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HR from the Ground Up

Business people sitting at a table with a business plan in front of them.

Bestselling 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 very new to the HR world and have been in my current job (HR assistant) for about six months now. My workplace has never really had an HR department, just people completing HR tasks. I have been asked to build this department from the ground up. What steps would you take to make sure that we have great success?

This is a big question, and one you should address with your peers at the local SHRM chapter. You do go to your local monthly SHRM chapter meeting, right? Think about it: Who are you going to meet there? Only the most committed and best connected people in HR within your regional business community. They can not only help you with this question but also form the nucleus of a strong professional network—and that is something that can help you today and for years to come. This regular meeting is a much-overlooked resource for HR professionals.

That said, given the way you tell the story, it sounds like you work for a smaller company or division that has recently realized the need for a proper HR function. In any HR department, the core processes are recruitment, selection, benefits, discipline, termination and avoidance of litigation, especially when building a department from the ground up. As such, I would do these things immediately:

  1. Review the procedures as they exist for all the tasks above and evaluate how they could be improved.
  2. Determine the number of jobs that will be filled this year in your organization and what departments will be most affected. Factor in employee turnover.
  3. Analyze how much time is currently spent on each task above.
  4. Identify potential problem areas and their associated costs (possibility for lawsuits etc.).
  5. Prioritize where time, effort and money need to be spent on the tasks and problem areas.

This process takes time, so while you are putting together a plan of action, establish relationships with department heads and hiring managers so that you can become maximally effective ASAP in filling recruitment needs. Everything you do is important, but not delivering manpower will get you bad press the fastest.

All of these initiatives have time and money costs, but you probably don’t hold the purse strings. So once you have armed yourself with your needs analysis, feedback from department heads and the input of your HR colleagues at local SHRM chapter meetings, you will be ready to ask management to guide you on priorities. 

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.