Lessons from HR Departments of One

Small but mighty, HR departments of one share how they manage it all—and prove their value in the process.

By Mark Feffer Nov 1, 2015
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HR Magazine November 2015For the first six months of her job as a solo HR professional, Diane Breeding, SHRM-CP, did precious little HR work. Instead, as the newest member of the staff at Edwards Moving and Rigging in Shelbyville, Ky., she went out with trucking crews as they transported heavy and complex cargoes.

She quickly learned that what her company does is far more involved than simply moving materials onto a truck. Projects might require a short haul, specialized jacking or a complicated crane lift, for example, and the company works with state and federal agencies to arrange transport nationally and between countries.

Breeding came to understand all this by talking extensively with riggers, engineers and other employees. At the urging of CEO Mark Edwards, she put aside her urge to jump directly into HR and instead focused on learning how the 100-employee company operates and the challenges faced by its workers—both within the office and beyond it.

That’s important information to have, especially when you are the HR department—which is the case at tens of thousands of small companies across the country. In addition to grasping the ins and outs of a particular business, solo practitioners like Breeding must master recruiting, onboarding, training, performance management, payroll, benefits, conflict resolution and myriad other responsibilities. They must truly be all things HR to all employees.

Almost 10 percent of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 275,000 members work in companies with fewer than 100 people, and many are the only HR presence in the company. Businesses of that size account for more than a third of all U.S. employment, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released this year. And the U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that 55 percent of all jobs are provided through small businesses, which it defines as those with 500 or fewer employees.

While small businesses have always been a big part of the job market, in recent years pressure has intensified for startups to launch “lean” and grow head count only when they’ve gotten a firm foothold in the market. Indeed, many early-stage tech companies are forgoing HR entirely—sometimes to disastrous effect when harassment claims pop up or hiring goes horribly wrong—while other businesses are deciding that, when it comes to HR staffing, one is enough.

HR, in turn, is being pressed to become more​ strategic and show how it contributes to the bottom line. What all this means for solo practitioners is that they must add one more task to their already overflowing to-do list: prove your worth.

Lisa Barr
HR Specialist II
Pasadena Federal Credit Union (PFCU) 
Pasadena, Calif.

In addition to overseeing PFCU’s HR function for the company’s 27 employees, Barr handles general contract administration and internal communications work.

Top Challenge
Trying to implement all the ideas I have.

Advice
Become certified. The knowledge I gained in preparing for the exam has been a huge asset.

Goal for 2016
Amp up our training program by creating short, interactive learning modules for employees to access at their own pace. I recently purchased Articulate, an e-learning tool, to help me accomplish that.

Going It Alone

If you are or have been an HR department of one, you know that the job requires a mix of enthusiasm, evangelism, flexibility and organization. Today’s practitioners also need to be pragmatic, self-assured, assertive and diplomatic, with a knack for building relationships at every level of the company. Such a role brings many challenges.

First, there’s the sheer volume of work. Even while they’re trying to move their organizations forward with better training or updated performance management solutions, HR departments of one must ensure that the annual benefits package is distributed, government filings are completed on deadline and employee conflicts are quickly resolved.

“Sometimes I’ll get a big idea but have to realize it’s just me here,” says Jessica Bierman, HR manager for the Eau Claire, Wis., learning technology company Realityworks. For example, a new orientation program might offer an improvement, she explains, but if it would only impact a limited number of people, “I’ll have to reel myself back in.”

Then there’s the sense of isolation. Unlike their colleagues with full teams, solo practitioners don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of or seek advice from. “As an independent, I have to use a lot of resources to find the best practices,” says Adam Hoffman, SHRM-CP, director of talent management for Porte Brown LLC, an accounting firm based in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

And, of course, there’s the need to keep up with the changing legal and regulatory landscape. “It’s hard to know … what’s upcoming, just because you’re so busy doing the job,” says Judy Lindenberger, president of the Lindenberger Group, an HR consulting and training company in Titusville, N.J.

Solo Solutions

Talk to HR soloists, though, and you quickly notice that they share an unbridled enthusiasm for their work, engagement with their companies and a strong sense of how to manage competing priorities as an HR generalist. They also tend to embrace a willingness to share the tactics that help them juggle it all. By following these best practices, you’ll have a greater probability of success as an HR department of one:

Partner with vendors and consultants. To varying degrees, departments of one rely on consultants or employment attorneys to stay abreast of critical changes.

Adam Hoffman, SHRM-CP
Director of Talent Management
Porte Brown LLC
Elk Grove Village, Ill.

Hoffman established the HR function at Porte Brown, a public accounting firm with 102 employees, about a year ago. His job covers everything from recruiting to running open-enrollment meetings.

Top Challenge
It’s a 60-year-old company, and I’m the first HR person they’ve had. Sometimes changing how they do things to the “right” way is challenging. For big projects, I have to get buy-in from 14 partners.

