10 Skills Every HR Manager Needs to Succeed

More Than Liking People, These 10 Skills Are What Every HR Staffer Needs

Three multicultural women, including an HR manager, talk about an organizational issue.
Skilled HR Managers Deal With Sensitive Issues. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images

You wanted a job in Human Resources because you like people. Got it. But, liking people is not enough. There are many skills every HR manager needs to become truly successful. Here are 10 of them—and not one of them is actually liking people (although that does help).

1. Math

You were promised that you would not have to do math in HR; that's why you chose it instead of accounting. Well, sorry. While you don't need to do as much math as you do in accounting, a lot of compliance work requires a solid understanding of math and statistics.

You'll need these skills to interpret affirmative action reports, create turnover reports, determine salaries, and speak intelligently with the business people who are very number focused. Measurements to confirm the viability of HR practices and programs are more vital than ever. You don't need advanced calculus (probably), but you need to have good math skills.

2. Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization is a skill that allows you to put your work into one box and the rest of your life into another, and never the twain shall meet. You don't need to make the divide severe, but you do need to separate work and home life if you want to succeed in HR.

Why? Because HR problems never, ever end. You will never have a day when you can say, “I'm finished. All employees are happy. All policies and procedures are in compliance. All managers have had proper training. And everyone is getting along beautifully.” It will never happen.

You'll need the ability to go home and not think about work or you'll go crazy.

3. Compassion

You don't have to like people, but you do have to show compassion. Employees expect you to listen to them and their problems. While you're not a therapist, you do have to act like one from time to time—at least long enough to talk the employee into calling your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for real help.

There are also legal reasons for why you need to behave compassionately—it's often the law.  for firing an employee who ate a bag of potato chips without paying first. Why? Because the employee had diabetes and her blood sugar was dropping.

If the Walgreen's employee had shown a bit of compassion, they could have figured out that the employee wasn't stealing and needed the food to keep functioning. This is a reasonable workplace accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

4. Legal Knowledge

HR managers are not lawyers, nor do they need to be lawyers. However, a good understanding of basic employment law is critical to success. Like the compassion example above, HR managers are often faced with on the spot decisions that have legal consequences.

When can you say no to a request and when do you need to engage in an interactive process, for instance. Or, when can you fire this person but not that person? A good HR manager also knows when she's out of her depth and when it's time to call the employment law attorney.

5. Multi-tasking

In some big companies, every HR person has one specific function such as training or compensation.

But, in most companies, you're responsible for many things at the same time. You need to switch back and forth at a moment's notice—because often you will deal with crises.

You have to be able to step away from the affirmative action report right now to help an employee who just got word that her mother was in a car accident and then come back to the report, 30 minutes later.

6. Understanding Health Insurance (and Other Benefits)

One of the biggest parts of a compensation package is health insurance. HR is the face of that program for employees. Yes, the insurance company itself will happily help employees, but you need a solid understanding of how different plans work to help employees with their benefits.

If you're a senior level HR manager, you'll play a key role in choosing your company's plans.

In that case, you'll need more than a surface level understanding of how health care and other benefits work.

7. How to Recruit and Hire

Recruiting and hiring is far more than getting people in the door. It's also a public relations job. Why? Because every candidate will walk away from his application process with feelings about your company.

If the recruiter is non-responsive, he'll walk away with bad feelings, and even if he is the best fit for your job, he may not take the job because the recruiter was ineffective. Understanding where to find great candidates, and how to bring them on board is a critical HR skill.

8. Managing People

As an HR manager, you may have no direct reports, but you need to understand how to manage people. You'll coach and act as a confidant for managers; you'll need to help them manage their people. In some HR roles, you'll act as a de facto manager for many people, even if you aren't the one who writes their annual performance appraisals.

9. Discretion

HR managers aren't required by law to keep information confidential (although many employees think that they are). You're not a lawyer, doctor, or priest, but you'll deal with confidential information all day long. You need to know when to share and when to keep information confidential.

For instance, if an employee comes to you with a health problem that is affecting her work, do you tell her manager? If you know that an employee is getting laid off next week, and she mentions in the line at the cafeteria that she's putting an offer down on a new house, what should you say? These are problems that come up frequently in HR. You need to know how to handle them.

10. How to Fire

Firing is much more complicated than saying, “Today is your last day.” The goal in firing an employee is to have that person leave the company and move on with her life. A good HR manager understands the second half of that.

A bad one only understands the first half. You need to know how to stay legally compliant, fair, and compassionate, but also think through the possible legal implications of every action. You need to know what to say and how to say it, and how to support a manager through a termination.

Learning each one of these skills requires their own book. None of them are easy and no one enters an HR job with the ability to do all of them well. But, to succeed in human resources, these are a few of the skills you need to work on and (hopefully) perfect. If you can do this, you'll become a great HR manager—and isn't this what all HR people strive to achieve?