HR career paths

For those embarking on a new career in HR, the range of options has never been more diverse. Hot favourites include talent management, employee benefits and, perhaps surprisingly, payroll. But what’s the best way to get into these increasingly competitive, growing areas? Nick Martindale finds out.

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Having gained a general grounding in the discipline, and perhaps completed the relevant Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) qualifications, some aspiring HR professionals will find themselves drawn to a specialist area. Others may enjoy the variety of work they can get in a more generalist role and look to develop a greater understanding of the way HR fits into the wider business, with a view to eventually becoming a business partner. But even this is not as straightforward as it sounds, according to Vanessa Robinson, adviser, organisation and resourcing, at the CIPD.

“You see a lot of adverts for business partner roles, but you only need to look at the range of salaries to see that what’s meant by ‘business partner’ varies considerably,” she says. “In a number of cases, it seems that the business partner is a title change from what would have been an HR manager, rather than operating at a very senior strategic level.”

The nature of the job is likely to depend on the size of the organisation and the HR model it uses, meaning finding the right business to work for is vital. Robinson also points out that there is no set career path to the top, and people may find themselves taking a sideways step in another company, or temporarily moving out of HR altogether.

“Don’t necessarily assume that your next role has to be a promotion or the next one up,” she says. “People seem to be ‘zig-zagging’ a lot more now, both between different organisations and different roles, to ensure they are as rounded as they can be.”


Here are some of the most likely destinations for those seeking a long-term career in HR:

Generalist HR

Those looking for a career in generalist HR can expect to be involved in everything from contracts to payroll, and overseeing the day-to-day support of employees.

According to Sarah Chatterley, associate director at Search Consultancy, this is the destination for the vast majority of people working in HR, with those entering the discipline likely to have already qualified or worked for two or three years in an HR administrator role.

Typical work is likely to vary according to the economic cycle. Chatterley says the current big areas given the economic slowdown are employee relations, staff retention and developing talent. Succession planning is also a hot topic. “It’s a very varied remit because the tasks within generalist HR have very different demands,” she adds.


People working in generalist recruitment retain the option of specialising at a later date, she points out, or progressing to business partner level.


Expected salary: £60,000 (department head) £22,125 (HR assistant)


Verdict: Varied yet challenging

Employee benefits

Benefits are becoming increasingly important as companies look for ways to reward and incentivise staff through non-financial means.

Employee benefit specialists can expect to start conducting research into what staff want and keep track of the legal requirements, according to Caroline Jordan, head of voluntary group income protection at benefits provider Personal Group, They would also need to understand the tax implications of benefits.


“To be really good at the job you have to be ahead of the game, anticipating how to respond to what interests people and matching this with a good understanding of the latest developments in benefits,” she says.


Understanding the latest green initiatives, employee wellbeing programmes and absence management schemes are also priorities.


Expected salary: £55,250 (department head) £22,577 (HR assistant)


Verdict: Fast-moving area.




Once seen as a dull, number-crunching role, payroll is now one of the fastest-growing sectors in HR, according to Greg Bate, a consultant with recruitment firm Jam HR. Staff could work in-house for a public or private sector organisation or an outsourced payroll provider.


An understanding of tax and pay law is essential and the ability to supervise and manage others a bonus. There are a range of qualifications that can help people progress, and successful individuals could hope to become a payroll supervisor within three years, according to Bate.


Expected salary: £58,000 (department head) £19,618 (HR assistant)


Verdict: Growing, but still niche.

Talent management/recruitment

Acquiring and retaining talent is set to become the most sought-after resource over the next 15 years, and is now managed directly by the board rather than HR, says Matt Brown, director of consultancy firm YSC.

“People looking to go into a career in talent management need to be business people first and HR talent specialists second,” he says. “They need to be able to talk the language of business and understand how competitive advantage is created in organisations.”

As a result of this, those hoping for a career in this sector should be encouraged to take secondments in other areas of the business, he says. They will need to learn what world-class talent looks like and develop the ability to persuade business leaders of its importance. On a day-to-day basis, people could be responsible for managing talent pools – or talent across the organisation – and putting customised development plans in place.

Expected salary: £60,000 (department head) £21,999 (HR assistant)

Verdict: Requires business and HR skills.

HR systems manager

This is a vital yet niche role that tends to be found in the bigger HR departments, says Christine McCorry, a consultant at recruitment agency BLT. Candidates are likely to have at least some experience in this area already, perhaps as a super-user in a previous post.

People specialising in this area would typically be involved in a range of projects, such as monthly reports on absence, turnover, maternity/paternity leave, or trends in work patterns. The role also involves maintaining and improving day-to-day use of the information system, keeping databases up to date and overseeing flexible working requests.

An individual could reach adviser level after three or four years, but at that point opportunities tend to plateau out, says McCorry. Although some remain to become managers, many move into the area of compensation and benefits.

Expected salary: £59,564 (department head) £22,016 (HR assistant)

Verdict: Less of a long-term choice.

Employee relations

This is another area that is enjoying something of a resurgence due to a wave of new legislation and an increase in union activity, says Andy Cook, managing director of employee and industrial relations consultancy Marshall James.

A background in generalist HR or line management is good grounding, he says, but the current shared service model – which sees many junior HR staff working in call centres – makes it hard for them to get experience of working with unions or managing staff. As such, he says, there is a talent shortage in this area.

Much of the work in this area revolves around establishing policies, consulting with unions and handling employee grievances. “Employee relations is a key function with high impact if there is an industrial dispute threatened and demands a high degree of integrity, tact, influencing and communication skills,” says Cook.

Expected salary: £62,203 (department head) £24,000 (HR assistant)

Verdict: Not for the faint-hearted.

Occupational health

Occupational health is becoming more prominent in HR, with positions found in industries such as construction, oil and gas, engineering and public services, says Bate. But it is a highly specialist area, and one that requires at least an NVQ level 3 in occupational health and safety or a qualification as a nurse.

Working as an occupational health adviser would involve everything from carrying out pre-employment medicals and risk assessments to treating those who are injured at work. “It is a very challenging role because it can be quite difficult to gain ‘buy-in’ for operational managers,” warns Bate.

Expected salary: £55,505 (department head) £23,075 (HR assistant)

Verdict: Only for medics.

HR business partner

In its purest form, a business partner would act as the most senior HR representative to the company management, playing a key role in putting the business vision into practice.

But many so-called business partners are effectively generalists who focus on the tactical and strategic aspects of running the HR function, says Jan Hills, director of HR with Guts and a partner with Orion Partners. “You need to understand which organisations have strategic business partners, and which have roles that are called business partners, but which have a bigger element of transactional work,” she says.

“Getting to business partner is a real dilemma for people because most companies we work for have set up a business partner model, but haven’t set up a career path,” she adds.

People will need to demonstrate a solid HR background across multiple disciplines – possibly gained in a shared service centre – and combine this with an understanding of the wider business.

“There’s a lot of talk about ‘you can only be a business partner if you’ve worked in the business or done a secondment as a non-HR person’,” says Hills. “But our research would say that that’s not necessary.”

Expected salary: £70,000 +

Verdict: In theory, the top job.

HR salaries

All figures are for basic salary, excluding bonus, and are taken from the median (mid-point in the range of salaries) for each grade and speciality.

Specialism Department manager
(senior post)
 HR assistant (junior post)




 HR IT specialist



 Generalist HR






 Reward management



 Employee relations



 Resource planning









 Management development




Source: CELRE

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