Differences Between Line & Staff Functions

by Jim Woodruff - Updated June 25, 2018
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Every business has its own version of line and staff positions. The way they are structured determines how well the organization works. Line and staff functions have built-in inherent conflicts that management has to reconcile to have a smooth-running organization.

Line Positions

Line positions have the responsibility and authority for achieving the major goals of the corporation. Typically, these goals are targets for revenues and profits. Line employees are directly involved in the daily operations of a business by selling or producing a product or service. These positions include production, marketing and sales. They are the primary activities of a company and are essential to the basic operations of a business. Because of the importance of producing and selling, managers of line positions have the responsibility for making most of the decisions of a company.

Staff Functions

The primary purpose of staff positions is to provide assistance and specialized advice and expertise to line positions. Staff functions include human resources, maintenance, legal, accounting and public relations. Staff positions can be further defined as technical or support people. Examples of technical positions are accountants and engineers. Support staff positions are clerks, secretaries and data processors. Staff employees are not directly involved in producing and selling activities.

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Lines of Authority

The power and authority of decision-making are different for line and staff managers. Line managers usually have final authority to make executive decisions in the company and to direct the activities of personnel involved in producing and selling. On the other hand, the authority of staff managers is limited to supervising the activities of other staff personnel and advising line managers. Staff managers are subordinate to the actions of line managers.

Line and Staff Conflict

Conflict between line and staff workers is common. Line employees are usually older and have more experience than staff employees, who are typically younger and better educated with college degrees. Line workers may believe that staff workers are meddlesome, arrogant and do not have enough field experience in the activities needed to achieve the goals of the company. Staff workers may say line workers ignore their advice and sometimes even avoid being around them.

Conflict Resolution

Management has several ways to resolve the conflict between line and staff employees. One way is to define the responsibilities and authority levels of each line and staff position so that each person understands her role in the business. This makes it possible to hold all employees accountable for the consequences of their activities. Another way is to combine line and staff workers into a team that is responsible for achieving specific goals of the organization. This method forces the group to work together in their efforts to improve performance and meet objectives.

Every organization and company needs certain line and staff functions. Line workers produce goods and services and sell. Staff employees provide advice and support to line workers that is intended to help them achieve company objectives. Management has the responsibility to clearly specify the duties and authority levels of all positions in order to prevent conflict and resentment between employees. If conflict does arise, managers have several ways to resolve the problems.

About the Author

James Woodruff has been a management consultant to more than 1,000 small businesses. As a senior management consultant and owner, he used his technical expertise to conduct an analysis of a company's operational, financial and business management issues. James has been writing business and finance related topics for work.chron, bizfluent.com, smallbusiness.chron.com and e-commerce websites since 2007. He graduated from Georgia Tech with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and received an MBA from Columbia University.

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