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Launching an HR Department of One

A woman in glasses is using a laptop at a table.

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.     

I am frustrated with my company's current HR ways. I work for a government contracting company as an HR manager. I have done basic HR work, and I have a master's degree in HR management. In some ways the company is building its HR team from scratch with me leading the way. I am the whole HR department, as well.
How do I establish an effective and well-rounded HR department in a company that has been in business for a while? Some employees who have been working for the company for years are set in their ways. 

This sounds as if company management recognized the need for an efficiently operating HR function, and hired an HR manager to make this happen and, having done so, expect a smoothly functioning HR department to result. 

You know it isn't that simple and, at the same time, you aren't sure what's expected or where to begin. You have essentially asked two questions:

  • How do I establish such a department?
  • How do I get eveyone to buy into new ways?

Where Do I Start?

Begin with a review of what HR procedures currently exist, how they are relevant and if they are effective. Analyze what is being done successfully and pay special attention to what is not. 

You can then identify what problems the company will face if it doesn't address the procedures that aren't working. Wherever you can, try to quantify the impact on the corporation of not doing things properly. 

Once you have thought this through and written out your analysis and suggestions, seek input from members of your local SHRM chapter or the SHRM groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. Your professional colleagues will almost certainly offer insights that will improve your suggestions. 

Prioritize the major issues in a concise written document that identifies the areas that need to be addressed first to establish an HR function based on firm foundations. Identify the potential liabilities if these issues are not addressed. Edit and revise wherever you can; no need for specific examples of what not to do from the past, just list the HR issues that are important to the heath of the organization now and in the future.

Meet with your management team to discuss the immediate changes that need to be implemented. Make your presentation and ask for approval and support to get these necessary building blocks into place.

If you don't get commitment on all issues, focus on the most critical two or three. Make progress on these priorities, and reintroduce the additional initiatives later.

Next, look at the company's plans. Anticipate the HR needs that will be necessary for the department to support company growth and stability while protecting it from negative publicity or costly legal issues and supporting the needs of employees as much as possible. 

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Management wants a smoothly running HR operation and you need senior management to buy into the actions that will deliver it. But, you cannot expect them to understand the details of what needs to be done to achieve that goal: that's what you were hired to deliver. 

Once you have consensus on the order of issues to be dealt with, and these initiatives begin to be implemented, managers may start pushing back. But once you have senior leadership's support of the new programs , noncompliance with corporate mandates become much easier to deal with because you will have made some powerful allies with your progress.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.