Top tips for HR graduates

Personnel Today has put together a reader panel of HR managers. Relatively recent graduates themselves, we asked our HR Managers’ Advisory Board why they went into HR, how tricky they felt it would be to find entry-level jobs at the moment, and what their top tips were for today’s HR graduates.

Kerry Bigwood, HR officer at building products supplier Epwin Group

“The crucial thing I’d say to anyone looking to enter a career in HR is to understand why you are interested in HR and what it is that you want to be able to add to a business. Too many graduates have an idealistic approach, expecting business to conform to the needs of HR, and the reality is often a surprise. HR is a valuable asset to a business (whether public or private sector) but it is only an asset if the aims and objectives of HR can be clearly seen to support those of the organisation it serves.

“Yes, good HR management can make a difference, but only by understanding the business objectives and aligning themselves with them and putting in place strategies to assist the business meet its goals will HR add value, and then be taken seriously and given parity with other functions within a business. If graduates subscribe to the ‘Tampax and tissues’ school of thought, they are in for a rude awakening; going into HR because they ‘like people’ is possibly the single worst reason I can think of.”

Lucie Walmsley, HR assistant at logistics company GBA Group

“I joined HR when it was seen more as a ‘personnel function’, although the attraction was always the employee relations angle of the field. This gave me the right inroads to a generalist role.

“How easy or difficult it is to get an entry-level HR job depends on the area which attracts you. I think specialised areas still require a generalist background. So I would advise anyone going into HR in this climate to focus on gaining experience in a generalist role, and then exploring the specialist areas they wished to expand into. When applying for jobs, it is imperative that you understand the organisation and are able to relate it back to something. Even theoretical work would prove advantageous.

“My top tip is that success is all about understanding the culture of the organisation. What goes in one place doesn’t always produce the same results in another. Master the culture and you’re half way to getting your voice heard.”

Emma Vernon, HR adviser at professional accreditation organisation APM Group

“I’ve heard it’s relatively difficult for HR graduates in the recruitment market at the moment as many senior HR people are lowering their expectations and applying for entry-level roles. Job websites are now seeing applications in the hundreds or thousands for jobs that HR professionals with a few years’ experience wouldn’t have applied for before the recession.

“For me it was the old cliché of going into HR because of an interest in people. If the ‘people are our greatest asset’ mantra is to be believed, then surely HR is one of the key departments in any organisation. Plus, HR seemed a good, solid career choice, with fewer glass ceilings than in other more male-dominated arenas.

“My top tip for HR graduates? I would definitely recommend doing voluntary work within an HR department to gain exposure and vital foot on the ladder. I appreciate that not everyone can afford this option (I was fortunate that my father works in HR and was able to provide this opportunity), but it stands out on a CV and gives graduates the edge in an increasingly cut-throat environment. Plus, I know plenty of HR professionals who would welcome a willing and able person to help out, even if only for a few weeks.”

Goranka Bosanac, HR manager at shipping firm CSAV Group Agencies (UK) Ltd

“HR is such a competitive profession. I think that is probably true at every level of the profession, not just at the entry level. I also think that it is harder now than it was for some of us. Luckily for me, I didn’t have any idea how competitive it was or it might become when I first entered into the world of HR, or I might have gone into something else. Instead, I had an incredible piece of luck and found myself in the right place at the right time and got my first job in HR by advertising my skills and my desire to work in HR with my employer at the time.

“So my first piece of advice is to keep trying, and if that is what you really want to do, stay positive and determined. Research the companies that you are applying to, and even if you cannot get a role in HR straight away, make sure you get a job with a good employer who is going to encourage your development and give you the opportunity to learn.

“After 10-plus years in HR, I am wary of the organisations and recruiters who are seem to be only pushing for people with experience. I think potential is often overlooked and, that can’t be helpful to anyone, including the organisations themselves, and especially graduates.

“Again, think ahead – ask yourself ‘where do I want to be in a few years’ time?’, have a plan, but be flexible. Ask ‘is this the right place for me?’ and, if progression is important to you, ‘will they encourage me in my career plans?’.

“It may be a better idea to find a role within a larger company and learn the ropes. SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are great places to deal with a wide variety of HR issues, where you can have an immediate impact and autonomy, but it does help if you have already learned your trade.

“Finally, that old chestnut of ‘I want to work with people’. Yes, HR is a people function, but it is also a business function – you are there to support the business. You need to be good with people from different backgrounds, and understand their views, but you are not going to be working in a caring profession. You will sooner or later in your HR career be involved in making some tough decisions, and you are not always going to be popular, even if you are doing a great job. Learn as much as you can about the business, and take the opportunity to learn other roles and spend time in other functions. Try to make as many contacts as possible within the organisation – you never know when you will need them.”

Michelle Songest, personnel adviser for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

“I fell into HR after working in lots of other jobs, and this experience of being outside HR has actually come in very useful. I don’t think it’s ever been easy to get into the profession, because when people first go into HR they tend not to really understand what it’s about. Having said that, I think that the best entry-level job is dealing with recruitment processes (in-house, not at a recruitment agency), because you learn a huge amount about what HR involves, both at a practical and strategic level. I also think that lots of organisations ask for much higher qualifications than they actually need for an entry-level job – all you need is common sense, good communications skills, and an ability to deal with a huge variety of situations and people.

“My top tip is you aren’t there to support employees – and in fact, you aren’t there to entirely support managers, either; you are there to support the organisation – and that won’t always accord with your personal beliefs, which can be awfully difficult at times.”

Magdalena Aydin, HR adviser at primary care services provider Harmoni

“I have entered the profession sideways, coming across from a middle-management job. Getting an entry-level job was relatively easy for me because I followed an internal transfer, promotion and secondment route. Five years on, I’m finding it next to impossible to move upwards without a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) qualification, which I’m starting in September.

“My top tip is get qualified with the CIPD. I have done a couple of distance learning courses, which were meant to be compatible with the CIPD qualifications. In reality, employers are looking for recognised standard – and in HR that means the CIPD. If you are serious about career in HR, do your CPP first and then embark on the full PDS scheme as soon as possible.

“Also, get experience as soon as you can. Find out if HR is for you before you commit yourself to years of studying. We currently have a student on work experience in my HR department. She is considering a degree in the field but she wanted to get the taste of it before she embarked on it.”

Kate O’Hagan, HR assistant, Reed Business Information

“I was at a point in my career where I felt I was going nowhere. I was given the opportunity to get involved in some aspects of HR and really felt that is where I could make a difference. My voice could be heard and my opinions mattered. I began seeing changes to the ways things were being done in the company and I caught the bug to want to make more. That is when I began my quest to embark on a career in HR.

“I will freely admit that HR is a competitive field and I had to make the decision to take a significant salary drop from my career as a group PA to start in an entry position in HR. If you aren’t able to find a role in HR, then try to get an administrative position and be willing to help out with anything that is HR-related to ensure you are getting some relevant experience.

“I wish I had been lucky enough to know, when graduating from university, that HR was what I wanted to do. My tips are be persistent, ensure your CV reflects all your experience that relates to HR, and think outside the box when applying for roles. Don’t just apply to those that are advertised, but be proactive and write to companies directly.”

If you are an HR manager and would like to join our advisory board, please e-mail

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