4 Steps for Excelling as an HR Department of One

It’s not possible to solve everybody’s problems—but you can help people solve their own

By Christina Folz Jun 23, 2017
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What's it like to be an HR department of one? Imagine being saddled with dozens of administrative tasks but also expected to weigh in on high-level organizational decisions, often without receiving the recognition you think you deserve.

"When I talk to [solo practitioners] … I hear them saying that their job is important and interesting, and most of them feel like a go-to resource," said Lori Kleiman, SHRM-SCP, president of the consulting firm HR Topics. "But at the same time, the job is incredibly challenging, and they feel horribly underrepresented at the senior leadership table."

The good news is that "your CEOs want you to be in strategic positions," Kleiman said, citing recent research on how top executives view those in solo HR functions.

But that means it's up to HR to offload the administrative functions that tend to gobble up their time. "No one is sending you an engraved invitation [to be a leader]," Kleiman said. She shared the following four tips for managing it all at a June 21 session at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition.

1. Get strategic. 

Start by identifying your career goals. "Know what your corporate strategy is, but also know what your personal strategy is," Kleiman said.

"You don't all have to be promoted," she said. "If you don't want [to advance], own that and accept it and wear it like a badge of honor. Give yourself permission to be happy being the HR coordinator … if that's what you want to be."

At the same time, realize that if what you want from your job isn't what your company wants from you, it's probably time to make a change. "Make sure your own strategic plan is aligned with what your organization wants." 

A good way to understand your company's strategy is by working closely with its top leader. "You have got to know where your CEO's head is at all times," Kleiman said. Learn from your CEO what drives the business. Is your organization primarily motivated by profit? New product development? Being the industry leader?

It's also important to showcase your strategic focus. Office whiteboards can be a good tool for doing that, Kleiman said. She asked those in the audience if they used them and while many did, most did so only to track administrative to-dos. Instead, Kleiman recommended using whiteboards to write down high-level initiatives and yearly goals.

"That's what you want your whiteboard to show [so other leaders] will understand your concentration is not [just] on payroll. The big messaging … is that 'I work on big-deal stuff.' "

2. Set priorities to get results.

Be ruthless in prioritizing. "We are constantly in a tug of war between our employees and the strategic expectations in the business unit," she said. "We cannot solve everybody's problem."

She encouraged departments of one to provide workers with do-it-yourself alternatives. "I don't have to tell you all about the joys of picking a menu for a company holiday party," she joked, describing the complaints some employees will make about virtually any selection. 

She noted that, at the SHRM Annual Conference, "if [attendees] do not like the lunch being served, they can go get their own lunch. Your employees have that same choice."

Also recognize the limits of your time. If you're running reports that no one seems to use, discontinue them and see if anyone notices. Or, better yet, quickly summarize the report's relevance for top leaders. Say "I looked at the report, and we are red, green or yellow," Kleiman advised. "Be the executive to analyze the data."

3. Manage your vendors.

While many solo practitioners fear that relying on outside partners will render their jobs unnecessary, doing so can actually enhance their value. "One of the most strategic things we can do as HR departments of one is outsource," Kleiman said. "The biggest timesaver is to get payroll out of house."

Yet as helpful as vendors are, they don't manage themselves. It's up to HR to fully understand their capabilities, set up clear expectations, continually ask what new services are available and stay on top of the competition. Kleiman suggested conducting a new request for proposal every three years.

4. Embrace technology. 

Keeping up with technology is essential as well. "These days, this goes way beyond just knowing how to use a computer," she said. "The way we did things even two years ago is not necessarily the best way to do them today."

One of her top recommendations is adopting bring-your-own-device policies. Despite the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, only about 10 percent of the solo practitioners with whom Kleiman works have arrangements in place to allow people to work on their personal devices.

"There is a 16 percent increase, even at work, of people accessing information on mobile devices," Kleiman said. And, perhaps surprisingly, usage is growing fastest among those ages 55 to 64.

There are also myriad ways technology can be leveraged to create efficiencies. For example, use Outlook to schedule recurring compliance deadlines, Kleiman suggested, and show employees how to handle administrative tasks on their own using self-service platforms.

"My biggest tech tip: Give a man a health care ID card, he has it for the day; teach a man to print his own ID card, he has it for life."

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