Developing an HR Management Strategy Without an HR Manager

Most hospital managers or administrators don’t have the luxury of being a department of one focused exclusively on HR. Instead, HR is just one of the many hats they wear throughout their day. This article provides 10 tips for creating an HR strategy without having an HR manager.

If you are new to your role, or if you have been in position for 25 years at the same practice, it might be time to “step away from yourself” and do a candid self-assessment.

by Kurt A. Oster, MS, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

When thinking of a human resources (HR) department, many think of giant corporations like General Electric, ExxonMobil, and The Home Depot that have massive HR departments filled with highly trained individuals. But the Society for Human Resource Management, the umbrella group for HR professionals, reports that about 67% of its 100,000 members are from an HR “department of one.” This makes sense when you consider the general rule that a business needs one full-time HR employee for every 100 employees.

In veterinary medicine, most hospitals fit the definition of a small business. Only a few mega hospitals meet the definition of medium-size business ($10 million or more in annual gross revenue). Odds are, if you are reading this article, you are most likely a hospital manager or hospital administrator with 10, 15, or 20 employees and maybe one of you is a dedicated HR professional at a large practice. In fact, most hospital managers or administrators don’t even get the “luxury” of being a department of one focused exclusively on HR. Instead, HR is just one of the many hats they wear throughout their day that probably also include finance, marketing, customer service, building and grounds, inventory, IT, and practice operations.

Over the years, I have played each of those roles. I have managed hospitals ranging in size from 4 employees to 326. I have been the HR director for a hospital with just over 100 employees, and I have worked as a corporate HR manager at a Fortune 15 corporation with more than 300,000 employees. Each of those jobs had its own unique challenges and rewards. Some required skills that were universal and scalable like communication; others required new skills to be learned. While I like to think I did well at each job along the way, I know that I also made mistakes and hopefully learned from those mistakes. That experience and what I learned from those mistakes are the basis for the tips I will share here.

If you are new to your role, or if you have been in position for 25 years at the same practice, it might be time to “step away from yourself” and do a candid self-assessment. What is your current situation? Do you even like HR? When my career began, I loved the finance and marketing functions of practice management. My local network of peers delighted in sharing horrible stories about how unrewarding HR was. Over the years, I found the opposite to be true and feel the most comfortable in the HR role. So ask yourself how you feel about HR and how you would answer the following questions:

  • How much of my role is HR?
  • What is my knowledge base like in each area of HR? Do I have all the knowledge I need, or do I need to learn more to fill in the gaps?
  • Which responsibilities do I like or want to perform, and which should I outsource?
  • Are there other employees I can enlist to help me? What can I delegate and to whom?
  • What is the current state of my team and of the HR functions within my practice?
  • What are the expectations of practice leadership?

If your responses to these questions are genuine, then your path forward should start to become clear. Do you need to learn more (if you like HR), or delegate more (if you hate HR)? Is the team happy, productive, and stable, or disengaged, unskilled, and a severe flight risk? Is the practice leadership satisfied with how things are, or do they have concerns that need to be addressed? The following are 10 tips with universal appeal. How you choose to prioritize them and implement them depends on your unique situation.

1. Trust

In all hospitals of all sizes, building trust with your team is critical. It is said that the pool of trust is filled by drops and emptied by buckets. Building trust does not happen quickly, but losing trust does. In the business world, one of the most highly coveted awards is the Great Place to Work award that is part of the Fortune Best Companies to Work For competition. The largest factor in bestowing this award is a trust survey that is completed by team members.

While important to the success of all businesses, trust is even more critical in veterinary medicine. Over the years, I have seen veterinary medicine evolve into a predominantly female workforce. Research has shown that women rely much more on trust than men when evaluating their workplace experience. If your team does not trust you, or the practice leadership, you have a Herculean task ahead of you to rebuild trust. You can Google “building trust with employees” and access lots of good information. Spoiler alert: Some of the items listed here, such as keeping your commitments, respecting privacy, putting out fires, and communication, are key drivers in building trust.

2. Keeping Your Commitments

Regardless of the size of the organization you work in, the best thing you can do for yourself is develop a reputation for delivering results on time and not letting critical items fall off your plate. One of the best ways to do this is to invest in a quality calendar (or calendars) and learn how to take advantage of all of its bells and whistles. Automation can be awesome, and I have become a fan of the calendar function of Outlook, especially when I can integrate it with my email and alerts. Employee anniversaries and review dates should never fall off your calendar. Benefit enrollment dates and certification or license renewal dates are also important. Do you know when you need to post your OSHA 300?

3. Respecting Privacy

As a leader, you have access to some pretty juicy information. One of the fastest ways to lose the trust of the team is to share that information in an inappropriate manner. This can be one of the most critical tests for the new manager. You now have “behind the scenes” information that you never had access to before, and it would make you cool to share it with your friends who are still in the trenches. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for them to learn that though this time you shared about someone else, next time it could be about them. Once that trust has eroded, it can take years to rebuild. Always share up the ladder, never down the ladder. It is important to note that inappropriately sharing some information, such as that related to workplace investigations, could get you or the practice in administrative or even legal trouble.

