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workforceThere is no more important managerial relationship at a workplace than that of an employee and line manager. The manager supervises the employees in some things, coordinates their work, encourages them and generally makes sure that a team of employees performs its tasks efficiently and effectively.

But today’s line managers have so many other responsibilities in addition to managing team performance and unfortunately far too many put managing conduct and attendance issues to the bottom of the pile. There are many reasons for side stepping the problem. Sometimes a line manager started off as an employee performing a particular function – a carpenter, a teacher, a consultant, etc – and was then promoted and is managing the former peer group. The manager may wish to avoid a perceived risk of conflict. He or she may still socialise with the team and want to stay on rather too-friendly terms. The manager may simply feel too inexpert. Whatever the reason, when “dull” or “difficult” HR matters arise many managers’ response is: “I’m a production manager. Get HR to sort that out.”

But the manager is captain of his (or her) ship! He is the one who knows the employee in question better than anyone. He knows whether the employee deserves the time off he has asked for and whether he deserves pay for it. He knows whether the employee may have a mitigating reason for whatever misconduct he appears to be committing, and most importantly what individual ways of working have been agreed.

Line managers want to get on with their work and complete the tasks set to them and their teams. That’s entirely understandable. But HR is not a thing apart. Managing the team well and in a timely way is the foundation for success and managers have to learn how to do it. HR support is there to help operations people do their job better. Not do it for them (as happens far too frequently).

Managers are judged on team performance and its output, not just their own technical skills. An architect, for example, leading a team of fellow professionals is not measured on his own design skills, but how the team produced a completed project. Likewise, a head of department at a school may still be a teacher, but the role has broadened to management and cannot shirk the responsibility to manage employee issues and how these fit with the school’s aims. Promoting on technical competence alone can be a disaster; the key question is what leadership potential the promoted person has.

Workers are people, people will always have problems, and one way or another they need to be managed. Many of these problems manifest themselves as HR issues, for example, sickness absence, other compassionate leave, misconduct at work, etc. The company’s HR resource may not be best placed to deal with this, particularly if the company is big and the line manager is difficult to track down. HR will certainly know the law surrounding the issue and should be able to offer a practical solution; but that needs to come in cooperation with the line manager, not separately, as it is the line manager who is directly responsible for the employee in question.

An HR department can be incredibly useful to an organization, from dealing with individual employee problems to strategic planning for recruitment, retention and talent. To help managers deal with individual issues, HR needs an early warning system. Line managers have to alert HR that there’s a concern before the matter has progressed too far so the two can deal with the problem together. The key is training and education for line managers so they know what to look out for and how to best nip problems in the bud. Earlier this year we were working with an organisation which had never had HR before. At every step we felt that “HR stuff” had been hived off and no one else would touch it. Take absence management. We wanted to help the heads of department (HoDs) do return to work meetings because they had a real attendance problem. The CEO refused point blank to allow it. “HoDs can’t do this, they have a department to manage. RTW meetings are HR’s role!” (We hadn’t suggested handing the HoDs a checklist and retreating to drink coffee while leaving the HoDs to their fate incidentally; rather we wanted them to sit with us and learn how to do it properly.) But we have chipped away and six months later they have come round to our way of thinking; the HoDs are now sitting in RTW meetings with HR and grasping the value of learning how to manage their team in non-technical aspects of their role.

Managers need to know what they have to do and how HR can help them. They must understand the cost of staffing and the organisational impact of operating at less than optimum performance. The costs of employing people are getting ever higher and managers are under a duty as never before to run their departments as efficiently as they can.