3 Ways To Make Your Mark as an HR Department of One

This post originally appears on Lensa.com‘s Employer Blog.  It’s the first part of a two-part article aimed at not just espousing some tips from an individual, but more so to have an interactive discussion with other HR professionals.

Even if you’re technically not the only HR pro in your organization, we’d still love to hear from you if you’re feeling the effects of taking on more, and the business need requires you to expand your role.

Does your day sound like this?

“My paycheck is missing the $150 spot bonus my manager gave me for working the on-call customer support service line last weekend, can you fix that?”

How about this?

“We just signed a big client and we need to hire two more Account Executives and promote Jane to Service Delivery Manager now, also we’ll need to find someone to replace her spot too.  While you’re in here, let’s discuss Louis’ performance review, he’s been so inconsistent with his behavior over the last two months.  Go ahead and develop some coaching plans for Rene to try one last time, but you might want to go ahead and add a Customer Support position to the careers page too when you post for the new Account Execs.”

If you’re heading up the human resources function (or People Operations in the updated vernacular) in a company with a one-person-only HR department, then you’re easily on the receiving end of a conversation like that.

Whether you’re a Head of People Ops in a newly formed startup that’s ready to scale, or if you’re a permanent fixture in a SMB with your mission being to maintain the status quo- if you’re the HR Department of One, you’re likely working double time.  And while the same could be true for a Marketing or Finance Department of One as well, it’s especially taxing trying to successfully run the entire the People Ops function by yourself.

Being a successful HR Department of One means you have to juggle between focusing on your company’s strategy while ensuring all of the necessary tactical duties are being completed.  So, for example you might need to send the Open Enrollment census over to your benefits broker so they can shop carriers for competitive premiums first thing in the morning.  While later in the morning you’re meeting with the COO to discuss strategic planning for the new 2016 FLSA changes coming up, and how to reclassify affected workers from salary to hourly comps.  After lunch you’ve got a call with the company’s legal counsel to discuss an impending lawsuit.  And finally, the end of your day consists of back to back phone interviews for the entire afternoon, and now you’ve got to close yourself off in order to make sure you’re paying enough attention to these calls, so as to not make any “false-negatives” short-list decisions.

Three Steps to Make Your Mark

There are plenty of resources available to be sure.  There’s a textbook on being an HR Department of One.  LinkedIn has a dedicated “HR Department of One” group.  The Society for Human Resources Management has discussed the topic in articles and panel presentations at its national conference, and even has an online community for other pros to share tips and tricks.  And yet to many of the HR professionals who own the entire HR function in their organizations, they might feel like an anomaly of sorts in their one-person teams, or they might not have the time to focus on external development or such resources.

Immerse yourself into the functions that provide visceral, experiential information about the organizational structure and processes, and you’ll experience a genuine sense of what the culture is firsthand.

1) Be an employee first

There’s no better way to serve effectively at the intersecting interests of all stakeholders than by coming from a place of authenticity about what’s keeping the phones ringing in your company.  Be an employee of the company first, and foremost.  Shadow mid-level managers, work alongside your CFO for a day, take on tasks or assignments that aren’t necessarily related to HR.  Diving into the actual business of your company without focusing solely on the People Operations aspect will provide crystallized insight for you later on.  And when you do need to jump into an HR-related matter, you’ll be better equipped to frame your approach to the issue more holistically than without having some unrelated background experience per se.  Here’s some quoted text from a recent SHRM, HR Magazine article, “Lessons from HR Departments of One” to better elucidate my point:

“For the first six months of her job as a solo HR professional, Diane Breeding, SHRM-CP, did precious little HR work. Instead, as the newest member of the staff at Edwards Moving and Rigging in Shelbyville, Ky., she went out with trucking crews as they transported heavy and complex cargoes.  She quickly learned that what her company does is far more involved than simply moving materials onto a truck.”

“At the urging of CEO Mark Edwards, she put aside her urge to jump directly into HR and instead focused on learning how the 100-employee company operates and the challenges faced by its workers—both within the office and beyond it.”

The above logic could be applied to increase value in any position really, i.e., the importance of  understanding the business, really knowing the product, the services, and the customers.

Immerse yourself into the functions that provide visceral, experiential information about the organizational structure and processes, and you’ll experience a genuine sense of what the culture is firsthand.

Additionally, by getting in the trenches you’ll establish more credibility among the employees and the leaders.  Consensus-building and gaining buy-in are extremely important for a solo HR hero.  During organizational development initiatives, you’ll be able to use your clout and firsthand knowledge of the actual business to make your points and find consensus, and your people will most likely be less resistant to change.

