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Survival Tips for HR Departments of One

Written by Donna Rogers, SPHR

My HR career began in corporate training more than 22 years ago. Our department included three trainers and a coordinator. We reported to an HR director with responsibility for multiple functions — payroll, employment, compensation, policies & procedures, and more. It was definitely not an HR department of one.

However, after several years there and at another large corporation, I downsized dramatically into exactly that — an HR department of one. Me, myself, and I. “We” worked for the greater good of two small family-run companies; the first had 130 employees, and several years later I moved to an organization with 150 employees. Both were in the manufacturing sector, although my corporate experience had been in financial services.

Boy, were those positions different from my big-company background! However, my corporate experience helped me bring professionalism and thoughtfully designed programs to those smaller organizations. And not surprisingly, I continued to learn, even as I found ways to implement HR best practices without the luxury of an HR staff.

Are you looking for guidance as a one-person HR department? Here are 4 key lessons from my past:

4 Tips For HR Departments of One

1) Assess The Territory
It’s essential to get to know the management team and staff as deeply and quickly as possible. My first step was to schedule meetings with each division head and anyone else involved in the process of hiring, firing, and performance management. I created an agenda for each meeting, and I focused not just on gathering situational intelligence, but also on sharing my expectations and asking for ideas about how I could help meet organizational goals. These sessions don’t need to be formal; however, they should reveal enough insights for you to prepare a mini HR needs assessment.

2) Create A Roadmap
Your needs assessment can be your guide, as you write a project plan that prioritizes everything you need to accomplish — including ideas gleaned from the management team. Once I had this plan in place, I had the ability to gain management buy-in — and then there was no stopping me from moving forward to reach my goals. Until, of course, reality struck when I discovered just how limited the budget would be.

3) Think Resourcefully
Financial constraints can put a tremendous crimp in your ability to implement effective HR programs. In my second position, I faced a double whammy. We were cash-strapped, and existing vendors were reluctant to extend credit because the company had a D- rating from Dun & Bradstreet and Standard and Poor’s. It was the first time I had to pay COD (cash on delivery) for anything in business. With a lack of financial resources, I tapped into my professional network instead. My industry connections were a huge asset, as I called upon them for advice and suggestions to overcome budget obstacles. And in those days “a call” was literally that – a “phone” call — almost unheard of these days with email, social media, and professional online groups available at our fingertips. However, even now, I believe that a quick call can be the fastest, most effective way to get things done.

4) Make Technology Your Friend
Of course, technology doesn’t stop with telephones. And the most important thing you can do as an HR Department of One is to rely upon technology to help you work more efficiently. Implementing a solid HRIS (Human Resources Information System) can save hours — sometimes days — when generating management reports, tracking compliance, developing HR plans and conducting program analysis. Also, if cost is an issue (or even when it’s not) you can easily leverage social media for multiple purposes. For example, low-cost social survey tools help you instantly gather feedback from employees about job satisfaction. Social channels also offer a wide variety of career-related destinations and communities where you can drive recruitment that positions your organization as a talent acquisition leader.

These days, I’m one of the resources that HR departments of one rely upon for advice and assistance, when they don’t have the time or expertise to perform those services, themselves. I’m here to help fill essential gaps — whether it’s providing an objective opinion about staffing issues, mapping out a new program, or providing regulatory guidance as an alternative to costly attorneys or full-service consulting firms. For example, I’ve worked side-by-side with Dave Ryan to help him accomplish HR goals at Mel-O-Cream Donuts.

It’s rewarding to work in this capacity. Having operated in my clients’ role previously, I understand what they are going through. I can suggest solutions that I know will make their job easier. I can recommend no-cost/low-cost resources. And I can show them a better way to help HR support business objectives. It advances their company’s mission, and at the same time, it advances the practice of HR.

What do you think about the future of HR departments? Are companies likely to rely more heavily on these decentralized models? Is that a smart trend for business? And what does it mean for those of us who are HR professionals? Share your thoughts in the comments area.

DonnaRogers(About the Author: Donna Rogers, SPHR, instructor of management at University of Illinois Springfield, and owner of Rogers HR Consulting. She has a Masters in Human Resources Development from UIUC, a Bachelor’s in Public Relations from ISU. Her firm is an HRCI Pre-Approved Provider and Small Business of the Year award winner. She earned the HR Professional of the Year and Lifetime Achievement Award from CIC-SHRM. She regularly delivers numerous presentations among professional groups, previously taught at Robert Morris College and has guest lectured at Benedictine University. She also serves her HR professional peers as a North Central Region – Membership Advisory Committee Representative, and is the Past Director for the Illinois State Council of SHRM. Connect with Donna on Twitter or LinkedIn.)

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