Top 10 HR competencies to build a strong HR department

top 10 HR competencies to build a strong HR department
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Even the most successful businesses would be nothing without the people who work there. No matter how great your product or service is, your most valuable asset is your team. Taking good care of them is the key to success for every company. 

With that in mind, you need to have a stellar HR department capable of looking after your employees, especially if your company is large or medium-sized.

The HR department has a vital function in every business and is a major driver of organizational change.

Your HR staff are responsible for scouting and recruiting new employees, overseeing their onboarding and career development, and ensuring the company adheres to local and international labor laws.

As with every other team, the HR department requires specific competencies. These are the skills and traits that will enable them to carry out their jobs properly.

A proficient HR team with skills in communication, organization, talent acquisition, and leadership will help your business expand to new horizons. 

Therefore, it’s crucial to hire excellent HR professionals with the competencies needed to carry out their tasks with ease.

TestGorilla’s HR Fundamentals test will help you find candidates with the relevant human resources expertise, business acumen, and ability to manage interpersonal relationships.

This article will provide in-depth descriptions of the 10 essential competencies every HR professional should possess, explain how the HR role has evolved over time, and describe the future that awaits the HR profession.

Gaining a better understanding of these competencies and trends will prepare you to make decisions that will have long-lasting effects on your entire organization.

Let’s dive in.

What are the different teams in an HR department?

HR departments can consist of several key teams. 

Although professionals in smaller companies will do some or all of these roles by themselves, it’s better to separate them if your organization is large enough and you have the staff and budget for it. The different HR teams include:

graphic showing the four different teams in an HR department

1. Talent management and acquisition

The talent management and acquisition team may be the most important HR team for a company’s success. This team is responsible for scouting, recruiting, developing, and retaining employees.

As the recruiters of your business, this team is in charge of building your workforce. Members of the talent management and acquisition team create new positions within your organization, write job ads, scout talent, and hire new employees.

The team is the first point of contact for potential candidates. Team members conduct interviews and administer skills tests to evaluate applicants’ competencies. 

You can measure the success of this HR team by the number of candidates they source annually, where they source them from (e.g., your website, social media, job centers), how long it takes them to fill positions, the quality of the new hires, how new employees perform on the job, their satisfaction and engagement rate, and the turnover rate.

This team is also responsible for managing and retaining new employees, which involves creating a workspace that promotes a strong relationship between the employee and your organization.

Why is this so important?

Disengaged employees are likely to leave your company early on. This creates a cycle of repeatedly trying to find new employees, which could potentially cost you millions in the long term.

According to Gallup, the loss of productivity caused by disengaged employees costs the US economy $483bn to $605bn annually. Therefore, you need to place highly skilled professionals in charge of your talent management and acquisition plans.

2. Learning and development

The second HR team on our list is the learning and development team. Those on this team are responsible for providing employees with additional training to hone their skills or learn new ones that will help them perform their duties more effectively.

Improving your employees’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes will enable them to do their jobs better and make them an even more important asset for your business.

When positions open up within your organization, you can source a current employee from your own ranks rather than trying to find someone in the labor market who has little knowledge of your company.

The learning and development team can also “create” the employees you need by drafting them fresh out of university. In this case, you essentially get a blank slate you can mold to your company’s needs.

The HR competencies of this team are crucial since the team members will be in charge of producing the workforce you need. This is a heavy burden but one with many benefits. 

Every employee’s training and development journey begins with their onboarding program. Ensuring your new hires are well looked after is the first step to retaining them and making the most of their abilities in the long run.

3. Remuneration and benefits

The responsibilities of this team revolve around payment and perks in the workplace

In smaller businesses, these tasks are done by one person, or they are outsourced to a bookkeeper. However, larger companies benefit from having a separate HR team to deal with these matters. 

When it comes to remuneration, these HR professionals are responsible for structuring compensation schemes according to the industry’s pay practices. They also work closely with management and payroll to ensure paychecks are within the budget.

HR practitioners on this team are also responsible for creating additional perks apart from remuneration to make the job more enticing for candidates and employees. These can include additional days off, social recognition, relaxation spaces, health and dental coverage, food coupons, discounts from suppliers, and team events, among others. 

The more creative a remuneration and bonus scheme are, the more incentives this HR team creates for employees, keeping them happy and motivated to do productive work.