2) Empathize with all the stakeholders

It’s great to frame your role within such a citizenship mentality described above, e.g., being an employee of the organization first, and it’s equally (or even more) important to empathize with the leadership in your company.  There may come a time when you’ll be wearing your “legal compliance hat”, and perhaps you’ll need to rain on your CEO’s unbridled-optimism-parade about a great idea or new opportunity that potentially exposes the company to risk.  Trust me, it happens, and you should try to see where your Chief Officer is coming from before being judgemental.

A CEO of a SMB likely has a lot on his or her mind at any given time.  From trying to sustain or manage growth, to articulating a clear and inspirational vision for the company- being at the helm of this ship is no easy feat.  It’s why they get paid the big bucks!  For better or worse, it’s important to keep an impartial partnership with the execs.  You cannot blindly follow every direction on a whim when you’re ultimately responsible for being the company’s day-to-day employment law compliance expert.  But, it’s ultimately in your best interest to start with an understanding of why they might be pushing a risky agenda in the first place.

And when driving toward your mission, I recommend assigning weightings to complicated decision-making situations, e.g., 40% weight to the perspective of the overall company/people in the organization, 30% to the potential impact on the customers, and 30% to the leadership/executive team’s interests.  These stakeholders will likely have similar interests, but when they don’t, your ultimate responsibility will skew slightly 10% towards the people, or the company as a whole.  Which I think is a fair bias, considering the mission is to balance talent strategy with effective and accurate tactical and compliance.

3) Prioritize time for strategy

Juggling talent and culture strategy (i.e., the bigger picture questions) with the tactical and transactional HR duties (administrative and compliance-related duties) might be one of the most difficult challenges for a solo HR pro.  If so, it might make sense to look into a PEO (or Professional Employer Organizations) to manage the tactical and compliance-related functions.  PEOs will basically handle your company’s payroll processing, benefits administration, risk management solutions (workers compensation, EPLI, etc.), and also include an HRIS system for a service premium (usually either a per employee per month fee, or a percentage of total payroll).  These could be especially valuable because PEOs allow you to focus 100% of your efforts on strategy and culture, which would allow more time for realigning cultural values, creating a performance management process, implementing a new selection system, scaling the growth of new teams in a startup, etc.

Although, if your company doesn’t have a budget for a both a PEO and your salary as the HR Director, it’s going to behoove you to try some other alternatives.  One such option is to streamline the tactical administrative duties as much as possible by sourcing from any number of amazing tech solutions popping up on the market every day.  Most of the hottest human capital management (HCM) solutions will easily integrate with applicant tracking systems (ATS), assessments, recruiting platforms, rewards and referral apps, and customer relationship management (CRM) platforms.  Adding tech to your budget is worth considering, and more often than not, the cost for separately sourcing these applications is still less than the cost of a PEO.  Just keep in mind that the services PEOs offer regarding risk management solutions and wholesale prices for large-group health insurance plans are great features, and no matter what, you’ll need to weigh out the costs and benefits to either strategy.  And if you decide not to use a PEO, make sure you’re still covering all of your bases regarding those other compliance to-dos on your own.

In the end, it’s no easy accomplishment running your company’s entire HR department by yourself.  You need to stay up to date with all of the changing regulations in the employment law landscape, while also being front and center for your people when they have questions about payroll or benefits.  Serving as a coach and partner to your people managers, and also as an advisor and consultant to your executive team.  It sounds like a lot of responsibility, but taking on the role of solo HR hero can be especially rewarding once you start to see your company grow.  The feeling of looking around your company and realizing you were (likely) the first point of contact for each employee, and basically represented the first impression these people formed of your company is extremely powerful, especially when you’re looking at a group of happy people.

Put in the time to learn the business outside of a typical HR mindset and build credibility in the organization.  Empathize with the executive leadership but also ensure the company is complying with laws and regulations.  Prioritize talent strategy, but also take care of the transactional requirements and you’ll be recognized as the People Ops leader in your company.  Amazing things happen in companies where HR and People Operations are taken seriously.  High performance cultures are fostered.  People grow both personally and professionally.  Teams are formed, and give birth to friendships.  And (some might argue most importantly), organizational productivity per employee increases substantially, and in turn boosts the financial performance of the company.

In closing, be the best HR Department of One you can be now, and who knows, maybe someday you’ll have a budget for growing out your own team!

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