Is it necessary to have an HR background to be effective at HR?
The answer is "no" according to 62 per cent of Personnel Today
readers who took part in our news barometer survey published in our 15 May
issue. A total of 242 people took part in
the online poll at www.personneltoday.com
151 voted that an HR background is not necessary compared with 91 who
believe that an HR grounding is essential.
We ask HR professionals to expand on their answers
NO – AN HR BACKGROUND IS NOT NECESSARY
Baker, sustainable development controller, B&Q
You don’t need a background in HR, but you do need to be able to call on
people with expertise in issues such as employment law.
You do need an inherent desire to have respect for people and to enhance
people policies throughout the business.
Des Pullen, HR director, Allied Bakeries
The ability to influence your operational colleagues is not dependent on HR
expertise. It depends on your ability to understand the issues facing the
business and to come up with appropriate solutions.
O’Kane, HR manager, Firefly Communications
People who bring other experiences to HR are much more prepared to take a
step back from the coal face of process and see HR for what it really is – a
commercial, strategic discipline that contributes to business advantage by
attracting, developing and retaining an organisation’s people.
HR has changed. This means that increasingly the skills and attributes
needed to be a success are the skills and attributes that can be gained in any
commercial area. All of this has an impact on training and development for HR
The CIPD needs to ensure that industry accreditation is equipping today’s
novices with the skills they need for the future.
The CIPD qualification should be attracting students that have board-level
aspirations, just like other professional organisations such as the Chartered
Institute of Marketing.
James, HR director, Deloitte & Touche
In my experience, the most successful HR leaders have always been those who
understood both the HR and non-HR dynamics of their businesses, could
communicate the issues and solutions effectively and were able to influence and
manage change such that the business could grow.
This requires more than just an HR background and, in some cases, perhaps
not even an HR background.
With the right team, containing the necessary specialist skills and
knowledge, one can certainly be effective without a strong personal HR
Dorothy Leo, director of the Learning Centre for engineering group SKF
We look at it in two ways. For our most senior HR jobs, such as HR
directors for the business divisions and group HR, we believe that an
understanding of the business and a people focus is equally or more important
than a conventional HR background, and have had some success appointing senior
line managers to these roles. These positions have much more of a strategic
When it comes to geographical positions, for example, country HR directors,
then it is much more important to have an HR background because a lot of the
job role is to do with industrial relations and legal considerations.
YES – AN HR BACKGROUND IS ESSENTIAL
Andrew Sherwood, HR director, Carphone Warehouse
A balance of business experience and CIPD qualifications is good. I
wouldn’t be able to manage my department without staff with CIPD
qualifications. They have the specialist knowledge needed. We are running a
programme to get more people equipped with the CIPD qualification.
Alison Hodgson, International graduate programme manager for Internet
I know of very successful people who have fallen into the profession, but
it’s useful to have the CIPD qualification as you need to have an understanding
of resourcing, development, relations and rewards.
The results of your news barometer are really worrying, but it does not
surprise me. It harms the credibility of HR.
Deer, director of personnel, Cambridge University
It is hard to have a knowledge of employment issues and legislation,
develop people skills and have experience of dealing with managers, employees
and trade union representatives, unless you are exposed to these issues on a
Ravey, HR director, Whitbread Hotels
Employment law can be learnt, but if people come in from other area of
business, they must have certain talents. These talents include being a
"people champion", understanding the importance of the employee to
the business, being able to tell the difference between high- and low-calibre
employees and how to get the best out of them.
Madelaine Allen, HR director, Applied Materials
People do need a background in HR to be efficient in it. It’s more of a
specialised part of the business now. The CIPD qualification gives people
grounding in employment law and strategic planning. But it’s also very
important to have wider business experience as you need to look at HR from a
Wynn, HR manager, Worcestershire County Council
To achieve the range of knowledge and skills to be effective in strategic
HR, I believe that an HR background is needed.
Senior HR people need to understand motivation and management techniques,
which is hard to get elsewhere. I also believe that to be effective in HR you
need to know your business and sector inside out.
John Wrighthouse, head of personnel planning and development, Nationwide
As someone who is responsible for the development of people, I often have
discussions with both HR staff and generalists about the age-old question of
specialist versus generalist.
A straight choice between specialist/generalist is too limiting – too much
is lost about what broader qualities an individual can bring to the HR role, and
it is these other qualities that can make or break a successful HR career.
The expectations of HR and HR people are changing all the time, and some of
the most effective HR people I have met have had a very varied background. They
bring a different perspective and drive and contribute in a different way.
There is something else, something other than background, that leads to
effectiveness. Here at Nationwide Building Society, we believe that to be
effective in HR depends on the behaviours an individual brings to the role, not
simply if their background is "specialist" or "generalist".
We have developed six "leadership capabilities" that define the
core behaviours that are indicative of success throughout the organisation.
They include being imaginative and having the ability to generate and encourage
new thinking and ways of working to take the organisation forward and living
the values, and the ability to promote the excellence of Nationwide.
As an individual who came through the HR specialist route, I spent four
years out of HR as operations director running a £2bn mortgage subsidiary.
Having just returned to an HR role, I can say that I am far more effective now
than when I left.
An effective HR person is more about what the individual does and how they
do it, not what they may or may not know. It’s about the behaviour they