Starting a New HR Department From Scratch

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Are you new to Human Resources? Every Hr professional started somewhere. Differences in employment exist and the appropriate path depends on whether you’re starting an HR department from scratch or joining an existing department as an HR employee of one person.

Differences exist, too, when you join a department that has additional HR staff members or if you’re the only HR employee on staff. Each situation brings its own special challenges which this information should equip you to meet.

Each new HR professional will need to evaluate their coworkers’ and organization’s needs and identify the most efficient way to deploy their knowledge and experience to serve their organization’s goals. This is the approach you would take if you are starting an HR department from scratch whether you are new to the profession or experienced. The learning curve for the latter will be less steep but still challenging.

Starting an HR Department From Scratch

Here is the path you need to follow to succeed in your quest to build a new HR department. On the day you start your new job, meet with your manager to receive their guidance on the priorities of the organization for their new department. They will likely also have their own expectations for your position.

If you’re lucky, your new organization may have a written job specification or job description to guide your steps. But, in organizations that have no existing HR department, this onboarding has generally been left to individual managers, payroll, and accounting. If that's the case, you will have to create your own onboarding process. Come up with a three to six-month plan and review it with your new boss as a starting basis. 

As a new HR employee, it is necessary for you to quickly learn about and understand any processes and systems in place in the company that affect HR. The first systems to understand are how employees are paid and how they access benefits information. Employees will soon come to you with their questions and you'll need to be ready with factual responses. Talk to the accounting department to learn about payroll in the organization. You'll also be involved in discussions with finance about employee compensation.

This is an easier step if your HR position reports to the Finance and Accounting executive, where many HR jobs do report to start, even if this is not a best practice recommendation. They will be dedicated to your success for the department’s sake. 

Learn the Priorities and Concerns of Other Departments

Meet with the other senior staff members to understand the organizational priorities of the whole senior team. This is easier for some organizations than others. While you have marching orders from your immediate manager, you need to know the priorities and concerns of the other departments. HR is onboard to serve them all.

If you have transferred to this HR position from somewhere else in the same organization, you will already know these people. If you’re new, even if experienced, this is a significant step in understanding the organization’s needs and priorities. Make understanding the senior team's needs a priority to build their support and ownership prior to taking action on the HR agenda that you generate from all of these needs assessment meetings.

Meet with a cross-section of the managers and employees who the senior team leaders recommend you interview. These employees can teach you a lot—quickly—about the organization you’ve joined. Never assume that the executives’ viewpoints are on target. They view the world through a different lens than regular employees.

Meanwhile, you will find that other employees have found you. They want to spend time with you out of curiosity or with questions. When a new HR department forms, pent-up demand, and the need for HR guidance, support, and answers can overwhelm the new HR employee.

Employees are looking for someone whom they can talk to, confide in, and tell all of the organization's secrets, stories, and problems. Listen with care and you will learn about your new organization’s problems and needs. Use the time to get to know your new coworkers and their views to deepen your knowledge and ability to contribute.

Put Together an HR Plan and Build Alliances

Put together an HR plan. Share your HR plan with your boss to make sure this individual supports the goals and plans you are developing. They need to agree with and support the plan for you to have any hope of succeeding. Good alliance building and succeeding in positive office politics make the involvement of your boss in each step of your plans and implementation prudent.

Don’t be unrealistic in the goals you pursue in your first 90 to 120 days in your new HR department. Start early to help your manager understand when you believe you can achieve a particular step. Tradeoffs exist no matter the order of your priorities. You can’t do everything at once, though it may feel as if that is the expectation.

It is better to have several early achievements than to start a number of initiatives and complete none. You still have a job to do. You will spend time accomplishing the organization’s first goals and deliverables. You will see employees. You will pursue your individual onboarding plan. You will interact with the senior leaders and managers who will provide input to the goals and needs of the HR department.

The Bottom Line

This roadmap should help you get started to form the basis of an HR department from scratch. You can use it to chart your course as you spend your first 90 to 120 days in your organization. Be kind to yourself and treat yourself gently and uncritically. It takes time and commitment to build an HR department from the ground up. You will succeed.