Line manager, staff manager, team leader? HR expert Gemma Dale moves past the traditional line vs staff manager debate to consider the history of workplace job titles and what organisations need to consider when choosing job titles.
Line manager, supervisor, team leader, staff manager, first line manager, senior manager, director, head of, or just simply ‘the boss’. What do you call the people that look after other people in your organisation? And how much does it matter?
How organisations refer to their different functions and groups is often down to a mix of history and culture. It’s not just people managers that can be described in many different ways. The people that work for us might be known as members of staff, employees, or colleagues, depending on the company, sector, or industry.
Human Resources aren’t immune themselves from debates about terminology, finding themselves known over the years by various names from Personnel to People Teams. In the US, there are sometimes distinctions made between staff functions and ‘the line’ – with staff managers working in specialised advisory and support functions. Only in other organisations, those functions are known as Professional Services and staff manager is just another term for a line manager. Confused? I know I am.
A role by any other name
There are some people who will argue that it doesn’t matter what you call people or teams, and that names do not necessarily reflect the qualities of an individual or the work that they do. While this might be true to some extent, names and terminology are not without significance.
Language changes and develops over time. For example, there are few ‘Personnel’ departments left today, and perhaps even fewer HR professionals that would wish to describe themselves as such. ‘Line manager’ is equally dated, coming from the days when managers really did manage a line of people, typically in a manufacturing environment.
Related article: The history of HR management: traditional HR vs strategic HR
Job titles and recruiting
How a role is described will matter when recruiting. Language can tell a candidate something about the culture of the organisation they are applying for. Would you rather work for an organisation that calls you ‘staff’ or ‘people’? Would you rather work for a line manager or a leader?
The terms used to describe different managerial roles do tend to indicate status and seniority. They help to tell us where someone fits into the hierarchy. A line manager, for example, is usually a fairly junior position, perhaps one of the first rungs on the managerial ladder, much like the term ‘team leader’. In contrast, the term Director implies seniority and those holding such a title are likely to hold significant responsibility.
Manager roles and responsibilities
Of course, the main problem with all this different terminology is that there is no consensus about what any of the words mean. Every organisation is different. A line manager in one organisation may do the same work as a supervisor in another. Being called a ‘manager’ does not necessarily mean that the post holder manages other people – it may mean instead that they manage processes, oversee systems and procedures, or simply be an indication of seniority.
A team leader probably does manage a team, but this could be two people or twenty depending on the type of work undertaken or the structure of the business (see my piece on managerial span of control for a discussion on whether there is an ideal staff to manager ratio). A staff manager may also manage members of staff or advisory functions.
The exact roles and responsibilities of people managers, whatever they are called, vary considerably too. At their core will always be some sort of supervisory function but the scope of the role, position in the organisational hierarchy, level of authority and even the day to day tasks will differ significantly. Generally, most managerial roles will have responsibility for productivity and performance. They may set targets or objectives, organise resources, hire and fire, and deal with all of the day to day routine administration that comes with managing others. From dealing with sickness absence to approving holidays, administration is one task that is almost always included within the job description.
Whilst it isn’t possible to write an all-encompassing, single definition or consistent list of manager tasks, it is possible to identify what matters most about the job titles that we choose to use.
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The name of the game
First of all, there needs to be a common understanding within the specific organisation of the roles and responsibilities of the manager – whatever they happen to be called. The managers themselves must understand their remit, and so should the people that work for and with them. This should always include clearly written job descriptions. Confusing or misleading job titles aren’t helpful to anyone.
Secondly, consideration should be given to the chosen designation, and in particular whether that language is properly reflective of the role undertaken and if it sends the right message about what that role is and does. It is also worth reflecting on the external perception of the title of a role – when an organisation needs to appoint new people managers, titles matter. A lot. When the decision is made, it isn’t forever. Keep titles up to date. The world of work is changing all the time and so is its terminology. Job titles should evolve too.
Finally, remember that titles can matter deeply to the people that hold them. Job titles can be motivational, or indicate a career path or progression through the organisation. They might be something that an individual aspires to, and can contribute to how they see themselves within the organisation and therefore their overall engagement.
Staff manager, line manager, team leader or boss. The name is only part of the story. It isn’t just what you are called, but what you do, that matters.
Written by Gemma Dale
Gemma Dale is an experienced senior HR professional, CIPD Chartered Fellow, HEA Fellow, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics. Gemma is the co-author of the book 'Flexible Working' published by Kogan Page in 2020. She is also a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University and runs her own business, The Work Consultancy.