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Starting an HR Department from Scratch

Two people pointing at a whiteboard.

​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'd love to get some advice on how to manage HR as the first official HR employee at a small company (approximately 25 employees). I've been at the company for about two months, and I'm not worried about the staple HR functions—payroll, benefits, mandatory reporting, etc.—as we have a PEO [professional employer organization] and are compliant with all employment, benefits and pay regulations. I'm more concerned about how I can implement some of the more "fun" HR programs that I can tell the company needs and that were brought up in my interview process with company leaders:

  • Training and development.
  • Maintaining culture.
  • Engagement.
  • Wellness.
  • Adding staff.
I have held one-on-one "get to know you" meetings with each employee, and no one seems to have any idea what HR can do for them. I asked each employee what they'd like to see from HR or get HR's help with, and, conversely, what they've seen out of HR in their past experiences that they did not like. Most people simply shrugged their shoulders and didn't have any feedback.

How can I implement some of these things with a group that doesn't understand what the options are, let alone what the gains can be as a result of some of these programs—both individually and at the organizational level? Furthermore, how do I do so without developing the image of being the HR lady who comes in to formalize and put in place processes when everything is running smoothly and successfully already? 


In more-established companies, HR has an authenticated role that management understands and respects for defining, developing and implementing programs that encourage the smooth operation and profitability of the enterprise. Yet at one time, as such companies were beginning to grow, there was someone just like you struggling to gain traction. 

You have a rare career opportunity to work for a vibrant, growing company that has the leadership foresight to include HR management in its plans for growth and financial success. You have been hired to develop the HR mechanisms that will facilitate this growth. It's a big responsibility and a long-term challenge, but the experience gained can benefit your career for a lifetime. 

Who, What and How HR Contributes

Most companies need to make a profit, and the HR function (in simple terms) exists to supply and optimize the effectiveness of all employees, though many of us joined the HR profession to "help people." Yet when you asked employees what more they want from their work experience, most people just shrugged. 

Salaries and related expenses generally take up the largest percentage of revenues. Your responsibility is to make every hire maximally productive. While you want to help people, you also need to contribute to profitability, so your function exists to serve the company's needs, not the employees' wants. 

You mentioned that the employer wanted to train and develop workers, maintain culture, increase engagement and introduce wellness programs. So that is where you start. 

Help Management to Help Workers

Let's take one example from the list above and see how by delivering on management's needs you will also meaningfully benefit every employee.

Training and development programs to improve skills will have the most immediate impact on productivity, while simultaneously showing employees that the employer values them. 

You might consider talking with department managers to identify the programs they feel would be most beneficial. Then, armed with this input, sit down with management and seek input and guidance to prioritize the programs. Focus on initiatives where several managers share ownership, which increases the odds of success. 

Having reached consensus about training priorities, tackle each program one at a time, first by researching approaches and best practices from discussions with fellow SHRM members as necessary and then scaling down big efforts to the pockets and needs of your small, growing company. Take this approach and you will deliver on company needs, benefit employees and establish yourself in the process. 

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. 

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