HR Professionals Often Act as Coach, Therapist, Employment Law Specialist

In HR departments of one, HR professionals do it all

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 22, 2016
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The top five priorities for a small HR department are likely similar to those of larger HR departments: talent acquisition and retention, employee engagement, legal compliance (including with laws affecting and/or covering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees), relationship management, and leadership and navigation.

That’s what Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP, president of OnCore Management Solutions in Tampa Bay, Fla., discovered from a spring 2016 survey she conducted with small businesses that have one to three HR professionals.

The difference for the smallest HR departments, though, is that all of those priorities rest on the shoulders of just one person.

Currence shared recommendations for approaching those priorities during a June 20 concurrent session, “This Year’s Top Five Priorities for an HR Department of One” at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition.

Talent Acquisition and Retention
Employer branding is one way to set your organization apart from other companies trying to hire the same candidates you are searching for. Currence, a corporate transition coach and professor of management at the University of Tampa, recommended working with your marketing department to help job seekers get to know your company. Additionally, the local chamber of commerce is often a source of information on how your organization compares with others and may sponsor a “best place to work” award for which the organization may apply.

Currence suggested finding ways the organization can create an inviting culture. Along with fun activities such as potluck lunches and, for example, “stupid sweater” contests, consider retention strategies that appeal to different employee groups.

To capitalize on the institutional knowledge of Baby Boomers who may be eyeing retirement, consider providing workplace flexibility or phased retirement options. Show that the organization values its experienced workers by creating opportunities to mentor, to work in an advisory capacity or to contribute to a standard operating procedures manual.

Employee Engagement
Millennials, who are expected to make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2030, crave learning opportunities to increase their skills and advance their careers. Consider the following strategies for them and others:

  • Creating an internal academy featuring colleagues who are subject matter experts.

  • Having tabletop discussions in the lunch room.

  • Training managers on the importance of providing training opportunities to employees.

  • Offering mentoring opportunities.

  • Creating career tiers—for example, Assistant 1, Assistant 2, Manager.

Employment Law
Keeping abreast of new federal regulations—and changes to existing regulations—can be time-consuming. The new overtime rule is a prime example, Currence said. The final rule will become effective Dec. 1, 2016.

Communicate early and often with employees about the rule, she advised. Employees whose status changes to nonexempt may see the change as a demotion. Explain how eligibility for overtime pay can monetarily benefit them, she advised.

It’s also important that HR updates the employee handbook to reflect the changing workplace. Currence pointed to the HR Magazine article by Steve Bates, “Top 10 Employee Handbook Updates for 2016” as a good source of information. She stressed that when updating the handbook, “always, always, always have a labor attorney look at it.”

Relationship Management 
“Sometimes you feel like a therapist to employees,” Currence said. People “just want to be heard.”
An alternative approach is to act as a coach, she said. To do that:

  • Exhibit curiosity, not judgment.

  • Acknowledge and validate the employee’s feelings—whether you agree or not.

  • Ask open-ended “how” or “why” questions, for example: “How have you addressed this issue with the other person?”

Leadership and Navigation
“How do I lead when I have so much to do? I’m not involved in the strategy of the business, mostly because I am one HR person for 275 employees.”

It’s a common concern, according to Currence. Human resources has its roots in the personnel department, and the modern HR professional still may be somewhat hindered by a limited perception of the job. Overcome this, she advised, by:

  • Developing business acumen. That includes knowing your organization’s metrics, such as compensation, turnover and quality of hire. Learn about the work your employees do. Currence went on a sales call when she started a job at a food and beverage company. “It was one of the best training experiences I had because I was able to get out there and see … what a real sales call looked like,” which helped her understand the job.

  • Building trust. Currence is a fan of the late author and motivational speaker Stephen Covey, whose books included the international best-selling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster, 2013). She pointed to the Four Cores of Credibility from his book The Speed of Trust (Free Press, 2008) for building trust:

  • Results.

  • Competence.

  • Intention.

  • Integrity.

Behaving in a trustworthy manner, she said, is the first step in building trust with others in your organization.

It’s important to make time to meet with senior leaders, Currence advised an attendee after the session. The attendee, whose day is consumed with HR duties, was desperate to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the CEO but never seemed to have the time for it. 

Even if it’s just 30 minutes over lunch, Currence advised her, it’s critical to carve out that time. It’s worth it in the end.

Currence’s book, Developing Business Acumen, is expected to be published this summer, the first in a series of eight books on “Making an Impact in Small Business HR” that SHRM is publishing.

For more SHRM 2016 Annual Conference and Exposition coverage, click here.

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