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Lessons from HR Departments of One

For the first six months of her job as a solo HR professional, Diane Breeding, SHRM-CP, did precious little HR work. Instead, as the newest member of the staff at Edwards Moving and Rigging in Shelbyville, Ky., she went out with trucking crews as they transported heavy and complex cargoes.

She quickly learned that what her company does is far more involved than simply moving materials onto a truck. Projects might require a short haul, specialized jacking or a complicated crane lift, for example, and the company works with state and federal agencies to arrange transport nationally and between countries.

Breeding came to understand all this by talking extensively with riggers, engineers and other employees. At the urging of CEO Mark Edwards, she put aside her urge to jump directly into HR and instead focused on learning how the 100-employee company operates and the challenges faced by its workers—both within the office and beyond it.

That’s important information to have, especially when you are the HR department—which is the case at tens of thousands of small companies across the country. In addition to grasping the ins and outs of a particular business, solo practitioners like Breeding must master recruiting, onboarding, training, performance management, payroll, benefits, conflict resolution and myriad other responsibilities. They must truly be all things HR to all employees.

Almost 10 percent of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 275,000 members work in companies with fewer than 100 people, and many are the only HR presence in the company. Businesses of that size account for more than a third of all U.S. employment, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released this year. And the U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that 55 percent of all jobs are provided through small businesses, which it defines as those with 500 or fewer employees.

While small businesses have always been a big part of the job market, in recent years pressure has intensified for startups to launch “lean” and grow head count only when they’ve gotten a firm foothold in the market. Indeed, many early-stage tech companies are forgoing HR entirely—sometimes to disastrous effect when harassment claims pop up or hiring goes horribly wrong—while other businesses are deciding that, when it comes to HR staffing, one is enough.

 

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