Flying solo: tips for being an HR department of one

by Janie Smith17 Apr 2014
Being the lone HR professional in an organisation 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 organisation 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 organisation, 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?
  • Jacqui Hoff, HR manager at Deswik Mining and Sue Sinclair, HR business partner, IBM, WA, will hold a panel discussion on Going it Alone: Survival Tips for Solo Practitioners in WA Outposts, at the HR Summit in Perth, 21-22 May.


  • by Belle 17/04/2014 10:59:18 AM

    This article is spot on. I am in a stand-alone role looking after 200 staff nationally (however I am not a manager) and sometimes it is nice to have someone who is in the same team as me to bounce ideas off or talk through issues with. I do use an external ER organisation which helps a lot.

    The upside of this is that it has allowed me to have a closer working relationship with people from all levels in the company.

  • by caca 17/04/2014 11:02:33 AM

    I think it's always ridiculous to have one HR person for a company.
    I can tell you from experience, managers are always looking to you as legal, recruitment, OHS, and absolutely anything remotely related.
    BUT because you're on your own, senior managers are constantly trying to push back on LEGAL requirements. As if you can just make it go away.

  • by Leanne 17/04/2014 4:27:22 PM

    I too am in the same situation, newly appointed into the role looking after 100 employees across Australia and New Zealand!
    Whilst it is busy (always) being organised is the key. I made it clear from the outset that I can't be everything to everyone and the Directors I work with are all understanding of that. To be honest, they are all happy we finally have someone dedicated to the HR function to free up their time!
    I'm loving the challenges and the exposure to all levels of the organisation in Australia & NZ plus the ability to report in at a high level to our parent company in the UK. I do identify strongly with not having anyone to bounce "stuff" off, but the relationships I have developed internally and my external network helps with this.

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