The Top 5 Priorities for HR Departments of One

Leading their organizations tops the to-do list for solo practitioners this year.

By Christina Folz Jun 18, 2017
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​Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP

HR departments of one are tasked with doing everything from administering payroll to zeroing in on talent strategies. How do they know where to start, especially given that HR is rapidly evolving?

That's the question that Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP, president of OnCore Management Solutions in Tampa Bay, Fla., asked in a survey of solo practitioners she conducted before the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition. After winnowing the list from roughly two dozen competing demands, Currence presented the following top five priorities for departments of one this year: 

1. Developing leadership. Leadership and navigation were the highest priorities for the departments of one Currence surveyed. Solo practitioners wanted to both strengthen their organization's overall leadership and take on more strategic roles themselves.

To put the latter issue in historical context, she noted that the HR profession is experiencing intense growing pains. "We were known as personnel administrators for 41 years," she said. It wasn't until 1989 that the American Society for Personnel Administration changed its name to the Society for Human Resource Management. "We're still new as managers," Currence said.  

To gain credibility, she recommended that departments of one align all their programs with company strategies—and communicate the bottom-line value of each initiative. "We need to show the short- and long-term benefits of what we're proposing," she said.

2. Engaging and retaining employees. Like all HR professionals, departments of one want to hold on to their high-performing talent and ensure their workforces are energized. "Are [employees] excited to get up and go to work, or do they get that pit in their stomach on Sunday afternoons?" Currence asked.

Engagement matters regardless of company size or structure. "Gallup says that when you can increase employee engagement, your productivity and profitability will increase by over 20 percent," she said.

An important step solo practitioners can take to promote retention is to ensure that they—and other leaders—address any problems that employees are brave enough to bring to their attention. She recommends asking workers lots of "what" and "how" questions that encourage thoughtful answers and open communication.

3. Mastering talent acquisition. With U.S. unemployment at record lows, HR departments of one are reporting increasing difficulty finding the talent they need at rates they can afford to pay, Currence said.

She advised solo practitioners to approach recruiting the same way they would approach buying a home. Shop around, know your must-haves and look for a good long-term fit—or, at least, as one member of the audience quipped, "decide if you want a fixer-upper or a turnkey [candidate]."

And always start with clear, specific job descriptions. "You're telling them 'This is exactly what I want.' There should be complete transparency," she said.

Coming up with creative benefits to lure talent is also critical, Currence said. The solo practitioners in the audience proved her point by sharing innovative perks they developed on tight budgets. One adopted a dogs-at-work policy for her organization, while another partnered with a local bank to pay off employees' student loans. Yet another found a unique communications vehicle to reach 8,000 potential candidates for $100: church bulletins.

4. Communicating well. Crafting and delivering informative messages is critical, Currence said, but that must always begin with listening. Before HR can effectively transfer information across levels, establish a climate of safety.

"If I'm scared for my job, I'm not going to listen to what you say no matter how well you say it," she said. "You have to start at the bottom and work your way up." Her recommendations for understanding your workforce better include:

Conducting surveys. "Employee engagement surveys can be really effective as long as you do something with them. If you don't give the results, you're eroding trust."

Managing by walking around. "[This means] getting out from behind your computer and actually going and talking to someone's face. You'll be amazed at the things you're able to pick up."

Holding stay interviews. In these conversations, managers ask employees why they've chosen to remain in their role. "[Managers might ask] 'When was the last time you looked for outside employment?'" Currence said. Such a question "requires a lot of trust to build up. It requires managers to listen without being defensive."

5. Cultivating organizational effectiveness and development. "This is really about the overall structure [of the organization]," Currence said, "and how the company functions in that structure."

For example, many of the solo practitioners she surveyed noted that their companies promote from within, which often means new managers are not ready for the roles they've been asked to take on. And leaders can be reluctant to spend the money needed to cultivate effective leaders. 

It's up to HR to demonstrate that the long-term financial benefits of having strong managers outweigh any short-term costs. "Use data and figures," she said. "This is critical evaluation."

Currence's ideas for training on a budget included using low-cost webinars such as those offered through Star12, Coursera and the OnCore Academy and partnering with local community colleges. She also suggested organizing a book club that covers classic management tomes. "It's a great way to get people speaking the same language," she said.

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