A guide to careers in human resources
Careers in human resources can be rewarding and fulfilling, helping companies and organizations to identify, recruit, hire and retain talented employees.
Increasingly, HR professionals are taking on other critical roles, helping to define and fulfill strategies, identifying areas of need, and finding staff to ensure organizations complete important priorities.
At its core, HR does the work of people management – hiring, firing, and retaining employees. However, HR is also involved in areas that are essential for the long-term success of an organization.
The many roles of HR in the modern workplace
Human resources is a dynamic profession involved in every facet of an employer’s operations. From the implementation of safety programs to identifying opportunities to attract the next generation of employees, HR staff are crucial to a company’s success.
The role of HR has come under even more focus in the COVID19 pandemic as organizations evaluate how they are organized, what employees need for success, and how they value human capital.
Here are some other areas where HR plays an increasingly strategic role:
Companies today are seeking talent both internally and externally and HR professionals play a key role in identifying candidates for future roles. Increasingly HR staff focus on building a robust pool of candidates even before openings exist, allowing potential staff to learn more about the company and its culture.
Compensation and benefits
HR staff play a key role in managing compensation, determining, and administering employee benefits and ensuring that there is equity and cohesion in salary and wage rates. Managing these processes can be critical in recruitment and retention.
Training and development
After employees are hired, they require specific training to maximize job performance. Training programs, both right after being hired and continuing, are an important way to stay up to date on new technologies, reinforce policies and give employees needed and valuable skills. Professional development programs can take on many forms. In some cases, employers offer employees continuing education or the opportunity to earn degrees. Other professional development options include webinars, in-person education programming, conferences, and mentoring programs.
Company culture includes morale, trust, teamwork, collaboration, and communication. Often, HR offices take a lead role in the assessment and measurement of company cultures and make recommendations on how to improve or refine the employee experience
HR is a profession that continues to develop in tandem with the evolving workforce. A recent study highlighted how the role of HR is expected to expand in future work environments, including:
- business continuity and the role HR plays in maintaining operations while fending off or recovering from cyberattacks, natural disasters or public health crises
- serving as a link between human staff and technologies, including chatbots, virtual reality and algorithms
- data detection and trend analysis, reviewing and using the vast amounts of information created by people, objects, and processes
- facilitation of work from home and hybrid work modalities
- workplace environment architecture, helping to design and implement spaces and amenities to react to the new work paradigms
- future of work management itself, helping to predict and plan for the ever-changing ways work will be done
- wellness management, being mindful of employees’ emotional and physical health in and outside of the workplace
- career management, including working with employees interested in changing roles
The characteristics of a successful HR professional
Given the breadth of areas within HR, the profession attracts people with a range of backgrounds, education, and experience.
HR is largely about people. Because it is a profession with a high degree of personal interactions, this profession tends to suit those who find it relatively easy to connect with people and appreciates the differences and unique qualities each person has.
Those who are good at conflict resolution, mediation and acting as an arbiter between different viewpoints tend to be effective in HR roles.
Individuals who pursue successful HR careers require the skills to assess qualifications, make decisions based on limited interactions, and be good judges of character.
HR people need to be able to manage conflict and employee issues. Those who are good at conflict resolution, mediation and acting as an arbiter between different viewpoints tend to be effective in HR roles.
Another important trait of HR professionals is the ability to put aside emotions and maintain composure in situations that are often personal, private, and complex. HR staff need to bring fairness, attentive listening, and empathy to their work, especially when dealing with interpersonal workplace relationships.
Degree options to prepare for a career in HR
Numerous degree options are available and relevant to a career in human resources. While most HR positions call for a bachelor’s degrees, options also exist at the associate degree level. Advanced and senior-level HR positions commonly require a master’s degree, either an MBA or other graduate diploma.
Here is a closer look at the kinds of degrees and what types of HR jobs are suited for each.
A 2-year associate degree is a good option if you’re looking for an entry-level position in an HR office or in a support role. It can also provide you with highly transferrable skills should you later decide to change careers.
For example, an associate degree in office administration can teach you the fundamentals of working in an office, including business systems, business operations, organizational skills, software programs, and business correspondence. Coursework typically includes basic accounting, business math, marketing, administrative office procedures, document processing, keyboarding and management concepts. These courses are typically taught at community colleges, business schools, some state universities and online.
There are a few schools that offer an associate degree in human resources. In addition to the basic business courses offered in an office administration degree program, an associate degree in HR includes introductory courses about human resources, management, and employment law.
A bachelor’s degree in human resource management teaches both the operational fundamentals of HR and the theory and best practices in the field. Students may have the opportunity to learn directly from placements in internships and summer positions within leading HR divisions. Immersive in-person HR management programs often include practical, hands-on projects, design thinking, service learning opportunities and the study of strategic management issues.
