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Exploring line manager relationships with trade unions and the HR function
Article Type: HR at work From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 12, Issue 6
Short case studies and research papers that demonstrate best practice in HR
Over the last decade, we have witnessed significant structural change in organizations in relation to how HR is delivered and by whom. It is increasingly acknowledged that responsibility for HR activity does not solely reside with the HR function, but must be owned by the business as a whole. In this regard, line managers are being tasked to a greater extent with the operational implementation of HR strategy and are expected to engage with a number of important HR tasks alongside their traditional supervisory responsibilities. To accomplish these HR deliverables, line managers must forge relationships with both trade unions and the HR function and work with these parties to obtain employee buy-in and achieve realistic, workable solutions.
The reorienting of HR from a traditional, transactional, administrative division to a proactive, service-driven, business led, strategically aligned function has driven HR out of centralized structures and placed HR at the business coalface, making HR accountable for enacting and enabling business development. The focus of these changes has been to make HR more visible, more responsive and more strategic. These changes have been accompanied by a move to more open communication channels and increased levels of employee participation and involvement. Businesses are thus more directly engaging with employee concerns and forging stronger workplace relationships through the work of line managers.
The role that trade unions play in the workplace has also changed dramatically in recent years. Trade unions traditionally adopted an adversarial stance to the interests of management – however, in an era of declining unionization rates, trade unions have progressively moved towards partnership working, providing employers and line managers with a wide range of information services through networking, marketing and consultancy advice. Moreover, trade union agendas are gradually focusing more and more on work-life balance, employee-led flexibility and issues related to managerial and employee conduct and behavior. Indeed, it is recognized that trade unions often provide line managers with a powerful ally in legitimizing organizational change and voicing employee concerns and anxieties to senior management in the organization.
This case study draws upon semi-structured interviews that took place in January 2009 with ten line managers in a large unionized manufacturing company in Scotland to look at the process of HR devolvement, changes to line manager roles and responsibilities and the relationships line managers have forged with the HR function and trade unions. It examines tensions in the HR devolution process and explores how HR structural change has affected interactions between line managers, trade unions and the HR function.
Structural issues in HR delivery
HR devolution took place within the manufacturing organization with the configuration of new business partner roles, and specialist departments including resourcing, training and development and employee solutions as well as the transference of responsibility to line managers of HR activities including recruitment and selection, grievance and discipline, absence management and people development. Key to the changes introduced was the need to streamline operations, introduce cost reductions and allow HR specialists to work within key business areas and develop a more strategic HR approach. Introducing such dramatic structural change brought with it anxieties from both line managers and employees. Reflecting upon the changes, one line manager with 32 years management experience comments: I dont believe devolvement has been effective. HRs first role is to deal with people; it seems like a 3rd party HR now, which is responsible for over 500 staff. People have many issues of which they would have taken to HR, issues like cancer or family or work problems; they dont have anyone to go to. There is an expectation that they now have to ask for emotional support through e-mail or speak to someone whom they dont see, it leaves things pretty flat.Many managers felt they were inadequately trained in areas where previously the HR function had accumulated significant expertise. While some training was provided to line managers, the primary focus of this training was in the areas of employee relations, absence management and grievance management. Managers also reported being under significant time pressures and often experienced difficulty in accessing HR expertise across the organization. They also expressed concern at being less than fully prepared to deal with the consequences of such seismic structural change and let down that the organization and HR function had not fully prepared them for the change.
