Workin’ 9 to 5 (…and some career advice from Human Resources pros)

Trouble results when the speed of growth exceeds the speed of nurturing human resources. To use the analogy of growth rings in a tree, when unusually rapid growth caused the rings to grow abnormally thick, the tree trunk weakens and is easily broken.
~ Akio Toyoda

Welcome back! So far, I’ve shared wisdom from subject matter experts working in Sales and Marketing. Next up in my series highlighting specific professions, I am going back to my own roots, where I began 16 years ago myself – Human Resources.

Having worked on HR teams of all sizes – from being the “department of one” to a member of teams of 100+, in a variety of industries (both public and private), I’ve seen the hard work from both specialists and generalists, from the assistant level all the way up to the senior executive. I’ve seen Human Resources teams treated like a true strategic business partner, and I’ve seen them referred to condescendingly as “the admin team”. I’ve seen people promoted in this industry who haven’t done the work and expect it to be easy (because they don’t respect the profession that it is), and I’ve watched individuals gain the street cred, excel in their roles, and become true influencers in the profession as well as within their organizations.

Once again, I sent out five questions to longtime HR professionals whose advice is great for both those at the beginning of their careers, as well as those who are considering a career transition to this profession.

The contributors to this week’s post :

Below is what they had to share with me (and a few tidbits from yours truly as well) about their work in the Human Resources field, what they’ve learned, and tips for those looking into a career in this profession. Enjoy!!!

1. What helped you the most in getting (and succeeding in) your current job?

Combined Business + HR Knowledge

“Prior experience in a variety of HR disciplines.”

“An understanding of organizational change, mergers and acquisitions and Organizational Development.”

“Knowing the business.”

“Keying in on explaining how HR can provide the data/support that what really matters to an employer – optimizing their employee performance/supporting its business objectives.”

“Direct experience as a business partner.”

My Interpersonal Skills

“Communication skills with all levels of corporate management.”

“The ability to know how and when to guide and encourage and when to lead.”

“Strong attention to detail, and an ability to think on the fly, debate with executives and make constructive suggestions for change.”

“Being open to constructive criticism.”

“I have been successful over the past 2 ½ years because I haven’t been afraid to evolve, trust my instincts and ultimately do what I know is right, both personally and professionally.”

A Strong Network

“Networking with other HR professionals.”

“I had a terrific coach who helped me with the emotional aspects of walking away from the kind of work I’d always done and encouraged me to find a creative way to use my strengths to find greater happiness.”

“LinkedIn and previous networking efforts helped me get into the organization.”

“Before I started my own business in 2012, I was experiencing severe burnout, working 80 hours a week on average and doing a lot of work dumped on me that I wasn’t being paid for. After 14 years in HR and Recruiting roles as part of teams big and small, in three states, and a ton of different industries, all of my history in the profession coalesced to inspire me to use the experience gained to help smaller companies without a dedicated resource for hiring talent. My network was key, and I reached out to the people who knew my accomplishments and knew of my reputation of not only helping small companies hire but in creating strong processes to empower their existing teams. I also had a damn good attorney.”

2. What is one of the most common misconceptions about working in HR?

It’s About Being “A People Person”

“That it is all about Employee Relations and being able to communicate well with people in a workplace coach/counselor role. HR has become an aggregate of technical disciplines requiring in-depth knowledge of a myriad of continuously changing regulations and laws. Application is well served by broad base analytical/business intelligence and detailed knowledge of policies, procedures, legal requirements and past practice supported by complex communication skills. HR supports the business vision providing guidance, leadership and talent development and management.”

That if you like people you’ll do just fine. Like no other trait is needed – wrong!”

“A lot of people go into HR because they want to “help people”, assuming that it’s mostly employee relations, often perceived as a place for nurturing staff rather than managing performance. Ironically, HR is more about implementing business strategy and managing risk than directly helping the people working in the organization. You’ve got to understand employment law and financial constraints, be adept at navigating organizational politics, and have the ability to influence without technical authority in environments where you’re often treated as an optional support function. Recruiting in particular is often seen as simply asking the same questions over and over, finding ways to say “no” to piles of applications, and a sales-y role trying to convince anyone and everyone to apply. The truth of the matter is that the best recruiters are seen as business partners to both the hiring AND human resources teams, along with being the external partner to the community of candidates and hiring resources.”

We’re Not Business or Technically Savvy

“That we don’t know how to use calculators.”

Like marketing, HR is often underestimated for its technical and cross-functional prowess.”

HR Is Inherently To Blame For Organizational Problems

“That we, under the guise of supporting employees, work against the objectives of the organization’s leadership and business goals.”

“That HR holds all of the power and authority in an organization. HR can and should play an integral part in the roll out of any personnel program but not only are they not the ones that make the decision to roll out a program (in most organizations), they shouldn’t be.”

3. What advice would you offer those wanting to get into this line of work?

Learn in Every Way Possible

“Attain academic knowledge and technical acumen in a specific discipline of HR to access entry-level positions.”