4. Putting Out Fires

Most veterinarians are not well known for their conflict-resolution skills. When an employee is performing poorly, or behaving badly, or both, many practice owners hope it will run its course and disappear. Unfortunately, the team will at first be unhappy with their coworker, then eventually with you for allowing the issue to continue without being checked or resolved. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, so if you are in a leadership position, you need to lead!

5. Communication

In today’s workplace, leaders need to be as transparent as possible. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t tell people what’s going on, they are going to make up stuff. Leaders with HR responsibility need to keep some things confidential, but they should share what they can. They should also engage in active listening when employees are voicing their concerns. When communicating with others, it’s a good idea to use data and facts to support a position.

While important to the success of all businesses, trust is even more critical in veterinary medicine.

In one type of personality assessment, I typically identify as an Expressive. That means I have to be very “deliberate” in how I communicate with those on my team who identify as a Driver or an Analytical. There are many ways to say the same thing, so you need to choose to say it in a way that your audience will “hear” it.

6. Relationship Management

Respectful treatment of all employees at all levels of the organization is very important for job satisfaction. Asking employees for their feedback is a good way to manage relationships. Leaders should always be asking the team for feedback and not just at their performance review. However, if leaders are going to ask for feedback, they must be prepared to do something with that information. Follow-through builds trust. Leaders should encourage team members to offer solutions to workplace issues. They can say, “Let’s talk about it and fix it together.”

7. Self-Improvement

Working in healthcare, we know how important it is for doctors and technicians to stay up to date with the latest medical advances. I have technicians studying for the upcoming Veterinary Technician National Exam who are complaining about questions regarding film when all they have ever known is digital radiography. They have never seen an automatic processor, let alone manual dip tanks. Imagine if your hospital was still using dip tanks. The same is true in HR. We are on our third generation of understanding employee engagement and—pardon the pun—on our third generation of research in understanding multiple generations in the workplace.

If you want to learn more, the options are endless. You can research material on Google from reliable sources like universities and known HR consultants and gurus. You can purchase books (the AAHA bookstore is a great place to start). You can join local or national practice management groups and local or national HR groups such as the Society for Human Resource Management. I enjoy online learning sources, including blogs, podcasts, webcasts, and websites like, which is the training website of LinkedIn.

Know you can’t be all things to all people. Delegate what you don’t like or are not good at, or something that a coworker or other resource is good at, so you can get it off your plate. Niche software products and apps abound for small businesses. None of this existed when I started, but if you want help recruiting or managing reviews, look in the app store or at free websites like Companies offering to help are everywhere; just be sure to do all of your due diligence before you sign. You want to make sure (1) the vendor can deliver what it says, (2) there are no hidden fees, and (3) you can cancel without a huge penalty if you no longer want to use it.

Don’t waste time learning skills you may only use once every few years. If you are already spread too thin, it makes sense to hire a labor attorney to conduct your workplace investigation, or to create your employee handbook. Getting it done quickly and getting it done right is money well spent.

8. Talent Acquisition (Recruiting)

The low unemployment rate, along with industry-specific shortages, such as of credentialed technicians or emergency veterinarians, has made talent acquisition a top focus for nearly every practice. Think about how you’re bringing people into the practice. Do you know your hospital’s value proposition, and are you clearly communicating it to prospective candidates? What sets your practice apart from others? Are you getting in front of passive jobseekers who don’t even know how awesome it is to work for you?

9. Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is often identified by HR professionals as their number one priority. Employee turnover is at its lowest point in years, so employers are focused on ways to keep workers interested, retain high-performing workers, and create an energized workforce. There is an adage that employees take jobs with their heads (compensation and benefits) and leave jobs with their hearts (relationships). Frequently, the top reason workers leave a job is that they are unhappy with their manager. Is that you?

10. Can You Leave?

I once had a mentor tell me, “The way you know you have things under control is you can leave on vacation without feeling guilty.” Taking time off is an important part of staying at the top of your game and avoiding burnout. Here are some best practices to help you escape without worry or guilt:

  1. Plan around key dates and busy seasons. Map out your vacations just like any other goal. Perhaps before or after a big project like annual reviews, but never during annual enrollment.
  2. Prioritize deadline-specific tasks—what’s due next versus what is further out—and complete as many of the “quick wins” as possible before leaving.
  3. Make work accessible anywhere. There will always be fires that are easiest for you to put out. Tools like Outlook Mobile and remote access to other software can help you efficiently offer timely input and responses while away. Caution: This may only work for baby boomers who can never separate themselves from their work.
  4. Message everyone, early and often, about the dates you’ll be out and talk to other leaders proactively about current issues to eliminate or diminish surprises.

Now get back to work and take care of your team!

Kurt A. Oster, MS, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the hospital manager at Bay State Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Services in Swansea, Massachusetts. Oster is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), by the Human Resources Certification Institute and a Senior Certified Professional by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM-SCP). He is a graduate of the Veterinary Management Institute at Purdue University and the Leadership, Management, Value Chain, and Customer Service programs at the Disney Institute.


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