4. HR compliance and work safety

Compliance with labor laws is critical for every business. 

The HR compliance and work safety team ensures that your business adheres to any regulations and guidelines set forth by government bodies.

It is also responsible for making sure that your company follows anti-discrimination laws when hiring employees – otherwise, you could be liable for claims by failed hires and even employees who felt their contract was terminated on illegitimate grounds.

In addition, this team is tasked with maintaining safe working conditions as mandated by government and international laws.

For example, workers in the manufacturing industry often need to work with hazardous materials that may put them and their co-workers at risk. In this case, the HR department should follow the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling Chemicals (GHS) to ensure employees follow safe practices in the workplace. 

Now that we have a better understanding of what the different teams in the HR department do, we can move on to the 10 essential HR competencies every recruiter must have. 

What are the top 10 must-have competencies for HR professionals?

Nowadays, HR professionals need a deep understanding of a wide range of topics, including a large list of terms and definitions, to do their job proficiently. Additionally, they require an arsenal of skills to be competent in their field. 

Although the following 10 skills aren’t an exhaustive list of HR competencies, these descriptions will give you an overview of what HR employees should know and what to assess candidates on when hiring for an HR position. 

1. Communication skills

Great communication skills are indispensable for every job, but they are especially important as an HR competency. 

HR professionals help new employees with their orientation and teach them the company’s rules. They write safety materials and communicate important government regulations to employees and managers alike.

A great HR employee is also proficient at public speaking. Being able to clearly and concisely state your ideas to keep your listeners’ attention is a must-have skill in this field.

Communication is an ability that needs to be constantly honed and improved. HR professionals may need to explain workplace practices and job duties, pacify employees, or lay out the rules if someone is misbehaving.

HR specialists must actively listen to someone to offer them the advice they need. Communicating proficiently can make the difference between retaining an employee and losing them.

Therefore, HR employees have to master communication to maintain company cohesion. 

How to assess communication skills

Assessing applicants’ communication skills is the first step to finding and hiring a top HR professional. 

TestGorilla can help you evaluate a candidate’s ability to actively listen, understand and interpret information, and communicate clearly. It will also show you whether or not they can follow professional work etiquette.

Those who score well on this test can communicate clearly and openly and offer empathy and feedback when needed. 

You can also gain insight into a candidate’s communication skills by observing how they act and speak during the interview process. Look for clues like whether they understand important information quickly, express their thoughts clearly, and communicate in a professional manner.

2. Time management

Time management and organizational skills are vital in a work environment, so HR professionals must be able to manage their time effectively. This includes planning ahead, scheduling and executing tasks, and managing deadlines.

HR employees often encounter situations in which a job role has been left vacant, and they need to quickly fill it and onboard the new hire so that they can begin working as soon as possible. 

To handle these types of scenarios, recruiters require excellent time-management and organizational skills. 

How to assess time-management skills

You can evaluate applicants’ time-management skills with a Time Management test

This test will assess how well candidates can manage their time in a professional environment, including their ability to plan, prioritize, execute, plan, and reflect. 

Candidates who do well on this test can distinguish urgent and important tasks from minor ones, plan ahead, and co-ordinate with others. They can also overcome distractions, evaluate their own work, and make adjustments if needed. 

3. Negotiation skills

Though negotiation skills may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about HR competencies, they’re key to success in HR roles. 

The ability to negotiate effectively enables recruiters to drive a conversation to the desired result. They will be able to influence other people for the organization’s benefit and settle deals favorably.

When it comes to benefits, the best HR employees can agree on good deals with health coverage providers and unions.

Since their job focuses heavily on people, HR professionals with negotiation skills can bring a lot of value to your company. 

How to assess negotiation skills

TestGorilla’s Negotiation test will help you test candidates’ ability to influence and drive discussions.

Applicants with great test results can leverage others’ psychology in a positive way, skillfully using their emotions to bring about a mutually beneficial conclusion to a deal or reach a particular objective.

These candidates have the ability to create win-win situations and maintain positive relationships with business partners and colleagues alike. 

4. HR fundamentals

Fundamental HR skills are a core HR competency. These include the ability to develop, maintain, manage, and improve HR policies and successfully manage employer-employee relationships. After all, the HR department’s chief role is to take care of your team. 