Advice
Do your homework. When I wanted to improve the firm’s benefits package, I researched the offerings of other CPA firms and similar-sized businesses, then demonstrated the positive impact an enhanced package would have on recruiting and retention.

Goal for 2016
To have an HRIS fully integrated with our benefit providers so we will be as paperless as possible.

But knowing which issues require legal counsel is not always straightforward. When you’re not sure, do as much research as you can before contacting an attorney, advises Nancy Schlesinger, assistant director of HR at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C. “My employment attorney can then only research, if necessary, the legal cases and precedents that I may not be aware of already,” she says. “It definitely cuts down on billings.”

Experts advise HR to consider counsel when:

  • There are repeated complaints that indicate legal advice may be needed.
  • There is a wage complaint or government audit.
  • There are major changes in law that could require policy revisions, such as new sick-leave laws and proposed overtime regulations.

The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can be particularly troublesome for solo practitioners, says Richard Landau, an attorney in Jackson Lewis’ White Plains, N.Y., office. “One of the biggest hurdles for a smaller shop is that managers fail to inform HR of employees that may be absent due to FMLA-eligible events,” he says. “Those managers need some training to alert them to possible FMLA situations they need to report.”

Vendors can be valuable partners, as well, if the relationships are managed effectively. “Vendor management is a key executive skill that we as a department of one truly have to develop,” says Lori Kleiman, SHRM-SCP, president of consulting company HR Topics in Fort Myers, Fla. Solo HR practitioners must know specifically what services their vendors offer and what extra value they provide. Make time once a year to sit down with your vendors to review the contracts, Kleiman advises. And every three years, prepare a request for proposal to hear what competing vendors could do for you.

Many solo practitioners and other experts recommend reaching out to payroll vendors and benefits brokers when you’re on the hunt for technical tools. “There’s a lot of free technology out there,” Kleiman says. “Or, at least, [vendors] may provide you with tools at no added charge.”

Stacie Lamprecht, an HR manager of mobile-communications company Strategic Mobility Group in Schaumburg, Ill., routinely turns to her payroll company, ADP, for advice in a number of areas—though not for free. Lamprecht subscribes to ADP’s TotalSource service, which provides customers with help on issues such as formulating policies or addressing challenges with an employee or manager. “Being a solo person, I wanted to ensure I had backup to talk to someone for advice since being in HR, you can’t speak to many people about other employees,” she explains.

Use online resources and forums. Departments of one should make regular use of online HR forums, LinkedIn groups and their own social networks to stay on top of things. “I lean on other HR professionals,” says Candida Pangaldi, senior group manager, business operations, at digital marketing agency Digital Brand Expressions in Plainsboro, N.J. She also turns to HR.com’s benefits e-bulletin, updates from SimplyHired and relevant webinars.

SHRM also offers an array of useful tools. “SHRM is a great resource for solos, and I don’t think most people recognize that,” says Dave Ryan, SHRM-SCP, director of HR at Mel-O-Cream Donuts International Inc. in Springfield, Ill. For example, SHRM hosts an active community for departments of one through SHRM Connect, the Society’s online platform for member discussions.

Candida Pangaldi
Senior Group Manager, Business Operations
Digital Brand Expressions (DBE)
Plainsboro, N.J.

Pangaldi’s responsibilities include recruiting, managing payroll and performance review timelines, and acting as “chief food and fun officer” for DBE’s 12 employees.

Top Challenge
I don’t always have the time I need to think strategically. That often happens at home.

Advice
Use The Complete Guide to Human Resources and the Law. It’s my go-to resource when I’m not sure how best to deal with a situation.

Goal for 2016
To roll out an employee wellness program. Although our company is small, I am taking an idea from a much larger corporation and scaling it down.

Find your tribe. Solo practitioners can also build their professional connections by joining national and local groups (including their SHRM chapter and state council) and attending conferences. Lisa Barr, an HR specialist at the Pasadena Federal Credit Union in Pasadena, Calif., relies heavily on the HRD Network, a credit-union-specific HR organization, as well as the statewide Professionals in Human Resources Association (PIHRA) and its California HR conference.

Business Focus

Today’s HR practitioners must be closely engaged with their company’s management and business. They must make the effort to learn the intricacies of the organization and demonstrate the value HR brings to it.

It’s also critical for departments of one to show how HR can positively affect the workplace by keeping the business in compliance, improving the culture and—most important—saving money.

“Owners are focused on the bottom line,” says Robert Brooks, an accountant who handles HR at Socobikes Inc., a specialized bicycle store in Santa Rosa, Calif. “I have to educate them that a good HR program actually helps the company and builds the bottom line,” he says. “You have to be able to explain HR to owners in a way they understand. You have to know … how they think and get into their heads. HR can take the weight off of them so they can focus on other things.”

