Tag Archives: Small Business

5 Things You'll Never Hear an HR Department of One Say…

For those of you not in the know, an HR department of one is just what it sounds like: an HR department where one person covers all the bases from an HR, talent, and recruiting perspective.

I have a special place in my heart for the HR department of one, because that's where I came from. When I worked in the HR profession, I had the opportunity to wear all (and I mean ALL) the hats, and while it was challenging it was also a lot of fun. I love building a function and growing from the ground up, and it was an amazing experience. That is one reason I've worked on podcasts and other free resources to help a department of one to survive and thrive.

An HR department of one (or DOO) is a special kind of person. They are doers and are the kinds of people employers need to hire. And while we assume these are all tiny companies, we found that these individuals work for companies of all sizes (as our new research shows) from 5 to 750 employees!

hr department of one size

5 Things a DOO Will Never Say

That said, there are some things that an HR DOO is simply unlikely to say. Read this and try not to smile!

  1. I'm done for the day so I'll take off early.
  2. Sure I'd love to take on security and finance in addition to HR. Got anything else we can add to my plate?
  3. Since I don't have any competing priorities I'll go ahead and attend that “optional” meeting my coworker invited me to.
  4. I wonder if accounting needs help with anything?
  5. I love when I get to recruit for two new openings, investigate a harassment claim, run a training class, send a new baby congrats card, celebrate an employee service anniversary, review a payroll exception report, reconcile our benefits statement, onboard a new employee, and send out our engagement survey all on the same day.

At the end of the day, this is just a reminder that while you see so many companies in the news for their flashy benefits or their “cool” culture, the truth is many firms exist that are run by 1) no HR person 2) a department of one or 3) a department of one with a very small team.

Don't get caught up in what the “cool” companies are doing. Make work great for your team. As the head of HR for the nation's best midsize firm likes to say, you need to create the right environment for your specific workforce to perform and thrive, and that environment isn't the same at every organization.

What else would you add to this list of things an HR department of one will never say? 

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

Continue reading

How to Start a Sideline HR Consulting Business

Today I’m going to talk about running a small business, marketing, and product creation. If that’s not your thing, come back later this week for more great HR-centered content.

I think everyone has knowledge that is worth sharing. Some of that knowledge, you might have found, might even be worth some compensation. This past week I wrote a post for my friends at Careerealism, and it focuses on how I started the journey years ago into the world of HR consulting. Here’s a piece of that:

I'll be honest—the first consulting meeting with the CEO and Vice President of the company was pretty stressful. They wanted some help in defining their hiring methods, creating documents to support the new process, and so on. It was all work that I've had experience doing, but stepping out from under the corporate umbrella on my own felt just plain weird.

I told them that I could do the work for them, offered a rate for the project, and shook hands to seal the deal.

Over the following weeks, I provided them with the various work products and consulting time they had requested, and when I finally received the check in the mail, I felt something special stir in my heart. At the time, I wasn't sure what that was, but now I can say with certainty what I was feeling.

What we all want

In that moment, standing at the mailbox and looking at the check, I realized that someone else thought that my knowledge and expertise was valuable enough to pay me for it. I think that's a big hurdle for many of us to get over, so I will say it again: Someone else thought my knowledge was worth paying for.

I think it's something we all hope for. We want to be worth something. We want others to value what we have to say. And if we can get paid for doing those things, then that's the best of both worlds.

Advice on starting

Are you interested in picking up some extra work? Maybe you'd like to start that consulting business you've dreamed of? Whatever the case, consider this: You are good enough at something that people will pay you for it.

In order to do this, you need to understand:

  1. What that is
  2. How you can position it
  3. How you can get connected to clients

If you can do all three of those, you'll have your first gig before you know it.

