Managing People

The Challenge of Being the First HR Person At Your Company

August 13, 2019
March 8, 2024
Sulagna Misra
Lattice Team

Congratulations on becoming your company’s first HR person! Now comes the challenge of managing the needs, problems, struggles, development, and happiness of an entire company — all by yourself.

We recommend dividing and conquering your challenges as the first HR person at your company. You’re going to have a lot of People-focused challenges to take on — benefits, payroll, recruiting, and so on. With process and planning, it can be done.

But there are also specific challenges that the first HR person at a company has to deal with. Every company is different. We made a list of a few of the big ones. These aren’t all the challenges of the first HR person, but they’re a start. 

Here are some challenges and suggested solutions, on a case-by-case basis:

Challenge #1: How can I get to know my company’s employees?

Meet with your employees — all of them. We know it sounds like a lot, but it’s likely the best way to build those connections early. We also suggest this believing that your company is still on the smaller side, as HR is usually hired when certain labor laws kick in. However, if your company is too big for you to commit to that many meetings, meet with team leads, managers, and/or the department heads instead. Try to find time for other employees via casual company events, such as happy hours or retreats. 

For the meetings, choose whatever meeting type works for both of you, whether it’s a formal sit-down meeting, a casual coffee 1:1, or simply a walk around the block. Figure out your preferred agenda beforehand, and try to make it uniform across meetings. We recommend asking about:

  • Their tenure at the company
  • Their history as an employee
  • What projects they’re currently working on
  • What they do as an employee
  • How they’re feeling about their manager, the company, their coworkers, etc.

Not all employees might open up to you, but that’s okay. That’s its own kind of useful information. It might be based on that employee’s previous experiences with HR, or indicative of how your company deals with problems and suggestions. But that all happened before you started. Now that you’re here, you can work to make changes based on what you learn. 

Another way to get to know your company’s employees and their feelings about the company is through an engagement survey. This will give you a comprehensive view of what people at your company are feeling, which teams are struggling and which are doing well, and what problems or processes you want to address first. 

This ebook gives you a breakdown on how to run an engagement survey at a company. We highly recommend using a tool that keeps all respondents anonymous, which should encourage employees to respond honestly. Our Lattice engagement tool keeps respondents completely anonymous while being able to break down the data by team, gender, etc., when possible. 

Challenge #2: How can I work with the executive team?

Your interactions with the executive team will be based on why you were hired in the first place. Hopefully your executive team has been transparent in this case; otherwise, finding this out will be your first order of business when you speak to them individually. When you speak to them, try to figure out the best way to communicate with each executive. Figure out who led the charge in hiring you — they might end up being your champion on the team. Find out what the company’s business priorities are, how they’ve changed and developed, and what the roadmap is in the future so you can align initiatives against them. 

From there, we recommend setting up a process to keep your executive team informed on your projects and what processes you’re building. They’ll appreciate being kept in the loop. This will also make it easier for you to ask for help, budget, and tools, since they’ll know exactly what projects you’ll need them for. You’ll also want to stay informed on your side on where they want the company to go in terms of scale and development, so you know what to prepare for.

Challenge #3: Take stock of what’s already in place.

What processes are already in place? How does the company hire? What tools does the company already have? Who was doing the recruiting, finances, and all the other people tasks before you got here? And most of all, what’s working and what isn’t?

This should be part of your sit down conversations with the CEO and/or the rest of the executive team, but it means there’s backstory you need to get into. Break down that data: how much time was being spent building these processes? Did they just happen, and if so, how? What processes need adjustment to scale, and which don’t need to be changed?

If your company’s using a variety of tools, find out who purchased it and the rationale behind their decision. The customer success teams of each tool can be a partner for you as you take over tools, since they’ve seen how your company uses the tool. They can provide data on your company usage, ideas on how to pivot usage, and more.

Challenge #4: How can I build and streamline People processes for the company?

Finally, the process! Based on your conversations with employees, discussions with the executive team, and the engagement survey, you’ll likely have a long list of potential projects to work on. You’ll see which problems are related to one another, which are the quick wins, and which the executive team has prioritized. We recommend starting with the quick wins, as they’ll likely make everyone at the company very happy very quickly. After that, you should balance which structural problems you want to address versus what the executive team wants (if they differ at all). Use your discretion, but know you’ll have to justify your reasoning for prioritizing certain executive wants over others. 

Start by building processes based on your company’s needs over the next quarter or two. For example, if you’re doing a lot of hiring in the next quarter, build out the best interview process you can. If you’re scaling quickly, it’s likely every process you build will have to be rebuilt in a few months, so it doesn’t have to be perfect. It should work for your company’s current situation, informed by your research.

Also, use tools when necessary — you’re just one person! When your company’s just beginning to build out HR processes, you need all the help you can get. Also, it may be easier now than when your company is much larger. There won’t be as much information to add to the system, teams will be able to learn to use the tool together (and can teach others as they join), and, if you use a flexible solution, you’ll be able to adjust your usage as your company grows. 

Challenge #5: How can I manage my company’s managers?

The quickest way to do this is to empower them by giving them the tools and training they need to build out their people management process. This goes back to the conversation about tools — if your company has a performance management system with tools for feedback, praise, 1:1s, performance reviews, and more, your managers will have a place to start when it comes to managing. 

With or without a tool, we recommend having your managers get in the habit of giving feedback, setting goals, and having 1:1s with their direct reports ASAP. This will mean you can be sure their direct reports are getting the guidance they need from their managers, and managers are gathering the requisite data they and you need for performance reviews, promotions, compensation, development, and more. 

And encourage your managers to share their knowledge — maybe set up a manager buddy system, pairing a more experienced manager with a newbie, or a regular meeting, or a roundtable discussion. According to Rainforest QA’s Head of People, Heather Doshay, “People are promoted to managers because they're all-star individual contributors, and they want to continue to proceed as an all-star because they're very fearful that if they don't do well, that's a big failure.” She found this meant they were hesitant to discuss problems or conflicts they were dealing with as a manager. So she tried to push back on that by creating a monthly roundtable where managers — new to more experienced — could discuss a topic that she had chosen that month. 

Just because you’re the first doesn’t mean you’re alone.

Your time as the first HR person at a company isn’t unprecedented — all companies have to start somewhere when building their HR team. It’s likely there are lots of solo HR people navigating these same challenges at their companies. You just have to find a way to connect with them.

Which leads to our last bit of advice:find your HR community. You’ll meet plenty of people at SHRM or other HR-related conferences. You’ll be able to find even more people at HR-related events. You can join a Slack community like Resources for Humans where HR people discuss ideas, solutions, and quirks of their job regularly. 

Resources for Humans has so much to offer an HR person: a job board, giveaways, IRL meet-ups, weekly discussions on various HR topics, and, of course, other HR people, with their own unique insights, innovative plans and processes, and experiences to share. 

Someone has to be the first HR person at a company. Because it’s you, you get to define how the company moves forward in a big way. Whatever challenges you face, we’ll sure you’ll solve them.