HR's Pivotal Multi-Taskers

By Charlotte Garvey June 1, 2004

HR Magazine, June 2004 Design the post of HR assistant for flexibility so that it can draw on the particular talents of the person in the job.

Over the past 20 years, HR executive Mona Melanson, SPHR, has had various HR assistants helping her while she managed positions with insurance and financial-service companies in the United States and Asia. She came to prefer those assistants who bring more to their job than administrative skills. “You can train for skills,” Melanson says, “but not for attitude.”

Placement specialist Judith Enns says HR assistants need to have a feel for a multitude of HR intangibles. It’s difficult, she says, to develop in a person the important strengths that the job requires—qualities such as “interest in people, regard for confidentiality, experience in customer service, desire to serve, ability to be flexible, to deal with gray areas,” as well as “the understanding that people problems are perennial and persistent.”

Melanson heads HR at a 160-employee facility in San Diego for the Powerware Corp., a Raleigh, N.C.-based manufacturer of uninterruptible power supplies. Enns, also in San Diego, is managing director of HR Solutions, a placement firm whose client companies range from financial services to retail to entertainment. Both say that a person coming into the job of HR assistant should have at least some HR experience or should possess an instinct for the profession’s special requirements; administrative skills, which many job candidates learn in high school, can be developed on the job.

The HR assistant post can be structured to lead toward full-time professional HR positions, experts say, or it can be designed as a long-term, largely administrative job supporting senior HR executives. Neither path needs to be set in stone, however, and commonly the job contains elements of both approaches. An assistant whose job is tilted toward clerical responsibilities may still handle HR-oriented functions such as resume screening, employment verifications, setting up pre-employment exams, and maintaining files on employees’ performance evaluations and attendance. Moreover, the job can be reshaped to conform to the experience, skills and aspirations of the person holding it.

“I don’t think there is a cookie-cutter approach,” says Darryl Simon, SPHR, senior vice president of HR and risk management with CarrAmerica Realty Corp. in Washington, D.C. Simon has had an HR assistant in every management position he has held over the past two decades. His assistant now is “almost an HR generalist” in the range of her duties, he says. In addition to supporting him with recruiting and employee relations, she helps other managers—specialists in recruiting, training and compensation—who report to him.

“I’ve seen the gamut,” Simon says. “But clearly what is emerging now is that you need assistants who have business savvy.”

Making the Most of It

Often, a person who becomes an HR assistant shapes the position along the lines of his or her strengths and goals. For example, at Watkins Manufacturing, a spa and hot tub manufacturer in Vista, Calif., HR assistant Maria Vasquez has become “a jack-of-all-trades” in a position that emphasizes clerical responsibilities, says HR Operations Manager Kim Schaefer. Vasquez, who works part time, has been in the position for about 10 years and does not have a college degree. Her duties include filing personnel records, entering performance reviews into the computer and selling discounted entertainment tickets to employees.

But Vasquez brings a special skill to the job: She speaks Spanish as well as English, which is especially valuable in a company where most of the 700 employees speak Spanish. She sets up classes in English as a second language for workers, and she also fills a “triage” role when she greets employees in the seven-member HR department’s offices, Schaefer says. “She’s there to assist them and guide them if they have a simple question.”

Cathy Sanderson, the HR assistant at another company in Vista, medical device manufacturer dj Orthopedics Inc., has an associate’s degree in HR management and five years of experience in the field. But what has proved crucial to her success is that “she’s very intuitive,” says Collete Shea, SPHR, director of HR. “She’s not afraid to question things,” Shea adds. “She doesn’t just process paperwork.”

Leanne McDaniel, who until recently worked for Melanson at Powerware, says that in the assistant position she did “a little bit of everything.” She had recruitment duties such as screening phone calls and reviewing resumes, and she was “the first person in line” when employees had questions. She usually handled payroll and benefit inquiries herself, she explains, but some questions involved serious employee relations situations. At that point, she would decide if Melanson needed to get involved.

McDaniel took a “very administrative” HR assistant job after high school, and later she moved to a non-HR job at another company, doing accounts payable work in the finance department. She then found a job as an HR representative in the health care industry. Along the way, she earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration.

In working for Melanson, McDaniel had been filling in for an employee on maternity leave. She used her experience in word processing, spreadsheet and HR information systems (HRIS) software in a variety of substantive HR duties. McDaniel’s ability to generate numerous HRIS reports for a special project, for example, “was just fabulous,” Melanson says.

McDaniel says that “working with Mona was beneficial in that she gave me the opportunity to gain more experience and knowledge in areas of HR” that were less familiar to her. Melanson had involved her “in a lot of the employee relations issues,” McDaniel says. “It’s going to help me out somewhere down the line.”

McDaniel’s ambition and experience recently paid off. She was accepted into an MBA program and also became regional human resource administrator at a claims center for the global AIG insurance and financial services company. Her goal is to be an HR director.