In the business world, we call that your unique value proposition. Know what you can bring that someone else can't, be able to communicate the value of that knowledge/service, and find people who are willing to pay to have that type of problem solved. Even if you're approaching a company about a job and not in a consulting role, the same rules apply. Source: http://www.careerealism.com/marketing-value-anyone/

This basic info can get you started, but there are other tips and ideas that I normally share with those looking to get into this exciting new world. Here’s one of the most valuable…

Creating a product

Consulting, in the end, is about trading dollars for hours. Give me dollars, I’ll give you hours. But when you create a product of some kind, you can scale that business beyond what it currently can stand. I always recommend that new consultants consider the top two or three questions they receive. The next step is to create something–a video, a short PDF guide, or something similar that answers one of those questions in great detail.

If someone paid you to answer that question with half an hour of your time, use that half hour of video or 10 pages of written material (or both) to do that for someone. Then you’re no longer limited by the number of hours in a week, you can pitch the product to a new market, and you can grow the business in new, exciting ways.

This is a recipe for growth that most HR consultants never tap into. And if you’ve been thinking about starting your own small (or large) consulting business from the ground up, this is a great place to start. 

Startup HR: Planning vs Doing

Startup HR is something that I have talked about a bit before. Today I will answer a question from a reader who works for HR in a startup company.

The question

Good Morning,

I have been reading your blogs and your Slideshares and it has been easy reading for me and is helping me along my way. I just started working for a start up tech company in Portland Oregon in May. The CFO was basically doing all HR work until now. I am now THE HR department. I am new and I have never had a role in HR before. I was wondering if there was a way to guide me in implementing HR stuff over the next year. What I should be doing in this next month, three months, six months, and so forth.

Please help!

The answer

First of all, have you seen the guide to building an HR department?

I think that will be incredibly valuable for you. It’s really tough to say what you should be doing at specific date-based milestones, because there’s no telling what the business will look like at each of those 6, 12, 18 month marks.

The big picture is understanding what sort of HR needs the business and staff have at each stage of the game and planning ahead to make sure you can hit those targets when the appropriate time comes. For instance, at some point you’ll need to start thinking about performance reviews for staff or maybe you’ll have to find a good applicant tracking system if you guys are hiring. Knowing some of those items on the horizon is how you show the best value for the business. Especially when you’re doing startup HR for a technology company, it’s important to keep those overall business needs in mind, because they can change rapidly.

Thanks for reaching out!


Do you have a suggestion for the reader? Feel free to share! Also, if you have questions, shoot them over to ben AT upstarthr.com and I’d be happy to try to fit them into the schedule. Thanks!

HILG (Huntsville Industrial Liaison Group)-Why You Should Care

Last week I went to a meeting at HILG, AKA the Huntsville Industrial Liaison Group. Why should you care? Well, I think small affinity groups like these can help us to be better at what we do on a daily basis. Today I’ll talk a little about the group and then in general about how you can get value from a similar organization.

HILG=The Huntsville Industrial Liaison Group

hilg huntsville industrial liaison groupThis group was designed to help government contractors in our local area. The group focuses mainly on the laws and executive orders that impact employers in our area, so the niche is fairly specific. However, since Huntsville contains a high concentration of government contractors relative to other industries, it’s actually a fairly well-attended group.

The meeting I attended was focused on developing affirmative action plans. As a defense contractor we have to have an AAP in place, and I plan to leverage the resources and contacts available through the Huntsville Industrial Liaison Group for making that happen.

Small group

Small groups do one thing well, and that’s creating engagement. The smaller the group, the harder it is for any one member to tune out and disengage. The larger the group, the less pressure there is to pay attention, digest content, and participate in the discussion.

Targeted focus

When I walk in the door, I know that these meetings will matter on some level. I’m not learning about how nonprofits handle recruiting or how retail stores handle discipline. I’m learning about specific legal requirements that will enable our business to succeed.

Opportunity for similar groups

I talked with my local SHRM chapter several times over the past few years to get them to start an informal meetup to allow members to connect, share ideas, and learn from each other. Last year the Best Practices lunch series was born, and it’s still going strong today.

