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McGuire, D., Stoner, L. & Mylona, S. (2008): The Role of Line Managers as Human Resource Agents in Fostering Organisational Change in Public Services, Journal of Change Management, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 7384.

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The Role of Line Managers as Human Resource Agents in Fostering Organisational Change in the Public Sector David McGuire Leanna Stoner Smaro Mylona

Submitted to: Journal of Change Management January 2008

Reference as: McGuire, D., Stoner, L. & Mylona, S. (2008): The Role of Line Managers as Human Resource Agents in Fostering Organisational Change in Public Services, Journal of Change Management, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 7384.

The Role of Line Managers as Human Resource Agents in Fostering Organisational Change in the Public Sector

Abstract The commercialisation of the public sector has led to enhanced customer service and improved employee performance. Central to these efforts has been a radical reconsideration of the role of line managers. By devolving responsibility for HR practices to line managers, public sector organisations expect a closer relationship between line managers and employees with speedier decision-making and more effective resolution of workplace problems. Partnership models involving HR specialists and line managers are becoming increasingly common. This paper presents a model identifying the context, enablers and inhibitors of line manager HR involvement. It concludes that adequate support needs to be provided to line managers to enable them to effectively take on new HR responsibilities.

Keywords: Line Manager, HR Devolvement, Organisational Change, Public Sector

The Role of Line Managers as Human Resource Agents in Fostering Organisational Change in the Public Sector

Introduction Demands for greater efficiency, accountability and value for money have led to a reevaluation of how public services are resourced and delivered. Traditional bureaucratic approaches are no longer adequate to deal with the complexity of the information age and the demands for efficient and effective services. The arrival of new public service management practices has been marked by the proliferation of targets, measurement and compliance with regulatory standards. Making the public sector more responsive to environmental factors and instilling a customer service and commercially focused ethos are characteristics of new approaches to public sector management. With changes in emphasis, the public sector is now examining its internal structure and reviewing the roles and responsibilities of employees and managers in order to deliver the top quality service demanded by stakeholders.

The HR function is increasingly seen as one of the key functions in the development and implementation of strategic responses to increasing competitive pressure, as both public and private organisations are forced to adapt to respond to domestic and international competition, slower growth and declining markets (Buyens and De Vos, 2001). Such strategic responses involve the effective communication of the importance of HR across the organisation and a reconsideration of the role of line managers in HR delivery. This mindset change responds to Guests (1987: 510) avocation to HR departments that, If HRM is to be taken seriously, personnel managers must give it away. The move towards shifting responsibility for HR issues

became known as devolvement with Brewster and Larsen (1992: 412) defining this concept as the degree to which HRM practices involve and give responsibility to line managers rather than personnel specialists. By devolving responsibility for HR issues, line managers are provided with an opportunity to engage with day-to-day people management decision-making, while HR specialists can work on achieving closer alignment of an organisations systems and processes with corporate objectives, while remaining sensitive to external environmental changes.

Devolvement represents one aspect of modern strategic approaches to human resource management. To the fore has been the work of Dave Ulrich (1997; 2005) who identified four new HR roles (Business Partner, Change Agent, Administrative Expert and Employee Champion) resulting in three new HR functions (Centres of Excellence, Shared Services and Business Partners). Such redefinition of roles and reorganisation of HR functions is not without controversy. Caldwell and Storey (2007) question whether the search for delivering increased value through HR improvements has not lead to greater complexity in HR systems and technology and more disorder in HR processes and boundaries. In practice, the implementation of Ulrichs new HR functions has led to difficulties in defining new roles; overcoming resistance to change; and dealing with skills gaps and resource deficiencies (CIPD 2007).

Alongside devolvement of responsibility to line managers has been attempts to achieve greater strategic integration of HR with corporate objectives. The new role of strategic business partners who work with line managers to help them reach their goals through specialist expertise and internal consultancy has encountered some difficulties. As Caldwell and Storey (2007) identify, business partnering roles are

complex, ambiguous and confusing with business partners sometimes coming into conflict with HR specialists and line managers leading to a fragmented HR provision.

