Flying Solo: HR Departments of One Still Need Co-Pilots

Singleton HR professionals have to tap outside resources for help

By Allen Smith Sep 11, 2015
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Imagine starting a new job, at a new company … and you are the only one there who does HR. No one to delegate to, bounce ideas off or share duties. You’re an HR department of one.

Solo HR professionals have to learn—on their own—about their organization’s policies for hiring, onboarding, compensation, benefits, record-keeping, leave and Title VII-protected accommodations. They have to master Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations and firing, and familiarize themselves with state and local employment laws.

One of the biggest challenges of being a so-called “HR department of one” might be “trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none,” said Christine Walters, J.D., SHRM-SCP. “From employment laws to labor laws to benefits, immigration and so much more, ensuring compliance under all these umbrellas can be tough, if not nearly impossible.”

Take compensation. The areas an HR professional must be well-versed in include:

Networking is Key

While it may seem simple, sometimes the greatest asset an HR professional on her own has is her professional network.

In a LinkedIn discussion, Edwin Medina, director of organizational development at Grass Groomers Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, said, “A solo practitioner doesn’t have the benefit of bouncing his or her ideas off fellow HR co-workers and gaining insight from their experiences and knowledge. The best thing to do is build up a network of HR professionals, whose experience and advice is valued.”

Even though solo HR pros don’t have others in the office to help out, there are others in the company who can assist. Diane Saunders, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Boston, said that a solo HR practitioner’s mantra should be “train your managers.” Knowledgeable managers won’t ask illegal questions when interviewing applicants, and they will keep good documentation on employee issues, investigate complaints and make well-grounded firing choices. HR professionals “then reap the rewards of their investment of time in training by experiencing fewer employee complaints.”

When It’s Time to Hire Counsel

But sometimes, the best option is to hire a good lawyer.

“There is no shame in asking,” said Walters, who added that a discussion with an attorney “just serves as a sounding board to generate more options, validate the process and risk assessment.”

Typically, an HR manager should consider hiring counsel when:

  • There are repeated complaints that indicate legal advice may be needed.
  • There is a wage complaint or a government audit.
  • There are major changes in law that could require policy revisions, such as new sick-leave laws and proposed overtime regulations.

For instance, the FMLA can be particularly troublesome for solo HR practitioners, said Richard Landau, an attorney in Jackson Lewis’ White Plains, N.Y., office.

“One of the biggest hurdles for a smaller shop is that managers fail to inform HR of employees that may be absent due to FMLA-eligible events,” he said. “Those managers need some training to alert them to possible FMLA situations they need to report so the proper and timely processing of FMLA by HR can begin.”

Conversely, Saunders said: “I often see companies complying with laws, like FMLA, that do not apply to them because they do not have the requisite number of employees [50 or more], but then disregarding some of the other more arcane ones that do apply, like state laws requiring holiday pay.”

Nancy Schlesinger, assistant director, human resources at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C., said that if she’s sure an issue needs to be run by legal counsel, she does as much research as she can before contacting the attorney. “My employment attorney can then only research, if necessary, the legal cases and precedents that I may not be aware of already. It definitely cuts down on billings,” she remarked.

Schlesinger said she also may talk with management about her recommendations and then run them by counsel to confirm or change. “That way everyone is on board before we get the bill,” she noted.

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor

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