More and more companies are shifting their internal structures toward projects and away from traditional management methods in a bid to cut middle management costs and focus employees on adding value. As part of this new orientation, many are merging existing management functions into projects.

For project managers, the upside of this trend is more experience and involvement in critical business functions. The downside is the possibility of taking on tasks that business or line managers used to handle, such as policing e-mail/Internet policies, attending and hosting sales meetings, training, dealing with infrastructure and security issues, and administering nonproject budgets. Perhaps the most difficult adjustment to make is dealing with human resources (HR) issues.

Shift to HR-related duties has good and bad sides
In project management, we tend to obsess over specification creep and mission drift. Shifting HR duties from the traditional management structure to the project manager is a wider form of the same phenomenon, in which your working life expands beyond your expectations of the job. For the project manager, taking on additional HR duties comes with opportunities and challenges.

One good thing to come from these new responsibilities is that companies are listening to project managers’ opinions more closely, particularly about employee performance. This is beneficial in many respects, including:

  • It increases project managers’ exposure to personnel-related experiences.
  • It gives creditable, even outstanding, performance on projects a chance to be recognized.
  • It allows project managers to criticize “unhelpful” attitudes about project work.

But I think these expanded job roles are being taken to the extreme. For instance, over the past year or so, I’ve conducted many interviews with job candidates, and I’ve taken part in numerous personnel reviews for individuals who aren’t directly involved in any project work, such as administrators and marketing staff.

While I recognize the importance of providing employees with objective feedback, the extra functions can conflict with the extreme demands regular project work makes on a project manager’s time. Suddenly assuming HR duties can dramatically affect your team’s dynamics, too.

Change isn’t always well received
When team members discover that you have a major influence over their prosperity and career prospects, their behavior often changes. They may start to act as individuals rather than as a team, possibly trying to impress you rather than working to benefit the project.

You may also have trouble stirring up a creative difference of opinion because team members may think that they have to agree with you. Some of them may even worry that any errors they make will be used against them in their performance reviews. If your team members see you as responsible for their failure to get a raise or a promotion, it may be difficult to work closely with them on projects.

Another possible reaction to your new responsibilities is that employees may stop experimenting and become completely risk-averse. They may even think of you as a corporate spy or, in practical terms, someone with whom they can’t be completely honest about, say, their shaky grasp of an OLAP cube structure.

Suddenly being in charge of the future prospects of your team members can change your behavior too. You might realize that, temperamentally, you aren’t suited to deal with both hard technical questions and “soft” people-related questions. It’s one thing to have to remove people from a project; it’s another thing entirely to fire a coworker. Then again, you may discover that you have a knack for managing people.

Some of the changes in your team may be less obvious. In my experience, project managers often provide a vent for people to let off steam about what they see as the inadequacies of the conventional management. Project managers should be seen as junior officers in the trenches, not the generals. Blurring that line can deprive workers of that vent.

One thing is certain—extra duties will take more of your time. Be prepared to resist being stretched too thinly—even for financial incentives.

Seek training
If you decide to extend yourself professionally into HR management, at least get some training. Part of this training will undoubtedly address important legal issues. You’ll need to be particularly careful about keeping records on individual performance and attitude. For example, I recently had to attend a legal hearing in connection with an unfair dismissal case. Thanks to my project management training, I’d kept a clear written record of events, and it saved me from an embarrassing public grilling.

Taking on additional human resources-related tasks is a difficult adjustment to make. I think this issue is only going to become more contentious as IT pros emerge from the current IT malaise and start to think about career development, rather than just hanging in there to keep their jobs.