Anyone can start one of these groups with 4-5 people. Just sit down, talk about some of the things that are keeping you up at night, and ask for input or advice. When others bring up problems, offer your own solutions. It’s not difficult, and it can open you up to greater success.

What do you think? Are you engaged in a small group? What do you think about the experience? 

Human Resources Entrepreneur Lessons For Better Performance

4 Tips from the Life of a Human Resources Entrepreneur

human resources entrepreneur-secret identityShhh. I have a secret identity. When I’m not working on my blog/business as a human resources entrepreneur, I’m wearing a tie and going to a day job. I love the dual hats I am able to wear, and the experiences from both working a day job and working for myself are doubly exciting.

I also think that I get to make mistakes twice as fast. :-)

I’ve learned some great lessons that I think apply to my daily work in HR. Life as a human resources entrepreneur life isn’t always easy, and there are plenty of pitfalls. I’m going to talk about one of them that translates especially well to the HR profession and then I encourage you to check out the video below for the other three human resources entrepreneur lessons.

Working “on” vs. working “in”

I’m guilty of it. Let’s start off with that.

Do you ever get so bogged down in the day to day that you don’t take the time to step back and make sure that you’re seeing the big picture? I know I do. It’s easy, really. We get comfortable, even when project deadlines are bearing down on us and we feel like we’re fighting a forest fire with a wet towel. We lower our heads and plow through instead of taking the time to work on process improvement or how we can make things better by putting systems in place.

It’s easy, even when work is difficult, to work “in” the department. It’s not just in human resources. Entrepreneur life includes the same challenge.

In the revolutionary book The E-Myth, Michael Gerber talks about how small businesses often fail because the leaders fail to work “on” the business. People get into business for themselves because they enjoy doing something specific–making soap, cleaning houses, or even blogging.

So they focus on that (working “in” the business). At some point they run into a problem and they keep trying to solve it by doing what they’ve always done; however, it’s not the answer. If the entrepreneur doesn’t stop, take stock, and decide what the business needs (working “on” the business), then it’s destined to fail at some point. That’s a simple example, but you get the picture.

If we as HR pros don’t stop and take stock once in a while, then we’re going to be left in the dust. Marketing, finance, IT, etc. all take the time to plan for the future. They look at how they fit into the organization and plan ahead so they are leading the charge, not trying to play catch up. If you’re not making time to work on your HR team (maybe a “state of the HR union address” would be in order?), then you’re going to be left behind.

It might not be today, and it might not be this year, but there will come a time that you are going to wish that you’d taken the time to rise above the daily shuffle to plan ahead and ensure that your work was congruent with the organization’s goals.

I think I’ve made my point on that one. Check out the video for three other lessons learned as a human resources entrepreneur. This life has taught me much (mainly through making plenty of mistakes and learning from them!).

Video: Human resources/entrepreneur lessons

Subscribers click here to view.

(There’s a little bit of echo and the cam shifted to chop my head off after I set it up, but it’s still pretty darn good compared to the early days. I’ve since fixed the echo and head chopping, so there’s a great example of process improvement right there!) :-)

So, what do you think of the human resources entrepreneur lessons I’ve shared? Are you guilty of any of these? Did you learn any lessons that you can take with you into your day job to do it better? Any plans to work “on” the HR function instead of just “in” it?

The New HR Department-Ultimate Guide

One of my older, popular posts is from 2010 and talks about how to run a one-person or new HR department. I wrote it after attending a conference session on the topic, but at the time I had never been in a small or new HR department before. Now I have that experience and would like to share. I also realized that a very close tie-in is the group of HR professionals who have had to start the HR function from scratch (whether in a new company or an existing one), and I think this article is going to be very helpful for both of those groups.

In addition, there are amazing ideas included here for HR pros who feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to get everything accomplished (who out there can’t claim that one?). You’ll learn how to juggle multiple competing priorities and make the biggest impact with the fewest actions. You’ll learn how to balance the needs of an executive team with those of your staff, and I’m willing to bet you’ll take away a heck of a lot more.

