Just because you're good with people, it won't make you a great HR manager, writes Steve Hart.

Staff handed the job of running their firm's personnel department should prepare for a lonely life at work, says the author of a new book for HR managers.

Angela Atkins says managing HR, even if it's only part time in a small company, can be a tough job, especially during reorganisations when staff are being let go.

"Often HR functions will be handed to a PA or an office manager," says Atkins.

"While people may be good at working with colleagues, issues such as introducing performance review systems, training staff and measuring people's performance can trip up novices."

Atkins, who runs Elephant HR & Training, says there is a culture of "it'll be all right" when it comes to human resources. She says the profession is a minefield of ever-changing legislation.

"A lot of people are not focused on what HR should add to the bottom line," she says. "A good HR manager should help improve performance, help develop [people's] skills and make sure everyone is compliant with the law."

Atkins says too many people make the mistake of thinking that because they are good with people, they will make a good HR manager.

"But you need to be a bit more business-focused than that," she says.

"And you can give up any ideas of having any friends at work.

"People should think long and hard before agreeing to take on HR because even when I started in the business I didn't realise what was involved.

Business managers need to understand what HR is supposed to be doing - whether they have a full-time person in the role or not.

"I love HR but the job can be horrible as well. You get to see all the problems that are happening within the company - and there's normally no one you can really talk to about it.

"The job can be really hard, yet you are the one who has to always remain positive and keep things moving forward."

And because of this, says Atkins, an HR manager will typically form close links with the firm's CEO - someone else who may have few people to share their work-related worries with.

"An HR person will frequently become the advisor to the CEO because managing a firm is a really hard job, especially during the past couple of years," she says.

Atkins says because New Zealand business have grown organically she often gets called in to help companies where no one has stepped back to look at their HR systems and review what should or shouldn't be kept in place.

And this leads to problems with some managers following out-of-date employment law, not understanding trial periods and incorrectly calculating holiday pay.

Last year managers needed to know the law as they restructured to save their firms from going under. Atkins is normally hired to help companies with one of two issues.

"On one side are managers who can see they need help to implement professional HR practices - such as setting goals for people, improving performance reviews and helping to develop their staff," she says.

"But others leave it too late and get stung with a personal grievance or suddenly discover their employment agreements don't comply with the law, which is always changing."

Atkins says when it comes to human resources, there is a skills gap in many companies.

When she visits firms, the things she will often find is that a company will have things missing from their HR systems "and no one notices until it's too late".

"There is an HR skills gap among many small firms," she says. "A lot of people think that anyone can do it. But if you haven't dealt with HR issues before, then it is a place full of fish hooks that can cost people dearly."

One firm Atkins was at recently had a redundancy clause which had two interpretations.

"It caused a lot of issues around what people were actually entitled to," she says.

Now we are in a recovery period, Atkins believes companies will need to work on retaining their best members of staff.

"This year the issue will be about retaining and developing people," she says. "That is going to be the big focus for HR managers."

The cost of ignorance

* Corey Wilkinson was awarded $12,000 by the Employment Relations Authority after being unjustifiably sacked for giving cannabis to a workmate. The ERA agreed that managers at Saxon Appliances had dismissed Wilkinson unfairly as it had not told him of the allegation. The company did not have a policy on illegal drugs. Wilkinson gave drugs to mates outside work hours and away from the premises.

* Cafe worker Tikaokao McClutchie was awarded $7000 after being sacked
for using her employer's telephone and reading a paper.

* Nicole Schneider was awarded $16,000 after she was dismissed without
reason from her receptionist job at BBX Management within her 90-day trial period. The Employment Relations Authority said her dismissal was unjustifiable.

* The ERA found driver Hayden Kirkwood was unjustifiably dismissed from
his job at DAS Transport and awarded him $17,000. Kirkwood had been bullied at work, threatened via text messages by the boss' son and resigned.

Angela Atkin's latest book Employment Bites is for HR managers and those new to the profession. It retails for $26.99.