Senior HR Officer Charles Goff-Deakins shares his advice on landing your first HR role, progressing in the HR industry and developing your skills outside of your day-to-day role.
I can’t imagine many HR professionals, if any, had any idea that they wanted an HR career when they were at school. You heard a lot of “I want to be…a doctor”, “…a lawyer”, “…a chef”. Not so much “…a senior manager of talent acquisition”.
It’s not the sort of career that most young people know about, nor is it one that’s overly glamourous. Instead, they would usually have an interest in understanding how people and businesses tick, or they might enjoy giving people advice, or have a guilty soft spot for rules and procedures.
All of these things are a tell-tale sign of someone waiting to discover the HR field. It attracts a certain group of people who will find complete satisfaction being the link between the business needs and the welfare of its staff to meet those needs in the most effective way.
And when they do discover the HR field, they can be both excited and overwhelmed by the multiple disciplines within the industry; recruitment, policy, employment law, learning and development, equalities, reward and pay…the list goes on.
What is even more exciting/overwhelming is the multiple ways to enter the field, and the many, MANY directions the career path can take you, most of the time unexpectedly.
As an advocate for career management and development, I want to share five tips on embarking on, and developing your career in HR.
Getting into HR without any HR experience
Many roles in HR benefit from transferable skills, and luckily these can be picked up in typical entry level customer service and administration roles. It’s really important to assess what you do in your current non-HR role and break these into smaller skills.
These smaller skills, or components, can then be reassembled in a way that matches the needs for an entry-level HR role, for example: conflict resolution; use of databases; understanding the customers’/stakeholders’ needs by asking the right questions and active listening; conducting meetings; coaching and mentoring new staff; procedure improvement; using data to decide on the best solution; time management; accurate administration; compliance with regulations and legislation.
All of these things, and more, could be placed well within either a customer service/administrative or HR role. I’m not suggesting it’s going to be easy, but assessing your skills, matching them with requirements for an entry-level HR role, and reflecting this in your CV is a strong start to getting that first role.
First HR role
My first HR role was a generalist role, one that covered the entire scope of HR, and as such the option I thoroughly recommend if you’re not completely sure within which HR niche you want to specialise.
In a generalist role, you get to be involved in every angle of HR – in one week you could be preparing a job spec ready to advertise a new role, provide guidance to line managers on an employee’s performance, analyse feedback on a recent training session, and contributing to reports to senior management on a new way to tackle discrimination in the workplace.
It’s a hard slog and it takes a while to learn how to switch from one headspace to another at any moment but it gives you a taste of the areas you like and don’t like.
In some cases, you will be able to find these sorts of entry-level roles without the need for qualifications, just a genuine interest. Before being interviewed for your (potential) first role, make sure you have articulated the reasons why you want to start a career in HR beyond “I’m a people person”, and how this genuine interest and eagerness to learn counterweights your lack of credentials.
As a follow up, you may want to look into studying for some CIPD qualifications once you’ve nabbed your first HR role (or before!).
Usually accredited CIPD qualification providers don’t require you to have many prerequisites to enrol on a Level 3, 5 or 7 qualification (maybe GCSEs and a certain standard of English), however Levels 5 and 7 are intermediate and advanced respectively, so they assume that the student has knowledge of HR near or at that level, or at least that they are comfortable studying at that level.
The Level 3 is naturally a good starting point and provides the right amount of knowledge that can take you to non-senior roles, from administrator, to adviser, to officer, to middle manager (even full-on HR manager in some circumstances). The higher up the ladder, the more likely you will need the experience to accompany the Level 3.
The important thing is that by passing Level 3, you become ‘CIPD qualified’, which is also the same as if you completed levels 5 and 7. So the Level 3 qualification is enough for any role that asks for applicants to be ‘CIPD qualified’ (although they may prefer a higher level for more senior roles, depending on the position and your experience, as Level 5 and 7 teach you managerial rather than operational HR.)
I studied for my Level 3 Certificate with ICS Learn, who now provide these qualifications completely online, offer finance-free instalments, and are a really friendly bunch to study with. Seriously, they’re not getting me to say this, check them out!
I even wrote about my experience with them and they will certainly be my first port of call for my CIPD Level 7 Diploma.
Once you’ve settled into the swing of things, you will no doubt be looking for ways to progress yourself into a hardy HR career.
In the first instance, you should have a proper sit down and brainstorm what you consider to be a successful career. Don’t be too tempted to think that the only way is up or be too enamoured by fancy titles; a successful career is one that stokes your fires and keeps you wanting to go into work every day.
Therefore the amount of money you earn or the title you have should determine very little in your plans (beyond wanting to be financially secure).
And it’s OK not to have a specific end goal in mind as odds are, this will change the more involved you get with different HR specialisms or organisations. Aiming for your next milestone in the meantime is enough.