Hire Expectations

Although some companies expect HR assistants to have no more than a high school diploma and possibly some college education, others want much more, says Val Stinson, PHR. Stinson is director of HR Extras, a Tualatin, Ore., firm that places temporary, permanent and temp-to-hire candidates in various HR positions. Her clients prefer HR assistants with six months to two years of HR experience, she says.

Some college graduates expect to move directly into an HR generalist slot, Stinson says, only to find a different reality: “My clients won’t consider new grads for a generalist position.” Many employers say a generalist must have at least three to five years’ HR experience, she says, and they urge recent college graduates to be willing to take an HR assistant position with the possibility for advancement. “They [employers] want to grow them from the ground up,” she says. “The people who are shining stars are going to rapidly advance.”

In many instances, the HR assistant position is nonexempt. In Oregon, Stinson says, it’s often a clerical job paying about $12 an hour. But in the San Diego area, small and medium-size companies often structure the HR assistant job as an entry-level professional position. Enns says sometimes a candidate is hired as an hourly HR assistant and moves up to a salaried post as an HR representative or HR generalist.

It also is not unusual for HR assistant jobs to be temporary or to be filled on a temp-to-hire trial basis. That approach allows both candidate and employer to assess crucial aspects of the relationship, including “fit factors”—how the candidate meshes with the HR team that he or she would support, Enns says.

Enns cites an instance in which she placed a “very, very smart person” as an HR assistant under a contractor-to-hire arrangement. It appeared to be a good fit, but it wasn’t. When the candidate got into the job and saw the challenges, Enns says, “it got to be overwhelming for her,” and she decided to leave. “Thank goodness it was contractor-to-hire,” Enns says, because it made the separation process much simpler—no company-mandated termination procedures or policies came into play.

Denise Carissimo, a senior agent with placement firm Randstad North America, says the temp-to-hire approach is common among her clients, including automotive-industry companies in the Cleveland area. This approach allows “a testdrive, because they want to find the right fit with the culture.” In other instances, the job is temporary because it responds to an uptick in the workload that may not reflect permanent demand.

Look Inside, or Go Outside?

There are no hard-and-fast rules about whether to hire from within or go outside for candidates for an HR assistant post. “If you’ve got the talent within the organization, I would favor promoting from within,” says Simon of CarrAmerica Realty. “They know the organization; they know where the bodies are buried.”

Yet the confidential nature of HR work can raise issues when hiring an assistant from within. “If they’ve already developed friendships and alliances, you have to be really clear when you’re in the interview process” about the need to safeguard sensitive information, Stinson says. “We know how employees kibitz together, and, once you move into an HR position, you can’t do that.”

Simon agrees that the time to deal with the confidentiality issue is in the interview process. If the candidate has not handled sensitive information, Simon suggests posing scenarios to the candidate and asking how he or she would handle each situation. “You can really judge a person’s effectiveness” in this way, he says. Preserving confidentiality has become an even bigger challenge as workspaces continue to evolve into less-private “modular spaces,” he adds.

An approach that has worked for Melanson combines insider knowledge with a track record of keeping secrets. In her years as an HR executive, she has hired two internal candidates as HR assistants, both of whom had been executive secretaries and had HR-like experience in handling confidential information. “I was lucky,” Melanson says, because in each instance she was new to the company, and the assistants had credibility within the company, knew its informal systems and had the confidence of employees.

Looking Ahead

HR managers can provide their assistants with valuable experience that will serve them well even if the position does not lead to a higher-level job. “My more valuable assistants showed great initiative,” Simon says. “As a manager, I would seek out opportunities to give them some professional or even quasi-managerial role in my organization.”

At dj Orthopedics, a successful HR assistant can move up into a position on the company’s HR help desk and could advance further to become an HR rep and then an HR manager. HR assistant Sanderson, an hourly full-time employee, says her goal is to become a manager. Shea, the company’s HR director, says there’s no formal succession plan within HR, but the possibilities for advancement have been communicated to all in the five-member department.

Says Melanson: “Even though I might not be able to provide the next step in someone’s career, I feel as a manager you can enable someone to grow.” She says she is “a big believer in sending people to certificate programs.” For example, her long-term HR assistant—who went on maternity leave and was replaced for that time by McDaniel—had moved to the United States from Peru and enrolled in an HR certificate program to familiarize herself with the business environment in California and with issues throughout the country, Melanson says.

In addition, HR assistants themselves can help make their own opportunities, particularly by showing interest in learning more, whether formally or informally. For example, they should look for opportunities to volunteer both on the job and outside the workplace, Melanson says. “You can grow outside the job and show some leadership,” she says. “All of those things are resume-enhancing and skill-enhancing, especially for someone without much work experience.”

Even if the HR assistant post has limited promotion potential, Melanson says, a candidate’s ambition can be a plus. “I’m looking for someone who really does want to grow and move into a higher-level position,” she says, “because they’re going to do a better job for me now.”

Charlotte Garvey is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area who reports on business and environmental issues.

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