More responsibility for HR functions is being devolved to line managers. Helen Swire wonders if they are receiving adequate support and training

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The advent of employer responsibility for pensions provision through auto-enrolment began a new conversation about the role of the workplace in people’s lives.

It seems that more aspects of people’s lives have become directly linked to their employers: from the traditional, such as childcare, to the more innovative, such as mental and financial wellbeing.

Inevitably, small HR teams in the mid-market are over-stretched, so line managers are taking on more of the HR function.

There’s an erosion between the HR functions and managers’ jobs,” says Chris Charman, senior principal at the consultancy Mercer. “Managers are absolutely crucial in the practical application of management of performance and rewards, and leading the communications about staff benefits.”

But with a recent survey from Jelf Employee Benefits showing that 70% of benefits communications from HR are simply bypassed in employees’ inboxes, the question is whether line managers realise the importance of their role, and whether they are getting the necessary training.

Growing support

The main disconnect seems to be a lack of clarity. As more accountability is given to line managers, the first step is to ensure that they understand what is being asked of them – and that this is clearly understood across the rest of the organisation.

The gap lies in getting to grips with the purpose and identity you want your line managers to have,” says Charman’s colleague, Anna Seely, talent strategy consultant at Mercer. “We’re asking line managers to make behavioural changes and build new habits – and you can’t teach that in a classroom.”

Seely’s view is that the development of managers needs to be considered not through a training strategy, but through long-term development ‘journeys’ that help form the right managerial habits.

It’s useless trying to build skills around core management attributes if people don’t understand what it means to be a leader,” she adds. “The behaviours need to be built rather than the tasks: strong self-awareness, a grounding of inclusive leadership and being able to develop and learn yourself.”

But whose responsibility is it to ensure this development happens? For the same reason that line managers are being asked to take on more duties, it has to be driven by senior management: time-pressed HRs are unlikely to have the opportunity.

Nonetheless it is a joint responsibility to ensure that line managers have a full understanding of their role, the benefits package, policies and procedures, much of which can come from the HR team.

The line manager is better placed than anyone to promote the benefits package,” argues Steve Herbert, head of benefits strategy at Jelf Employee Benefits.

The line manager has that personal interaction that data doesn’t give you, and they will be able to spot when someone has a problem, which wouldn’t necessarily be picked up by the HR department.”

It also comes down to the comfort of employees and their ability to approach their team line manager, rather than, for example, a central HR team that they may not know at all.

Conversations aren’t always easy – and line managers aren’t always approachable. But as stigmas are slowly broken down around areas such as mental and financial wellbeing, it’s for senior management to make sure that staff are able to have those conversations with their direct managers.

What benefit?

There are certain issues that managers must be aware of when taking on the responsibility of supervising employees.

The UK workforce is becoming steadily more flexible, and managers have an important role to play in an organisation’s cultural shift to accommodate this.

Ben Black, director of My Family Care, says: “Flexible working involves good communications between the manager and the individual about their family circumstances and how they can make their needed flexibility work all round.”

Black points out that in terms of parental leave, maternity coaching and childcare support, line managers need to understand the whole conversation. This may start with the initial congratulations, on to explaining maternity policies, to asking when they will return to work, to discussing what support and flexibility they will need.

Equally, employee health is an important issue, both in terms of recognising signs of illness, and in knowing what policies a company has that can support and help.

Line managers don’t always know what to do with stress or mental illness,” says Steve Bridger, managing director group protection at Aviva. “Even if there’s some form of benefit provision, they don’t necessarily know it exists or how to engage with it, and the absent person can end up feeling separated and isolated.”

There are many areas – health, financial wellbeing, work/life balance and so on, as well as productivity – where people look to their line manager for support. And if that manager has a full understanding of the ways their company’s benefits can support and help, the effect all round in terms of wellbeing and productivity can be huge.

It seems like an easy win to ensure that managers are adequately prepared to, essentially, manage.

Mercer’s Charman has concerns, however. “It’ll get worse before it gets better, because organisations are often relying on technology to make the change for them. Businesses will take some time to catch up with this development of managers before they are really effective.”

Seely is more positive: “Companies are realising that if you can get it right when people first step into leadership and management roles it helps to drive progress.”

With much change due in 2017, it is to be hoped as many managers as possible are supported on that crucial developmental journey.