It can be a tough job, the sole HR practitioner in a small business. Embodying roles ranging from the tactical to the strategic, the HR department of one is the standalone expert on people policies. The job can be thankless and overwhelming, exhilarating and fulfilling — all in the same day.
One-man HR in a small business setting
A solo HR practitioner has a dizzying workload, Amy Polefrone, CEO of HR Strategy Group, told HR Dive. In a small business, a lone HR rep may handle recruiting, new hire orientation, onboarding, benefits analysis and strategy, benefits administration, EEO-1 reports and employee relations, she said.
These HR professionals must reconcile the requirement to keep information confidential with the need to collaborate, converse and vent, making this job a lonely one. It doesn't help that small business owners don't always appreciate the spectrum of work that needs to be done, Polefrone added. "You're constantly battling brush fires. You're probably working 70% to 80% of the time on tactical issues but also on the great ideas that land across [your] desk," she said.
Growing the HR job
When a small business first launches, an HR person isn't usually the first hire, Elizabeth Milito, senior executive counsel, National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), told HR Dive. "I have found that oftentimes in smaller businesses, the HR person evolved from a business manager's role," she said. Over time, that person takes on more functions and training, but may not have received formal HR education or an HR certification.
Benefits administration, with its complexities, can take the majority of a sole practitioner's time, but that may vary depending on a particular business or industry, Milito said. If a restaurant has high turnover or does a lot of seasonal hiring, recruiting may take the forefront, for example. Employee relations absorbs another huge chunk of HR representatives' time, with employees coming into the office with daily concerns, Polefrone added.
But as a business grows, it needs more HR support, Polefrone said. By the time an employer has 30 people, it needs someone who has half of the job devoted to HR, she suggested; at 50, businesses need a full-time HR professional. "That's when federal [Family and Medical Leave Act] regulations kick in," she said. As a business expands to 110 or 120 people, she suggests that another HR person be hired.
Fighting for a seat at the (smaller) table
Just as HR professionals in larger organizations struggle to be considered a full business partner, HR practitioners in small businesses can face the same challenge.
"There really is a professional disrespect," Polefrone said of business owners' attitudes toward HR. "HR is just as technical of a field as accounting, finance, marketing, and we're expected to be experts in so many areas; employment law, compliance, benefits, recruitment," she said.
The degree to which the solo HR practitioner adds strategy to the tactical aspects of the business depends on how much the organization is willing to invest in HR, Milito said. "It's definitely more complicated if you've got 50 to 100 employees and just one HR person," she said. At that point, the HR person spends most of his or her time putting out fires.
In small businesses, HR is not always kept in the loop, Polefrone added. "That's challenging — how [can you] be strategic when you don't even know the meeting is happening?"
Tips and tricks for success
For those who make up an HR department of one, Poleforne and Milito left HR Dive with several best practices.
Ease the recruiting and payroll load. Investing in HR technology, like an applicant tracking system (ATS) can substantially help with the recruiting process, especially if an organization recruits frequently or recruits for tough-to-fill positions. While some business owners might suggest keeping track on an Excel spreadsheet, an ATS can significantly improve how the HR manager receives, screens and tracks applications for a small monthly fee. Likewise, a solid payroll system can decrease administrative time while increasing accuracy, allowing HR to work on other projects. If investing in HR technology isn't feasible, consider outsourcing those tasks.
Have a good understanding of employment law. It might not be possible to be an expert on every law, but it is critical to know the basics, like the Fair Labor Standards Act's classification requirements. The NFIB's Legal Guide series is a resource to use.
Develop a good relationship with your benefits broker. Use your broker as an advisor and make sure you're getting the level of service you need. Your benefits broker may be able to offer benefits you aren't aware of that can add value for employees. Use the broker as a partner to build business cases for ways to improve the employee experience that still helps control costs.
Create processes to avoid reinventing the wheel. Save time by creating a playbook of repeatable processes such as hiring and onboarding practices and standardized job ads. Make sure application forms are updated.
Find and hang on to a legal lifeline. Keep an HR consultant or employment attorney on speed dial for work issues requiring a trusted advisor.
Network with other HR Professionals. Join professional HR organizations — and ask your employer to pay for your membership. Participation can help you keep up with changing litigation and can be a wealth of information at the local level.
For all of its challenges, being a one-person HR shop can be the perfect fit for those who thrive working with small businesses and seeing the impact of their work, Polefrone said. "In some ways, it's a ministry," she said. The most successful solo HR practitioners love taking care of employees and the management team, give themselves time to gain experience and trust, and can put out forest fires, while keeping brush fires to a minimum, Polefrone said.
Being a sole HR practitioner is not for the faint of heart, she added; "The longer I'm in HR, the more I say this is a really tough profession."