HR 101 for new human resources managers

By Andie Burjek

Feb. 5, 2020

The role of HR is vast. You’re in the weeds, and the amount of duties you’re expected to perform is significant. It can include onboarding, benefits, recruiting, culture building, harassment complaints and more. 

While new HR managers have previous experience in the field, becoming a manager brings about many new challenges whether they’re an HR team of one or leading a team of many individuals. 

These challenges aren’t insurmountable, though   especially with some HR 101 lessons from seasoned HR professionals. These people have learned through their years rising the HR ladder what skills and relationships are especially valuable to develop in the first months on the job. 

Building relationships

The most successful HR managers focus on developing strong working relationships with their peers and business partners, said Judy Whitcomb, senior vice president of HR and learning & organizational development at retirement community developer Vi. A strong relationship with their peers helps them learn about existing HR practices, processes and available tools. 

Judy Whitcomb, senior vice president of HR, Vi
Judy Whitcomb, Vi

Meanwhile, “listening and understanding business challenges and opportunities not only helps HR professionals develop his or her business acumen, it helps an HR manager develop a common understanding with business partners on how HR professionals can help develop strategies to contribute to successful business outcomes,” Whitcomb said. 

The relationship between the new HR manager and their new business partner won’t develop overnight, she said. “They  should expect that trust is earned over time and that the best partnerships are those you realize success together.”

One issue that may exist between HR managers and business leaders in other departments is that sometimes they don’t understand each other, said Bradford Charles Wilkins, chief human resources officer at real estate company Altisource and 2015 Workforce Game Changer.

Many people in business hold the stereotype that all HR does is “hire, fire, give a raise, promote or throw a party,” he said. They don’t necessarily think of the strategic duties HR managers can have. 

Recruiting is a good example, Wilkins said. A manager may instruct a recruiter in the HR function to look for a candidate for a position. They may ask for someone like a person with a degree from an exclusive Ivy League school or with many years of experience. In short, they may think they know what they want, but the qualifications they’re looking for aren’t realistic, Wilkins said. 

In general, “They assume the business knows what they’re asking for,” he said. But they have the opportunity to do more. 

They can ask questions like, what are you trying to solve with this hire? Why is the degree important? Couldn’t someone without a traditional four-year degree also have the necessary experience? And, what would the residual effect of this business decision be on the company and that individual’s team? 

Building relationships with employees on the front line is also important,  said Lisa Murfield, human resources manager at Florida-based law firm Hill Ward Henderson. She suggests that new HR managers get out of their office, go around and meet all the employees the organization. 

“You’re going to learn a lot from the people on the front lines and how they feel about the organization. They’re probably always going to have recommendations,” Murfield said. “It’s’ a good thing for the HR manager to get to know people because then [they] get that relationship where people are going to be comfortable coming to [them.]” 

The most vital skills to develop as a new manager

Both the role of HR and the technology HR has access to has changed a lot in the past couple decades, Wilkins said.  

“The best practice 10 years ago is not a best practice today,” Wilkins, who has been in HR for 15 years, said. The change of pace is quick in the field, people who do well in leadership roles are willing to try new things and learn from mistakes. “Now it’s not as much about learning as it is about experimenting,” he said. 

One major change is the onslaught of technology like artificial intelligence and automation, he said. People who do well at their organizations know how to think abstractly in ways that machines can’t and tend to be more creative. 

Business school is one place to pick up these skills, of course, but not necessarily through an HR degree, he said. “HR people going to business school is becoming more popular,” he said. “It’s easier to teach core HR a lot of classic HR is black and white [like] rules, laws and policies but the amorphous piece of HR and the business side of it are much more challenging.” 

Bradford Charles Wilkins chief human resources officer Altisource
Bradford Charles Wilkins, Altisource

Murfield is an example of an HR manager who received an MBA in management, giving her a holistic education in finance, marketing and operations. 

She stressed the importance of having some understanding of all aspects of the business. “I’ve seen HR professionals, unfortunately, who get siloed into doing HR and they don’t always understand the business of where they work.” 

Finance is a key area of the business to understand, at least at a basic level, she said. Skills like knowing how to read a financial statement can be valuable. “Get to know the CFO or head of accounting,” she said. “They will be able to help you get access to numbers and analytics that may be helpful to you, if you don’t already access to that within an HRIS system.”

Further, legal knowledge is important for an HR manager, Murfield said. Keeping up with changes in employment law may be challenging, considering the complexity of the legal environment and how laws are constantly changing. Still, the legal environment can greatly impact HR duties and organizational policies. 

As the HR manager as a law firm, she’s able to speak to experts within her own company, but not every manager has that luxury. “If you don’t have legal counsel, maybe that’s something you can recommend that you do have that available to you,” she said. 

What to expect the first few months

First-time managers should try to set realistic goals for themselves, especially since they may experience a large volume of requests, VI’s Whitcomb said. Getting all of it done just wouldn’t be realistic.

Whitcomb suggests that managers work with their business partners to set these goals and prioritize different projects. 

Also read: A planning primer for your first week as a first-time manager

The learning curve is very real at first, but people new to this position can have a positive attitude when making tough, managerial  decisions for the first time. At her first managerial job, Murfield learned the importance of not being hard on yourself. One of her first tasks was to handle an indecent exposure complaint. 

“I remember being calm and collective on the outside as we did this investigation but inside I’m going, ‘What am I doing? Am I doing the right thing?’ ” she said. “You have to go in, exude confidence even if you are shaking on the inside and, if nothing else, look like you know what you’re doing even if you’re doubting yourself inside.”     

HR managers can show compassion and patience toward themselves and make the best decision they can make with the information they have, Murfield said. Equally important, though, is showing the same kindness toward others in your organization. 

“You just never know what they’re going through,” she said. 

Andie Burjek is an associate editor at

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