Survey sheds light on career obstacles

Most HR professionals do not see formal educational qualifications as necessary to begin or advance an HR career. However, professional certification is seen as critical to success.

This is according to a survey by Personnel Today’s sister publication, IRS Employment Review, questioned 135 senior HR practitioners in public and private sector organisations on their views about the best route to a top position, and how they got there.

In fact, educational qualifications are ranked last when HR respondents were asked to indicate the three factors considered most important for an individual wishing to advance in HR.

Martin Rayson, head of strategic HR at Lincolnshire County Council, believes that although professional HR qualifications are useful in demonstrating that a certain level of knowledge has been acquired, hands-on practical experience gained through working in the field is equally important. “Professional certification is a recognised kite mark, but in order to progress to a senior level in HR, people should be able to demonstrate practical know-how. It is background and experience that ultimately determine whether or not a candidate is appointable,” he said.

Just under half of the survey respondents have a degree, while three-quarters hold a postgraduate qualification of some kind.

Degrees held by survey respondents straddle a wide range of disciplines, with business studies the only prevalent subject of any note, studied by 15 per cent of undergraduates. Only 7 per cent studied HR at undergraduate level.

Not surprisingly, the relevance of the discipline studied to HR increased considerably at a postgraduate level.

In all, just 10 per cent of those surveyed said they chose HR as a career path because it is well respected as a profession, and just 3 per cent said the reason they chose HR is because it pays well.

IRS also asked HR professionals about the barriers they faced in advancing their own HR career – a line of questioning that revealed further negative perceptions about how they believe the profession is viewed by organisations and society in general.

The fact that HR is not viewed as important enough by employers emerged as the second biggest barrier to career progression, according to nearly half (49 per cent) of the 59 respondents who had encountered obstacles. Sixteen respondents (27 per cent) indicated that a further barrier resulted from HR not being not viewed with enough prestige by the business world.

More than 40 per cent of those asked said they had encountered barriers to advancing their careers. Asked what they perceived the main barriers to career progression to be, the lack of senior HR opportunities was the commonest answer.

Other significant obstacles included: HR is not viewed with enough importance by employers (49 per cent), a lack of clear HR strategy within the organisation (47 per cent), and the lack of a structured career progression framework (44 per cent).

The survey revealed that 80 per cent of respondents have Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) membership, with a number also belonging to other bodies such as the Association of Healthcare Human Resource Management (6 per cent), the Society of Personnel Officers in Local Government (2 per cent), the Chartered Institute of Management (6 per cent), or Personnel Today’s HR Directors Club (8 per cent).

The respondents’ viewed professional qualifications second only to experience acquired through generalist HR roles in the league of factors considered most important to career advancement.

Continued professional development is also taken seriously by HR professionals, with attendance on professional courses, reference to specialist journals, and membership of a professional body proving the most common approaches to lifelong learning.

Duncan Brown, assistant director-general of the CIPD, said: “Although demand for the CIPD professional development scheme has remained fairly static, the number of HR professionals undertaking short-term certificates with us is booming.

“To some extent, this reflects the increasingly diverse range of career paths we are now witnessing at the more advanced end of the profession, as well as the growth in the range of specialisms.”

And while generalist HR experience is viewed as the key determinant for career advancement, there is a growing awareness that business acumen and operational experience are becoming vital for success at the top of the career ladder.

Experience gained through generalist HR roles overwhelmingly emerges as the most important factor to advancing an HR career, with 94 per cent of respondents highlighting this area as one of three key factors. Professional certification is ranked second (50 per cent), line management experience takes third place (42 per cent), followed by experience gained through specialist HR roles (36 per cent).

Other skills that rated highly were: communication, personal effectiveness and HR delivery, change management, negotiation, business knowledge, strategic management, and leadership.

Competencies that are considered less relevant include the ‘harder’ statistical aspects of organisational management, such as accounting and financial management experience.

IRS identified concerns that HR professionals are being passed over for some top HR roles in favour of non-HR people, who may lack HR credentials but who do know the business and have operational experience.

Brown offers a measured perspective: “Although the business partner role is sexier, for business partners to be effective, the HR function still needs to deliver on the technical and administrative front. The HR essentials remain vital, although it is evident that understanding the business is increasingly important. The development of the HR profession is a journey and significant progress has been made so far. To gain further prestige, HR professionals have to own strategies that show impact in business terms,” he said.

Senior practitioners should give a leg-up to new starters

Mark Crail, managing editor, IRS Employment Review

“Our research suggests that it is sometimes ridiculously difficult to find a good first job in HR, and that even those who manage to find their way into the profession are held back by the lack of career structure.

“We were particularly struck by the fact that a profession that specialises in people appears to expend so little effort in looking after its own. The fact HR’s role is often undervalued by chief executives and other board members is really no reason for those who make it to the top of the HR world not to help others follow them up the career ladder.

“Senior HR practitioners need to do more to make use of the often exceptionally high standard of education that those joining the profession bring to the job, and to help them get the range of experience they need in generalist and specialist HR roles – as well as in operational management posts – so that the next generation of HR leaders can make a full contribution to their organisations.”

Senior HR managers explain how to get to the top… and how to stay there

– Be a generalist and be involved in change management. Develop a strategic view and skillset without losing the ability to implement to a detailed level. Be creative and open-minded

– Be as fair as you can. Then be consistently fair. Make sure line managers know the importance of being fair. Before anything else, ensure communication is a priority for your organisation at every level

– Learn the business and be able to add value in applying a sound HR strategy to achieve what the business needs. Look at the wider picture rather than just concentrating on a narrow HR perspective. Try to obtain as much knowledge and experience as you can within both HR and the organisation. You need to understand the impact that HR has on the organisation and people.

– Get a sound business knowledge elsewhere first

– Don’t get bogged down by policies and procedures

– Get sound practical experience as a line manager, coupled with professional qualifications and knowledge; work in an organisation that suits your style with an appropriate culture; listen to the business and find the right levers to deliver HR

– Approach things from a business perspective – be a business enabler, think as a business player and not as an HR practitioner

– Take advantage of the opportunities provided and be flexible and adaptable

– Achieve a balance of operational HR experience combined with specialist projects and gain professional experience in areas outside HR

– As there are not many organisations that provide structured career paths for HR, you need to be prepared to move jobs to get promotion. Make sure you work closely with the business to deliver the right service

– Think carefully about why you want to join the profession and the level you want to operate at. Have clear aims in mind to enable you to reach targets. Entry through the ‘ranks’ will give anyone a grounding in basic HR administration and procedures

– Obtain at least three years’ operational experience rather than seeking an HR role straight from university or college

– Above all, do what you said you would do and ensure that you deliver at all times; taking a measured, structured and consistent approach to all employment matters will win you ‘fans’ across the organisation.

Source: IRS Employment Review

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