HR Department of One: How to Succeed

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HR Department of One: How to Succeed

Being the only HR employee in a company is both daunting and exciting. It’s an experience that can accelerate your growth as an HR professional. You will need to be resourceful, agile, accessible, strategic, and tactical. If you are inheriting a previously-established structure, the experience may be less challenging.

However, if you are expected to build the HR department from the ground up, you will need to withdraw from your bank of HR competencies and organizational and interpersonal skills to be successful. This article primarily focuses on how you can not only survive but also thrive as an HR department of one.

What precipitates the need for an HR professional?
What is an HR department of one?
Building a successful HR department of one

What precipitates the need for an HR professional?

As many small businesses grow and scale, they come to realize the importance of having an HR professional to support the organization. In the United States, a typical milestone number of employees in the growth of a small business is the headcount of 50+ employees. At the threshold of 50+ employees, small businesses in the US need to be compliant with the following employment laws and regulations:

  • Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – This requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of (unpaid) leave to their employees. The leave needs to be tracked, and small businesses must comply with the specific requirements.
  • Affordable Care Act (ACA) compliance – Small businesses with 50+ full-time employees plus “full-time equivalents” become “Applicable Large Employers” (ALE’s) under the Affordable Care Act. As a result, they must offer affordable, compliant healthcare coverage to eligible employees. In addition, they must report those offers of coverage on an annual basis on Form 1095-C to the employee and on Form 1094-C to the IRS.
  • Form 5500 reporting – Businesses with plans that are subject to ERISA must complete the annual form 5500.
  • Affirmative action – Small businesses with 50+ employees and which also have government contracts in excess of $50,000 must implement a special plan to ensure they are providing equal employment opportunities.
  • EEO-1 reporting – Businesses with 100+ employees are required to provide annual EEO-1 reporting. However, if the business has at least $10,000 in federal contracts, that threshold drops to 50+ employees.

Compliance may be the most compelling reason to hire an HR professional. However, as organizations grow, employees with specialized revenue-earning competencies need to focus on using those competencies to scale the business and increase revenue growth. They should not be distracted or burdened by some of the HR functions they may have performed previously.

What is an HR department of one?

An HR department of one simply means one HR professional performs all the HR functions. These functions include:

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Depending on the needs of the organization, they may want the HR professional to provide mainly tactical support. Therefore, the role will be primarily administrative in focus. It will entail a range of administrative tasks such as managing employee records, drafting contracts, and onboarding new employees in terms of paperwork.

Other organizations may desire a more senior HR professional to provide both strategic direction and tactical support. The difference between strategic and tactical support is years of experience and, to a lesser extent, qualifications and credentials. However, a common denominator to both is having an HR generalist experience, understanding, and HR knowledge.  

Some titles for a person in this role may be HR Generalist, HR Officer, HR Business Partner, People Partner. If the person is more senior, their title may be HR Manager, Senior HR Generalist, Head of HR, HR Lead, Senior HR Business Partner, Senior Manager People, Director HR, or VP HR.

This role may report to the Chief Operating Officer, VP Finance, Head of Finance, Head of Operations, Chief Financial Officer, the President, or even the Chief Executive Officer. It all depends on the organizational structure and how the leadership envisions the role evolving with the growth of the organization.

How do you succeed as a one-person HR department?

While these are distinct components, they do not interact with each other in a linear formation. Many of the elements work together simultaneously and parallel to each other to successfully develop and lead a Human Resources department of one. The components are:

1. Discovering

Conduct a listening tour to understand the business and the strategy and get acquainted with the current state of Human Resources at your organization.

Understanding HR’s current state involves assessing what systems exist, to what extent they can scale with the business, and what they need to develop. It may include conducting a compliance audit to determine gaps. 

You also need to get to know the business – your organization, its product(s), target audience, and the industry. That way, you’ll be able to think about your HR goals, activities, and priorities strategically.

