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Is HR the right career for you, and how do you make it to the top?

Human Resources Management covers an enormous range of activities – from setting up policies and dealing with legal issues to recruiting and developing employees. It’s a role that’s part policeman, part parent and part innovator. It requires you to be inquisitive and analytical, a problem-solver and a pragmatist. It can be enormously rewarding, and enormously frustrating —often at the same time.


It’s also dominated by women. Roughly 70% of the members of the CIPD (the professional body for HR professionals) are women. And, with female acceptances onto HR higher education courses outnumbering males by almost three to one in the UK, this trend looks set to continue. The figures are similar overseas; for example, according to 2014 statistics from the US Department of Labor, 76% of Human Resources Managers are women

What’s not quite so encouraging is that getting to the top in HR can be tougher for women. Research by XpertHR found that while women outnumber men by three to one in the profession as a whole in the UK, men make up a much higher proportion of senior HR managers, and are paid more.

Given that women haven’t reached parity with men when it comes to taking the top positions across a wide range of management roles, this perhaps isn’t surprising, but it’s disappointing none the less. So, what are the skills you’ll need to have to make it to the top?

  • Strong commercial awareness


In a recent webinar, Carol Anderson, ex-HR Director and author of Re-purposing HR, put it very succinctly. Business leaders are focused on four things: increasing revenue, income, market share, or reducing cost. That means, she says, that HR have to put HR initiatives in this context. That doesn’t mean that HR shouldn’t be focused on the softer HR skills, the nurturing part of the role, but that these activities need to be but in the right context and have the support of leaders. Fortunately, there is a growing body of evidence showing that as focus on employee development, empowerment and trust, has direct impact on the bottom line, which in turn is leading to greater reliance on HR.

  • Great communication skills


Given the tricky role that HR has to play, you’ll need to hone your communication skills. It’s not only important to be able to talk with confidence, but you’ll need to get to grips with active listing too. Not the kind that’s about nodding and saying encouraging things in the right places, but the kind that picks up on the subliminal messages that will help you navigate through what can be a minefield of politics and embedded behaviours. While practice helps, there’s also growing evidence that a better understanding of neuroscience is helping HR professionals to improve communication and positively influence employee behaviour.

  • Tactician and strategist

When you start off in HR, a lot of what you do is likely to be admin based. Chasing up references and bank details, organising recruitment, arranging training, on-boarding new staff and updating policies, are all important to making sure that people get paid, the right skills are in place, and HR processes run smoothly. However, if you are to climb the HR ladder, you’ll need to be a strategist too. According to SHRM, male Chief Human Resources Officers in Fortune 200 companies spent nearly twice as much time as their female counterparts on being a strategic advisor to the business (and have often spent 3 – 5 years in non HR roles too). If you don’t get the opportunity to practice strategic skills in your current role, or move outside of HR,  find a mentor or do voluntary work.

  • Technology champion

techOne of the most effective ways to free yourself up from HR admin, is to make the most of available technology. You can avoid wasting hours updating personnel records, or chasing up overdue forms with the latest online HR software. They make it really straightforward for employees to update their own information, and most systems send out reminders—to take care of the chasing up. Recruitment is infinitely easier if you’re using software that allows you to post vacancies out to multiple jobsites at the same time, and makes screening simpler. Documents are easier to share and keep up to date if you’ve an online HR portal. Think of an HR activity, and there’s bound to be technology that can help.

  • Data analyst

You don’t need to be a STEM graduate, but you do need to be able to interpret the information that comes out of your HR system. After all, it’s hard not to be taken seriously when you’ve got facts and figures to back up your arguments – whether it’s for greater investment in training, addressing employee churn, or tackling absence issues. In Data-Driven Organization Design the author, Rupert Morrison, goes one step further. He argues that data can be used to design an environment for people to perform. By understanding your data, he says, you can have the right people, in the right place, doing the right things, at the right time. And it’s this that gives you a sustained, competitive edge.

  • Confidence in your own worth

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that being a team player, won’t always get you’re the recognition you deserve. For example, a recent article in Harvard Business Review found that women get less credit, especially when they are working with men. That doesn’t mean you need to turn into a harpy, but you may need to stand up for yourself. Obviously, a good place to start is in a company where the culture is a good fit for you. If your leadership don’t support you, and don’t understand the value of HR, then it’s time to take your talent somewhere else.

For more useful advice about careers in HR, visit the CIPD website.

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