How to Master the 10 Most Important Human Resource Skills

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Few careers require the variety of skills essential for HR managers. We’ll walk you through the most indispensable skills needed for human resources and show you how to tackle them like a pro.

"Great vision without great people is irrelevant," says Jim Collins in Good to Great. No matter what your product or service, how revolutionary your marketing, or how prophetic your vision, you need the right people to make your business successful. And that means you need the right human resources skills.

Here are 10 of the most important and indispensable skills you want in HR.

1. Communication

Good communication skills are an asset in any role, but in human resources, they're critical. Here are three areas where you can focus your efforts:

  • Listen carefully: Good communication starts with understanding the other person. If your active listening skills are rusty, take the time to polish them.
  • Write clearly: Whether you are revamping (or creating from scratch) the employee handbook, posting required signage, or crafting performance measures, clarity is the best tool in your kit. Use simple, direct language and reiterate important points wherever you can.
  • Communicate consistently: If you handle the company’s monthly newsletter, be sure it comes out on time. If you publish a dress code, be certain everyone knows what is (and isn’t) allowed on casual Friday. Reiterate policies if you notice a falloff in employee compliance. Your employees are busy just like you -- missteps are usually the result of confusion or ignorance rather than willful neglect. Give them every chance to succeed.

2. Discretion

HR managers know it all. They have everyone’s home address, medical history, and salary information at their fingertips. They know who’s on the fast track to the window office and who has the cubicle closest to the door. And they know especially sensitive information about employees, including the results of background checks and details of wage garnishment judgments.

The law already prohibits sharing personal information inappropriately, but go a step further. Don’t allow anything in your words, tone, or demeanor to offer a hint that a worker may be suffering a private setback. Make sure your staff members know you can be trusted with anything. Your iron-clad confidentiality will give you an edge in people management.

3. Scheduling

Even a small business will have annual performance reviews (or monthly KPI checks), performance improvement plan (PIP) follow-ups, multiple interviews, and onboarding to schedule. Some industries have next-level compliance training, safety education, or niche-specific certifications. And we haven’t even mentioned disciplinary meetings and termination proceedings.

HR pros have to be on top of their schedules. Have a system that reminds everyone -- and you -- when important deadlines are approaching.

4. Organization

Have you ever needed to know your job’s exact start date or what’s on your W-4? Has a bank (or the IRS) ever requested a copy of your W-2 from 10 years ago? Or what if your new hire jumps ship after a few months and you want to reach out to one of the runners-up. Where do you go? To HR, of course!

If you are HR, though, you are the one-stop repository for all sorts of employee information. Organization is one of the most highly valued skills for human resources. Make things easy on yourself and invest in good HR software if you can. It will take the guesswork out of what you need to keep and what you can discard and will keep track of all the info your team needs.

5. Proactive mindset

The best HR managers don’t wait for trouble; they anticipate it and work to solve conflicts before they become problems.

Do certain employees not play well with others? Work with them to develop their people skills and encourage coworkers to alert you at the first sign of discomfort. Is one of your team leaders overbearing in their management style? Consider adding some management training to their schedule and invite their direct reports to vent in your office.

6. Relationship building

I used to work in a high-pressure, competitive atmosphere where my stressed-out coworkers could be snippy. Every morning, walking through the front door felt like pulling the arm of a slot machine -- you just didn’t know what you would get.

But we had a Beth. Beth worked the front desk and she didn’t reserve her smile for clients. She’d have a kind word and a cheerful expression for everyone, whether you were strolling down a hallway to your next meeting or laser-focused on the last donut in the break room. As a group, we agreed on little, but we all agreed we liked Beth.

Be a Beth. You’ll be the first person many new employees meet and the last many see as they exit your employ. Try to cultivate the sort of calm, patient demeanor people need during their most stressful moments. Even if you can’t always give people the answers they want, you can offer them clear answers in a compassionate way.

7. Change management

Whatever your company is doing now, it will likely do something different next year and the year after. Regardless of the strategic direction you take, someone needs to bring the employees along. Guess who?

If you serve on your company’s leadership team, help them keep employees top-of-mind when making significant shifts in direction. Make sure managers have considered the impact their plans will have on workers in every area of the business.

Use your human resource management skills to help employees adjust to the new way of doing things -- the time you take now in ensuring a smooth transition will save you headaches later on.

8. Conflict management

It’s inevitable. No matter how hard you strive to create the ideal workplace, humans will disagree and they’ll need a referee. I wonder who that might be…?

You might proactively have foreseen such conflicts and worked to avoid them, but a few will slip through your safety net. Your listening skills and relationship building will serve you well here. You’ll be able to judge right away if the conflict is rooted in a systemic issue or whether Jeff from the sales team is just having a bad day.

Since you've already established yourself as that calm, friendly presence, you’ll have the authority to wade into the conflict and help the parties sort out their differences. Hopefully, conflict management will be one of the more rarely used, but highly prized, of your human resources skills.

9. Employee recruitment

There are many elements to attracting and retaining great employees and most will fall under your bailiwick at some point. Your team will rely on you to take the lead in the hiring process and onboarding, and you’ll likely have some input into recruitment notices, candidate selection, and any background checks your company requires.

An illustration of several hands holding CVs trying to get attention.

Hiring and onboarding are some of the most important duties your human resources team will manage. Image source: Author


Be sure you stay up-to-date with what the law requires so you can keep your team from running afoul of ADA requirements, anti-discrimination laws, or any prejudicial practices. And be the voice in the room that speaks up for soft skills, so you can be sure your new hires will fit into their roles seamlessly.

10. Employee engagement

In one sense, employee satisfaction is everyone’s job. But, it's also your job. There’s no need to panic on this account, however, because you've already laid the groundwork. You’ve built relationships with the staff, listened to their concerns, helped champion policies that work for the entire team, and just generally been your best Beth self.

Many HR managers see themselves as a barricade between the boisterous hoi polloi of the factory floor and the cigar set of the C-suite. This is no way to handle HR in the 21st century. A great HR department is a bridge that connects everyone in the company and makes the workplace better for all.

Sharpen your HR skills

Human resources is the one area of your company that touches all others. Provide the necessary time and resources to excel in this critical area. You won’t regret the investment.

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