This paper proposes a model examining the factors affecting line manager involvement in human resource management practices (Figure 1). From a review of literature on public sector management, the determinants, enablers and inhibitors of line manager involvement in HR are identified. The model proposes that the degree of change experienced in HR processes and the quality of service delivery will be affected by the level of HR involvement of line managers. The following sections discuss the constituent components of the model.

Determinants of Public Sector Change In recent times, the public sector has experienced significant levels of change and transformation. Reform of the public sector has led to organisational, operational and cultural change and brought with it a fresh outlook on what services are required and the mechanism by which they are delivered (Mir and Rahaman 2003). Traditionally, public sector agencies were assumed to be monopolies characterised by low levels of innovation outwith competitive market pressures; however, the onset of new technology and the need to drive down costs has forced the public service to address system and process deficiencies (Borins 2002). In response, public sector organisations have attempted to drive efficiencies and improve overall effectiveness through the adoption of private sector principles (Radnor and McGuire 2004). Such initiatives have focused on improving levels of service delivery and instilling a customer focus at the heart of the public sector.

While applying private sector principles to the public service may appear judicious, particularly in relation to improving customer service, McAdam et al. (2005) identify the stakeholder paradigm as a key distinguishing feature between the public and private sectors. They argue that success in the public sector involves a move beyond the narrow interests of customers towards satisfying the needs of key stakeholders. For her part, Rainey (1997: 38) maintains that public agencies exist to satisfy the interests of those influential in maintaining the agencies political legitimacy and resources.

The commercialisation of the public sector has been a cornerstone of initiating change. Several studies have identified that commercial approaches in the public sector have led to an enhanced client focus; improved staff performance; increased flexibility of service provision; greater transparency and accountability and a clearer notion of costs and return on costs (Brown et al. 2000; Mellors 1993). Mir and Rahaman (2003) point to the positive attitudinal changes and higher commitment of public sector employees through commercialisation initiatives. By examining the example of the state mail service, they show how through the introduction of a continuous improvement and quality service ethos, employees became empowered to take greater levels of initiative and responsibility for service delivery.

Despite evidence of positive change in customer service delivery and greater profitability, several commentators have levelled criticisms at commercialisation initiatives and public sector reforms. Pate et al. (2007) argue that mounting pressure to be more efficient and cost-effective has resulted in heightened managerialism, tighter financial controls and close monitoring of performance. They point to the decline of employee trust and job security and the loss of distinctiveness of identity

within the public sector. Likewise, Massey and Pyper (2005) maintain that new approaches to the public service have led to the destruction of professionalism in some parts of the service; the toleration of non-consultative and domineering management styles; lower employee morale and devaluation of public accountability.

In relation to human resource management practices, Harris et al. (2002) argue that the traditional governing principles of functionalism, uniformity and hierarchy still affect attitudes and approaches towards managing staff. They maintain that there exists a great reluctance to dismantle centralised HR control or HRs perceived moral neutrality or referee status in employment practices. Indeed, Parry et al. (2005) argues there is still a strong emphasis on formal approaches and procedures and being viewed as a fair and model employer. Increasing line manager involvement in HR is thus problematic as it opposes existing control structures. Moreover, line manager involvement in HR challenges the distinction between line and staff functions within organizations (Storey, 1992). As Heraty and Morley (1995) explain, the responsibility of the line function is that of achieving the objectives of the organization and may be identified in production terms (operations/manufacturing), while staff functions, such as HR, typically exist to provide advice and services to line functions. In line with commercialisation efforts, recent thinking on the devolvement of responsibility to front line managers represents a major shift in traditional thinking about the roles of HR and line managers and signals a strong intent to improve the responsiveness of the public sector to changing business environmental

