Why overcoming the barriers to manager empowerment is critical for HR

Stephanie Thomas

Written By Stephanie Thomas

31st May 2023

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Line manager empowerment is vital.

Strategic, business-driven HR functions are crucial for organisations to achieve their long-term goals.

The role of HR is to develop and embed the people strategies that support an organisation’s strategic objectives and foster a positive, people-first working environment. However, many organisations still rely too heavily on HR to support tactical people management, leaving little time to focus on the strategic aspects of employee engagement to achieve business success.

In this blog we identify and address the barriers that hinder line managers from effectively managing employee relations matters and look at how we can empower them to take greater ownership. By enabling line managers to confidently handle these responsibilities, HR can shift its focus towards driving strategic initiatives, fostering employee engagement and ultimately creating a business-driven HR function that aligns with the organisation’s goals.

1. Budget Constraints

HR leaders often cite budget constraints as a reason for not investing in HR transformation, but as specialists in employee relations (ER) for over 20 years, we know that stalling investment is a false economy. The return on investment that can be achieved by enabling managers to deepen their relationship with their direct reports, and free HR to be more strategic, is business changing. These stats show the positive impact manager empowerment has on productivity, efficiencies in HR’s cost to serve, and the reduction in case duration and escalation to employment tribunal situations.

When line managers are equipped with our empower® technology they have the ability to self-serve more employee relations matters, reducing the time HR spend on transactional and non-complex issues. The investment quickly pays for itself many times over. Some examples of the savings our clients have been able to achieve include:

  • 31% reduction in formal case duration reducing lost productivity hours for those involved in an ER case.
  • 62% reduction in ER case advisory team profile whilst uplifting service quality and engagement.
  • 71% reduction in tribunal claims from early and appropriate manager intervention, consistent processes and robust audit trails.
  • £2.5 million annual saving in reduced absence rates through proactive management by line managers. Read our United Utilities case study to find out how this was achieved.

The statistics clearly demonstrate that investment has a significant impact on various aspects of the employee relations landscape, including improved retention, enhanced productivity, and lower absence rates. Collectively, these outcomes contribute to positive employee experiences and improved performance, ultimately improving the overall health of the organisation and driving bottom-line growth.

2. Insufficient manager capacity and capability

A line manager’s role is to manage people, which should include ER matters, but when they don’t have the time, tools or sufficient training to do so effectively, it can increase the risk of manager overwhelm. An over-reliance on HR to be involved in all ER matters, which is commonplace in many organisations, is not sustainable in the experience culture we live in today, and it erodes the ability of managers to effectively manage.

Our empower® solution enables businesses to empower their managers to handle more of these issues directly. The software ensures that managers can take responsibility for people matters, without introducing risk, by taking them on tailored, guided journeys through consistent employee relations processes. As demonstrated above, it is proven to deliver significant business benefits, such as reduced long-term sickness absence rates and fewer employee relations issues being escalated to HR.

“The technology is so helpful and makes it easier for managers to manage their teams. I have never had support like this before, it’s great!” Manager, Virgin Atlantic

3. The dominance of one-size-fits-all

Another barrier we see organisations often come up against when trying to empower line managers, is the rise of one-size-fits-all technologies that are not fit for the purpose of enabling manager self-service of employee relations matters.

Often businesses use a helpdesk or similar ticketing systems to manage ER matters, but these are not designed to enable managers to self-serve in a consistent and risk-controlled way nor deliver actionable insights, so reliance falls on HR to get involved in people matters that would not require their input if handled effectively at source.

empower® is a built-for-purpose case management system that takes managers on tailored, guided journeys, while capturing key data points that feed into real-time dashboards, providing HR teams with valuable analytics and insights to be leveraged to drive business success.

It’s essential that HR teams have visibility of ER data and analytics to help surface the root cause of issues and identify where there are potential problem areas, such as teams with high absence rates, reports of conduct issues or where line managers are underperforming. And it’s this granular detail and these insights that are often lacking from the one-size-fits-all technology solution.

4. Breaking habits

Another significant barrier to empowering line managers is trying to break the usual routine and behaviours of line managers, HR and the organisation as a whole.

These patterns of behaviour can’t be changed overnight, and they require the buy-in of everyone to effectively manage the change process. There may be some resistance from both front-line HR and line managers, but HR leaders need to wholly embrace the change and lead from the front, helping to avoid old habits from returning.

Manager empowerment is not about taking HR away from using the specialist people skills they are trained in, but it is about reducing the time spent on issues that specialist skills are not required for.

This means that HR have more time to focus their energy on complex matters that do require their expertise, and it also enables them to spend more time identifying the root cause of recurring issues.

There may also be fear of having line managers lead on ER matters, so it’s vital that the change process is carefully planned to include the right governance and safeguards to prevent mismanagement, and that these are clearly articulated to everyone impacted. Building a culture of trust while safeguarding managers is vital to the success of manager empowerment initiatives.

With the right tools, training, safeguards and analytics in place, HR will quickly reap the benefits.

5. The complexity of ER Management

The ability to empower line managers in dealing with ER issues is often hindered by the perception that the issues are too complex for non-HR people to deal with. However, simplifying ER processes and providing the resources and training to enable line managers to consistently and confidently follow them can benefit the organisation by freeing up resources, reducing risk, and fostering positive employee relationships.

As managers are those closest to their direct reports’ day-today roles and experiences, they are best placed to understand any issues that an employee may be facing. With clear processes that guide line managers through how to respond to employees ER issues, managers can be confident that they are doing the right thing in the moment, and the employee will experience a consistent approach that helps to reassure them that their manager can effectively support them.

empower® ensures that managers can take responsibility for people matters, without introducing risk, by being prompted to take action at the right time, and can involve HR whenever needed, such as when complexity or risk arises.

By taking the complexity out of processes and making them easier to understand and follow, line managers confidence and capability in handling people matters increases.

Manager empowerment is not something that progressive organisations can afford to delay.

As organisations face tightening budgets and many are facing workforce reductions, line manager empowerment becomes a more urgent priority to protect productivity and employee engagement. With the fight for talent continuing to impact so many organisations, equipping line managers to manage their teams more effectively is essential to reduce impactful ER matters and improve employee retention.

Digitalising people processes and integrating advice, guidance and coaching will support managers to do the right thing at the right time. Equip managers to self-serve, with a fit-for-purpose solution that improves ways of working. One-size-fits-all simply won’t do.

Removing barriers to manager empowerment is essential for organisations to improve productivity, employee experiences and the overall health and resilience of the business and its workforce.

Read more in this engaging whitepaper, ‘HR Transformation: Overcoming the barriers to manager empowerment’.

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