Things I Wish I'd Known Before Starting a Career in HR

The words “Human Resources” strike fear amongst many employees. Portrayed in the media as being the “scary” part of the business where characters in movies are only called in order to be told bad news or be reprimanded, HR as a profession is used to being ridiculed. Business writers have questioned its value to a company and one recent article even referred to it as “dead.” However, despite the negative publicity it receives, HR remains a profession that is increasing in popularity with many graduates eager to pursue a career in the field.

It wasn’t my lifelong ambition to become an HR professional - I’d never even heard of human resources at school. It was only after I had returned from travelling and realised that my attempts to “find myself and decide which career to pursue” had really translated into “have as much fun as I could and not giving my career a second thought.” So slightly panicked and, in dire need of direction, I chose the subject I found most interesting in my university business studies degree and embarked upon getting myself onto the HR career ladder. For a career that I picked on a whim, I’ve been lucky to find it enjoyable, but there are certain aspects of HR that can only be found out through experience. Here is what I wish I’d known about it first.

1. HR is the unpopular part of the company.

For a sociable person, this is probably the toughest lesson I’ve had to learn - no one wants to be friends with HR. No matter how much they try to include and integrate themselves, HR will always be on the outside and there’s an audible groan whenever they show up to company social events. It’s not a case of not liking HR people individually, it’s just difficult to shake off the image of the HR representative monitoring people’s behaviour and conversations, looking for information they can use against them in future.  The higher you move up the HR career ladder, the harder it is to maintain friendships with people you may end up having to discipline or have difficult conversations with. Therefore, many HR professionals segregate themselves because it’s just easier in order to maintain their professionalism. Perhaps one of the reasons why HR isn’t that popular is that they have to be the killjoy at times. It’s never fun to have to put an end to the “hilarious” joke that the director wants to make in his speech at the Christmas party because it might offend someone. Trying to “police” the business can be exhausting and re-enforces HR’s image of being dull and unable to laugh at themselves. 

2. HR is constantly fighting to prove itself as a business function

No other part of the business needs to battle as much to prove they are a worthwhile, strategic function. HR has a constant challenge to try and be seen as a vital part of the business and not just a fluffy admin function that deals with holiday requests and sickness calls.  This means working closely with the business to drive forward strategies and initiatives that will have a major advantage on profitability and turnover. Unfortunately, not everyone wants their help with important decision making. It takes time to build up respect from the business, but helps to try to be as strategic as possible - understand the direction you want HR to go in and formulate a business plan to support this.

3. A good sense of humour is vital

It’s a common belief that to work in HR, you have to be a “people person” and this is one I used to subscribe to myself before I began my career. Unfortunately, HR is not really about being nice to people. Most of the time, it’s about delivering some downright nasty news that will affect people’s lives and careers. Whether it’s redundancies, demotions or dismissal, HR can be a nasty part of business and effective communication skills are needed to make sure that the message is conveyed fairly. Therefore, I would class a good sense of humour as an essential quality to have in HR - it will get you through a day of dealing with negative things.

4. Innovation and creativity are key.

Working in HR, I sometimes find myself presented with some tough situations. There is a great deal of creativity involved and sometimes the best solutions are ones that need to be created. Similarly, processes can always be questioned and improved. HR are sometimes criticised for insisting on “form filling exercises” that are a waste of time and not productive to anyone. Therefore it’s important to evaluate current HR processes and procedures and eliminate any that are outdated. Consider if technology could streamline processes or speed up delivery.  

5. It is almost impossible to balance the best interests of the employer and the employee at the same time.   

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard employees moan “It’s pointless going to HR because they will just take management’s side.” This is something I’ve found most difficult about HR – being in the middle of what employees want and what management want. It’s tough trying to balance this and sometimes HR are “the messenger” delivering bad news that makes them look bad, but in reality it’s come from management and they are only delivering what the business has asked of them. As an HR professional, all you can do is try to fully understand both the employees and the managers’ business issues and work out ways to support both as fairly as possible.     

Overall, the view of HR as a “nice” profession that involves looking after the employees is out-dated and inaccurate. If HR is to survive in the future, it needs to establish itself as a strategic function that can bring essential business advantages. It has aspects that are tough, but there are also rewarding parts. There’s something fulfilling about seeing a recruitment process through from start to finish, or passing on the good news that someone has been successful in obtaining a promotion. It’s just that this is balanced with things that are not so good. For every job offer I make, I have to decline someone who has not been successful and for every promotion, there is someone who is not doing so well. However, I would still recommend HR as a great career to go into if you want to make a strategic difference in the business – just be aware that it may not always be appreciated, as unfortunately, much of the good HR does is in private!