How to develop and refine critical human resource skills

“To maximize success in HR, you need the right complement of skills.”

There are several critical business processes that require specific human resources skills in order to function efficiently, accurately and within specific timelines. For example; payroll, the administration of health care and other valuable benefits, adherence to specific compliance regulations and timelines, and sensitive tasks like managing employee disputes or sexual harassment complaint. All of these examples are far too complex to be handled by a novice. And for a HR department of one, they require a wide array of skills and knowledge. That skill set involves a balance of hard and soft skills.

Here are a few of the key abilities that HR team members of all levels must possess and continually develop to ensure successful operations that best serve the business as a whole:

HR Skills: the hard stuff

Payroll management

Your company cannot function if employees aren’t paid accurately and on time. In smaller companies, payroll typically falls to the HR department; as such, HR professionals must understand and execute essential payroll oversight and administration tasks. The basics include ensuring employees receive their correct salary on the expected pay date – via ACH direct deposit or as physical payroll checks – as well as covering any commissions, bonuses or expense reimbursements.

How to develop and refine critical HR skillsPayroll management represents one of the key hard skills in HR.

Then there are big-picture payroll tasks: At year’s end, HR is responsible for getting W-2s ready for state and federal tax filings and disbursing any payments that come only at this time, like annual bonuses. Mastering payroll requires thorough knowledge of the organization’s payroll structure and guidelines, inside-and-out understanding of all applicable laws, and critical mathematics and accounting skills.

Benefits administration

Considering how important employee benefits are to the retention of a strong workforce, it’s vital that HR team members be well-versed in every facet of the organization’s benefit offerings and ensure all eligible employees receive every perk or service to which they’re entitled. This range includes health insurance, vacation and sick time, paid family leave, 401(k) programs, workers’ compensation and more.

Knowing the ins and outs of federal legislation like the Affordable Care Act and Americans With Disabilities Act, as well as any applicable state or local laws, is key for any HR role, as these govern how processes like open enrollment and injury claims must proceed. Any lapses in compliance regarding these matters can lead to serious penalties for the company.

Recruiting and onboarding

Bringing talented applicants on board and getting them up-to-speed on everything from policy to culture requires soft skills like communication and collaboration. But it also requires an understanding of the laws pertaining to recruitment and employment like Form I-9 compliance requirements, drug screening and “ban the box” regulations.

HR software

For the most part, the days of managing essential HR functions largely or entirely on paper are gone. Most companies today have some level of automation, even if just a standalone system for payroll, benefits administration or applicant tracking. Thanks to Cloud technology, more and more companies are gaining access to HR solutions with capability to manage multiple functions (like PeopleStrategy). While an entry-level HR position should not need to know how to use specific HR technologies going in, it will be a skill to be quickly acquired. As the use of HR platforms continues to increase and reach even small businesses, familiarity with such tools will become increasingly important.

HR skills: the softer side


Good communication skills should apply across all mediums – speech, writing, social media and so on – and are as much about listening (or demonstrating that you have listened, in the case of nonverbal communication) as speaking. Additionally, an HR specialist must vary their communicative style for different audiences, according to Business 2 Community; e.g., C-level staff will be most focused on the broad strokes of an HR issue, whereas those directly involved place much greater stakes on every detail.

Teamwork and collaboration

As Rasmussen pointed out, these talents may seem obvious, but they’re still in high demand when employers look to fill open HR positions. An effective HR professional can exemplify such skills by proving their ability not only to collaborate with HR peers, but also members of different departments. Additionally, it’s important to work with others in ways that serve the company’s big picture, rather than just doing whatever’s necessary to follow the rules.


HR handles plenty of sensitive information on a daily basis. Legally, team members must protect. Plus, it’s ethically imperative to protect privacy. The same goes for upholding anti-discrimination laws or mediating disputes and complaints – finding a proper resolution is the right thing to do. Threading the needle between ethics and procedural adherence is an essential HR skill that can’t be learned in a book; it must develop naturally in practice and be upheld by a strong foundation of empathy.

Understanding, developing and refining critical HR skillsConflicts between workers require clear-eyed perspective and empathy to be properly resolved.
The organization/multitasking tightrope

Multitasking is particularly important to HR because everyone in the department collaborates to manage all facets of the employee experience. You can’t get bogged down in, say, dealing with one employee’s benefits package when you have to oversee the entire workforce’s participation in (or waiver of) benefit offerings during the height of annual open enrollment. Moving seamlessly back and forth between multiple responsibilities without losing track of any single task is pivotal.

Ongoing improvement of skills and processes

It would be very rare for someone to enter a profession knowing absolutely everything they need to master it. And this is definitely not possible with HR; you must continue to hone your skills over the months and years you stay in the field. As the overall organization undergoes various changes, the HR department must adjust itself accordingly to best serve the people who are the company’s backbone, so it can always be a strategic partner to the business.

Continuous learning is key to optimal HR practice. This can take the form of individual training sessions, periodic group workshops, game-based exercises with incentives for participation … whatever works best for you. What matters is that your department makes a point of engaging in regular skill development to prevent complacency and disengagement.

It’s also important to keep overall HR processes sharp (alongside individual skills of team members), which may require some outside help. Soliciting support and counsel from third-party benefits brokers and HR service providers can provide your department with a valuable outside perspective.