The “Necessary evil” of a compliance role for HR: Examining the day-to-day realities of human resources (HR) practice

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Dr Helen Mortimore and Dr Catherine Mackintosh

The problem for HR practitioners

When was the last time you heard somebody praise their HR department: “oh, they’re so helpful” or “they’re great at what they do”? HR professionals battle for credibility in organisations and struggle to convince others of their contribution. Many organisational members probably do not really know or have any interest in knowing what HR practitioners actually do on a day-to-day basis, never mind understand what doing it “well” might look like. Even more challenging for HR professionals though, is this lack of understanding and interest in the realities of HR practice is arguably just as true of many of the academics who study it.

The current narrative of most HR academics, practitioners, and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) emphasises the value of HR professionals as business partners to line managers who carry out devolved people management activity (e.g., Guest, 1987; Ulrich, 1997). In other words, it is suggested that to be strategic, HR practitioners should advise but not intervene with line managers who “do” people management. This idea of the “devolution” of HR management (HRM) is broadly accepted (Purcell & Hutchinson, 2007) but, nevertheless, is problematic for practitioners. It creates a tension where they are required to relinquish power to line managers but the accountability for HR outcomes remains with them (Sheehan et al., 2014). Current research tends to under-play and under-examine the influence of national regulation on HR practice (Gilbert et al., 2015). In the UK, where our research was undertaken, this means there is not sufficient consideration of how protective employment law, such as the Equality Act (2010), influence the work of HR professionals. In the UK, tribunals are the enforcement option for handling employment rights and HR practitioners are tasked by their organisations with managing legal risk and avoiding claims. However, this aspect of HR practice is near impossible to fulfil if HR professionals fully embrace the logic of devolution. Instead, the regulatory context creates an “interventionary” compliance role for HR, yet the HRM narrative that promotes devolution delegitimises such activity and may leave HR practitioners reluctant to promote this element of their role.

Our research

To gain insight into how HR professionals understand and navigate this tension between devolving people management activity to line managers, and the need to ensure compliance with national regulation, in our study we focused on talking to HR practitioners about what they actually do day-to-day (rather than what HR work “ought” to be). Our findings indicate that HR practitioners frame their role as both advisory and interventionary: they take an advisory, non-interventionary role when line managers’ decision-making is within a ‘safe zone’ but intervene when line managers risk provoking a tribunal claim. Both HR and line managers, from the perspective of the HR professionals, accept the need and value of this compliance role, seeing it as a “necessary evil” to protect the organisation.

Our findings highlight the strategies HR practitioners use to encourage compliant behaviour from line managers. At times, HR practitioners need to involve and garner support from those higher up the organisational hierarchy (e.g., the senior management team) in order to compel line manager action. As such, our data reveals that even in scenarios where a HR practitioner does not have the power to dictate line manager decision making (e.g., because HR lacks status within the organisation or the individual practitioner is more junior) they still have methods of moving between an advisory and interventionary approach to working with their stakeholders. When they consider it necessary to intervene, HR practitioners will also highlight the risk of tribunal claims and/or procure specialist legal advice to persuade line managers to adopt a specific course of action. This evidences how line managers can be unwilling to accept the recommendations of HR practitioners without the reinforcement of external legal advice, and therefore the challenges HR professionals face in establishing credibility with organisational actors. Importantly, while HR practitioners have strategies for overcoming these challenges and to influence line manager behaviour, these tactics do not necessarily resolve their struggles for status.

Despite HR practitioners use of employment lawyers to persuade and appease line managers, they do not simply regurgitate the third-party advice they have sourced. Our findings also demonstrate how HR professionals add value through their own balancing of the legal position and the specific needs and context of their organisation (e.g., taking into account the employer’s management of previous similar cases). However, HR professionals will not necessarily disclose this value adding activity to line managers as it may undermine the force and influence of obtaining the third-party advice. As such, aspects of HR’s compliance role, the skills and knowledge that they use to support positive outcomes for organisations, can go unseen and undervalued.

So what?

Based on the findings of our study, we propose that the value of and craft involved in HR’s compliance role has been downplayed by academics and the profession. We bring into question the nature of HR business partnering in organisations by highlighting that in their day-to-day working lives practitioners move between interventionary or advisory approaches to working with managers. We therefore suggest that intervention is not incommensurate with a HR Business Partner role but can be an essential element of it, and a component of effective HRM. Consequently, we call for researchers and the CIPD to acknowledge the need for and value of HR’s regulatory and compliance responsibilities in support of HR departments and professionals more clearly demonstrating their contribution to organisations.

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