Survival guide for the one-person HR department

As a one-person HR department you are constantly juggling demands for your time. So how can you stay on top of everything you need to do today, next week, sometime this quarter or before the end of the year?

Schedule Everything!

This is one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle. To succeed as a one-person HR department, you need to take the time to create and maintain consistent processes. It’s the only way to stay above water with the many and varied demands you face every day.

The first key is to schedule your days, and that means everything. A useful approach to prioritizing your schedule is to use the “ICE” method.

Is a task IMPORTANT? Does it have to get done today?

CAN it wait? Can I put it behind other tasks today or put it off to another day?

Is it an EMERGENCY? If so, you need to handle it right now, but you still need to have an idea of how you’ll reprioritize your other tasks and rearrange your schedule to handle them. Build some slack into your schedule to help accommodate any emergencies that come up.

And don’t forget to build in time for longer-term projects, like reviewing your policies and procedures, checking for changes to laws and regs and updating employee manuals and other important documents.

Rule of thumb: Don’t let policy reviews go longer than a year or you’ll be putting your organization in possible legal or financial jeopardy. Better if you can do them once a quarter or at least twice each year.

Taming the email and phone monster

In the meantime, to help avoid living in a constant state of interruption, set aside specific times to review and respond to emails and phone calls.

Many HR pros find it works well to do this first thing in the morning, around lunch and towards the end of your day. That way, you’ll be able to clear the decks before you leave and know what has to get done tomorrow.

Take the time to learn the organizing features of your email application. By setting up folders, rules, and alerts, you can be sure you don’t miss critical messages from the CEO. And, when it’s time to sit down to review your inbox, you’ll be able to see which folders need your attention now and which ones — like newsletters or employment law bulletins — can wait until you have time to review them, save or act on the ones important to you, and purge the rest.

If you need help, check with your IT group or look for online tutorials. The work you put in up front to learn and set up email tools will stop constant email pinging from distracting you and, since you’ve set aside times to check your email, you won’t worry you’re missing important messages.

Of course, you won’t only be dealing with people electronically. It is critical that HR pros get out of their office and interact with employees regularly — try to check in with at least one department or group each week. In many ways, you are the face of the company and employees need to know you are engaged and interested in how they are getting on. That way they’ll know you are available, and they can come to you with any questions or concerns.

The courage to say no

But, when it comes to interacting directly with employees and other managers and supervisors, it is important to protect your time.

Have the courage to ask anyone who “drops by” if they can check back via email or come back during a time you’ve set aside for meetings. The stuff that really isn’t important will get dropped and everyone will be better prepared for any discussions that do happen.

That goes for outside the office, as well. You’ll be invited to attend dozens of HR seminars and trade shows every year and asked to join every professional group in your region. These can be important sources of support for a small HR department, but just say no to almost all of them.

Look for a couple of outside groups that can be truly useful to you, like local industry associations or your state HR council. You want to spend your valuable time with people who share the same issues and have addressed the same challenges.

Tim McElgunn
Tim, a member of the HRMorning staff, is a veteran writer and editor. His background includes producing and managing publications for Bloomberg, Frost & Sullivan, Gartner Group and McGraw-Hill.