and employing sectors in liberal market economies like Australia, the UK and the USA. Equally, researchers rarely examine gender when investigating line managers. While there are some statistics available showing where female line managers are more or less numerous than male managers, there is limited research investigating what this means for them, their subordinates and the organisations for which they work. In addition, it seems reasonable that males and females would be attracted to different parts of the complex line managers’ role; further research should investigate how this plays out in the workplace. If the Brandl et al. (2009) study is generalisable, then perhaps there are differences in the sexes in terms of their preference for formal versus informal processes; and does this differ across organisational contexts (e.g. small vs large firms)? If informal decision-making relies more on management dis- cretion and hence is not subject to formal monitoring or evaluation, this raises con- cerns about fairness and consistency, and the fear of litigation. In conclusion, we would argue that IR research has a great opportunity to develop theoretical and practical insights and that managers and their work is a legitimate area of study worthy of its own research agenda in the field of IR. The work of managers deserves to be a research focus in IR.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, author- ship and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.


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Biographical notes Keith Townsend is an Associate Professor in the Griffith Business School. He has published six books and more than 60 journal articles in the areas of industrial relations and human resource management, specifically in areas of EIP/voice, line managers and employee misbehaviour. Keith balances the academic-practitioner divide through engaging in teaching, high levels of research outputs and engage- ment with the practitioner community.

Sue Hutchinson is Associate Professor in HRM at the University of the West of England. Previously Sue has worked at Bath University and as industrial relations policy advisor for the The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Sue’s main research interests focus on the link between people manage- ment and performance and the role of line managers in HRM.