Professionals with excellent knowledge of HR fundamentals can also align HR policies with government laws. Furthermore, they can help the company address any issues related to hiring and training new employees and retaining old ones and encourage productive practices throughout all teams.

How to assess fundamental HR skills

The HR Fundamentals test will evaluate a candidate’s knowledge of HR best practices. This includes their ability to manage relationships, consultation capabilities, and business acumen.

Successful candidates have deep technical and behavioral knowledge. They can identify important challenges and take actions that will have beneficial results and achieve company goals.

5. Talent acquisition

Talent-acquisition skills are the bread and butter of HR competencies. Without them, an HR professional is like a tree without its leaves.

Attracting top professionals to your business is becoming more difficult because every organization is vying for job seekers’ attention with their remuneration and benefits packages. Therefore, your HR team needs to devise better perks to acquire top talent. 

This is by no means an easy task. You must take your budget into account and use the right sourcing tactics to avoid hiring the wrong person, which will cost you in the long run. 

Finding and reaching out to candidates is an important skill for HR employees. They need to take a proactive approach in their search and constantly try to find new people via different channels.

If an HR professional hires a specific person for a job opening based on their merits, that employee will feel valued by the company, which will translate to higher overall productivity. 

How to assess talent-acquisition skills

HR employees must be proficient with all the recruitment tools they’ll use in their jobs, including screening software, interviewing tactics, and referral programs. 

TestGorilla’s Talent Acquisition test evaluates candidates’ expertise when it comes to sourcing talent and employee retention. 

The core skills this test covers are sourcing, recruitment tactics, candidate experience, and onboarding strategies.

Successful candidates have practical experience in talent acquisition, are able to assess an organization’s current and future talent needs, and can create and implement actionable steps to land top talent off the bat.

6. Critical thinking

Critical thinking is another HR competency to look for when hiring for an HR role. 

The ability to think clearly and make sound judgments is vital, especially since HR professionals deal with people on a daily basis. 

HR employees who possess this skill are able to conceptualize, analyze, and evaluate information to make informed decisions. They can solve issues and even take measures to prevent such problems from arising in the first place. 

How to assess critical-thinking skills

You can measure candidates’ ability to think critically with the Critical Thinking test

This test assesses applicants’ ability to understand cause-and-effect relationships, interpret sequences and arrangements, and use deductive reasoning to achieve results. 

Successful candidates have a great working memory, are able to tap into their independent thought processes, and can create innovative solutions to solve complex problems.

7. Attention to textual detail

The best HR employees have great attention to detail, which is another key HR competency.

Since they communicate with a wide range of people every day, they need to be on top of their game in this department, especially during the hiring process. 

Having a keen eye helps recruiters remember important information and spot discrepancies in applicants’ resumes and skills. These skills help HR professionals avoid bad hires that could prove costly in the long run. 

In addition, spotting errors, from small ones like spelling mistakes to large ones like inaccurate data, can help HR employees prevent mishaps that can negatively impact the company’s reputation. 

How to assess attention to textual detail

Our Attention to Detail test assesses a candidate’s ability to match and filter information, compare statements, and check for consistency across documentation. 

The test provides insights into applicants’ attentiveness by asking them to recognize errors and omissions in the information presented. 

Candidates who succeed on this test have the ability to accurately process textual information and arrive at the correct solution quickly and efficiently.

8. Leadership and people management 

As mentioned, HR employees drive positive change in an organization with their great people skills and ability to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems. 

This makes them leaders in their own right, and having the ability to lead and manage people is another core HR competency every HR professional should possess. 

Great leaders inspire their colleagues and take charge of situations, helping them reach business goals quickly and efficiently. HR professionals who are natural leaders will help your organization manage employees and work processes effectively. 

How to assess leadership skills

You can evaluate leadership skills with our Leadership & People Management test

The test evaluates a person’s ability to delegate tasks, provide guidance and feedback to employees, plan and encourage others’ development, and obtain company-wide acceptance of their ideas.

Successful applicants have a skill set that can unite people, lead them by example, provide inspiration, and achieve company goals.

In addition, you can use our 16-Type Personalities test, which is based on the work of Carl Jung. This test evaluates a person’s source of energy and inspiration and how they process information and make decisions. It reveals the candidate’s inner world and how they perceive their surroundings.

Knowing the candidate’s personality type gives you a better idea about the kinds of HR competencies they may have and how they lead their team and achieve business success.

