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3 Essentials for Success as an HR Department of One

Jan 25, 2023 | Employee Experience, Small Business HR

Like most HR professionals, my first human resources job was as an HR department of one.  I remained there for two years, changing jobs in 2007 I reported briefly to a Director of HR.  One year later however, I again returned to an HR department of one when my boss was laid off due to the crash of 2008.  Nearly 50% of my corporate HR career was spent as the sole HR practitioner, supporting anywhere from100 to 250 employees.  Despite growing trends in HR-tech, reducing the administrative burden felt by micro and solo HR teams, success continues to be a challenge for HR teams of one.  HR consists of 12 main areas – compliance, HR strategic planning, recruitment and hiring, performance management, learning and development, rewards and recognition, compensation & benefits, health & safety, payroll, employee engagement, employee relations, and D&I.  Of these 12 areas, three tend to have the greatest strain on HR departments of one, requiring additional support and strategies for success:  employee relations, employee engagement, and performance management.


Challenge 1:  Employee Relations.  Why are employees hesitant reporting concerns to an HR department of one?

One HR person per 50 employees.  This is the standard ratio HR staff to employees according to most HR professional membership groups and courses.  This however is rarely the case in practice.  My first HR job was in a family-run company with five locations and approximately 200 employees.  I was their first actual HR employee.  Prior to my joining the company, payroll, benefits, and employee relations were all handled by the bookkeeper and site managers.  The handbook, written by a family friend who worked as a tax attorney.  Safety and training, as a dental practice, were solely focused on dental procedures.  The concept of leadership development, nonexistent.  I, as the only HR employee, reported to the Business Manager (who today would likely have a COO title).  She was also the owner’s sister.  Most business partners belonged to the same church and community as the owner, his sister, and his family.  So, when employees wanted to report or share concerns with me about the company, or about senior leaders within the company, employees understood I had little to no authority to address or escalate issues.  Reflecting on the situation today, I feel so fortunate as they were an honest, trustworthy family, genuinely concerned with employee wellbeing.  I  that this alone, is not enough.  For employee relations to work, employees have to feel and trust that they are safe to share concerns internally.  Sharing concerns with HR is the only way employees can participate in the solution.  When employees feel they are in an unfair situation that all the while appears to support fairness, employees lose trust in HR and the company. Companies committed to transparency value employee feedback as both 1) a mirror reflecting back decisions and behaviors of leaders, as well as 2) an alarm alerting leaders and the collective company to potential dangers.  Making it critical HR is perceived as both influential and unbiased.  A figurehead HR leader or HR department of one, organizationally or in function, communicates to employees that real concerns must be addressed and resolved outside the company.  Left without an internal channel, employees will eventually to external agencies or attorneys to resolve issues publicly at a high cost that otherwise could’ve been handled internally with ease.  HR departments of one should be supported by external employee-feedback tools, preferably one that offers employees to share concerns or ask questions anonymously.  Companies using Culture Engineered anonymous feedback tool, ChatLab, spend less than $2,000 annually whereas the average Culture Engineered investigation (without legal representation) average more than $5,000.  More significant than the difference in cost is the impact on a workplace culture or company’s reputation as the lasting impact is particularly great following any workplace investigation, regardless of the investigation’s findings.  Capturing and uncovering employee concerns early is a key part of success for any HR department of one.

Challenge 2:  Employee Engagement.  Why do HR departments of one struggle prioritizing employee engagement & retention initiatives?

