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New to K-12 HR? 4 Tips for Success

Human Resources

So, you’ve been hired by a school district to work in Human Resources. Congratulations! Whether you came from another position in the district (instructional or not), or a career outside of education, you’ve taken the first steps toward something special. The work you do in the central office is crucial to student success, and incredibly rewarding. Just imagine the joy you’ll bring to new educators hired for their first full-time teaching job, or employees in the district who rely on you for help.

But as you’ve probably already discovered, you’re in for a wild ride — there’s a lot to learn, and a lot to do. So where do you begin? We surveyed over 300 K-12 HR professionals to see what advice they have for anyone in their first year of working in the department. Here’s what they have to say.

Understand the rules.

How do you learn everything you need to know to succeed in Human Resources? This might sound impossible — there’s so much to learn. Plan to ask a lot of questions, take a ton of notes and find knowledgeable peers and colleagues.

Several experienced HR professionals from our survey recommended starting with compliance-oriented issues. Whether your background is in HR or education, managing employees in a school district is a little bit different than what you’re likely used to. You don’t just need to know about state and federal labor laws; you have to know school policy and education-specific regulations as well.

One respondent advised:

“Learn the state revised codes first, collective bargaining agreements second and district policies third. Then, learn how all three interact with each other. The rest of the HR laws, etc., will fall into place after that.”

Remember — it’s always wise to consult legal counsel when in doubt. Employees will likely ask you any number of questions, and if you’re unsure of the answer, the best response is always, “I don’t know, but I will find out for you.”

Remember that it’s all about customer service.

Humans are an integral part of Human Resources, and you’re there to help. One HR professional says, “You’ll be a natural if you genuinely care about people.” It comes down to working with people and offering outstanding customer service, even when someone’s question seems trivial.

While you’re immersed in employment issues every day, many of your staff members may be relatively unfamiliar with topics like benefits or labor laws. Their focus is on their own daily responsibilities, not staying up to date on the fundamentals of Human Resources. That’s why they’re coming to you for help.

Our favorite words of wisdom:

“Expect the unexpected and remember that everyone is our customer and needs to be treated as such. HR is their first and last contact with the district through their career. It needs to be memorable for the right reasons.”

Happy employees will stay with the district longer and encourage others to apply to open positions. And that will make your job easier in the long run, too.

We know that when deadlines are bearing down on you and your to-do list just keeps growing, it can be tough to serve people with a smile — especially when they knock on your door or call at the very moment you are getting absorbed in other work. Try to make time in your schedule every day to accommodate these drop-in visits (or emails or calls), and you’ll find yourself far less stressed out. It’s helpful if your district has an online human resources management system (HRMS) with an employee self-service portal, so staff can find the forms they need, update their own information and spend less time on the phone with your office.

Communication is key — another HR expert said, “As long as you communicate with employees and staff, your job will be easier.” It might help to save your responses to the most commonly asked questions, too, so you can use copy-paste to your advantage when someone emails you a question you’ve already answered a dozen times.

What about difficult situations and employees?

Here’s the “dark side” of HR: not all of your interactions with employees will be pleasant. As always, it’s a good idea to document everything. People can become very heated, especially over something that affects their personal lives as much as money. Don’t take it personally when someone is upset — it is usually the situation, not you, that has them worked up.

They shouldn’t take their frustrations out on you, but if they do, it’s possible to diffuse the situation and find a solution. Being patient and having empathy will go a long way — they may just want to feel heard. Listen carefully, remain calm, ask clarifying questions and don’t leave any room for miscommunication.

One more thing: “Assume positive intentionality. And if someone did something inappropriate, and you are worried about discussing it, the wrong person is squirming.”

Be organized.

The #1 tip survey respondents shared was to get organized. It’s a busy environment, so it’s crucial that you find a way to organize everything you need and prioritize what must be done every day. But don’t let your organizational system be too rigid — you’ll have to be flexible to deal with the multitude of responsibilities and tasks on your plate.

Don’t be afraid to get creative in improving processes. When it comes to managing your workload, technology is your friend. For example, a system like Evernote or Microsoft OneNote will help you find the notes you’ve taken more quickly than digging through paper notebooks. A task management system like Asana or Trello will help you stay on top of your to-do list. Going digital will help immeasurably, so be sure to keep your eyes out for school administrative software that can ease the burden.

Advice from your peers:

  • “Take notes, because there are some things you only do once a year, and you won’t remember how you did them because they are not a daily responsibility. Also, learn to be adaptable.”
  • “Always plan a month out with every task and ensure you leave room in your daily schedule for the unexpected. Each day brings a new challenge and the best way to prepare is to be of the mindset that fluidity is normal and manageable.”
  • “Learn to prioritize. The more electronic-based your office is, the easier it is to stay organized and up to date.”
  • “Take lots of notes, put everything in your calendar reminders, always prepare as much as possible for anything, be as organized as possible, find and know your resources and keep them close by.”
  • “Stay organized, make to-do lists so nothing is forgotten, learn to prioritize, have FUN.”

Find time to learn and network.

While it might be nice to have a private island, remember that you are not an island. Many of the experienced HR professionals who responded to our survey spoke to the importance of connecting with others and continually learning more about your role. Don’t neglect your own professional learning!

“Seek out your resources. Get to know people in other districts who have the same responsibilities as you, they are your best asset.”

One of the most valuable resources you have are your peers. Find others in the district with similar responsibilities, or local colleagues from other districts. And on a larger scale, there are plenty of HR-focused resources available to help you succeed, like industry organizations like SHRM, national AASPA or your regional AASPA affiliate. Plus, there’s always Frontline to help you keep on top of best practices and the newest trends.

Finally — “Don’t give up. Remember that everyone needs help and that every day is a new day. You can get discouraged, but don’t stay discouraged.”

Annie GrunwellAnnie Buttner

Annie is a writer and part of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She's passionate about learning, exploring data and sharing knowledge. Her specialties include substitute management, the K-12 staffing shortage, and best practices in human capital management.

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