How to develop and refine critical human resources skills

There are plenty of corporate processes that won’t function properly without the development and application of critical human resources skills: Payroll and payroll tax filing. Administration of health care and other valuable benefits. Sensitive tasks like conflict management of employee disputes or sexual harassment complaints. All far too difficult to be handled by a novice.

Success in HR requires an ideal balance of hard and soft skills. The former range from the proper use of human capital management software to core knowledge of health care regulations. The latter cover more abstract talents such as the ability to communicate effectively and multitask in an efficient manner. Here, we’ll go over the key abilities that members of the HR team – including employees at all levels, from entry-level associates to senior managers – must possess and continually develop to ensure successful operations that best serve the business as a whole.

The hard stuff

Payroll management
If employees aren’t paid what they’re owed, the business won’t function, so HR professionals must understand and execute essential payroll oversight and administration tasks. The basics include ensuring employees receive wages at their designated salary levels during predetermined pay periods – via ACH direct deposit or as physical payroll checks – as well as covering any commissions, bonuses or expense reimbursements owed to workers at any particular time.

Then there are 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 Patient Protection and 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 might seem like a soft skill because it’s obviously communication- and collaboration-based. However, it also requires hard knowledge of laws pertaining to recruitment and employment, ranging from Form I-9 compliance requirements to certain truly esoteric standards like the specific (and very limited) situations in which HR can use lie-detector tests.

HR software
For the most part, the days of managing essential HR functions largely or entirely on paper are long gone. Generally, these have been ceded to human resource management software platforms. Some are specific to particular HR tasks – benefit management, scheduling, etc. – but more often than not they cover most aspects of the field (as PeopleStrategy does). An applicant to an entry-level HR job won’t need to know how such programs work going in, but they’ll have to learn them pretty quickly, and going forward, future employers will expect a moderate to expert knowledge of HR software.

This is arguably the foundation for every other HR soft skill: 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. Team members must protect it not only to follow the law, but because 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. As such, 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

There are few if any cases where someone enters a profession knowing absolutely everything they need to master it. HR certainly isn’t that – staff must continue honing their skills over the months, years and even decades that they 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 … the possibilities are all but endless. What matters is that your department makes a point of engaging in such 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.