circumstances. Like other organisations, public sector agencies are becoming increasingly aware that their current and future wealth exists principally in the heads of their employees and ..walks out of the office building every day.. (Boud and Garrick, 1999, pp 48); this therefore creates a need to nurture and develop the

employee knowledge base. Line managers hold a front-line position of being able to direct developmental efforts and foster systems innovation and change. However, critics of line manager involvement in HR propose that devolvement of responsibility to the line in the public sector has more to do with financial and public accountability than efforts to improve cost effectiveness, strategic alignment or developmental initiatives (Oswick and Grant 1996). In the following sections, we will examine both the enablers and inhibitors of line manager involvement in human resource management practice and delivery, as a means of exploring the effect of such changes on the quality of public service delivery.

Enablers of Line Manager HR Involvement An examination of the role of line managers has found that the function they perform in both public and private organisations has changed significantly in recent years. Hoogenboorn & Brewster (1992) posits that line managers are now allocated new responsibilities and held accountable not only for budgeting and allocating of resources, but most importantly for people management issues. In this regard, Storey (1992: 190) argues that line managers may well be playing a far more central role in labour management than HR personnel. Hales (2005) traces the greater involvement of line managers in HR issues to two developments. First, he argues that the spread of HRM and the adoption of more participative forms of management is concerned with securing high performance through commitment rather than control. This has led to the line managers taking on the role of coach, conductor or leader of a motivated work team. Second, he suggests that HR devolvement has led to line managers acquiring middle management functions and becoming mini-general managers accompanied by the loss of supervisory functions downwards to work teams.

With this ever-increasing need for flexibility it would seem more appropriate for line managers to take responsibility for people development; as they are operating alongside the people they manage, it is therefore argued that that their reactions will be more immediate and appropriate (Whittaker and Marchington, 2003). Indeed, across Europe, Larsen and Brewster (2003: 229) suggest, there is now a widespread drive to give line managers more responsibility for the management of their staff and to reduce the extent to which personnel or HR departments control or restrict line management autonomy in this area. Some of the HR duties to be performed by line managers include active participation in the design of training activities; HR budgeting; delivering HRD activities as trainers; creating a positive working environment and provision of coaching and mentoring initiatives (Walton 1999; Watson & Maxwell 2007). Initial research indicates some positive support for line manager HR involvement. Hutchinson and Purcell (2003) found that line manager involvement in coaching, guidance and communication positively influences organisational performance. Likewise, a case study of line manager involvement in HR in the NHS by Currie and Proctor (2001) found that line managers are important contributors to strategic change when provided with discretion in implementing HR strategies within their own work groups.

Whittaker and Marchington (2003) maintain that line managers increasingly welcome HR responsibilities and are prepared to take them on as they add variation and challenge to their work. Gibb (2003) argues that requiring line managers to be more involved in the HR issues may also lead to a transformation of managers own attitudes towards HR, organisational change and thus a transformation of human relations at work (Gibb, 2003). By increasing line manager involvement in HR, it is

argued that better workplace conditions will result as line managers have better understanding than specialists of the type and range of interventions needed. In this endeavour, line managers will also be assisted by more effective and user-friendly human resource information systems. Both Papalexandris and Panayotopoulou (2005) and Renwick and MacNeil (2002) argue that new technologies, such as organisational intranets and HR call centres makes it possible for line managers to handle some HR work without the assistance of the HR department.

Moving HR responsibilities closer to employees through devolvement to line managers may lead to speedier resolution of conflicts and greater levels of employee retention. A study by Hay (2002) found that the best people are most likely to leave if their interests are not accommodated and the main reason people cite for leaving their jobs to move on is dissatisfaction with how their skills and talents are being developed. Indeed, providing greater authority to line managers and encouraging greater initiative taking may address a long-standing criticism levelled at HR departments; namely a lack of appreciation of the immediacy of the line managers problems (Harris et al. 2002).

