The way a business organizes its employees often depends on its size, objectives and resources. However, one of the key elements to consider when creating an organizational structure is where authority should lie within the organization and whether that aligns with overarching business goals.

One of the commonly used traditional hierarchical organizational structures is referred to as line and staff. It is a vertical hierarchy where some horizontal support is provided to key positions within the organization. It’s used in medium and large organizations.

Features of Line and Staff Organization

The terms "line" and "staff" refer to specific roles within a company. "Line" refers to roles that are involved in achieving the key objectives of the company. Line personnel usually include sales and production, as without those two departments, businesses cannot produce or sell their offerings. Marketing is also sometimes included as a line role depending on the activities the department performs.

Within each line group are managers and employees. The employees follow the directives of the managers. The line group as a whole is seen as a function that is essential to the business.

Staff positions are those that indirectly support line functions in the organizations. Like line positions, staff positions also consist of managers and employees. While line personnel contribute to the main workflow of the business, staff personnel provide support to the line through resources, service and quality control. Staff groups often include human resources, legal and research and development.

Levels of Authority

There are different levels of authority within this kind of line and staff organization. In most organizations that use this model, vertical hierarchies exist within each department or division. For example, sales representatives are headed by a sales manager, and production employees are managed by a production manager.

Employees with line authority can direct those within staff roles. For example, a sales manager can direct the human resources team to hire additional salespeople to cover more ground and increase sales.

Employees with staff authority can advise those with line authority to complete specific activities that further the goals of the business. For example, the quality control department can counsel the production team on what the acceptable levels of quality are for the business and what needs to be improved or altered.

Advantages and Disadvantages

As with any kind of organizational structure, there are benefits and setbacks to the line and staff model. One of the key advantages is that this structure provides line personnel with expertise from staff groups. As a result, the key decision makers in the organization are well-informed and armed with specialized knowledge. For example, the line staff in a marketing group can gain legal advice from their legal department on using copyright materials within their messaging.

Emerging conflict is one the major disadvantages of this organizational structure. Staff personnel can sometimes resent their lack of authority within an organization. Line personnel can disregard the advice of staff groups even though they are aware of the specialized knowledge they bring to the business.

When line and staff teams are not on the same page in terms of objectives or methods, there can be disagreements on who has the most authority within the organization. In some cases where the business fails to meet its objectives, line employees can blame their actions on the advice they received from staff positions, or staff employees can blame line employees for making the wrong decisions.

Ensuring Success Within Line and Staff Models

In order to minimize conflict and ensure that the line and staff teams realize the full benefits of the structure, it’s important to integrate people from both groups into project teams with a clear directive to achieve a business goal together. In addition, it’s critical to identify and define the roles, authority and goals of each group so there is no confusion over who is responsible for which task.