Top 20 Skills Needed to Work in HR

Some of them might surprise you.

Skills needed to work in HR

Human resources is the division of an organization primarily concerned with people’s performance and optimizing the workforce. The role is multifaceted and involves a sound knowledge of business, as well as the softer, people-focused side. Consequently, HR responsibilities involve the use of many different skills.

This article covers the 20 most important hard and soft skills you will need to work effectively in the HR career path, including why they’re important, and how to put them to use.

1. Adaptability

In a world where organizations continuously evolve, HR is often the voice and reason behind these changes. HR professionals, therefore, need to be able to manage change positively and effectively. They have to be able to explain changes and implement processes that ensure their organization adapts well.

Similarly, HR might also be impacted by change, and they, therefore, need to be able to handle change management themselves.

2. Business analytics

HR professionals make decisions that will have a significant impact on an organization’s bottom line. These can include hiring decisions, workforce budgets, when to launch HR initiatives to minimize impact on monthly cash flow, and payroll management.

Consequently, HR employees need to have a good knowledge of financial measurements and analytical capabilities to effectively partner with business leaders. They will also often have a seat at the table when it comes to setting business goals, and being able to relate HR matters into wider business strategy is also very important.

3. Coaching skills

Coaching is right up there in the list of skills that HR professionals need to most frequently use. They’ll spend a large part of their working week coaching managers and employees on making the right decisions and navigating workplace challenges. It’s, therefore, beneficial for HR teams not just to have a working knowledge of coaching principles but also technical or specialized knowledge in this skill.

Coaching qualifications and related expertise like Lean/Six Sigma can contribute to HR practitioners being regarded as expert coaches, elevating their credibility and dependability in the workplace.

4. Communication skills

The key to being an effective HR practitioner is to be a good all-around communicator. You need to be able to converse effectively in writing, such as creating professional letters and appropriate emails, as well as having good listening skills and being able to communicate face-to-face.

Communication skills are particularly important because, very often, the message that HR has to deliver can be tough or negative. Careful, balanced and respectful communication can make the difference between a message landing well with the HR employee influencing others, or a message being poorly received, and trust and credibility being damaged.

5. Compensation and benefits

HR professionals must have a good understanding of salary scales, bandings and market information regarding remuneration. This can be technical and specialized knowledge, but a basic understanding of it is essential to be able to advise leaders on payroll matters.

HR teams must also know how to research and administer benefit programs, such as healthcare plans, pensions and other benefit programs. Analyzing the impact of compensation and benefits on employees, as well as on the bottom line, is an essential part of this skill.

6. Conflict resolution

Like it or not, every HR professional is responsible for managing conflict. You’ll be working in environments where you have to give tough messages, and finding conflict resolutions that are win-win is rarely easy.

Therefore, HR professionals must be skilled in mediation and diplomacy to manage conflict situations, and find solutions that have the best interests of both the organization and the individual at heart. This can be difficult to achieve, so honing conflict management skills often comes gradually over time, rather than through formal qualifications.

7. Cultural intelligence

In organizations with a myriad of different cultures, HR professionals have to navigate diverse workplaces and ensure that the way they are structured, and the experience they provide, is considerate and inclusive.

This starts with understanding the needs of various cultures and valuing these differences by finding common ground. It’s not always easy and it requires managing leaders and other employees to ensure they understand the importance of diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace.

HR teams must also use cultural intelligence to understand how to get the best from teams in diverse environments.

8. Customer service skills

This might seem like an unusual skill for HR professionals to have, but customer service skills can easily be applied to the employee experience, where the internal customer is the workforce.

It’s HR’s job to put the needs of the employee first and ensure they are well-provided for through good remuneration, a great workplace environment, and a positive working culture. HR will handle employee requests, support them with challenges, mediate conflicts and, throughout all of this, live by the mantra “The customer is always right”.

9. Diplomacy

HR professionals are master diplomats! The profession might be full of policies and red tape, but navigating the gray areas, as well as managing different people with different needs, requires a lot of tact and understanding of organizational politics.

It’s often said that HR leaders are master hustlers, being able to manage big egos of various leaders and knowing how to ensure HR processes remain relevant in cultures where lots of opposing demands are at play. Acquiring diplomatic skills in HR requires plenty of experience, as well as mastering the other skills on this list to drive credibility and influence others in tricky situations.

10. Empathy

Empathy, or showing understanding, is a vital skill for HR professionals to have.

HR supports the “human” side of the business. This includes ensuring employees are looked after and cared for; therefore, HR teams must be aware of and understand their needs. This doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with everything the employee wants, but is instead focused on understanding how HR or organizational decisions might impact the employee and how these effects can be managed.