In most situations, devolved HR responsibilities are likely to be exist within a partnership arrangement with HR. Maxwell and Watson (2006) argue that business partnerships between HR specialists and line managers have emerged as the dominant model for HR operations within organisations. Ulrich (2005) outlines the role of HR Strategic Partners as working alongside line managers to help them reach their goals by crafting strategies to maximise productivity through alignment of corporate resources to these goals. He maintains that HR strategic partners can take

the form of change agents, internal consultants and facilitators who disseminate learning across the organisation.

In summary, devolving HR responsibilities to line managers offers a number of benefits to organisations. It provides greater freedom to HR specialists to engage with strategic issues and add real value. In so doing, it enables HR specialists to forge closer relationships with line managers and promotes a partnership model towards managing employees. Greater involvement in HR also demystifies the HR concept and gives line managers an appreciation of the complexities of dealing with employee issues. It encourages gifted line managers to use their initiative and become more involved in day-to-day workplace management decisions.

Consequently, issues and problems that arise can be resolved speedily before they escalate.

Inhibitors of Line Manager HR Involvement Despite the much vaunted benefits of participating in HR initiatives, line managers have expressed a number of concerns regarding greater HR involvement. Getting line managers to take on HR responsibilities will undoubtedly increase their workload significantly. Brewster & Soderstrom (1994) suggests that excess workload leads to feelings of incompetence among line managers and a reluctance to take responsibility for devolved HR activities. Indeed, this has led to feelings amongst some line managers of being dumped upon (Renwick 2003: 265) or pushed upon to take new HR responsibilities (Harris et al. 2002: 219) due to a climate of fear and mistrust driven by HR.


The experience and ability of line managers to take responsibility for HR issues may present a major barrier to devolvement. Both Whittaker and Marchington (2003) and Hailey et al. (2005) suggest that line managers skills and competence in HR practices may be limited and a lack of training in this area will undoubtedly affect a line managers overall effectiveness. Incapability and misunderstanding of HR practices on the part of line managers will prevent the organisation from developing a strong learning culture (McCracken and Wallace, 2000) with McGovern et al. (1997) arguing that a lack of training may lead to inconsistencies in implementing organisational HR policies potentially exposing the organisation to lawsuits and employment tribunals. For their part, Longenecker et al. (2006) also recognise that managers are often asked to undertake new roles without training. Their research though, indicates that management development is not a priority for the top management and reliance on the notion of trial-and-error is prevalent in organisations. Furthermore, the failure of organisations to take a long-term developmental view is exposed by a reluctance to set aside a specific budget for training and the belief that management development is the individuals responsibility.

A tendency for line managers to focus on short term requirements is often cited as an inhibitor of management involvement in HR issues (Maxwell and Watson 2006; Gibb, 2003; Harrison, 2002; Thornhill and Saunders, 1998; Cunningham and Hyman, 1995). For example, short-term work pressures, work overload and lack of specialist expertise have been identified as inhibiting line manager HR involvement (Maxwell and Watson 2006; Gibb, 2003; Tsui 1987). Line managers are often the people under the utmost pressure to achieve short-term targets; consequently, longer-term initiatives are the first to be put aside (deJong et al. 1999). Harrison (2002, pp 83)


suggests that line management is so often under pressure to achieve short term objectives to do with profitability or reduction of costs that real support for HR initiatives is fairly rare. In relation to employee training, she states that organisations that are dominated by short-term financial pressures of performance are unlikely to make any significant investment in training beyond job-related training and short-term competency development.