2. Building relationships

  • Schedule meetings with leadership, management, and employees as separate groups. You can learn a lot by creating a safe space for employees to answer their questions, listen to their concerns, and ask follow-up questions. That way, you’re strengthening your position as a trusted HR expert.
  • Approach each meeting as an opportunity to get to know others and share who you are. HR as a function is stronger when both leaders and employees have a trusting and professional relationship with HR.
  • Don’t be discouraged by setbacks or challenging personalities. Remain professional, respectful, and engaged.

3. Strategizing 

Use the insights from the listening tour and audits to clarify HR’s vision and the best operating framework to facilitate HR’s priorities. HR priorities should align with the organization’s strategic objectives.

  1. If the business is growing fast, you might need to prioritize hiring.
  2. Determine if automating certain processes will improve efficiencies. Identify and reach out to potential service providers.
  3. Determine what you can outsource. For example, payroll processing, benefits administration, or 401(k) plan administration. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis to ascertain whether it’s better to process or administer it internally or not.
  4. Make use of available resources. For example, other employees may be able to assist with interviewing candidates or with L&D activities like lunch-and-learn or mentoring.
  5. Work on your time management. Setting specific timeframes to answer emails and messages will help you prevent distractions in the other parts of your day. Don’t be afraid to block your calendar and schedule everything.
  6. If leadership lacks experience with the HR function, this may lead to unrealistic time frames being set to complete a project or multiple projects at the same time. Communicate to leadership realistic timeframes for completing projects.
  7. Professionally negotiate with leadership when projects can be effectively delivered.
HR Department of One

4. Designing & producing 

Begin developing HR functional strategies, designing tools, templates & checklists, implementing systems, and writing and updating policies.

  1. Utilize technology – This may save you time. While your organization might not have a big budget, there are solutions that don’t cost much but are effective in helping you stay organized. For example, an applicant tracking system, online document signing and critical compliance online training (harassment prevention). It is important to do your research and compare multiple options. While that might be time-consuming initially, it will pay off in the future.
  2. Employee handbook & procedural guidelines – Documenting the company policies, guidelines and processes will help you be more efficient and also helps to easily communicate to your employees. It also ensures that your organization is compliant.
  3. Labor posters, I9s and filing – These are some low-hanging fruit and quick wins you should take advantage of. Make sure the labor posters are up to date and visible; also ensure I9s and employees files are in order.

5. Educating 

  • Continuously educate yourself – It might be challenging to find time for learning with all the responsibilities you have. However, it is critical for you to stay on top of what’s happening in the world of HR to help your company be compliant and help it grow. For example, networking with HR peers, HR meetups, or getting a certification in an area of HR that interests you.
  • Educate the organization – You may be surprised to learn that some of those in leadership and the general employee population do not know much about the HR profession and function. Leadership and employees may be unaware of the laws that govern the employee employment cycle or when employees should directly go to HR. Take time to educate the organization about what HR is, what you do, what to expect, and when and how employees should engage with you.  This involves teaching them to:
    • Differentiate when they should first go to their supervisor vs. HR.
    • Differentiate when should try to resolve a matter with a peer vs. getting HR involved
    • Identify when to involve HR:
      • Claims of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation
      • Questions about Family Medical Leave Act
      • Request for accommodation 
      • Communications from EEOC 
      • Potential threats of violence to others or themselves

6. Budgeting

When everything needs to be done, it is important to understand the budget and work within it to make an impact that strategically moves the organization forward. While you may not be personally responsible for the budget, you should get clarity and approval from leadership on how much you can spend and the priorities for the HR budget.

7. Evaluating & realigning

Present strategies, tools, templates, and workplace policies to key stakeholders to get feedback.

  • Employee manual
  • Trainings on performance management
  • Job description templates
  • Demo on ATS systems

Use feedback to refine and adjust before formalization and launch.

Over to you

As a solitary HR professional, you can be an incredible asset to your organization, even if you don’t have an HR team to support you. By prioritizing well and focusing on what’s the most important, you can make the most of your limited time and handle the HR matters at your organization professionally and effectively while creating a productive working environment for your team.

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