How to Survive (and Thrive) as an HR Department of One

LAST REVIEWED Feb 25 2020 9 MIN READ

By The Human Interest Team

Many HR professionals – especially those at startups and small businesses – are not only generalists, but HR departments of one, managing everything from onboarding to open enrollment to termination. Whether you’re a lone COO, People Operations Manager, or HR Specialist, if you’re the lone member of your company’s HR department, you must be all things HR to all employees. Here are four ways to not just survive but thrive as a solo HR professional.

1. Build a network of your peers

You may not have experienced colleagues with whom you can discuss issues or brainstorm solutions, but don’t despair: There’s a broad network of professionals willing and able to offer advice.

Locally: Getting in contact with HR professionals in your area is a great way to  build your own network, find answers to region-specific questions, and get face-to-face emotional support. A number of national groups have local chapters to help you connect with people in your area. Disrupt HR, for example, is “an information exchange designed to energize, inform and empower people in the HR field.” Region-specific Meetup or LinkedIn groups are another excellent resource.

Nationally: The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is the premier national HR organization. You’ll find resources including easy-to-use templates and tools, as well as a community specifically designed for people who are handling HR on their own. If you’re a member of SHRM, you can get access to SHRM’s Department of One community board here. For those moments when you’re feeling stuck, a network of over 3,000 of your peers may be able to offer just the support you need.

Digitally: Thanks to the number of HR professionals on social media, you’ll find any number of experts willing to discuss thorny issues in Twitter chats. Two of my favorite regularly scheduled chats are #NextChat, hosted by SHRM, and #HRChat, hosted by the HR Gazette. (Full disclosure: I’m a community manager at the HR Gazette.) Both chats provide an opportunity to contribute to lively discussions, ask questions, and build an online network – all from the comfort of your desk.

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2. Get the help you need: When to hire, outsource, or automate

The truth is, sometimes you just can’t manage everything on your own.

“When you’re part of a rapidly growing business that’s ramping quickly, and you’re hiring a lot of people, choosing the right team is even more critical to your success. It can be hard for an HR department of one (or none!) to source, screen, interview, and hire all those people,” says Jennifer Olsen, CEO of Resourceful HR, a recruiting and HR services company. “That’s when having a trusted recruiting partner that can manage the process on your behalf really helps.”

There are several factors to consider when determining what HR assistance you need:

  • Employee count and plans for growth: As headcount grows, so does the complexity of your job – not only do recruiting and people ops needs increase, but more and more regulations kick in as your company hits size thresholds. Can some of that extra work be outsourced or mitigated by a third-party vendor, or will you need to increase the staff? You should start advocating for resources to support a growing team as soon as possible.

  • Risk management: What risks could be better mitigated by a firm or consultant with specific HR knowledge or expertise (for example, sexual harassment lawsuits or data protection regulations)? Are there any concerns specific to your company, like data privacy or financial regulation?

  • Efficiency: If you’re the only HR resource and you’re manually handling the payroll, choosing the 401(k) plan, and managing benefits enrollment, you might find cost savings by paying a service provider to handle that work for you.

Bottom line: there’s no reason to spend your time on work that could be automated or outsourced – and if there’s still too much on your plate, you may need more manpower. Make sure that you’re focused on recruiting, people strategy, and other elements of your company culture that require insider knowledge.

3. Find the right service providers

Many small companies are partnering with third-party vendors, so HR employees can focus on the most complex work. For example:

  • Human Interest automates 401(k) plan administration and helps your employees plan for their futures with built-in investment advising.

  • HireAthena provides outsourced HR, benefits, accounting, and financial services.

  • Kin HR offers a one-stop shop for timekeeping, performance management and employee records.

  • Zenefits is an integrated system that brings HR, benefits, payroll, compliance, and time management into one platform.

Whether it’s an HR services firm, benefits broker, or HR tech solution, build strong relationships with your service providers. Be sure that you’re regularly connecting with them to gain insights into the industry and new ways you can use their system to make your work even more efficient. They can also be useful in catching inefficiencies or errors, and for anticipating HR challenges as the company scales.

4. Get help from your internal team

It’s okay to ask (and expect) managers and company leadership to support HR goals and policies. Here are some suggestions for how you can leverage your larger team:

  • Performance management: Let managers take the lead on performance reviews and raise requests – they should be having regular one-on-ones with their team anyway.

  • Payroll administration: Ask the finance team if they can take point on payroll processing.

  • Professional development: Empower employees to host lunch-and-learns or other learning opportunities for their peers, ask higher-level managers to take the lead in intra-team mentoring, or reimburse employees for external professional development expenses.

As an HR department of one, you’re responsible for immediate needs like onboarding and payroll administration, as well as long-term needs like recruiting strategy, performance evaluation policies, and pay structures. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, connect with other HR veterans for advice, outsource or automate as much work as you can, consider bringing on third-party vendors, and enlist other team members in supporting your efforts.

Recommended further reading:

Image credit: Victor Hanacek

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