Human resources is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States, with HR manager roles expected to grow six percent by 2029. But not all management jobs are created equal – every role comes with its own unique set of challenges.
While it’s true that common themes like hiring and firing will always exist in any HR manager role, other parts of the job will vary based on the size of the company and whether you operate alone or as part of an HR management team.
We sat down with Emma Guidarelli, CEO & Founder of People Function, to learn about the challenges and demands of being a solo head of HR. Emma operates as an HR consultant and interim head of HR to startups large and small.
Hi, Emma! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. Can you start by telling us a little about yourself, and how you became the HR rockstar you are today?
Of course! That goes back to when I was still in college. I was studying sociology and psychology, and I was thinking about going into academia because I loved learning. Studying people in groups and learning how people can impact change was very interesting to me.
My mom is actually the one who suggested HR, which I thought sounded really boring because I thought it was just hiring and firing. I ended up getting an internship at an ad agency just to check it out, and I fell in love with it. Then I took a second internship at Condé Nast.
That’s awesome. What are some of the reasons you fell in love with HR?
Well, HR is the intersection of people and business, which was great because I knew I enjoyed studying groups and societies. Companies are like little miniature societies. They have their own unique culture and their own unique practices which can be really distinct.
Today you operate your own business, People Function, where you act as a consultant and interim head of HR for companies. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Sure. I’ve been consulting for about two years, working with different companies. Sometimes I’m their only HR person, and sometimes I’m supplementing a team.
I mostly work with earlier stage startups. Some of my clients are between five and 50 employees, where they don’t have an HR person and I am supplementing their needs and hitting those high-priority items.
I’m also working with two companies right now that are about 100 employees, where I was the first HR person in the door and we’re starting to build up a team. At another company, we’re hiring a team below me.
You’re very experienced in being the solo head of HR, which can be extremely challenging. What are some of the unique demands of that position?
When you’re in a solo head of HR role, you really feel the weight of all of the needs of the company. You feel it in every single aspect – from managers who are struggling with their direct reports, to taking care of someone’s immigration paperwork, to making sure the office looks organized for a client meeting. You feel the weight of the entire employee experience.
The sheer breadth of everything you have to manage on your own is huge. When I was in a small company, I was ordering the potato chips for the employees and also coaching the CEO! It’s such a wide range of responsibilities – payroll and benefits, learning and development, coaching the founders and leaders, performance management, onboarding and offboarding processes, potentially office management. And you basically have to be an expert in everything.
Then there’s the emotional weight of it all, and the fact that you don’t have full autonomy on everything that is measured. For instance, an HR person might be measured on retention but that’s not something they have control over. They have influence over it, but not control. So there’s only so much you can do if the company isn’t doing X, Y, and Z.
It can also feel really lonely because you’re experiencing questions and doubts by yourself, without anyone to share them with; there’s no one who really understands it and is in the weeds with you.
When you’re entering a new company to consult or serve as interim head of HR, do you have to give yourself a crash course on how each company operates?
You pretty much have to “do” and “learn” at the same time. You don’t have the luxury of time, or the ability to do a listening tour for the first three weeks, because things move more quickly than that – especially with startups. You have to be ready to absorb a lot of information very quickly. You’re going to speak with the leaders, you’re going to learn as much as you can about their roles and how the business operates. But then you just have to start iterating, you have to start building and doing. And you’re going to make some mistakes!
What about when you have a really important question or concern? For instance, if you need to know about the legality of something. Who do you ask when you’re the solo head of HR?
At this point, there’s almost nothing that I haven’t seen. But on some occasions when you do see something new, or encounter a sticky situation, you need an employment lawyer. Employees are the #1 risk for lawsuits for companies, so you need to make sure you’re compliant when an issue arises. It’s better to spend money on a lawyer upfront so you don’t have to spend more money later on a lawsuit!
I’m also part of several HR networks that have email groups, and we’re constantly emailing questions to each other, asking “How would you handle this?” or “When have you done this before?”
Another great resource are benefits brokers. They’re the middleman between the employer and the insurance company that the employer uses. Traditionally, their job is to go out and contact insurance companies with a company’s details (number of employees, etc.) and they negotiate a rate. However, that’s become a really competitive space so many benefits brokers are stepping up their game and providing other services. Some are doing compliance checklists to help make sure you’re compliant with the law, some are providing resources to help you learn and grow, as well as resources for your employees, like mental health benefits and other advocacy programs.
