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HR Department of One: Managing the Impossible

Human Resources

Human Resources: it’s where employees go for answers about the forces and pressures surrounding their jobs, from company policies and procedures, to federal, state, and local regulations, to benefits enrollment and status. It’s also where owners and managers turn for help with hiring, retaining, and cajoling more productivity from those employees.

To respond to the demands coming at them from all sides, an HR department must become part executive, part teacher, and part customer service expert.

When those demands fall on the shoulders of one person, what can be done to help lighten the burden?

The Accidental HR Department

Let’s start by looking at how people become an HR department of one. According to Amanda Haddaway, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, consultant and owner of HR Answerbox, many get into HR “accidentally.” In her 2017 SHRM Conference and Exposition session, The Top Five Secrets to Managing an HR Department of One, she spoke of how people who have no HR backgrounds are sometimes pressed into service when the HR person leaves a company, or when a need suddenly arises and the tasks must be assigned to someone regardless of prior HR knowledge.

She also recounted her own experience as a new employee at a large company. She was straight out of college and had no intentions of working in HR – until she lost her job. She soon found that HR could be a way to remain and advance within the company, and she eventually took the skills she learned in various HR-related departments such as recruiting and training and put them to use at a small business as an HR department of one.

Make the Impossible a Little More Possible

So, how can someone who may have little HR background handle all of the responsibilities required of them on a daily basis? Here are a few ideas from Ms. Haddaway’s session that might help make the prospects a little less daunting and a little more manageable.

Know the Company

While HR began as a purely administrative function, over time it became more tactical, and now is seen as a strategic asset to an organization. Take time to understand the organization’s goals, mission, vision, and values – whether implicit and recorded, or merely implied – then use them to build the framework for the HR programs.

Make Learning a Priority

Professional development is the key to building HR competence and credibility. And keeping up with federal, state, and local regulations is a constant battle. One-person HR departments should invest in professional development – whether off-site at a conference like SHRM, or from their desks via webinars, videos, etc.

It may also be a good idea to start a resource library. Ms. Haddaway recommended The Essential HR Handbook, by Sharon Armstrong and Barbara Mitchell, and The HR Answer Book, by Shawn Smith and Rebecca Mazin. SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, is another popular source. And there are several websites, such as Paychex WORX, with information that can be easily looked up and put to use.

Networking is important too, especially in an organization with no other HR people to consult with and share experiences. There are many organizations on the national and local level for HR professionals, or if one doesn’t exist in the immediate area, Ms. Haddaway suggested checking out the local chamber of commerce, or an industry organization to find kindred HR spirits. Making friends in HR can be an important lifeline for an HR department of one who needs someone to listen and understand what they’re going through and how to make it better.

Train the Managers

Training managers can help save time in the long run. Don’t assume just because a manager has a certain title that they know what they’re doing when it comes to proper procedure. Ms. Haddaway spoke about how she had once worked with a senior-level manager who reported that he wouldn’t recommend hiring a candidate because, “They looked like a squirrel.” That resulted in mandatory interview training for managers, covering both legal requirements and plain common sense.

Make Technology Your Friend

Clear communication is 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 being sent.

It’s OK to Ask for Help

Being a one-person HR department is hard work. Don’t take it all on without some assistance, whether through networking, at educational events like conferences or webinars, or through resources like SHRM self-service HR help, member forums, and Ask an Advisor, where members can ask questions up to 15 times a year.

While managing all aspects of HR solo can seem overwhelming, these ideas can help bring more clarity to the role, and hopefully demonstrate that no one truly needs to handle HR alone.


This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. Paychex is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, Paychex. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant.
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