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5 Keys to Success as an HR Department of One

​By the nature of their jobs, only HR practitioners are busy people. They have too much to do and too little time to fit it all in.

Several HR professionals who work as departments of one agreed to share their secrets for success with HR Magazine. Not surprisingly, the ability to set priorities is key—but it also helps to love what you do.

1. Manage Your Time

Trina DeWitt, HR director for the Institute for Supply Management in Tempe, Ariz., is vigilant about meeting deadlines and strives to complete tasks early.

“We don’t have internal legal counsel, so I get in an hour of research time each day to keep abreast of HR issues,” she says, noting that this is how she has kept up with COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

Roshni Patel, CEO and executive HR consultant at Thrive HR Consulting in Bakersfield, Calif., relies heavily on Web-based time management tools and apps to help juggle competing demands on her time.

“I use Trello on multiple devices, including my phone,” Patel says. “When I think of something sporadically, I jot it down. I can add notes, activities and pre-fill checklists for repeating tasks that require multiple steps.”

She also uses time-keeping app Timeular to log the hours she spends on various tasks and to compare, month by month, where her time goes. This helps her stay as efficient as possible.

When you’re responsible for all HR tasks, “your schedule can flip a complete 180” when someone walks into your office without an appointment, she says. “It’s important to see when and how that happens.”

Delegating to administrative support staff tasks that don’t have to be handled solely by HR, such as setting up meetings or putting together new-hire bags, frees up time, too.

“Those little tasks add up when you’re taking care of so many other things,” she says.

2.Be Strategic

Technology tools, such as human resource information systems, automated payroll systems and recruiting platforms, can reduce the number of hours spent on routine tasks and free up time for strategic initiatives and long-term planning.

However, many solo HR practitioners don’t have access to cool tech tools, says Christie L. Engler, SHRM-CP, director of client services for Consolidated Employer Services in Columbus, Ohio. Instead, they need to stay highly organized and lay a solid HR foundation by creating the employee handbook, job descriptions, manager training and employee records filing systems.

“Get those things done, and you’ll get to work on strategy,” Engler says.

Scott Johnson, SHRM-CP, understands what it’s like to juggle strategic initiatives with daily routine tasks. When he took on his role as HR manager at Chesapeake, Va.-based Jo-Kell Inc. in March 2020, the electrical distributor and engineering solutions provider was expanding through two acquisitions and transitioning to fully remote work in response to the pandemic.

“I immediately started evaluating what was being done and where I saw opportunities for improvement,” Johnson says. “I tracked everything as I learned my role and the people here. Then I picked the top three things from my list that I thought would add the most value.”

Johnson also monitors the progress of key initiatives.

“I have several things that are constantly being evaluated,” he says. “Throughout the year, I take a look at my list to see what could be added. Then I pull out my next three priorities.

“You can’t fix it all or build it all in a day or a year. So make that list, keep track of your wins and losses, keep it efficient and relevant, and keep it moving.”

‘Throughout the year, I take a look at my list to see what could be added. Then I pull out my next three priorities.’
SCOTT JOHNSON, SHRM-CP

3.Listen to Employees

Not everything can be handled by an app or requires a full-blown strategic initiative. Sometimes walking around is the best way to stay connected to the company’s culture and to mitigate minor issues before they become significant problems.

Kelly Samson-Rickert, SHRM-SCP, HR director for Pack Edge Inc. in Portland, Maine, says most workers at the employee-owned packaging company don’t have computers or corporate e-mail accounts. So she relies heavily on telephone calls and texting to stay connected with the workforce. She also visits each of the company’s three facilities daily.

“People can be overwhelmed with technology,” she says. “Personal touch, understanding your workforce, spotting trends and ensuring they know who you are” are critical preventive measures when it comes to risk mitigation, she says.

“Listening is still a key skill,” she adds. “I’d rather they reach out to me than to the Labor Department.”

Annie Rosenstock, part-time HR manager for DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville, Ill., also works to maintain a direct connection with employees. Since the museum is open on weekends and holidays, “I often pop in on a weekend to handle an employee issue or just touch base with employees who work weekend shifts,” she says.

4. Develop Your Skills

Solo practitioners say building their skills and expanding their professional networks are among the hardest things to fit into their schedules. Breaking learning and research into manageable chunks helps HR professionals meet the challenge, as does tapping online resources through associations and industry groups, employment law experts, or connections with peers.

“I set time aside to keep up with the HR field, whether through articles or blogs, webinars, or my own research into areas I’m weak in,” Johnson says.

Samson-Rickert, also an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Husson University, says she learns a lot from her students and teaching colleagues, as well as from fellow members of the SHRM Maine State Council. She reads about supply chain management, along with agile and project management, and belongs to the ESOP Association to learn all she can about employee stock ownership plans.

DeWitt says she maintains ties with former colleagues through LinkedIn and e-mail.

“There are a lot of incredibly resourceful folks on SHRM Connect’s HR Department of One network,” she adds, which is a free online networking site available to Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) members via shrm.org.

Rosenstock says when she needs help, she reaches out to her supervisor or another member of the leadership team. She also meets regularly with HR colleagues from two other area children’s museums.

Patel advises tackling hands-on projects to build business acumen. For example, only HR practitioners can create or review standard operating procedures with relevant departments to improve their understanding of the business. “Opportunities like that are priceless,” she says.

5.Stay Motivated

Many HR professionals say they love what they do and find that their helping organizations and their employees keep them motivated.

“My sense of purpose gets recharged by giving others their sense of purpose,” Patel says. “Knowing how far I’ve come as a minority female HR professional in what used to be a male-dominated corporate world makes me want to do the best I possibly can and keep going.”

Rosenstock says it’s gratifying to help turn something that’s scary or frustrating for an employee, such as figuring out an employee benefits statement, into a positive experience.

She also stays motivated by her environment. “It’s hard to have a bad day,” she says, “when you can walk the museum floor and see children of all backgrounds and learning abilities through play.”

Theresa Minton-Eversole is a writer based in Alexandria, Va.

Photograph by Adam Kazmierski/iStock.

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