HRM Responsibilities in the Public Sector – The Role of Line Managers (2010-2014)
Dynamics in the organisational landscape are also changing the anatomy of the HR function (Morley et al., 2006). Both changes in organisational structures (e.g. decentralisation) and developments associated with the shift from traditional personnel management to a modern HRM approach (e.g. HR-outsourcing) have caused a transformation in the organisation of the HR function. As a result, “the HR function has become increasingly fragmented and balkanised” (Caldwel, 2003: 985). In other words, HRM is increasingly performed by a number of different actors working together in an HR partnership. Next to the HR department, other actors may be involved, such as top management, line management, and external HR agencies (Valverde et al., 2006). Whereas many studies have examined the role of one of these agents, research on the entire configuration of the HR function’s distributed HRM activities remains limited (e.g. Valverde et al., 2006).
The importance of one of these actors in HRM, namely that of line managers, has been traditionally recognised. The trend to engage multiple actors in HRM, however, recently increased the attention paid to the empowerment of line managers in HR issues. Tasks formerly undertaken by the specialist HR department are now being allocated to line managers, i.e. devolution of HRM (Brewster & Söderström, 1994). The line manager’s role is to bring HR policies to life and thereby ensuring an effective HR implementation (Hutchinson & Purcell, 2008). This trend of devolution is believed to have both positive and negative implications for HR units and may change the way the HR department is perceived in the organisation (Perry & Kulik, 2008). Also, the transfer of HR activities to the line is considered a leverage for the HR department to pursue new HR roles (e.g. support role) or spend more time on some of its existing roles (e.g. strategic role) (Brewster and Söderström, 1994). At the same time, devolution may increase the efficiency (e.g. Larsen & Brewster, 2003) and effectiveness (e.g. Teo & Rodwell, 2007) of the HR department. Up until now, however, little has been reported on the link between devolution, the roles of the HR department and its efficiency and effectiveness.
All of these changes in the HR function’s organisation are also taking place in the public sector. From the mid-1980s, government reforms under the umbrella of New Public Management (NPM) have been characterised by the adoption of private sector management practices, with profound implications for HRM in the public sector. HRM-related reforms focus, amongst others, on “enhancing management discretion in personnel management and increasing the flexibility and responsiveness of public personnel management systems” (Hays & Kearny, 2001: 586). As a result of these reforms, there is a greater tendency towards decentralisation of HRM and the transfer of HRM to line managers (Meyer & Hammerschmid, 2010).
This project aims to answer three main research questions:
- What is the influence of the HR function’s structure on its performance?
- To what extent are line managers involved in HRM?
- How can the HR department fulfill its support role towards line managers, in order for the HR function to achieve its results in terms of performance?
In 2012 we conducted a first study consulting HR managers (P&O directors) in the Belgian federal government. By means of a questionnaire and additional interviews we were able to reconstruct the structure of the HR function in the federal government (N = 21 organisations). This indicated a significant role for three personnel actors. The HR department (staff service P&O) has a primary responsibility in HRM. We also found that there is a genuine decentralisation of HRM in the federal government (from the Federal Public Service P&O to the staff service P&O). Another important role is assigned to top management (executive committee) and the HR department can also count on the support of line management in the implementation of HRM. Contrary to expectations, e-HRM and external HR agencies do not contribute that much to HRM in the federal government. In this phase of research, we still want to study the link between the structure of the HR function and its performance in more depth.
In the next phase of our research, we focus on one relationship in the HR function, that between the HR department and line management. Although line managers are widely recognised for their important role in HRM, we are so far not able to comment on the quality of their HR work. In other words, there is an inherent risk of non-performance if line managers are not motivated or do not have the necessary time or skills to perform their assigned HR tasks. Here, the HR department fulfils an key role in providing sufficient support to line managers in the organisation. In general, we find that there are mutual expectations from both parties, the HR department and line management, towards each other. This is why we will study the relationship between the two parties in more depth in the following steps of our research.
Publications of Sophie Op de Beeck