An examination of areas of enhanced involvement to line managers by Budhwar (2000) shows operational responsibility for both training and development and health and safety were most devolved: however, responsibility for policy and planning activities in these areas remained exclusively the domain of specialists (Heraty and Morley 1995). In this regard, Renwick (2003) argues that there has been reluctance amongst line managers to engage with certain aspects of HR. He cites Harris et al. (2002) who found that line managers disliked the bureaucracy involved in performance management systems leading to unwillingness to accept responsibility for decisions and judgments made. Redman (2001) also found a strong dislike of performance management systems amongst line managers with appraisals being the most disliked managerial activity. Likewise, Cunningham and James (2001) encountered resistance amongst line managers in dealing with long-term sickness and disability manifested through non-attendance at training courses and nonimplementation of punitive sanctions. Meanwhile, research by deJong et al. (1999) finds that line managers may avoid a coaching role due to a lack of training and overall discomfort with the concept.

Critics of HR devolvement argue that greater involvement of line managers in HR practice devalues the importance of HR and takes insufficient account of the


specialist nature of the discipline. While Cunningham and Hyman (1999) maintain that devolved HR responsibilities are formally geared to securing commitment from employees by promoting an integrative culture of employee management, they propose that unless HR gains greater representation in top management teams, this new management approach is only likely to deminish the importance of HR within the organisation. They suggest that finding allies amongst line managers may promote a more favourable image of HR on the shopfloor but may do little to advance its strategic importance in the boardroom.

In summary, making line managers responsible for the delivery of HR can be problematic. Line managers may not possess the necessary skills needed to implement HR initiatives and may feel ill-equipped or insufficiently trained to accept responsibility for day-to-day operation of performance management processes, disciplinary and grievance handling or sickness and absence management. Devolving HR responsibilities may also represent a lack of appreciation of the workloads, time pressures and overall priorities of line managers threatening the overall standards of HR delivery across the organisation and diminishing the value of HR.

Discussion The re-ordering of line manager roles within the public sector and their greater involvement in HR decision-making has undoubtedly arisen due to greater customer service demands and commercialisation reforms. Increasing performance, flexibility, transparency and accountability across the public sector has led to a radical reconsideration of how services are delivered and resourced. Getting line managers more involved in HR delivery is one response towards achieving a more strategic, value-added approach to managing employees.


As a change agent, line managers occupy a significant position in the organisational hierarchy and can directly affect the quality of front-line services in the public sector. Furnishing line managers with HR responsibilities will greatly add to existing pressures of excess workload and the need to deliver on short-term priorities. In addition, the reliance on formal administrative approaches in the public sector will require line managers to display a high level of HR competence. This highlights the need for high-quality training programmes for line managers to ensure that they feel confident in discharging their new HR responsibilities. Such training may also help public sector organisations avoid costly litigation and damage to their public reputation. This recommendation is in line with the findings of Bredin and Soderlund (2007) who maintain that greater attention needs to focus on the recruitment and training of line managers as currently; there are significant shortcomings in HRM competencies amongst line managers.

Dismantling centralised control of HR in the public sector will also affect the status of HR as a neutral referee. While making line managers more responsible for HR may bring about a speedier resolution to workplace conflicts, clear structures need to be implemented to allow line managers seek guidance and advice, but also allow employees to repeal decisions made. In this regard, HR specialists need to proactively engage with line managers and bring about partnership HR approaches to managing employees.

In conclusion, the commercialisation of the public sector has led to both enhanced customer focus and increased staff performance. In this regard, line managers can play an important role and can assist the process of the revitalisation of the public


sector. However, the success of any change process involving line manager HR participation will ultimately depend on striking a balance between factors favoring devolvement and those inhibiting HR involvement.



Enablers of Line Manager HR Involvement Greater Degrees of Responsibility & Task Variation HR Information Systems Close Relationships with Employees Formation of Strategic Partnerships Public Sector Change Driven By: Commercialisation High Quality Service Delivery Rising Customer Expectations Greater Financial and Public Accountability Cost Rationalisation

Line Manager Involvement in HR Process

Degree of Change Experienced in HR Processes & Quality of Service Delivery

Inhibitors of Line Manager HR Involvement Lack of Training & Support Excess Workload Short-term Priorities surpassing long-term development initiatives Political Pressures


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