Typically, coursework in a bachelor’s degree in human resource management incorporates:
- organizational behavior
- organizational and business foundations
- conflict resolution
- innovation and entrepreneurship
- economics and business finance
- operational management
- organizational communication
- human resources management basics
- diversity, equity, and inclusion
- talent acquisition and development
- ethical business practices
- compensation and employee incentives
- leadership development and team building
- sociology and anthropology classes on human interaction and societal systems
A major in human resources can prepare you for a position working as an HR generalist (who handles a range of responsibilities in a smaller HR office) or as a specialist.
In larger HR offices, there are often small groups who specialize in one component of HR, such as compensation, benefits, recruitment, or training. In some cases, these positions are part of a larger, centralized HR operation. Enterprise organizations often embed HR staff within business units, such as manufacturing, sales, marketing, or finance: the HR staff work on specific unit needs liaising with central offices.
Some students choose to minor in HR, either in connection with a related course of study, such as business or management, or combined with an unrelated major. Minors in HR have fewer course requirements and students generally complete a combination of core courses and electives.
Human resources degree programs are often located in business schools or departments. This is unsurprising as HR is a crucial function that relates directly to business outcomes.
In general, there are 2 options to an advanced degree in HR: a master’s in human resources management, and a master’s in business administration (MBA).
A master’s degree in human resources management focuses on strategic skills needed by senior managers and include coursework on:
- leading organizational change
- managing power dynamics
- strategic resource planning
- labor relations
- leading creativity and innovation
- compensation design
- HR analytics
- HR leadership
- international HR management
These master’s level programs are usually designed for HR practitioners wanting to advance their careers.
By comparison, an MBA is usually focused on maximizing a company’s performance and profit. From a HR perspective, this can be achieved by focusing on how a company values its employees. MBA graduates have the option to pursue careers in HR or other business specialties.
Organizational management versus HR management
Organizational management is a field of study similar to HR management. In fact, organizational behavior grew out of HR but has some distinct differences.
Organizational behavior is the process of understanding how people think and operate within a business structure. It looks at employee behaviors within a business when confronted with various scenarios. It uses a more scientific approach that analyzes the data about people and systems to help businesses better understand how they can operate more effectively.
By evaluating, designing, and implementing changes to the operational procedures of a business, the goal of organizational management is to improve outcomes.
Organizational management seeks to effect change by taking a macro look at the dynamics of people and systems. By evaluating, designing, and implementing changes to the operational procedures of a business, the goal of organizational management is to improve outcomes.
By contrast, HR is largely focused on the operational details needed to manage employees throughout each stage of their employment journey. Organizational management professionals usually bring a data, analytics, or theoretical perspective to their work.
Careers in human resources
There are many options for those looking for a career in HR. Below are some of the most common careers.
Human resources managers
These professionals advise managers on policies, connect managers and employees by answering questions, administer contracts and resolve work-related issues. HR managers may develop and evaluate policies regarding compensation and benefits. They are responsible for disciplinary matters, dispute resolution, and firing.
Training and development managers
HR staff in these roles assess education and training needs. They design, modify, and implement training programs and materials. They are often also responsible for orientation for new employees.
Compensation and benefits managers
These managers are the company experts in policies and programs related to compensation, benefits, and government mandates. They monitor salary and wage rates to develop and maintain compensation plans and create information for employees related to pay and benefits.
Office clerks or office managers
Respond to telephone and email enquiries. Engage with employees, applicants, and candidates, while managing other more general work.
Human resource specialists
Specialists often complete a wide array of activities, including hiring employees, managing searches, completing employment related paperwork, maintaining employment records, sharing information about relevant laws and regulations, reviewing applications, and addressing employee issues.
An MBA in human resources equips you to apply advanced business skills with specialized knowledge of HR issues, allowing holders to take leadership roles in HR departments.
HR staff are always in high demand. Jobs can include specialized work in a niche area or working as a practitioner focused on multiple roles in a smaller organization. Either way, there are plenty of routes into this sector.
Getting the requisite educational credentials is the best way to position yourself for a career in HR, especially if it’s your first job in this sector.
The beauty of working in HR is that there are many different types of positions available. You are not limited to one type of role and can move to different positions during your career. The best job for you will depend on your character traits, location, and career goals.
Human resources skills have applications beyond HR. With an HR degree, you could work as a career counselor, life or career coach, talent recruiter, payroll or benefits specialist or consultant.
It depends on the type of role you want to pursue. If you are interested in big picture work that uses data to help organizations change how they operate, then organizational management may be for you. If you love working with people and the idea of helping them with their careers, human resource management could be a more suitable choice.