How to Hire Your First HR Staff Member (and who NOT to hire)

first hr hireLast week I had a great conversation with a $10M startup company about how to make their first HR hire, and I thought those ideas would be worth sharing here. Many of you are already HR leaders at your own firms, but you probably haven’t given much thought to this idea of starting up an HR function from scratch, and it’s a good discussion to have. Plus, I’d love to hear from you!

  • What skills are most important?
  • What would you look for if you were hiring your first HR person?
  • If you’ve started up an HR function, what are your best tips?

Where to Look for your First HR Hire

If you’re looking for an HR professional and you’ve never hired one, start with SHRM. This organization has chapters in almost every city across the United States and allows you to tap into local experts and respected voices within the HR community. Just search your own city+shrm chapter in Google. I tried it with Austin Texas and here’s what I found:

While you can post a job anywhere (Indeed, etc.), some of these chapters offer job boards or email lists for openings so that you target just those people who have dedicated themselves to professional development and membership in a professional chapter, two good indicators that they might be people that you’d want to talk to.

What to Look For in Your First HR Staff Member

If you’re hiring your first HR person, this isn’t a time to learn on the job. While there may be some of that, it can’t be the primary method of performing because there are too many high risk, high stakes hurdles for small businesses. You need to find someone with experience (more on that in the next section) but also an interest in continued development. That’s one reason I pointed out a SHRM chapter as a place to start: they usually attract those individuals that are focused on their own professional growth.

As I pointed out previously in my analysis of SHRM vs HRCI certifications, small companies would do better to prioritize someone with a current (or former) HRCI certification because of their prioritization of compliance focus. Companies with 60 people have less of a need for the directions the SHRM certification takes and more of a need to know what FMLA looks like or how to handle an ADA conversation. Additionally, someone with a certification must complete 60 hours of professional development every three years to maintain that certification, reinforcing their credibility and commitment to the profession and their growth.

Additionally, during the interview process, use this time as a learning opportunity for yourself. Ask questions and see how well the person is able to teach you in their responses. If they are condescending, annoyed, or flippant, then you know they will probably be the exact same way when you need an answer on the job. On the other hand, if they are excited, helpful, and supportive of your interest, then you can expect them to react the same way should they be offered the job.

At the end of the discussion, ask yourself if you are smarter or not–that’s not the only factor here, but it helps to differentiate between the candidates that truly know their stuff inside and out and those that are fudging a bit.


Don’t Hire This Person (and who to look for)

My early experience in HR was in organizations ranging from 60 to 600 people. I learned quickly who were the “doers” and the “thinkers.” There’s nothing wrong with a thinker inherently. These people are smart, capable, and strategic in many cases. However, they also are more than happy to delegate tasks and try to minimize their own “hands on” work.

In a firm of 40, 80, or 100 people, that’s simply not feasible from an HR perspective. Employers need a doer (my video on this a few years back is still super-relevant!). A person that will welcome candidates, sit at the front desk when the receptionist is sick, call a plumber when the sink backs up, or any number of crazy/random other requests.

DO NOT HIRE someone who is not a doer. If they get a little flustered at the idea of sitting in for the “lowly” receptionist or having to use some of their working time to handle plumbing issues, this isn’t the person you need.

The way I approached HR in those early days was this: my customer is the employee. The better I serve my employees, the better they serve our own customers.

Additionally, the best person you can find for this job has probably already started up an HR function at another firm. You don’t want the chief human resources executive from a firm with 5,000 employees to be your next HR hire in a startup. The person is probably amazing but the jobs are radically different.

There are some people in this profession that thrive on starting up an HR function from scratch, getting it running smoothly, and moving on to another company to do it all over again. My good friend Melissa is an example of this–when the initial challenge and uncertainty settles, she moves to another role to help another company stand up an HR function from scratch.

That’s what I have. Any additional ideas from the community?