Flying solo: tips for being an HR department of one

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Being the lone HR professional in an organization comes with a raft of unique challenges.

Sarah Derry of People Reaching Potential is both the principal and sole HR person of her company and she works with other solo HR professionals.

She says for solo practitioners of any kind, being time-poor is always an issue.

“You’ve really got to know what’s going to add the most value. So any activity or project that you do, you’ve really got to think it through. The challenge is deciding what is going to add the most value.

“The other thing that can be a challenge when you’re a solo person is that you can’t be all things to all people. It’s very difficult to do that. You’ve got to really understand the direction the organization is going in. Are you a strategic HR person or are you expected to be hands-on and operational? Basically I think it comes down to HR people needing to understand the type of HR that’s required and what’s going to have the biggest impact. When there’s a bit of conflict around those things, it can become challenging.”

Not having an HR team to bounce ideas off can also be tricky, she says.

“You’re not surrounded by like-minded people. It’s difficult to go back to the office and say, ‘This just happened, what do you think?’ Once we have a relationship with an organization, sometimes a solo practitioner will call to say, ‘Sarah, this just happened, can I just run this by you?’ just to have that sounding board.”

But being your company’s sole HR person also has benefits, like being able to set your own vision, says Derry.  

“You really get to put your stamp on it. As a solo person, you get to work closely with the leadership and sometimes when there’s a lot of hierarchy, you don’t necessarily get that exposure.”

You’re also likely to get to know the employees better, because you are their only port of call.

“If you have a team of 10 people in HR and you’ve got 100 staff, you might only see a person once every six months. But if you’re it and you’re the key contact, you are going to get a lot of contact with the employees.”

Are you a solo HR professional? What challenges do you face?
  • Doris Wagner on 2014-04-17 12:39:30 PM

    Very relate able article for me. Being the solo HR person in a co. of 60 people I find that my administrative duties are getting bigger which sometimes interferes with my core duties as the only HR person.

  • Kellie on 2014-04-21 1:28:21 PM

    Am I reading this correctly - an HR staff of 10 for 100 employees? Wow! That sounds off a bit...having said that...I was a lone practitioner with 289 employees. You are absolutely right in that there is a lot of mixed priorities but also a lot of rewards. I never learned so much as I did in that role and very often look back on the things I had the good fortune of leading because I was 'it'

  • Eric on 2014-04-21 2:13:14 PM

    When you are the only HR practioner in a company of 130, administrative challenges can sometimes be a nightmare.---- paperworks, filing, payroll, standard compliance in all processes, other numerous requests from regional, head office and immediate bosses that includes the employees you serve. I agree, you can't be all to all of them and the same time you are expected in a way.

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