9. Analytical skills

Recruiters should have excellent analytical skills

Being able to analyze data will help HR personnel make better decisions when hiring new candidates, lower recruitment costs, and pinpoint areas for improvement.

Data is everywhere these days, and being able to study the numbers and spot what works and what doesn’t will help your business be more competitive. HR employees who can analyze data efficiently are better equipped to make the right hiring decisions. 

How to assess analytical skills

Our Working with Data test assesses a person’s ability to perform data analysis and understand data concepts, how they work with charts and graphs, and how they interpret information. 

Applicants who perform well on this test possess a strong grasp of data concepts. They can examine various data sets, interpret them, and produce simple visualizations to make the data easier to comprehend. 

Numbers speak for themselves, and an HR employee who can visualize trends backed by data can get approval to carry out their plans for improving the business and make the recruitment process simpler and more efficient. 

10. Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is an important HR competency that enables people to switch between various concepts and adapt their behavior to changing circumstances to achieve their goals in innovative ways. It encompasses qualities such as imagination, creativity, and curiosity. 

Essentially, cognitive flexibility is the ability to learn and unlearn information, quickly grasp how new technologies work, and determine how you can use them to your benefit. If something isn’t working out as planned, cognitive flexibility will prompt you to change your tactics and find novel ways to deal with the problem. 

This skill is an asset to every recruiter since they need to constantly change their recruitment strategies, work with a wide variety of people, and improve the company’s work processes. 

How to assess cognitive flexibility

You can learn about candidates’ cognitive flexibility by asking them for a specific example of how they dealt with a problem, either at work or in their personal life. Look for candidates who can come up with interesting and novel ways to look at and solve an issue.

In addition, anyone who is constantly learning new things and adapting to change likely has a high degree of cognitive flexibility. Has the candidate undergone additional training of their own volition, irrespective of their normal work duties? Watch out for applicants who constantly try to improve themselves.

You can also use the cognitive flexibility scale. The scale will give you an idea of what kinds of questions to ask when determining someone’s cognitive flexibility. Based on their responses, it will provide you with a score that represents their cognitive flexibility.

How has the HR function evolved in the past few years?

In the past, recruiters were seen as book and record keepers and the people who ensure an organization is compliant with government law. But nowadays, their functions have evolved immensely

Technology enables the automation of various processes – from testing job applicants and payroll automation to tracking work progress to knowing when an employee is due for a training course or performance evaluation. 

Forward-thinking HR departments need to adapt to these changes rather than resist them. Keeping a business rooted in the past makes it less competitive overall. 

By improving work processes, HR professionals can provide even more value for their companies.

Below, we’ll describe how HR and HR competencies have changed in recent years. 

graphic showing the four ways how HR function has evolved in the past few years

The digital transformation of companies

The digital transformation of organizations in recent years has made it impossible for businesses to ignore the benefits of new technologies and the losses they will suffer if they don’t adapt to new developments. 

HR departments have not been excluded from this transformation. 

Social media presence

Today, social media is everything for a company. Using it to maintain a good reputation and build rapport with your customers is one sure way to increase profits – or face significant losses if you do it incorrectly.

HR departments have had to adapt to the rise of social media. After all, they are responsible for safeguarding their organization’s image and portraying it in a positive light.

In the past, businesses were viewed as simply employers, and people depended on them to get a job and secure an income. But nowadays, if the public dislikes what you’re doing, you could be “canceled” in days, destroying your company. 

Job seekers will now research your company and values and decide whether they want to work for you. Therefore, recruiters depend on social media to find, recruit, and retain employees. 

HR professionals need to be proficient with social media as one of their HR competencies, or else they risk making themselves obsolete in an ever-changing labor market.


As mentioned, technologies have enabled the automation of many work processes, and HR departments are no longer viewed as pencil pushers.

Many new technologies, such as applicant tracking systems and pre-employment skills-testing platforms, have been created to make HR tasks more efficient and effective.

An important HR competency is understanding how to use these systems to benefit an organization. 

Most companies have large databases containing important information about their clients and employees. HR employees need to use this information to drive change, make better hiring decisions, develop employees’ skills, and make the organization more competitive. 

Technology has been paramount in the rise of remote hiring, which is the next change we will discuss. 

Remote hiring

If remote work was considered the exclusive realm of business owners, freelancers, and artists in the past, Covid-19 changed that perception altogether. 