Note: I have included more information in this article than some of the eBooks I’ve published(!). I plan to combine this information into a free PDF guide to share on the blog if there is any interest in that. There was just too much great content to cut any out, and I don’t want to shortchange those who took the time to share their ideas with us. Enjoy!

The New HR Department Ultimate Guide

Table of Contents

  1. Small/New HR Department Survey Data
  2. My Experience in a Small and/or New HR Department
  3. The Highlights Reel-Starting a New HR Department
  4. New HR Department Advice from the Trenches
  5. Additional Resources

Small/New HR Department Survey Data

In preparation for this article, I sent out a request for help to several hundred subscribers. The results below are for a question that asked the respondent to rank the following according to priority:

  • Developing a long-term HR strategic plan
  • Building HR’s credibility within the organization
  • Taking charge of your own professional development
  • Staying on top of legislative developments and requirements
  • Developing alliances/partnerships to fill any skill gaps

Check out the chart below. Click the image to make it larger.

New HR Department Priority FocusI had no preconceived notions about which area was the most critical, so I was surprised to see that developing alliances/partnerships made the top of the list of priorities. I’ve emphasized that in my roles for several years now, and I believe it has helped to shore up areas of weakness and provided invaluable networking opportunities as well.

I think legislative/legal updates fell to the bottom due to the “fun factor” (or lack thereof). It’s still going to get done, but we don’t have to like it. :-) To be honest, this felt like an unfair survey, because all of these are key areas to focus on; however, I was interested in finding out what others thought about which one made it to the top of the list.

Any surprises here for the rest of you?

My Experience in a Small HR Department

I’m a relative newbie to this world, but I know it’s where I was meant to be. What makes a small or new HR department different from other companies?

  • We don’t pick up the phone and call our corporate HR team. We ARE the corporate HR team.
  • We are comfortable with research and making judgement calls.
  • We constantly seek out opportunities for professional development–if you’re not growing you’re dying.

There are certainly more, but those three quickly jumped to mind.

Starting an HR dept in an existing organization? You should be able to answer these key questions if you plan to be successful:

  • What was the purpose for creating this new department?
  • Who made the decision? Who is going to support you as you learn about the organization and its key players?
  • What HR activities were being done previously and who was doing them?
  • What sort of culture exists? Do the leaders and staff have the same view of the culture?

managing an hr department of one

I had an amazing mentor, but like I said, I feel like I’m wired for this kind of stuff. I love the challenge and bouncing around to the different areas of HR on an hourly basis. There’s no substitute!

After doing a little research, I read this book last year and it had some great ideas and advice. It’s been around for a while and still makes the bestseller lists in the SHRM bookstore regularly. I admit that it’s pricey if you look at it only as a book; however, it’s much cheaper than a 6 hour study course plus travel costs to get the same content, so keep that in mind.

The Highlights Reel

I posted this short slidedeck on Slideshare as a way to share some of the ideas beyond the blog. It’s a “highlights reel” of the content and I hope it helps some people who otherwise would not find this article. If you’re waiting for the good stuff, skip down to the next section and you can get some tips and advice from people who do this stuff on a daily basis!

New HR Department Advice from the Trenches

I reached out to a few people I trust and also opened up a short survey for a handful of people who are (or have been) in this scenario before. Below you’ll see how real HR pros have confronted and overcome the obstacles facing someone in a new or small HR department.

Note: I want to apologize to anyone who submitted comments that were not included here. I had an overwhelming number of responses and had to limit myself to sharing the first few people who responded. As I said above, I plan to put this together into a free PDF so that anyone can read, print, or share the information. Look for that coming soon!


