Exclusive HR survey: HR careering ahead

An exclusive survey of HR professionals suggests the recession is having a positive effect on their careers, their capabilities and their confidence.

An exclusive survey conducted for Personnel Today by recruiter Hays Human Resources suggests HR professionals feel their role is invaluable during the recession.

Most of the 269 HR professionals surveyed are confident about their roles since the economic downturn has taken hold: 45% say it has increased their value, and 35% believe it will carry on as usual. Just one-fifth have lost confidence in the security of the profession (see graph A).

“The role of the HR professional has really gained visibility in this recession,” says Julie Waddicor, national operations director at Hays HR.

“The traditional image of HR just hiring and firing is outdated and not in line with current responsibilities – people in the wider organisation are starting to realise this. The pressure is on to streamline teams, have transparent procedures and engage staff in a time when resources are limited.”

Perhaps as a result of this status boost, jobs in HR appear to be relatively secure – three-quarters (74%) of respondents said there had been no job cuts in their department as a result of the recession.

Asked what the biggest change in the HR profession was since they had begun their careers (see graph B), most respondents said it was now more strategic (65%) and more commercially focused (61%). A significant proportion also have a greater focus on learning and development (22%) and rewards and benefits (12%).

“The role of the HR professional is constantly evolving and has gone from once being a support or risk management function, to being more strategic and proactive,” adds Waddicor. “Organisations realise that people strategies such as talent management, strong recruitment processes and staff engagement are critical to an organisation’s success. HR professionals are responsible for designing and delivering these strategies and ensuring they are aligned to business objectives.”

Almost half (47%) of those questioned didn’t set out for a career in HR – they effectively ‘fell into’ the profession (see graph C) – and more than one-third (36%) came from an admin background. While this suggests that HR is still not a career that a lot of people aspire to, Waddicor insists this perception is changing.

“HR professionals are increasingly involved with transformational business changes, good practice and the management and development of people,” she says.

“The majority of the HR professionals questioned were senior and started out in HR when things were very different. Young professionals and graduates now view HR as a career in its own right.”

Indeed, one-fifth of respondents said they chosen an HR career because they wanted a role that involved implementation of core business strategies (19%) or a role that made a difference to other people’s work (18%). One in 10 said they had only ever wanted to work in HR.

HR professionals were asked when they knew they were in the right role for them. While two-thirds (65%) knew from the start, 11% were still unsure; this figure rises to 16% for those who have been in the profession for less than 10 years.

Encouragingly, the HR professionals surveyed said a clear understanding of the wider business was important. When asked what set them apart from the competition, almost half (44%) believed it was because they showed strong understanding of the business issues that their prospective company faced, while one-fifth (19%) felt their sector experience put them in the lead (see graph D).

Despite this business acumen, the biggest challenge in taking on a new HR role is seen (by 41% of respondents) as getting recognition for the HR department, while one-third (32%) feel it is getting to grips with the way the organisation works.

“HR professionals must be able to demonstrate their understanding of the business and where they added value in their previous role,” says Waddicor. “Being able to offer examples of where they have achieved tangible commercial results such as reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, reduced recruitment time and streamlined internal processes provides potential employers with a clear indication of their strengths and how they might benefit and add value to their business.”

Respondents came across as highly ambitious – nearly half (47%) said the need for a new challenge is the biggest signal that it is time to look for a new role, while just under one-third (30%) said a lack of room to progress was the biggest motivator (see graph E).

“HR professionals in smaller companies tend to work in small teams, and when there is a need for progression, there might be a lack of options,” says Waddicor.

“Within the bigger corporate firms, there are more diverse roles and therefore more opportunities for career advancement.

“HR professionals are ambitious people who like to drive business change and have an effect on the bottom line. Once they feel their job is done, they will usually look for a new challenge. But of all people they should know that a sensible conversation about development with their manager makes sense before making any decisions about moving.”