Relationships with trade unions
The manufacturing organization recognizes and works with two trade unions and adopts a proactive approach to engaging with staff at all levels and involving them in organizational decision making. Allied with the change in HR structures has been an evolution in the approach and stance taken by the two trade unions. Line managers reported a shift of working relationship from an adversarial approach to a more co-operative, two-way stance. One line manager with 11 years management experience describes the changes in the line manager-trade union relationship in the following terms: In the past, union representatives behaved in a commando way, it was a them and us situation. It was always very hostile and never the twain shall meet. They would try to fox the management and the management would try to fox them [that] was the perception. Now we talk to each other, we do disagree sometimes but we agree to disagree, the behaviors have completely changed, the person if they acted like the old days wouldnt last in a trade union role. If they worked like that I dont believe it would be accepted.Line managers indicated that trade union representatives performed an important role in helping secure employee acceptance for important organizational change. They recounted that through consultation and negotiation, trade union concerns could be effectively addressed and that trade unions acted as “critical friends through the change management process. This was expressed by one line manager of 4 years management experience as follows: When we are going through a change it is really being able to form a work stream and build the understanding of why we are doing the change and using the trade union representatives to spread that message so that the onus isnt on the line manager to get round 30 people to explain that. I suppose they stand side by side with managers when we are doing those communications so that we can deliver the management perspective and the trade union perspective.
Line management a crucial focal point
Line managers have experienced considerable difficulties adjusting to new roles and responsibilities that have arisen from changes to HR structures. The complexity of these new structures has meant that it is often difficult for line managers and employees to know where and whom to go to with their concerns. HR devolution has in many cases led to a distance and isolation of line managers from the HR function. This has led to both frustration and anxiety from line managers and in some cases a breakdown of trust between line managers and the HR function. This consequence of HR devolution is damaging to both the reputation and status of HR in organizations and arguably positions HR as being more “resource centered, than “human centered. It is clear that the HR function needs to balance strategic priorities whilst staying in tune with operational issues and providing a “listening ear for employees requiring emotional and personal support.
Adopting a more cooperative, collaborative approach has arguably been beneficial to the standing and acceptance of trade unions in the workplace. Trade unions now perform a difficult balancing act in the workplace – in that they are required by their members to represent their concerns; yet they also act as change enablers, providing support to line managers in operational delivery. As Munro (2002) points out, the growing demands on union representatives to participate in organizational problem solving and decision making raises the danger of union activities being channeled away from organizing to managing the organization.
In conclusion, line managers have become the central lynchpin through which operational HR delivery takes place. In many cases, line managers are struggling to cope with additional HR responsibilities and do not feel adequately trained or supported to discharge these duties. As well as interacting with employees, line managers are expected to cultivate and manage relationships with a plethora of organizational actors, including the HR function, trade unions, virtual teams, and external consultants. Perhaps it is time to truly recognize and value the central contribution of line managers in organizations.
Munro, A. (2002), “Working together – involving staff: partnership working in the NHS, Employee Relations, Vol. 24 No. 3, pp. 277–289
About the authors
Fiona McGuire is a resourcing specialist working within the manufacturing sector in Scotland. Previously she held the role of senior HR and change advisor, working closely with line managers on a range of organizational development initiatives. Her research interests lie in the areas of performance and change management and employee engagement.
Dr David McGuire is senior lecturer in Human Resource Development (HRD) at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. He has significant experience in teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the areas of HRD, managing diversity and leadership and is deputy program director of MBA programs. To date, he has published two textbooks and over 30 journal articles in journals including European Journal of Training and Development, Advances in Developing Human Resources, Human Resource Development Review and Human Resource Development Quarterly. He serves as associate editor of Advances in Developing Human Resources and as book reviews editor of the European Journal of Training and Development. Dr David McGuire is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Michael Sanderson is lecturer in Organizational Behavior and Employee Relations at Edinburgh Napier University Business School. His research interests focus on trade union membership recruitment, and trade union activity in the workplace.
Fiona McGuire, David McGuire and Michael Sanderson
Fiona McGuire is based at the School of Management, Edinburgh Napier University Business School, Edinburgh, UK. David McGuire is Senior Lecturer at School of Management, Edinburgh Napier University Business School, Edinburgh, UK. Michael Sanderson is based at School of Management, Edinburgh Napier University Business School, Edinburgh, UK