How to run a one person HR department (HRM Conference)

how to run a small HR departmentThe first concurrent session I attended on day one of the 2010 Tuscaloosa HRM Conference was Team of One: HR Professionals Who Have to Do It All. A big plus (in my book) for this session was that it was a panel discussion and very informal. This sort of content is better covered by a group of people with varying experiences and backgrounds, because even when you’re running a one man (or woman) HR shop, it still can vary greatly due to industry, company size, etc. While I don’t currently work in a one-man HR shop, there’s always the chance that I could be doing that one day, so I want to stay on top of things. Plus, I’ve always been intrigued by those HR pros who can keep all those balls in the air on their own.

Here are some notes and tips from each of the panelists on resources and ways they were able to navigate the one man (or woman) human resources department. I’ve interspersed my own notes as well.

  • Jane Chandler-I used the SHRM hotline, participated in NASHRM meetings, and relied on my peers/colleagues to help me fill the gaps.
  • Bill Rush-I’m involved with my local SHRM chapter. I learned there’s a big difference in working in a one-man shop if you have a corporate headquarters offering support/resources than if you don’t. I used a state-run job skills center to help w/recruiting & retaining at one facility, and it was an astounding success. It’s quite a challenge falling under a general/administrative portion of a military contract, and it made it tough to work for a government contractor. One company I went to work for had 600 employees and I was the first HR person they’d ever had. The company founders basically said, “We\’re not sure about HR.” So I took it as a challenge! A big factor in your success in moving into one of these roles is you have to embrace the vision (can help shape it eventually, but you have to support it from the start) understand it and help it move forward. The first step if you’re leaping into a one-person operation is an HR audit to discover gaps and start making a plan.
    • One thing I learned quickly is the importance of identifying and developing capable supervisors. Most of the time HR does too much hand-holding to be effective in other areas.
    • If you want to make the case to management for some budget room for training/development, then you need to be able to show time and $ cost. Don’t just say, “I need money for skills development.” Be factual and specific and you’ll have a higher probability of success.
  • Melanie McNary-One of the biggest challenges I faced? Knowing when the HR department of one is no longer feasible. Another was gaining credibility by sharing the value of HR function. I did that by showing up at non-mandatory meetings and knowing the business inside out. I had to train my CEO that if he wanted me to focus on a specific thing, then I would be losing focus on x, y, and z (can’t do it all!). An important lesson for everyone: while your HR skills are transferable from job to job, you still have to learn/know the business and how it works to be effective as an HR professional. I learned not to implement policies/procedures just because(there was no attendance policy at one employer when I started, but it turned out to be unnecessary anyway).
    • Question from the audience: How know when one HR person is no longer effective enough? Make a list of everything you do and the time that takes. Then show it to your boss and explain the impact and how much it\’s costing you to do what you do with regard to time and missed opportunities for other projects due to busyness. Yes, it’s hard to slam on the brakes and sit to ponder this stuff when you\’re drowning in work, but it’s necessary.
    • Hard truth: If it\’s not going to happen and you can’t get a new person to help, then focus your work on business priorities and high-visibility projects and hold the other “nice to have” stuff for later. It’s hard to face it, but sometimes things just can’t be done. It doesn’t say anything about you as an HR pro if you’re working at capacity and can’t complete everything. Just make sure the C-level leaders understand your workload, because there’s a good chance they are underestimating it.
  • Melva Tate-My company’s leaders promised me they would keep the 1:100 ratio, but it never happened. I eventually moved to consulting to focus on “the pile that I was passionate about” instead of all the other stuff that I wasn’t. It’s hard moving into a small business role for several reasons: usually a new HR person is a result of a problem (litigation, etc.), and also it’s easy to fall into a “family” environment/culture and feel like an outsider to the others. Again, credibility is key if you want to be successful. I put a big emphasis on connections with other professionals.
    • Share/Trade training/development resources with other small organizations so you’re not all reinventing the wheel every single time something needs to be created or taught.

Quote of the day-Credibility

Question from a senior leader in the organization: What makes you qualified?

The response from a new person in the HR department: Nothing. But let\’s agree that if I am effective, then we’re okay. If not, then you\’ll talk to my manager and get me out of here.

Six success strategies for a HR team of one

Great handout from Melva Tate lists six success strategies for the HR team of one. My comments follow each strategy.

  1. Obtain your HR certification (you know I\’m loving that one)
  2. Know and commit to the six overarching HR competencies (tough for me, more on that later)
  3. Join local/national HR professional associations (I prefer local over national for people connections, national over local for research/info)
  4. Leverage relationships with other HR pros (if you’ve got ’em, use ’em!)
  5. Connect with social media (helps to build those connections you\’re going to be leveraging in #4)
  6. Using Google and other paper (gasp!) resources (this is more about staying excited about what you do and encouraging idea generation than deep learning in my opinion)

Anyway, that’s my long recap of an amazing session. I love seeing people share ideas and tips on how to do those things we do every day, and this session was a great example of that. Anyone else out there running an HR shop of one (or two, maybe)? What sort of tips and suggestions do you have for success in that area?

11 thoughts on “How to run a one person HR department (HRM Conference)

  1. Richard Sherman

    Very interesting and right on the mark. I’m currently a soloist for a firm of 60, and I’ve previously run solo for up to 100. That includes benefits and payroll. It is vital to recognize when you are over-capacity and put the business case together for additional help.

    Speaking to the point you make about hating some aspects: I don’t think that precludes you from doing solo work – it just means you know you have to do some work you don’t care for. I do it everyday. It’s the balance to the stuff I love doing.

    Lastly I would stress the point of not reinventing the wheel. There is a whole host of very credible info including templates and samples to start from out there. Ask your peers and offer your ideas and it feels less overwhelming.

    Good stuff, bud!

  2. Jen

    Great advice! As companies feel more of the economic pinch, the HR departments will be reduced: some to 1, others so few it seems like they have gone solo. SHRM is a wonderful help to all HR professionals and I’m glad to be a part of both national SHRM and my local chapter.

    Thanks again for your insight and update – enjoy the rest of the conference!

    ~ Jen

  3. Krista Francis

    I’ve done the one-woman show before and I loved it.

    The 1:100 ratio doesn’t have much meaning it me. It all depends on the extent of your duties (payroll? training?) and the demands of your industry including turnover and mandated training.

    One more thought: Ben, there are aspects of your job you don’t enjoy now. So not much changes if you were to move to a single HR pro situation, except that you might have more room to approach disliked duties in ways that works better for you.

  4. Ben Post author

    @Krista Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think I could do it as a one-man show when there’s no alternative, but maybe I could do it in a way that doesn’t stink so much when it’s my decision. :-)

    @Jen I tell people to go to the national SHRM for resources and their local SHRM for people/contacts. Definitely a good source of value if people do it right.

    @Richard Thanks for the comment, amigo! It’s great to get some insight from someone who’s in the midst of that kind of environment right now, and I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

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  6. Dennis A

    Thanks for this insightful note. I currently run a one-man HR department in my firm. This of course with great responsibilities. However, I’m putting in my best. Thanks
    With profound regards.

    1. Ben Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Dennis! Your best is all you can do, right? I’ve found out the hard way that pushing harder to “get just one more thing done” will come bak and bite me later on.

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