11. Employee relations knowledge

Employee relations is a hard skill that every HR professional needs to at least have an awareness of. Employee relations refers to situations like performance management, disciplinary processes, flexible working requirements, compensations, labor relations, and other legal matters that relate to people management.

Entry-level HR roles will need some awareness of company information like employee handbook and processes, whereas more senior roles will need an in-depth understanding of employment law, and maybe formal qualifications in this. Being able to relate employee relations matters to non-HR leaders is another important aspect of this skill.

12. Ethics and integrity

A core purpose of the HR department is to keep the organization fair and equitable. HR professionals must, therefore, possess an understanding of ethics and integrity, and use their knowledge of these important areas to create a workforce environment where everyone feels comfortable and treated fairly.

HR professionals must understand the principles of business integrity (such as data management, business ethics, fraud management and safeguarding) and consistently apply these principles to the needs of the business.

13. Facilitation and training skills

Another useful technical skill to have in the world of HR is training and development skills. HR teams might formally and informally train team members, and having facilitation skills is vital, as is an understanding of learning principles, especially “andragogy” (how adults learn).

HR will also need to have talent management skills; essentially how learning development can be applied individually to encourage employees to fulfill their potential in the workplace. HR professionals might also need instructional design skills, which is technical knowledge of how to design training programs.

14. HR software

The human resources department relies on HR information systems and software programs, such as BambooHR, Oracle, SAP, Taleo or Workday. These programs bring together many areas of people management, such as payroll, record-keeping, administration, recruitment, and learning and development, and, as such, are very useful and important tools for HR professionals to know.

HR professionals can either work with a variety of different systems to get to know many different tools at a reasonable level, or choose to specialize in one HRIS to become a subject matter expert on how it works.

15. Leadership

HR professionals need to have excellent leadership and management skills. The use of these skills is a little unique, as while HR professionals might have teams to manage, they also need to manage laterally and upwards, leading their non-HR peers in implementing HR advice and managing top-level bosses on how to navigate HR needs and people challenges.

Therefore, the role of HR as a leader can be very complex and draw upon an advanced level of leadership ability. Some HR professionals will lead processes, meanwhile, which involve managing HR policies and ensuring they are executed correctly and legally.

16. Negotiation skills

HR professionals use negotiation and influencing in many different ways. Some HR professionals will negotiate as part of managing recruitment processes, and others will use negotiation as part of employee relations processes or collective bargaining.

Often, though, the role of negotiation is influencing leaders in making the right people management decisions. In this role, HR uses effective engagement skills to guide leaders, ensuring the needs of the business are prioritized but so they don’t lose sight of the importance of ensuring employees are looked after.

17. Organizational skills

Because HR departments are cost-generating divisions, HR teams are often smaller compared to other teams in the organization. To this end, HR professionals must be experts at managing lots of different tasks at once.

To add to this complexity, the tasks that HR needs to manage are important, such as working with people and their challenges, legal considerations, and time-sensitive situations that require swift decision-making in complicated contexts. Therefore, knowing how to get the most out of your day is vital in the world of HR.

18. Recruitment skills   

HR professionals need to have a good understanding of recruitment processes, even if they don’t handle day-to-day recruitment and selection in their organization. HR should be able to advise and coach managers on recruitment needs, support them with interviewing in the right way, and also have an eye over recruitment administration processes, like background checks or right to work.

These processes carry some legal risk, and this is why all HR professionals should be reasonably skilled in what to do and what to look out for.

19. Resilience

HR can be mentally tough. HR professionals can deal with all sorts of challenges, work with employees when they are at their lowest or most frustrated, handle jarring change management, and often have to deliver bad news. This must all happen with the HR professional remaining professional, calm and impartial.

Additionally, resilient HR practitioners can project calmness and reassurance on managers and employees who are worried or need objective advice. This is all easier said than done, and is why resilience skills are a vital attribute to possess.

20. Strategic thinking

Strategic thinking is about connecting the dots and setting long-term objectives, not just for the HR department but for the organization as a whole. Very often, business priorities are shaped by HR, and this requires HR leaders to be able to think longer, say three to five years, into the future.

HR professionals with strategic thinking skills are adept at turning longer-term plans into shorter-term goals, driving the profession and the business forward. Strategic planning skills also enable HR to see the bigger picture and make meaningful decisions, even if they’re decisions that have an impact only in the moment.

Final thoughts

The diligent and effective human resources professional needs to be an expert in leadership, business administration, coaching, negotiation, and many more areas besides. The application of these skills is complex, as you have to use them to look after various stakeholders who might be working through various priorities and challenges.

The role of HR is to use their skills proficiently to ultimately balance the needs of the business with the needs of its people. It’s easier said than done!

Do you think we missed any important skills? Let us know in the comments section below.

Originally published on November 22, 2014.