It sounds like you balance so much as a solo head of HR. What are some tools that help you stay organized?
I’m obsessed with my calendar! Everything is color-coded by client which really helps. I think survey tools like Culture Amp are amazing. When you’re a small company and you’re looking for an HR system, going for a PEO (Justworks is my favorite) will cover some of those compliance needs for you, and you won’t have to do a lot of benefits management or payroll. ThinkHR is also great if you want to learn about compliance and laws, especially if you have employees in different states, because you may have certain laws that apply to one place and not another.
Given the fact that so much responsibility is on managers and that HR is responsible for training and preparing those managers, I think learning & development is so important. Bringing someone in who can really level-up your managers is a great idea because that will make the company run better, it will make your life easier, it will make the culture more coherent, it will make it easier to spread communication in a positive way throughout the organization because your managers understand the weight of that. It can only benefit the company.
Another thing that often happens is that solo heads of HR get bogged down with completing basic tasks which could really be fulfilled by an office manager or HR coordinator. Those tasks often pull the HR leaders away from their strategic work. So I’m a huge proponent of spending money to bring in systems, processes, and resources to free up the time of that person so they can focus on the things that are going to be most impactful to the organization.
It seems impossible to talk about challenges without acknowledging the pandemic. How did that affect the HR world?
The last year has been really, really hard on HR folks because they’ve been put in a position that they weren’t equipped for. Our modern day workforce was equipped to handle it, with Zoom and different technologies, but the real challenge was, how do you transition an organization that you’ve been holding so closely into a remote environment? How do you make sure your employees are still effective, and that people aren’t burning out? How do you make sure your managers have a pulse on what’s going on, but they aren’t micromanaging? Those are really complicated things on top of the day job, which is keeping the lights on and making sure payroll runs, and making sure benefits are there, as well as performance management and learning & development.
So I think when you consider those demands, on top of the inherent loneliness of being in a role where you’re absorbing a lot of emotional challenges of people, that’s a lot to put on an HR person. Then add in a pandemic.
Then there was the murder of George Floyd, and you really saw the Black Lives Matter movement take hold in companies. Companies have stepped up in many ways to support their Black employees, but that demand often lay on the Heads of HR. There are a lot of well-intentioned white people in those Head of HR roles who were simply not equipped or prepared to handle those challenges! They had their own re-education journey that they needed to be embarking on! I'm a huge proponent of bringing in D&I leaders and experts who can really support employees in this difficult time, and build the programs and processes needed for systemic changes. But a lot of companies threw those responsibilities on their Head of HR, even when that leader was unprepared and unequipped. Even so, employees are looking to them as the people who are supposed to handle those issues. So I think that’s a really challenging place to be in.
I’d like to revisit what you said about the challenge of moving to a remote format. How did companies manage to do that?
In my experience of serving as interim head of HR during the pandemic at a company that closed its physical doors and had to do a large lay-off, the key was crystal clear communication from the leadership.
We made sure we were leaning on the leaders and managers to have important conversations like asking employees how they were feeling, the level of burnout they were experiencing, if they were taking a break from their computer or walking around during the day, or if they were just in Zoom calls for 10 hours. That was the responsibility of managers, but it was the responsibility of the HR people to prepare those managers to manage in a remote environment.
So I would say it amounted to closer and tighter performance management, whether that was making sure that reviews and check-ins happened more regularly or were more structured, or the use of engagement surveys to check in and see how people were doing and what they were experiencing.
As we wrap up our interview, I’d love to know what your advice would be to someone just entering the HR world. How long should they wait before diving in as solo head of HR?
I think when you’re early in your career you want to be in a role where people want to teach you things. That’s the perfect time in your life, especially when you’re an intern, when you can say to the head of marketing, “Hi, I want to learn about marketing. Will you teach me?” And people will say yes. So they should opt for someplace where they’re going to get good leadership and mentorship.
My first job out of college, it was just me and the head of HR at a small game development company. And she said, “I want to mentor you and teach you everything I know.” And that was a really important stepping stone. I really value small organizations because I value having your hands on a lot of things. So I think being one of two or three or four or five HR staff could be great, but I would hold off on being that sole person until you’re really confident in your ability to stand on your own two feet with all kinds of complex issues.
Thanks, Emma! You’ve shared so much valuable information with our readers about the realities of working in a solo HR role!