In other words, act like the expert you are. “You want to show that you know HR beyond what the company’s experience has been,” says Michael D. Haberman, SHRM-SCP, co-founder of the consulting firm Omega HR Solutions Inc. in Marietta, Ga. “But you have to demonstrate that you understand how the business operates as well.”

It’s also important to take initiative. “Stop waiting to be invited,” says Kleiman, who urges HR departments of one to view themselves as executives. “Get onto management meeting agendas with HR topics that impact the entire business. Always present with a business focus. Cite numbers. For example, show how training can impact customer retention.”

And don’t allow even unintentional incursions onto your turf. “If you’re not included in a benefits conversation, be assertive and insert yourself into it,” Ryan says. “It’s a major part of your job, after all.”

Dave Ryan, SHRM-SCP, SPHR
Director of Human Resources
Mel-O-Cream Donuts International Inc. 
Springfield, Ill.

Ryan “graduated” from being a solo practitioner when he brought a generalist on board last year. But for nearly 25 years, he handled all of the 130-employee company’s core HR responsibilities, including hiring, terminations, benefits and payroll.

Top Challenge
I don’t get to give the time and effort I’d like to everything I do. It’s like being an ER doc: You have to triage.

Advice
Participate in social media. HR folks need to have social media presence both to find people and to know what’s happening in the world.

Goal for 2016
We’ve implemented a new payroll system in 2015. Ideally, we would like to handle all of our transactions, pay stubs and time-off reports electronically so that we are rarely passing paper back and forth.

Spending time with the rank and file is also a good way to learn who employees are and what the company does, as well as to educate others on what HR is all about.

“Talk to the staff,” says Pangaldi, who regularly converses with each of her company’s 12 employees and sits in on meetings that have nothing to do with HR. “I make it a priority to get out of the office,” she says. “I go out to lunch with people. Communication is really important. It helps me understand their needs.”

Leadership will appreciate the effort. “They see you as a resource,” Ryan says. “They’ll know you’re in touch with the workforce.”

Technology: Who’s Using What

With a plethora of tech tools available, you might expect departments of one to be hotbeds of HR geekdom. After all, companies like BambooHRZenefits and Namely provide services that can help solo practitioners track candidates, generate reports and generally stay on top of their workflow.

But at smaller companies, resources are often constrained and workforces can be tiny. That’s why many departments of one forgo a dedicated human resource information system (HRIS) in favor of tools provided by their payroll firms or benefits brokers, or even make use of common software such as Microsoft Outlook and Excel.

“Outlook’s my best friend,” Barr says. “I use reminders for everything and block out days of the week to handle specific tasks.”

Bierman of Realityworks, which has 60 employees, uses the HRIS provided by her payroll processor, ADP. She is looking at using the free version of SmartRecruiters for applicant tracking. “It’s not completely robust, but it’s better than Excel,” she says.

Currently, Porte Brown’s Hoffman pays $300 a month to use BambooHR, though he plans to replace it with a similarly priced system provided by his insurance broker that has more features.

Every organization—and HR professional—is different, so there’s no single formula for success as a department of one. But make no mistake: The solo practitioner’s efforts are vital to the business’s success. “If you ask me, any company with over 50 employees needs an on-call HR consultant,” says Franny Oxford, SHRM-SCP, who’s handled HR on her own but now oversees a 14-person department as vice president of human resources for Houston’s 1,300-employee Five Star Holding Co., a privately held group of manufacturers.

The Fun of One

HR executives who manage large teams reminisce about their time as a one-person shop.

“I miss having that personal interaction with everyone. The workload was significant, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Being a solo practitioner was great preparation for running a department. You have to know all the details.” 
—Marilena Acevedo, vice president of human resources at PetroChoice, Elgin, Ill.
“It’s the best learning experience. You have to do everything, and so you have to be resourceful. It really does provide the tools you need to take that next step. You’ve done it before from the ground up. I gained a real appreciation for each piece my team handles.” 
—Michelle D. Roccia, executive vice president, employee engagement, WinterWyman, Waltham, Mass.
“Life as a solo practitioner can feel overwhelming. If you’re doing your job well, your phone is ringing a lot. But as you get organized, you can prioritize and say no when you have to.” 
—Franny Oxford, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources, Five Star Holding Co., Houston

“Most entrepreneurs just don’t have the expertise in basic personnel laws, let alone human capital management, to maximize their investment in people,” Oxford says. “It’s no different than growing big enough to need IT assistance, the right engineer or accounting expertise.”

By experimenting with various options for networking, staying current and getting technology to work for them, solo flyers are well-positioned to influence their company’s leadership and business.

“You’re just one person, but there’s variety, challenges and an opportunity to make a direct impact,” Bierman says.

What more could anyone ask for?

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia.

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