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs & the Employee Experience

Fig 1

Most of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a pyramid created by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943, capturing his theory of human motivation based on the pursuit of different levels of needs.  The five-stage model, later expanded to eight stages, consists of deficiency needs  (the lower 4 levels) and the subsequent (higher) four stages, growth needs.  Deficiency needs, as described by Maslow, motivate people when unmet and become stronger the longer the need is unmet.  Growth needs on the other hand, motivate a person more as the need is met.  Hunger, an example is a deficiency need, is a stronger motivation the hungrier the person is.  As the need to eat is satisfied , hunger is less motivating.  Humanitarian acts, however, are an example of growth motivations.  The more such a person gives and grows personally, the more the person is driven by the desire to give and grow.  This same process of motivation can be said of the employee experience. Fig 1 reflects the employee experience as it relates to Maslow’s original Hierarchy of Needs (see Fig 1).  HR is responsible for meeting most, if not all, deficiency needs within the employee experience (pay, benefits, safety, compliance, etc).  Purely from a human motivation perspective, these needs take precedence.  When an employee’s paycheck is missed, wrong, or when an employee fears he will be retaliated against for expressing concerns, doesn’t it seem inappropriate to focus efforts on creating a mentorship program?  As an HR department of one, it’s fair to see how prioritizing deficiency needs within the employee experience leaves little time or resources to focus on organizational growth initiatives. As much as we may value employee engagement and personal growth, we will always give preference to those we deem critical.  Fortunately, employee engagement research and technology has exploded in popularity the last decade.  Studies consistently show every leader (not just HR) can impact employee engagement (positively or negatively).  Employee engagement and retention is no longer solely an HR initiative.  Most employee engagement journeys begins with an employee engagement survey.  These survey platforms include basic analysis, identifying strengths and weaknesses revealed by workplace survey results.  Using results to develop a plan to (re)engage employees, leaders can work together focusing on 2-3 initiatives per year.  An entire leadership team that prioritizes and values employee engagement will almost always out-perform a company that views employee engagement solely as an HR-measurement.

Challenge 3:  Performance Management.  Why are managers resistant to HR departments of one counsel?

Growing up, my aunt was a flight attendant.  Sharing stories of her interactions with travelers, she seemed to always have a new tip or piece of inside information from a passenger to share with us.  Realistically however, these inside tips were rarely new, at all.  Often family members would recall discussing these same “tips” with her previously, though she had failed to see the information as valuable when family said it.  Learning of information from a stranger  seemed to give the advice more credibility, resulting in my family often saying, “nothing matters until you hear it on the plane”. Most of us have experienced this to some extent. Sometimes it’s easier to trust and even confide in strangers than close friends, family, or coworkers.  One proposed reason is that our closest relationships tend to be more complex, making confiding in them or taking their advice uncomfortable.  Many managers and executives too resist opening up to internal HR, or taking their advice. This is something I, as a Consultant, hear regularly, and not just from HR teams.  I hear this from varying levels and roles within organizations.  Often, we’re dismissive of advice and guidance from HR peers and leader – perhaps believing they have an ulterior motive, a preconceived notion of us or the situation, or fear asking for help makes us appear weaker or incapable.  While there are a variety of subconscious reasons leaders resist the counsel received from HR, nearly all are solved by enlisting the support of an external HR partner.  An external HR resource has no ulterior motive.  If we were to provide our clients with bad counsel or guidance, they would no longer work with us, helping teams and leaders rest-assured that recommendations can be trusted.  And for less experienced internal HR professionals, like most HR department of one professionals, an external HR resource can serve as a way to support internal HR professional development.  This is particularly true for employee relations, an area of HR that demands experience to be proficient.


Identifying the support your HR department of one needs to be successful starts with defining HR’s primary purpose within your company.  While HR’s purpose may never be as cut-and-dry as other departments and roles (ie sale team’s purpose is to generate revenue, customer service team’s purpose is to help customers with questions and concerns, etc), most teams braving this exercise will come to a similar conclusion.  HR’s most significant role is to develop and manage an employee experience so that it attracts, retains, and inspires talent to meet business objectives.  For small and solo HR teams for whom time and resources are especially precious, this demands a deep understanding of how employees are feeling. More than anything else, internal HR teams, no matter how large or small, must understand the concerns jeopardizing individual employee experiences.  It’s with this understanding that HR can create a truly unique and valuable experience that benefits employees, leaders, and business as a whole.  This, is the true measurement of any HR team, whether an HR department of one or many.