Given the chance, 87% of employees choose to work flexibly, meaning they can do their job from home and the office. According to Gallup, three out of five employees who worked at home during the pandemic would prefer to continue doing so.

This is perhaps the biggest change HR recruiters need to take into account. In the past, someone would come to their office for an interview, and the recruiter would evaluate them in person. Now they need to use different hiring methods to ensure they find the right fit for the company.

Remote hiring comes with its own challenges, like how to conduct remote interviews, co-ordinate with people in different time zones, and onboard remote hires.

Communication is also key here. The use of applications such as Zoom and Slack has normalized in recent years, and recruiters should be able to navigate these changes with ease. 

Recruiters need to adapt to these changes and develop their HR competencies to handle remote hiring effectively. 

Employee engagement

In the past, employees were happy to simply have jobs and provide for their families. Most would take the job opportunities provided to them and were only concerned about receiving sufficient remuneration.

But today, employees desire more than just adequate pay. They want to develop their skills, grow professionally, and have a work-life balance. These are key considerations to take into account when trying to keep your employees engaged and happy.

Competent HR departments create novel ways to engage and retain employees since it’s costly to keep hiring and training new employees. According to the Center for American Progress, around 20% of an employee’s annual salary goes into the cost of trying to replace them if they leave. That’s close to $10,000 for employees earning $50,000 annually. 

Engaged employees are more productive and less costly for employers, so HR professionals need to continually find ways to keep their workforce happy. 

A strong focus on culture

Culture add is a novel concept that has radically changed hiring processes. Understanding how to hire for culture add is an important HR competency.

Before hiring a candidate, HR employees must ensure they will be the right culture add for the company. An applicant who can add to and enhance the organization’s culture and bring in new ways of thinking and doing things will be more valuable than someone who has nothing to add and is just a good culture fit. 

In the past, employees were commonly only expected to do their job and nothing else. Today, on the other hand, recruiters need to make sure that applicants can bring something new to the table that will make the company more competitive. 

Skills-based hiring

The hiring process has also transformed significantly in recent times. 

As mentioned, technology enables automation processes that ease the work of HR departments.

This includes technologies that assess applicants’ skills before hiring to ensure they are qualified for the open role.

Skills-based hiring brings the costs of recruitment down by reducing the number of bad hires who are dismissed shortly after starting their jobs. Bad hires cost an average of $14,900, which makes accurate candidate screening paramount these days. 

Pre-employment skills testing aids recruiters in the hiring process and should be a staple HR competency in the ever-changing labor market.

What’s the future of HR?

As discussed above, HR competencies have changed in many ways and will continue to evolve in the future. Organizations need to be prepared and adapt to and benefit from these changes rather than resist them. 

HR departments must expand their toolsets and methods for handling employees, making recruitment decisions, and effecting changes in the company. 

Social media, remote work, and new and emerging technologies will continue to impact how companies do business, and HR professionals need to take these changes into account. 

Using skills-based and data-driven hiring is a sure way to find the most qualified talent and reduce hiring costs. HR departments that can adapt their hiring process and embrace novel ways of doing things will be able to carry out their operations more effectively. 

It will also become increasingly important to focus on the employee experience

Giving employees purpose, opportunities to upskill and reskill, and the chance to grow professionally and personally will skyrocket their productivity. Businesses with HR departments that improve the employee experience are 1.3 times as likely to have organizational outperformance than those that don’t.

HR departments can drive change by including all teams and departments and even leadership when implementing new organizational models. They can empower employees to be a part of that change by voicing their opinions and ideas.

Hire for key HR competencies to build a strong HR function in your company

HR departments have evolved significantly over time and will continue to do so in the future.

When looking to hire a new recruiter, evaluate their HR competencies in the field since they will be responsible for ensuring your workforce is happy and engaged, implementing changes in the business, and determining how productive your company will be overall. 

Key HR competencies include great communication and people-management skills, organization, talent acquisition, analytical skills, and cognitive flexibility.

HR professionals also need to be able to drive change by using emerging technologies and social media. Additionally, they must be capable of helping improve the work-life balance of remote employees. 

Finding such talent isn’t easy, but there are tools that can support you.

With TestGorilla’s HR Fundamentals test, you can hire an expert with the HR competencies needed to keep your business competitive and prepare it for the future.  Get started for free today.

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