Understanding the HR-Line connection

by | Jul 11, 2021


In the initial part of my career, I worked as a line manager for 16 years and then migrated to HR function via the Personnel Management role (there was no HR department in 1985), out of choice and later worked for 27 years in the HR domain at senior levels. My tryst with HR as a line manager and vice versa gave rise to a number of learnings to make the collaboration extremely strong. I have ventured to put the same below with pictures to enhance readability and save time.

The origins

We have all heard the proverb – two heads are better than one which means that working together collaboratively gives a fresh outlook on the challenges or ideas to provide innovative thinking and enhance productivity in business. Taking this further, the partnership between HR and Line is crucial in more ways than one. However, in reality, it is a sweet-sour story that has within itself a number of challenges.

Let us first understand the roles of Line and HR. In the figure shown below, everything starts with business and ends with business. One part of the cycle converts money into goods (manufacturing or sourcing), and the other half of the cycle converts goods back to money (marketing and sales). Every round of the cycle leads to some residual income. When the cycle moves faster and faster, more profits are generated.

Diagram describing the business cycle and essential functions in a business.

However, now there is a need to manage money with the increased volume of business – hence the finance manager comes in. Also due to manpower increases someone is required to manage people and thus our HR person makes an entry.

Their roles

The line manager continues to serve his customer, the marketing department making goods of the right quality, in the quantities demanded with delivery on time keeping the costs in mind. The HR person on the other hand has four major functions to handle as shown in the picture below:-

Diagram describing functions of HR

The intersection

In every single process, as shown in the picture below, there is a need for HR to work closely with Line. For example, in manpower planning which itself depends upon business planning, the role of the line manager is crucial in projecting manpower for the future. When it comes to recruitment and selection, both must work hand in hand to get the right talent in the organization. The collaboration becomes more intense when we talk about performance management and training & development.

Diagram describing the HR process

Some issues

First and foremost there is a mindset of line that HR is a service function which means line should expect ‘services from the function’. As a result, when the HR person follows up for TNI (Training Need Identification) or performance management, the feeling is that of being ‘followed up’ and this is not something that is appreciated.

Strictly speaking, HR is really a support function that helps the Line to discharge their people responsibilities.

I have overcome many situations by offering to sit with them and do the needful – at least do a prototype for Line people to become conversant with the process. For interviewing candidates, I have conducted demonstration sessions to convince Line Managers to get interested and do well in the processes.

Let us have a look at the picture below:-

Image of a frustrated HR manager describing the pain points of HR management

HR can definitely work with Line to resolve each of the issues shown above which are normally the pain points of line managers. For this, there is a need to develop interpersonal trust. Cultivating relationships is another avenue open to HR.

Several times I have taken the blame in meetings with the Vice President about delays in the submissions of performance management data, manpower data, etc. I have refrained from pointing a finger at the particular line manager. This invariably generates camaraderie and sends the right messages across to other line managers. 

 Symbolic representation

The three-legged race which we use to run in childhood aptly signifies the working of HR with Line.

An image of two girls participating in a "three-legged race"​.

Bottom Line

Encouraging collaboration in the workplace between Line and HR need not be complicated, particularly with the speed of communication that is available today. Instant massaging apps have taken over e-mails and this can enhance collaboration. Virtual meetings over ZOOM or Google Meet have greatly cut down the time to move to someone’s office or the conference room.

By enabling Line Managers to manage strategic priorities – with their subordinates and peers, I have seen that Line actually welcomes the presence of the HR person. An analogy that brings this to the fore is HR as the architect of the house while the Line Managers are the interior designers for each space and room.

I have always believed in the commandment, ‘over-communication is better than under communication’.

About the Author

Dr. Krishnamurthy Iyer is a seasoned industrial engineer turned HR professional, with an established track record in change management, organizational diagnostics, and integration of HR processes with business strategies.

Dr. Krishnamurthy Iyer is a seasoned industrial engineer turned HR professional, with an established track record in change management, organizational diagnostics, and integration of HR processes with business strategies.

He possesses a versatile combination of human and industrial engineering skills with an experience spanning over 40 years in the human factor and effectiveness enhancement, as a natural trainer, facilitator & galvanizer of people, influencing team synergy and concerted action for results, with specialization in individual and team development and organization development.