You can begin your brainstorm by searching for various HR roles at the next level(s) up on the internet. Not only are you window shopping for roles to discover what the role holder does on a day-to-day basis and thereby giving you as taster of where you want to aim your efforts, but it also provides you an overall picture of the sort of skills and experience needed.
These skills and experience should then be the foundation to a strong CPD plan.
I know, I know; CPD, right? It’s a necessary evil, and if you look at it at the right perspective (i.e. a list of objectives to improve your performance) and update it on an ongoing basis (i.e. making a habit of monitoring and updating it by scheduling it regularly into your diary), it needn’t be so tedious or a last minute scramble. It essentially becomes your blueprint for your career progression.
You should then keep a dialogue open between you, your manager, and your mentor (if you haven’t found one, find one!) about these career goals and objectives to see if there are any opportunities in your role to incorporate the development of these skills.
You may even decide to develop these by taking up less formal training that doesn’t provide qualifications at the end of it. There are plenty of free courses (known as Massive Online Open Courses or MOOCs) out there that you can do in the comfort of your own home.
Project management, business, psychology and leadership are great free courses for HR professionals to take up to add to their belt. They also provide a great taster should you want to continue your studies to more formal training.
Don’t forget that as part of your progression and career management, and the nature of HR in general, the development of these skills may be transferred to a different specialism of HR, and even off-piste from your career goals (for the better).
For example, you could decide to move into L&D after having spent a couple of years doing casework, and really add to the role by training employees on skills you’ve actually dealt with, like conducting a disciplinary investigation.
This is great news for people always like to learn new skills!
Career development outside of work
If perhaps there aren’t any opportunities to develop these skills for whatever reason, or you feel that you want to be doing more that work can’t offer, there are ways to develop your HR skills and career outside of work.
Luckily, developing your HR career doesn’t require specialist equipment or high-tech laboratories – you’d be surprised to learn how easy it is to take up some simple but effective extracurricular activities.
The first extracurricular activity I strongly recommend is building and maintaining your online presence i.e. a strong presence on social media like LinkedIn and Twitter, and commenting on blogs and online articles.
Although not necessary, I would recommend having a separate account from your personal one, one for when you want to talk shop with fellow HR professionals so that when opportunities come your way, a quick online search will prove that you are dedicated to the profession (and so you won’t inundate your friends and families with HR stuff!).
The trick with social media is to be a contributor instead of an observer. Follow Twitter discussions (#HRHour, #HRTribe and #LDInsight are really good places to start with a friendly bunch) and contribute to them. Read and share articles with your followers and contribute your thoughts on them. Engage with the people you follow and contribute to their questions and opinions. Don’t just seek out what people can do for you, contribute to the community by introducing opportunities to your contacts.
These contributions become a powerful thing for your HR career success as you are no longer a bystander; you are actively contributing to the field itself.
Be sure to expand your online activity to areas beyond HR as well though. For example, as we work closely with managers and leaders, keeping up to date with management and leadership issues will broaden your understanding of management.
As ICS Learn’s HR Career Newsletter also suggests, following business and finance topics will help you understand how businesses work and you’ll become a stronger partner to the business by understanding the mechanics and lingo.
Once your online presence begins to grow, you will discover so many other extracurricular activities. It gets you the exposure to opportunities like volunteering locally or nationally (e.g. Steps Ahead and Inspire the Future), guest blogging, starting your own HR blog/podcast/vlog, getting involved with CIPD branch events or mentor programmes, and soft skills development like articles and short courses on giving presentations or managing conflict.
As these are extracurricular activities and outside of work, they don’t rely on you having any sort of HR role, so these can just as easily be done if you’re looking for your first HR role, on long term leave like a career break or maternity leave, or if you’re currently in between jobs.
Not only do they keep your HR mojo in check, it demonstrates a huge amount of dedication to prospective employers.
And dedication plays a huge part in success in your HR career, as it does in any other field. The thing about HR though is that it’s an incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling career so it’s easy for us to dedicate ourselves to it!
I hope these 5 tips have given you some food for thought on how you will manage your HR career to success, whether you’re looking for your first HR role, you’ve just started out, or looking for new ways to develop your career.
The important thing to remember is that in general HR people are a friendly bunch so you’re in the right community that will always be happy to provide advice and support.
About the Author
Charles Goff-Deakins Assoc. CIPD is a Senior HR Officer, HR writer, career development blogger, and a self-confessed HR/L&D geek. He has worked across a number of industries and sectors, and in his free time writes and gives talks on HR, as well as giving advice on career development through his blog The Avid Doer. He is an advocate for self-directed learning, having studied with ICS Learn for his CIPD qualification.