Richard wrote a monster of a contribution. I had to pull out some of the content for space reasons, but I have his entire piece linked here if you want to check that out. It’s phenomenal and worth your time to read if you truly want the advice of a guy who’s “been there, done that.” Here’s the extremely shortened version. Be sure to read the full piece or you’ll miss the good stuff.

  • If you are setting up a brand-new HR department, or you are taking on one all on your own, build your plans for immediate impact projects, short-term (within the quarter) projects, and long-term projects. HR project management is serious stuff.
  • Your plans WILL be disrupted. Constantly. Build that into your timeline.
  • Don’t underestimate how much information your employees want.
  • If you are a soloist, and especially if you are relatively new to employment laws, make yourself a binder (electronic or hard-copy) of the most up-to-date info on the basics (FMLA, FLSA, ADA, and if you handle benefits, COBRA).
  • Do your best to not become the “office cop” – the hardest role you have is to watch out for things that can get the company (and people) in trouble without being the person that everyone avoids.
  • And finally, the top three skills you should use on a daily basis: talk, listen, and learn. Again, (I’ll say it one more time) check out the full content if you haven’t already so you don’t miss any of the details on how to implement this yourself.

Thanks again to Richard Sherman for pitching in and offering some great advice!


Brian shared some very intriguing ideas for outsourcing the majority of the “HR” work to allow a small team to handle the critical roles of the HR function. I don’t know that I agree with all of Brian’s comments, but then again I’ve never been in a crunch tight enough to have to seriously evaluate something like this. It’s an interesting proposition if nothing else!

I would try to “outsource” process driven activities to as many internal partners as possible.  Payroll is likely already housed within Finance; perhaps open enrollment and qualifying life events could be something they tackle as well (the counseling portion still resides with HR).  Recruitment, orientation and onboarding? Give it to Marketing who can polish what you are selling to potential candidates and new employees.  Compensation is driven by numbers and spreadsheets; pull in someone from Accounting.  Training may be best handled by line supervisors and tenured employees.  Employee Relations can be farmed out to Legal.

With 1-3 bodies, you may only be able to effectively handle 2-4 areas even with the best time management skill set.  Pick the one thing each person can be an expert in and allow them to spend time in other areas that interest them.  Solve what you can afford through technology to avoid getting bogged down by process-driven activities; the rest needs to be shared responsibility where it makes sense.  Find that executive champion who understands HR and can go to bat when 3 bodies can no longer manage the workload. Brian Deming


Make sure to visit with each manager and ask them what HR can do for them to help make their job easier. Learn everything you can about the business and ask to be included instead of waiting around to be asked to do something (you end up being a paper pusher or sheriff if you don’t).

Linda Haft


In a small to non-existent HR department, strategy, talent, etc. isn’t important.  Most of the company is flying by the seat of its pants.  What is needed is benefits, knowledge of applicable laws, processes and procedures (performance reviews, requesting vacation time, requesting sick time, etc.), and guts.

The HR person has to have the guts to go to the company president and say “You can’t do that,” and be prepared to hear, “Sure I can; I own the company.”  Then you have to dig your heels in and insist.  Then you go back to your office, hold your breath and hope you didn’t just sign your own termination.

Donna Caissie, the ExtraOrdinary Assistant


  1. Expand your network of HR professionals. These are the people you can call on to bounce ideas around, vent, etc.
  2. Smile before you pick up the phone to say hello. You will be the point person for many questions such as insurance, retirement, pay, etc. We all have had the one employee who has gotten on our last nerve, but always remember that without the employees you would not be needed. Smile before you pick up the phone and you will automatically position yourself to be in a better mood to deal with the annoying employee.
  3. Enjoy what you do. If you don’t, move on.

Bobbi Wilson

Additional Resources

Below you’ll find a few links to other helpful resources. I went through several dozen and discarded the ones I felt would not be value-add to this discussion on working in a new HR department.

Your Turn

Okay, do you have anything to add? What has (or hasn’t) worked for you? What advice would you give someone starting out in a small or new HR department for the first time? Let’s make this thing even better!