If a company were an army, the line positions would be the soldiers on the front line fighting the daily battles and the staff positions would be the personnel off the battlefield providing support to the soldiers. Line positions directly affect the customer through manufacturing and delivering products and services. Staff positions affect customers indirectly, only to the extent that the support they provide helps line employees improve quality and customer satisfaction.
The Front Line
Line positions include workers who are directly involved with creating and delivering a company's products and services. In a manufacturing company, line workers may design and manufacture products. In a service organization, line workers may create and deliver services to customers. Line management makes sure that the company sells the right products and services at a price that makes an acceptable profit. The line is also accountable for ensuring the quality of what is produced or delivered -- and the resulting customer satisfaction.
Behind the Scenes
Staff positions support the line. They work in functions such as finance, IT, legal and human resources to help line managers accomplish their administrative responsibilities. Because staff roles are not usually customer-facing, they are often regarded as non-strategic, and the expense of staff jobs is treated as overhead. In a company with multiple business units, staff roles are typically organized in a corporate group that provides these shared services to every business unit in the company. This helps to ensure that programs, policies and procedures are followed consistently across the enterprise.
Line positions usually have a much greater impact on the success of a company than staff positions, because they directly work with customers. If a product has flaws, production is late, services have errors or the price doesn't produce a profit, the line bears the accountability and suffers the consequences. However, when sales, profitability and customer satisfaction are up, the line takes the credit and usually reaps the reward in the form of salary increases, promotions and bonuses.
Some companies outsource staff functions to third-party providers. For example, a company might outsource its IT support, payroll and employee benefits administration, or accounting to a third party that specializes in providing these staff services. Outsourcing enables a company to free itself from the distractions of providing staff services so it can focus on its core business. For smaller organizations, outsourcing often provides access to technology, such as employee self-service tools, and specialized expertise that they could not afford to develop on their own.
Steve McDonnell's experience running businesses and launching companies complements his technical expertise in information, technology and human resources. He earned a degree in computer science from Dartmouth College, served on the WorldatWork editorial board, blogged for the Spotfire Business Intelligence blog and has published books and book chapters for International Human Resource Information Management and Westlaw.