Public sector HR remains an attractive option, and while one-quarter of respondents felt it would be difficult to cross between the public and private sectors, two-thirds (63%) said it was possible and more than one in 10 (12%) said it was easy.

“There are still some key cultural differences between the two sectors, and core practices as well as terms and conditions of employment can be very different in each,” adds Waddicor. “That said, a number of individuals have made the transition successfully, but often initially on an interim basis when it tends to be easier to cross from the private to the public sector.

“Many parts of the public sector are currently undergoing a large-scale transformation, offering challenging and interesting working opportunities within HR for candidates from commercial backgrounds. Additionally, the perception of greater job security and a stronger work-life balance is very appealing to people.”

About the survey

Hays HR surveyed 269 HR professionals, the majority of whom hold senior posts and work in the private sector (83%). Nearly two-thirds of respondents had worked in HR for at least 10 years. More than half of the respondents hailed from London and the South East. Just over one-third of respondents (36%) say that they entered HR from an admin background, while 18% entered HR after completing a business degree, and 12% upon completing an arts degree.

Survey responses

What set you apart from the competition when you secured your current role?

  • “A wide variety of change experience”
  • “Being commercially aware”
  • “Forward and confident approach”
  • “I have never been in HR to make friends, and I thoroughly enjoy the work I do and strongly believe in the value and structure it can bring to an organisation”
  • “My enthusiasm and passion for HR”.

What has been the most difficult thing you have had to do as a HR professional?

  • “Teaching my department to be strategic and consultative instead of administrative”
  • “Gaining business buy-in to what real HR can achieve for an enterprise”
  • “Initially, overcoming the usual perception of the HR role”.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you in your career?

  • “Learn and understand your business above all else – only when you can speak to managers, directors and colleagues in their language will you be treated as an equal and valued for your contribution. Don’t limit yourself to the ‘people’ issues, and put yourself at the heart of the business. Be as good at understanding cashflow as you are HR policies and you will progress much faster. Remember that HR has to earn its position at the top table, not just expect it”
  • “Gain as much experience in different industries as possible – staying in one sector too long can limit you when you do decide to move roles. People should be less narrow in their views of where they will and won’t work. Some of the more ‘basic’ environments are the most challenging from an HR perspective”
  • “Make sure you understand the key drivers and pressures experienced by others before you seek to advise them on HR matters”
  • “Ensure you spend time in all parts of the company as soon as possible so as to understand the specific needs of each department and how they interact with each other.”
  • “Don’t be afraid to speak out and challenge – but do so in a diplomatic fashion and be prepared to amend your own views when appropriate”
  • “Constantly manage and reassess stakeholders and their needs – they rely on you and vice-versa”
  • “Confess when you don’t have the answers (nobody knows everything), but find out and propose a solution as quickly as you can”
  • “Remember you can never over-communicate”
  • “Change offers opportunities – embrace it”
  • “Learn more about the commercial aspects of running a company and what makes a difference to the bottom line. Relate each idea you propose to this”
  • “Make sure your HR policies are closely aligned to the achievement of business objectives. Gain a full understanding of how your business functions. HR cannot function effectively in isolation”
  • “You do not need to be liked, but you do need to be respected. I wish someone had told me what I now tell others: everything you do must be open, honest and defendable, and all three criteria must be met before you can earn respect”
  • “Don’t display emotion; listen don’t judge; understand the business and its drivers; sell the benefits of your actions; be nosey”
  • “Consider the difficult issues handled by HR, such as redundancy and disciplinary, but also look into how HR can work with operational management to achieve an effective, motivated workforce”
  • “Remember that you are not perceived as a profit-making department, and you need to show the benefits and added value that HR contributes to the company”
  • “I wish someone had pointed out the possibilities of HR as a career so that I could have got involved sooner rather than falling into it. Also, a warning about the difficulties of balancing business needs with employee needs and expectations – HR gets blamed for a lot of line manager shortcomings, and sometimes line managers expect HR to manage their people for them – no-one told me that”.

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