Getting Your Start In HR? You’ll Find There Isn’t One Clear, Obvious Path

© Giordano Aita -
© Giordano Aita -

I really enjoy talking to college students about getting their start in HR.

When I was in school, the speakers that they brought in always seemed to have this clear path that you could take (along with certifications necessary) to become your own HR professional. When my own path didn’t play out the way it was supposed to, I became slightly obsessed with hearing how other people got where they were in HR.

I was somewhat relieved to find out that hardly anyone had taken the path prescribed in school, and while their move into HR may have not been accidental, it was often fortuitous (and sometimes random) circumstances that brought them to their desired career path.

With so many divergent paths, how do I explain how a person gets into HR?

Do you really want to be in HR?

One of the first questions I ask is why a person wants to be in HR. One reason I ask is because this will help me push you toward a functional area of HR that is a better fit. Another reason is because I want to make sure you’re entering HR for the right reasons. And if you say it’s because you love helping people, we’re going to have a longer conversation.

The trenches of HR are full of compassionate people. I know them personally and they do like people. But there are aspects of the job that are process and administration heavy.

There are parts of the job that is full of heavy quantitative analysis. And there are parts of the job that aren’t so great when it comes to dealing with people. And if you choose employee relations, you’ll be dealing with the whole gambit of interpersonal issues that invade an office.

HR seems suited to those that understand both the promise that having the right set of people in an organization can bring, and, the severe consequences of not getting it correct. The moving pieces in that system are not always simple or straightforward. People who can deal with all of that seem to do best as they are starting off in HR.

Talking my own career path

I got my start in HR as the administrative manager for the college computer labs and tech support. It was a nearly full time job staffing six labs, a full tech support group as well as the administrative staff that made it happen — plus, over 130 part-time student employees (with at least a third of the employees moving on every year).

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After college, I worked in retail and specialized in hiring and training new employees. Then I got my first corporate job as a recruiter for a fledging company before transitioning to be the HR leader for the organization as we grew from 30 employees to almost 200.

If I told you to take that path, I doubt anyone would be able to follow it step-by-step. But there are some lessons to be learned.

For one, I leveraged my college learning experience heavily early on and it paid off. Learning on the fly and being open to new challenges (like transitioning from recruiting to HR) also helped. Being able to relocate (something I did twice early on) also seems to be a good thng. But there is more.

How others got into HR

Last year, I got the opportunity to interview 12 people I really admired in HR on my personal blog. One of the questions I asked them was how they got their start in HR. Here are some of the ways:

  • While trying to get into a supply logistics job after being an officer in the Army;
  • Going from sales to contingency recruiting to an HR position;
  • A change to HR at the urging of a professor;
  • After graduating with an accounting degree and deciding to be a FBI agent;
  • A project that transitioned a person from ops to HR;
  • Implementing enterprise financial systems.

While all of these paths are wildly different, there is one thing they all have in common: when these people got the opportunity to work with HR in any capacity (either with a mentor, as part of a project, or just a chance encounter), they took it and ran with it. They used whatever opportunities they had and pushed for more responsibilities, education, and experience.

It may be disheartening to know there isn’t a clear path to follow to be guaranteed a job in HR, but it should be exciting to know that there are many paths to become some of the more respected people in the HR industry. A dedication to the field, perseverance, and an openness to change and growth seem to be the building blocks on which careers are made.


1 Comment on “Getting Your Start In HR? You’ll Find There Isn’t One Clear, Obvious Path

  1. As long as you are able to get the most qualified candidate at the lowest possible price you will make it up the ranks of business. You must be comfortable in enforcing corporate policy.

    Seriously, people do not like the HR department. Everyone knows they are the corporate bullies and know how to throw their weight around!

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