Move on up: careers in HR

Sallie Mitchell is midway through gaining her qualification from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), but after complications with her course and the continual knock-backs when trying to finding a job in HR, she wonders whether it is worth the time, effort and money.

“I just don’t know where to go now. I have registered with six agencies but they are very general or just come up with PA jobs with an HR element,” complains the former PA/office administrator.

For anyone trying to get into HR from the outside – whether at secretarial or line manager level – Mitchell’s dilemma will be familiar enough. She has fallen in love with HR, but has never officially worked in an HR capacity.

“Despite HR forming a large part of my job role for the past seven years, I have no experience of working in an actual HR department,” she explains.

“My previous employer, despite being a large multinational organisation, had no central HR department – the HR director worked alone, supported by regional administrators – but I administered and dealt with a wide range of HR procedures and issues,” she adds.

And even if you do manage to gain a foothold in the profession, it is all too easy to reach a plateau at HR administrator level or struggle to make the transition to HR manager or higher.

Part of the problem is that HR has for a number of years now been at a crossroads – no longer just a transactional function, but not yet totally strategic either.

For employers looking to hire HR talent, this has created a dilemma. Do you go for someone with the commercial acumen and attitude that comes from, say, a background in operations, or do you play it safe and get someone with a completely solid background in HR and employment law? And, as a candidate, how do you convince them to go for the former?

“Coming in from outside can be a really good grounding, but often the best way to cross over is through an internal transfer,” says Matthew Kearney, director of recruitment consultancy Jam HR Solutions.

The route into HR for many is to start at the bottom.

Graduate entry

A graduate who comes into the profession at around the £18,000 to £20,000 mark can normally progress within 18 months to a £20,000 to £26,000 or even £30,000 HR adviser position, says Maureen Sullivan, director for Scotland and the North at Hays Human Resources.

However, she says: “It is very easy to get stuck at around £35,000 to £40,000. So you need to look at ways of increasing your commercial experience while not letting go of your HR expertise.”

When it comes to moving up to the next level, the key is to be able to show strategic or project experience, perhaps dealing with staff transfers, or managing redundancies or site closures – what Sullivan terms “value-added HR”.

Kearney says: “The difficulty is that HR managers often want other HR managers and may not want to open up a vacancy to a senior HR adviser, so it can be a bit of a catch-22.”

One way to get around this challenge is to make a sideways move, perhaps into another HR adviser role with a bigger organisation, where there may be more opportunities to take on specific projects or challenges, he suggests.

Within all this there is the question of the CIPD qualification. If you have already spent considerable time managing teams or functions, how important is it to get those letters after your name?

Damian Hughes, who has just been promoted to HR director for Unilever’s food division in Africa and the Middle East, came into HR in a round-about fashion, after having been a coach with Manchester United Football Club’s youth academy.

“I took the decision not to do the CIPD qualification straight away because I wanted to find out what HR was and whether it was for me before making that commitment,” he says.

Qualified or not?

But Paul Turner, general manager (people) at West Bromwich Building Society, believes the CIPD qualification is still essential, especially if you are trying to break into HR from outside.

“Unless you are a graduate, it is extremely difficult without qualifications,” he argues. “The CIPD qualification gives you credibility and shows that you understand the basics,” he argues.

Many employers use the CIPD qualification as a way of filtering out applications and gauging an applicant’s commitment to the profession, adds Kearney.

Being CIPD qualified may give you a confidence boost, adds Andy Hill, head of careers and resourcing at Vodafone, but it is not essential.

“It may help you to specialise later on, but is it something that you have to have? I don’t think so, particularly if you are looking into areas around business partnering,” he says.

At HR manager level and above, commercial acumen and experience speak volumes. Experience outside HR can be invaluable when it comes to working your way up the profession, says Hughes.

“I’ve used the coaching points that I learned at Manchester United. In this profession, there is sometimes a desire to intellectualise things, but I often find you need to demystify things and speak in proper language,” he says.

Those not working in HR often complain there can be a snobbery to the profession – a perception that unless you are a life-long HR professional, you are an ‘outsider’.

“Managers wanting to progress into HR can often find it difficult to get into HR manager roles because they find themselves up against people with six or seven years of pure HR experience, and the employer is probably going to go for them,” concedes Sullivan.

Success breeds success

One way to overcome this, suggests Hughes, is to recognise that success breeds success.

“Get hold of any measures that you can, such as absence rates or employee relations statistics. Being able to show that your methods are working is really important. You need to make sure you buy yourself a seat at the table,” he says.

It is also a good idea to step back and focus on where your real interests lie, he argues. “Try to find out why you are in HR and what you are passionate about, then pursue that,” he adds.

At very senior levels, chief executives normally look for people who are problem solvers or solution providers, adds Turner. You need to be able to show you have influencing and leadership ability, an ability to listen, be questioning and open.

The fact that HR has a more involved role in shaping the business has made it more open and accessible, says Hill.

“I have certainly seen a number of [HR] business partners who do not necessarily have an HR background,” he says.

But for those such as Mitchell, still enthusiastic for the moment but becoming increasingly disenchanted with every futile knock on the door, HR can still feel like a hard road to take. “It seems to me that unless you have experience of working in an actual personnel department, you are not going to get anywhere,” she says. “I feel totally demoralised.”

Top tips for moving up in HR

  • Get involved in projects beyond the day job, but be wary of getting sidelined.
  • Make sure you understand what HR is trying to do within your business and what your manager needs from you to help achieve those goals.
  • Consider gaining the CIPD qualification.
  • Be focused on your career progression. Ask yourself if what you are doing is fluid and logical. Make sure you take any opportunities presented to you.
  • Measure and record your successes and make sure you promote them within the business.
  • Establish where you can make a difference and focus on that, even if it means moving out of your comfort zone.
  • Be open to new learning and experiences and go that extra mile on projects.
  • Do not underestimate the importanceof networking.


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