“Work in a continuous learning mode to gain experience, knowledge and understanding of other disciplines within the larger HR umbrella for career growth and flexibility.”

“Acquire certifications from respected sources.”

“Your degree and/or certificate in HR doesn’t instantly qualify you for midlevel HR work, so be humble and willing to learn from more experienced colleagues, and help in any/all areas. The stronger you are as a generalist, the better you will be as a specialist.”

“Go the extra mile – never say it’s not in my job description!””

Network in the HR Community

“Maximize networking opportunities with local HR organizations.”

“Interview HR professionals – what is their day like, what do they like or dislike. Call for an informational interview. Works beautifully.“

“Seek mentorship with professionals at all levels in their HR career and interview them thoroughly.”

Understand the Reality of Working in Human Resources

“If you want to be in HR primarily because you like to work with people, forget it; the most effective HR professionals should be all about top and bottom line. They need to know how to make the toughest people decisions with grace, tenacity and always with the upmost respect for others – and they can’t worry about being liked by the masses. The most effective HR professionals should see the HR function as a strong, essential business unit that performs off precise and relevant business metrics of the company.

“Don’t invest in the PHR unless you’re completely dedicated to an HR career.”

“One thing I hear a lot is “I want to help people” and while, distilled down, we do a lot of that in HR, there is also a heavy load of really tough work (i.e. benefits administration, rolling out compensation plans, navigating sticky employee investigations). To not only be happy in the field, but to be also be successful you should not have the idea that this line of work is all about being a good people-person, and helping others work through their problems.”

“Start in a support role – i.e., HR Assistant or Assistant to a VP of HR – so you can watch the specialists and benefits in action, support them on their projects, and get a true idea of what’s involved in the work rather than jumping into the deep end.”

4. How has the work changed since you entered the HR profession?

It’s More Complex

“Work is now more strategic, less clerical.”

“I entered the HR profession in 1984 when the work environment was far less controversial and litigious and being “good with people” was a key job requirement. HR back then was more general in nature and more dependent on common sense than technical knowledge. Today the field is far more professional requiring increased knowledge, skills and technical abilities within specific HR disciplines.”

“Computer literacy is a critical skill as well as speaking and influencing skills.”

“Academically, HR was one course in a business degree program (if it was even available as a college course). Most HR folks came to the field with  bachelor’s degrees in areas like Sociology, Psychology, or Business. Now bachelor’s degree programs in HRM are much more common.”

It’s More Influential

“Struggling to make HR relevant has become easier over the years as other business functions are seeing how influential HR can be in driving organizational performance when they pay attention to who they have in what role doing what job.”

In 1998, HR was still moving from the administrative-y “Personnel” to the more technical “Human Resources” perception, and everyone talked about ways to “get a seat at the table” at association meetings. Now in the 2014, there are a zillion names for HR (Human Capital being the most impersonal, People & Culture being the least strategic in tone, IMHO), HR is often an executive presence at mid to large-size companies.”

There’s Still More Work To Be Done

“Even with all the changes in bigger companies, I don’t see nearly as much advancement in smaller companies when it comes to the perception of Human Resources. Office managers and executive assistants with no HR experience are often asked to “do HR” because many still don’t see it as a skilled function beyond processing new hire and benefits paperwork. Those who are actually hired specifically for HR are often relegated to reporting under Finance (who have no experience in HR and often create a recipe for disaster because their function – not to mention, personality – is so different from that of the HR), instead of reporting directly to the CEO. ”

5. Why do you do what you do for a living? Any other dreams out there you still want to pursue?

“I do what I do because I work for an organization that honestly cares for its employees. Pairing that with the respect I hold from the executives, management, and all individual contributors allows me influence within the organization. Other dreams? I’m a new mom so I haven’t thought about that in a while – I’d like to quite literally be able to have dreams again (get sleep!).”

“Write a book, start a recruiting business. I do what I do because I like to serve employees, make a positive difference and get paid!”

“I have the independence to do things the way I want to do them, the variety in my work that allows things to never be boring, and the awesomeness of the community I work in who make it fun and supportive, even when I’m experiencing frustrations of my industry and the occasional bouts of “bag lady syndrome” stemming from self-employment. But the best parts? I have a life outside of recruiting because I have created work for myself that allows for balance. I do a lot of career coaching, and have seen it grow to be nearly 25% of my business. I write, and am working on the final version of my book for jobseekers that will be published in 2015. I have time to volunteer with organizations close to my heart. I have time to work in my garden. I have time to spend with my awesome husband and our bull mastiff. Next up? We are getting our home ready to hopefully welcome a baby by the end of 2015!”

“I do what I do because I get paid well and feel respected doing my job. I would like to own a doggy day care someday!”

“I enjoy HR because I believe what I do makes a difference and HR has become a cutting edge industry for organizational change and development. My dream is to be able to continue working into retirement in organizational consulting roles that allow greater flexibility for travel, relaxation and fun while generating personal income. I believe today’s corporate environment depends on people communicating quickly and concisely with greater understanding and flexibility and I have the ability to influence that outcome.”

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