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The 3 Biggest Challenges of Being an HR Leader ... and How to Meet Them

Human Resources

You're a human resources leader. Congratulations. I think.

It's a great job. A responsible position. You are filling a role that is a necessity for any company. When you think about it, there are few roles – if any, that are more important than yours. We've been told time and again that a company's most important asset is its people. So, who's the one person that’s most responsible for the happiness and productivity of this critical asset? Yeah, it's you. Congratulations. I think.

You know why I'm a little hesitant to congratulate you, right? It's because your job is super-challenging. It's why 78 percent of HR leaders today consider themselves stressed, according to the Paychex Pulse of HR Survey. To really succeed at it you have to master many skills. I've met plenty of HR executives, managers, and staffers over the years. The ones who succeed are the ones who've overcome what I believe are the three biggest challenges you face in your job.

Challenge 1: Being an executive, while still watching the details.

When there's a people problem (and there's always a people problem), your CEO will likely turn to you. You are the face of management. You are the person that is setting the tone, determining policies, communicating these policies with employees, and arbitrating problems. You are advising the CEO on the latest trends in HR and how your company should be treating its employees. You are taking the lead in recommending benefits, policies, and procedures that will keep your workforce happy and productive and enable your company to recruit the best people. Oh, and speaking of recruiting – you're in charge of that too. Although you have to execute on all of these functions, you’re still largely perceived as a strategic partner, which is how 90 percent of those surveyed viewed HR departments. In fact, the most popular “HR persona” among respondents was “strategic partner.”

But this is easier said than done. You need to do all of that while also making sure the details are watched. The forms are filled out. The insurance plans are reviewed. The contracts are signed. The payroll records are updated. Maybe you have help. Maybe you outsource some of your company’s HR functions. Maybe you have a staff of people. Ultimately, all of this will fall on you. You'll be expected to be the executive, the leader, and the accountant all in one. That's the reality of being in HR.

expectations of HR leader

How do you meet this challenge?

You set very clear goals with your boss. You make sure that your executive role comes first and you lobby hard for resources to help you with the details. The Paychex survey reported that more than a quarter of organizations will add HR headcount this year and nearly 75 percent expect to experience a budget increase. Now is your time to ask. Regardless of what resources you're assigned, you will make it a priority to delegate the administrative work to others, even if this means outsourcing the work or negotiating a part-timer to help you. You realize that it's critical that you're perceived by your CEO as being an equal, another executive, a leader and not an HR administrative clerk. It's very easy to bury yourself in the paperwork. But you know if you fall into that trap your value will be greatly diminished.

Challenge 2: Being current on legislation...and technology.

As an HR person, anything affecting people is your responsibility. This is why keeping up with legislation is your biggest challenge, according to Paychex's survey. What does that include? The latest changes in health insurance legislation. Local and regional paid time off and minimum wage laws. Labor rulings. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Labor regulations. Changes in payroll tax withholdings. Anti-discrimination laws. Is your handbook up to date? Are you in compliance with all the applicable rules and regulations at the local, state, and federal level? More importantly, are you aware of upcoming changes to these rules and regulations that may have an impact on both your employees and the company's profitability? Are you advising the CEO of these changes? Are you looking ahead and making strategic plans to stay compliant?

Then there's technology. It's no secret that HR technology enables HR staffers to be more efficient and strategic – more than three-quarters of Paychex's survey respondents agreed to that. So do you have an HR software solution? If not, why not? Do you even know what to look for in a good one? Are you using applications to help you manage performance reviews? Are you fully leveraging the capabilities of your payroll system? Have you considered HR software to help coordinate benefits, hire and terminate employees, and schedule employee time? Do you know the latest services to help you recruit and find new employees? Are you using online tools to help you with team building, collaboration, and communication? How will you feel if your CEO comes in your office and wonders why you're not using (or even recommending) a popular software or service that other companies in the industry are using? Forty-eight percent of respondents to the Paychex survey have changed their HR technology in the past three years. Have you?

It's your job to know all these things. But, you're not a legislative wonk. You're not a tech geek. This is your challenge.

HR's biggest challenge - paychex HR survey

How do you meet this challenge?

You have to commit to self-education. You need to take advantage of resources from trusted business partners. You need to argue for time away from the office to attend industry and professional events that discuss these very issues. You need to attain HR certifications that will require you to become very familiar with all best practices in your profession. CPAs and lawyers are required to attend classes in order to stay current with their profession. So are other professionals like engineers, architects, and doctors. Tell that to your CEO and make sure you're getting the time (and budget) needed to keep on top of these ever-changing topics.

Challenge 3: One word – millennials.

You know the issue. You've heard the concerns from your baby-boomer and GenX colleagues – managers and executives likely at your level. It's those millennials. They are the new generation in the workforce and, depending on which study you read, comprise as much as 50 percent of the employees working at companies today – or will be in the next few years. The millennial generation is smarter, savvier, and more technically astute than any generation before it. But with these talents come challenges. They want more time off, flexibility, mobility, and independence. They want to work for socially responsible companies. They demand more time with managers and seek out more feedback.

You need to address this because, according to the Paychex survey, millennials are the "most split" about how effective organizations are in managing them. You need to understand what this generation desires, and accommodate your policies and culture to fit these demands. Otherwise, you will miss out on hiring smart and capable people. Your company's biggest asset – people, remember? – will be diminished otherwise. In effect, you will not be doing your job as an HR leader very well if you are not recruiting, motivating, and compensating millennials competitively.

millenials - "most split" about organizations effectiveness in management. - paychex survery

How do you meet this challenge?

You listen to your current and prospective millennial employees. You don't judge and you don't argue. You don't roll over and comply with every need, of course. But you teach your management – every day – that to be attractive to this generation, your company must have a flexible and open culture. You make sure that management, regardless of their age and generation, appreciates the critical need to hire and motivate people in this younger group. It's the future, and ignoring millennials and the challenges they can bring means your company may not have one.

In summary ... are you meeting these challenges head-on? Are you comfortable that you're on top of them? Don't worry if you're still not 100 percent sure. No one is. But you know what they are. You're thinking about them every day. They're top of mind. That means something. It means that you're a good HR leader.


gene marks headshot

Gene Marks is a business owner, small business expert, author, speaker, CPA, and columnist for The Washington Post.

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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