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How to be an HR department of one


Serving as a human resource (HR) professional is challenging work – even more so when you’re an HR department of one.

A solitary HR professional’s job description may include:

  • Overseeing legal compliance and handling employee relations concerns
  • Coordinating recruitment and strategizing on plans for retention
  • Overseeing payroll and benefits
  • Implementing and reviewing employee performance reviews
  • Creating and enforcing company policies

For many small- and medium-size companies, one dedicated HR person is often all they can afford. So how can an HR department of one effectively manage the various and competing priorities that they’re tasked with?

Where to focus first

In a company’s early days, you typically can count the total number of employees on your hands and these employees may wear many “hats” – often doing HR as an add-on role.

As an organization grows, an HR professional may be needed to accommodate employee growth in the other units.

To meet maximum productivity and success, it’s important that you, as the singular HR employee, focus on three major areas: the pre-employment phase, onboarding and management training.

Pre-employment phase

As you prepare to recruit and hire new staff, you’ll need to:

  • Develop a document detailing the company’s organizational structure that reflects the job profiles.
  • This will be useful not only for clarifying roles and responsibilities but also when engaging in workforce planning, succession planning and salary grading.
  • To be compliant with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), you will want to create and classify jobs into exempt and nonexempt positions. If you have not already done so, this is the time to set up a tracking system for employees to record their work time, either manually or with an online system.
  • Write an enticing job description for each job type.
  • Develop an employee handbook that will be shared on the employee’s first day containing company policies about standards and compliance.

Onboarding phase

Once an offer is made and accepted, it’s time to introduce new staff members to your company and its culture.

For this phase, you’ll want to design and implement the onboarding process for new employees to ensure:

  • Each employee gains a good impression of the company via well-conceived, thorough orientation and training processes
  • All new employees understand how they fit into the organization and its culture, as well as the relevance of all company policies and procedures to their work
  • Every employee receives a detailed, current job description that clearly communicates the supervisor’s expectations, which may have more detail than the job description used for recruiting

Management training

Managers are key stakeholders in both the success of the company and individual employees alike.

HR professionals can provide critical support to managers by teaching them how to:

  • Remain compliant with federal and state legislation and requirements
  • Handle employee conflicts at a basic level
  • Document employee performance
  • Foster employee engagement, develop existing talent and train new employees effectively

Setting Priorities

In a small business, a single HR staff member must juggle many hats, often all at once. But how does one discern what to prioritize – and when?

Basic general guidelines include:

  1. Any issue with legal implications should be addressed swiftly and efficiently. Matters that may expose the company to liability risk should take special priority.
  2. No matter the size, every company must adhere to employment laws and regulations.
    Failure to do so risks financial or legal penalties. You’ll also need employer policies and practices that are documented and in force from day one.
  3. HR priorities should align with the senior leadership team’s business priorities.
    Regular meetings with your company’s leaders will help you prove the value of HR to those top decision makers. When presenting HR initiatives to leadership, be concise and detail relevant costs.

Seeking Help

Executing your company’s HR strategy in a growing company is essential for the business to succeed.

Yet as responsibilities grow, when and how will you know to request additional HR help? At what point should your organization move away from having an HR department of one?

Using your organization’s size as a benchmark, here are some clues about where, when and how to level up your HR efforts.

Companies with 5 to 19 employees

Even the smallest companies should consider hiring an HR manager as soon as possible.

Given the potential legal liabilities from failure to comply with employment laws, having a skilled HR generalist in place at the outset can set up policies and processes before costly issues and errors arise.

Companies with 20 to 49 employees

As your company grows, the HR workload increases significantly due to the recruiting, tracking and training of new employees, and handling employee relations issues.

At this point, companies sometimes choose to outsource functions such as payroll processing, employee training and development.

Companies with 50-plus employees

Once your company reaches this level, more regulations apply – especially at the federal level. At a minimum, your company should now have at least one seasoned, full-time HR generalist in place.

When a PEO can help

Whatever the stage or size of your company, outsourcing to a professional employer organization (PEO) can provide critical, comprehensive HR support.

The PEO assumes many of your employer-related HR responsibilities, such as payroll and benefits, while you focus on supporting your company’s continued growth.

Looking to the future

Your HR skill set will need to evolve along with the needs of your growing company. As the company scales up in size, the HR department should move beyond a focus on fundamental, required processes to more strategic, long-term concerns.

Will you have the available bandwidth to take on these important responsibilities – along with your other day-to-day duties – as the company grows?

Good news: There’s no need to go it alone indefinitely.

A PEO can help with a variety of HR requirements, help ensure compliance with applicable laws and support the creation and evolution of a robust HR strategy that’s aligned with business growth goals.

For more information on how HR outsourcing can help augment your HR department of one, download Insperity’s free e-book: HR outsourcing: A step-by-step guide to professional employer organizations (PEOs).