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What is the best preparation for a career in HR?

September 30, 2020
By Brian Kreissl

(tomertu/Adobe Stock)

In my previous column, I discussed the overlap between general management and the practice of HR. Having had general management experience in the past is often a great way to prepare someone for a career in the HR profession.

The truth is HR is a management function – something that a lot of people fail to understand. But beyond having management experience, what is the best preparation for a career in HR?

In the past, many people fell into HR as a career path almost completely by accident. With very few academic programs in HR and the perception that the HR function was highly administrative in nature, many people with administrative backgrounds ended up working in the HR function.

It is often said that HR (or “personnel” as it was formerly known) used to be about little more than hiring, firing and recordkeeping. HR was known as a highly “transactional” function, focused on reactive firefighting and administrative tasks.


Importance of strategic HR

While I’m not knocking work such as recruitment, delivering training programs and administering compensation programs, the idea is the HR profession has become much more strategic in nature. This involves aligning an organization’s people strategy with its overall corporate strategy.

The truth is every major decision of strategic importance relating to an organization will have some people element. It really is true that an organization’s people are often its biggest asset and a major differentiator from the competition.

At its most strategic level, HR is part of the C-suite and reports directly to the CEO. A chief human resources officer (sometimes referred to as a “chief people officer”) in such a position is often consulted on with respect to decisions relating to the organization’s overall strategic direction.

I personally think the importance of “strategic HR” is often misunderstood and overblown and is sometimes used as an excuse for not understanding the details of important people-related programs (“Don’t bother me with such transactional details; I’m a strategist”). Leaving these issues aside, there is no question that the HR profession is moving much closer to the strategic business partner it has aspired to become for more than 30 years.

Understanding ‘the business’

HR practitioners need to have a deep understanding of general business management and the specific industry and organization they work in. They should have an appreciation of the types of issues keeping managers and employees up at night.

However, that doesn’t mean HR can simply offload tasks they consider to be beneath them. Managers and employees still expect a certain level of service delivery and that the HR function will be able to keep the lights on with tasks they’ve always been responsible for.

Nevertheless, HR needs to understand the business. They should walk around and talk to people in the organization and understand their priorities, issues and concerns.

I also believe HR needs to understand business in general. For that reason, many HR practitioners now obtain their HR training through a business degree with a focus or major in human resources management. Many young people are now making a conscious decision to move into a career in HR right out of high school.

Several MBA programs now offer specializations in HR, and aspiring HR leaders are increasingly completing master’s programs in business after obtaining their HR training. There are now several options for graduate degrees in HR or related areas.

In fact, it is almost becoming a requirement for a senior-level position in HR that candidates have an advanced degree in HR and likely an HR certification. HR can be a difficult career to break into and having advanced education in business or HR (or possibly law) can be extremely helpful, particularly at more senior levels.

Importance of legal compliance

Because so much of HR focuses on legal compliance and avoiding legal, financial and reputational risk, many HR practitioners are quite risk averse. That risk aversion is quite understandable, and for that reason an understanding of employment and labour law is extremely important.

Occasionally there can be a fixation on what is likely to be a fairly trivial risk, and for that reason, I would advocate that all HR practitioners should brush up on their legal knowledge. In fact, more than a few HR professionals are also lawyers.

Brian Kreissl is a product development manager with Thomson Reuters in Toronto. He looks after HR, payroll, OH&S, records retention and Triform. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com or (647) 480-7467.

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