Heading an HR department of one is no easy task. A business must meet employee management needs and obligations for compliance with applicable laws and regulations, as well as communicate with senior leadership – whether HR is being handled by one person or by a large team.
Employees go to HR departments for answers about various matters pertaining to their jobs – from company policies and procedures, to federal, state, and local laws and regulations, benefits enrollment and status. HR is also where owners and managers turn for help with hiring, retaining, and fostering more productivity from those employees.
When those demands fall on the shoulders of one person, what can be done to help lighten the burden?
The accidental HR department
Many individuals may enter HR "accidentally." There may be situations where people with no HR backgrounds are pressed into service – when the existing HR person leaves a company, or when a need suddenly arises and tasks must be assigned to someone, regardless of prior HR knowledge.
Such an individual may not be prepared for the onslaught of employee concerns and issues. Typically, HR departments are challenged to address:
- Employee disputes
- Discrimination issues in the workplace
- Safety regulations
- Managing employee benefits
- Processing payroll
- New employee recruitment
- Job candidate interviews
- Tracking employee personal and sick days
- Employee training
Given this list, which is not comprehensive, it can be daunting to head an HR department on your own.
Tips and resources
Despite the challenges of running HR functions alone, there are some tips and tools that may help an HR professional be more efficient:
Know the business. One of the best ways to ease the stress of flying solo is to stay in communication with the senior management team. Request regular meetings that keep you abreast of impending business changes, so you can plan for new hires, training and development, relocations, and any other of the many HR functions in advance. An open flow of communication helps a one-person HR department align its focus with the company's strategic priorities and anticipate changes and activities coming up.
Think strategically. Knowing the business inside and out naturally leads to thinking more strategically about how HR fits into "the big picture." The role of HR leaders has changed significantly since the early 2000s – from the days when HR meant handling payroll and sick time to current challenges that range from remote workforce collaboration and management to employing state-of-the-art HR technology that enables employees to access and update their own information.
Put knowledge into action. Once you, as the leader of an HR department of one, get into "strategic thinking mode," put your role into action:
- Promote strategy development at the departmental level. Whether the goal is to address one specific issue or a company-wide initiative, encouraging systematic strategic planning can lead to better outcomes and organized workflows.
- HR departments can also support leaders and their teams to think through the strategy process. Many individuals may not have received formal training in strategy development and execution. Strategic thinking training and resources can go a long way toward successful implementation.
- HR departments can also lead by example. Showcase the power of strategy by having a strategic plan for your department and make it widely available as a model for other departments.
Human resources professionals should take a key role by building relationships with executives, establishing a clear framework for strategic planning, providing the necessary resources for training staff on strategic models, and providing a working example of a successful strategy in play.
Request regular meetings with senior management that keep you in the know about impending business changes. That way you can plan for HR functions in advance.
Plan your way with clear documentation. Documentation may help a one-person HR department be more efficient and help managers and employees understand your company's policies. For example, an employee handbook that outlines all the key processes related to HR can help provide necessary guidelines. In addition, a written strategic plan can clarify how HR resources will implement and back up the policies outlined in the handbook. The planning process should include orientation and training materials, performance appraisals, and compensation information that can be accessed at a moment's notice.
Network and connect to knowledgeable resources. A one-person HR department needs to stay up-to-date on the latest changes affecting HR. Dorene Crimi Lerner, Paychex HR consultant, suggests the following:
- Become a member of SHRM.
- Join a local SHRM chapter and attend meetings with speakers on a variety of topics.
- Obtain HR accreditation offered by SHRM and the Human Resources Certification Institute.
Access other valuable sources where you can find articles, tools, and tips to help you solve HR issues and plan for the future.
Documentation may help one-person HR departments be more efficient, and help managers and employees understand your company's policies.
Make technology your friend. Clear communications are vital in HR, especially as the expectations of employees and managers are changing. While in the past, paper was good enough to get the point across, today handouts and even emails are easily ignored or put aside. Videos, webinars, and other more engaging technologies may make it easier to grab people's attention and help them understand the message.
HR technology and software are now essential for HR services like employee onboarding. When using automated onboarding technology, new employees can sign important documents and review supplied resources before their first day on the job. When they can complete onboarding tasks at a pace they prefer, employees can have a productive first day to focus on beginning their job – not paperwork.
An HR department of one can reap potential benefits from the use of an online system as well:
- Cost savings by not having to print out and store all new hire documents.
- Improved backup due to employee files stored in the cloud, eliminating redundant backups and protecting against unforeseen disasters.
- Compensable time spent by employees completing documents can be tracked to assist in compliance with wage and hour obligations.
- More efficient process of transitioning new hires into the company's benefits programs.
- Automatically sharing data shared across various HR areas of responsibility (attendance, tracking of hours worked, payroll, etc.), which helps eliminate time-consuming manual data entry.
Individual HR managers can also benefit from a comprehensive new hire checklist as part of the onboarding process. A proven, systematic procedure can help new employees get off on the right foot and feel confident in their decision to join your organization.
Staying up to date on compliance
Regardless of a business's size or scale, timely and proactive compliance with federal, state, and local employment laws and regulations is critical. With the frequency and scope of audits by government agencies increasing, organizations must comply with ever-changing regulatory mandates — or deal with the adverse consequences that may result from non-compliance.
Maintaining compliance with applicable laws can be difficult even for seasoned HR compliance pros, let alone single-person HR teams. Common HR compliance issues may include:
- Ensuring that employees complete Form I-9 in compliance with Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit standards, and retaining these forms on file.
- Enforcing federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws.
- Determining an employee's FLSA status (exempt vs. non-exempt).
- Making sure anyone accountable for compliance in the company (including managers and supervisors) is properly trained.
The consequences of failing to maintain compliance are significant, since potential penalties, fines, and lawsuits can result even from seemingly minor infractions. Use the expertise of a seasoned HR services provider, with resources dedicated to proactively monitor employment laws and regulations so that you can be in the know.
Help for an HR department of one
It may not seem possible for an HR department of one to hire new employees, onboard them effectively, promote a strategic perspective, process payroll, contend with employee issues and be compliant with a dizzying array of laws and regulations, but there is a wealth of assistance and expertise to help you succeed.
If you're an HR professional handling these and other tasks on your own, consider making the case for HR services to help with simple administrative tasks or a more comprehensive outsourced HR management program. Tap into powerful HR technology and expert support so that you can be a successful HR professional and achieve the long-term strategic goals of your business.