· 9 min read · Features

How to make HR a career of choice for top talent


Few schoolchildren or students hanker for a career in HR, which suggests the profession has an image problem. How can HR ensure it's a career of choice?

Visit a class of schoolchildren and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and some answers will come up again and again: a footballer, a singer, a firefighter. You might even get the more realistic children, those who say they want to be teachers, doctors or journalists. The one thing you're highly unlikely to hear though: when I grow up, I want to work in HR.

Is this a problem for the profession? According to new research from the CIPD, it might be. Its recent report on social mobility found few members considered a career in HR while growing up. Only 4% first considered it while in school or college. The research adds: "Qualitative comments suggest many HR professionals believe that information about careers in HR is largely absent at this level." Things are better for HR as people get older: nearly one-fifth of respondents say they first thought about an HR career at university. But the point remains: HR is often not seen as a 'career' per se, either by young people and more experienced hires.

And it's not just about when people make the decision to go into HR, whether they fall into it or make an active choice; it's also about the quality of talent entering the profession. Neil Morrison, HR director at publisher Random House, puts it bluntly: "As a profession, we need to start hiring better people." The reason 2012 research by KPMG and the Economist Intelligence Unit found less than 20% of respondents said HR added value to their business could be because, as Morrison says, "HR in so many places is done so badly".

That HR has a perception problem is nothing new. "The HR brand isn't always perceived as positively as we might like," admits Valerie Hughes D'Aeth, HR director at infrastructure services provider Amey. "People see it as an admin function, or the one with the rulebook. We have that perception to overcome in attracting people." Morrison adds: "I almost feel I have to apologise when I tell people what I do. Not for my job, but for the people they've met. It's rare that I meet people and they say, 'my HR team adds the most value in my organisation' - and that's sad." According to Morrison, that perception can start young. "A child's parents might say not to go into HR because they've had bad experiences at their organisations," he says.

However, Vincent Peart, a lead adviser at the National Careers Service, says more young people have begun asking about HR when they ring for advice: "Young people are savvier about looking for employment now. They are more aware of the actual job market. Careers in HR are seen as solid and robust." That is supported by research this year by recruitment firm Reed, which finds that 89% of those responsible for recruiting HR professionals say the workforce in their organisation is either stable or very stable.

"Solid, robust and stable" is hardly sexy and exciting though. And although there's no doubt the National Careers Service means well, Peart's advice to look for a job in HR if you "want to work in an office and like working with people" is hardly going to encourage the most ambitious and commercially-minded young people into HR. "That's the problem," sighs Morrison, when he hears how HR is being sold to young jobseekers. "People just don't understand. The single thing that will lead to you not getting a job with me is saying 'I like working with people'. That's one-dimensional and doesn't see the proper impact you can have on an organisation through things like organisational development. It doesn't excite the right kind of people, with the curiosity and ability to think creatively. We need people with a different mindset, taking risks and being truly innovative, not just repeating what they've heard in case studies at conferences."

Slowly, though, things are changing for the better and, paradoxically, some of this is due to the underperforming economy. "The recession has supported the development of HR as a career," says Barney Ely, director at recruitment firm Hays' HR practice. "The change caused by the downturn has led to people in HR playing a leading role and supporting senior management in things like change management, retention and lean techniques." Steve Wing, director at specialist HR executive search firm Strategic Dimensions, agrees: "HR isn't recession-proof in the UK but, when an organisation is going through tough times, it needs HR to sort it out." According to Reed's research, the recession has also led to more HR directors appointed to the boardroom.

Ely adds that he is seeing more people transfer into HR from other areas of the business. "Traditionally, HR isn't one of the core disciplines, but it is coming more to the fore in business. People are more attracted to it and are transferring more into it." Organisations are also shifting their talent into HR from other functions, he says. "Anecdotally, I hear commercial people from other disciplines are being moved into HR to support change."

For Nuala OSullivan, senior lecturer and course leader in HR management at Westminster Business School, this movement of "commercial people" into senior HR positions can be "frustrating". "There are very high-level HR people but, when it comes to board positions, the organisation drafts in someone from operations or marketing. You'd never get that in any other function," she says.

This may change in time, however, as students on HR courses begin to pick different specialisms. According to OSullivan, the students on her course are "becoming more strategic" in their choices. "They are choosing to do finance and marketing modules, and more general business than ever before," she says. "There's been a huge rise in students studying employment law, a rise in reward and a rise in change management while we've seen a drop in diversity and equality and L&D. It's shifted away from the softer modules to the harder-edged ones, where people can demonstrate real value to the business." She adds that the students she sees coming through the course can be split: "There are the strategic people who want to develop their careers and those who want to be HR admin and stay at that level."

While the parachuting in of executives from other functions into very senior HR positions may be frustrating, most experts agree that spending time away from HR only helps a person's ability to do the job.

"I am getting some very talented graduates who have set out to work in HR, but I would like to see more people come into HR later in their careers, perhaps from finance or general management," says Hughes D'Aeth. "HR would be all the better if we attracted people from other business environments."

Wing agrees, and advises ambitious HR professionals to "be on the other side for a bit". "Feel what it's like to get an intervention from HR," he says. "The one thing you don't tend to get in an HR career, unless there is a seat at the table, is a real feel for the business. HR people have to take the initiative to understand the business."

When it comes to how HR is taught, Hughes D'Aeth says the CIPD ought to become "less HR focused" in its teaching. "I would like to see more teaching around the business," she says. "It should be about understanding the business first - how we can use HR to support the business. At the moment, the CIPD comes at it the wrong way: here are lots of best practices to put into the business. We need to turn that on its head."

Of course, this works the other way too: shouldn't business people from other functions take the initiative to spend some time in HR, improving perception and understanding? Hughes D'Aeth believes a spell in HR should be part of all general graduate and high-performance programmes. Harry Dunlevy, director at HR consultancy Independent and former HR director of BMW and EMI, agrees HR's core transferable skills can serve people well in other functions - something he says executives are recognising. "People are moving into HR as they see it as a core skill to be added," he says. "They are seeing the value of an HR career, even if it's only for a stint." Like Ely, Dunlevy names areas such as change management and organisational transformation as particularly attractive for ambitious execs. "My own experiences are anything but 'soft'," he says. "Downsizing EMI by 40%, for example. You don't get many tougher gigs than that."

Dunlevy also believes that today's young HR professionals are savvier than his contemporaries: "The generation coming into HR now gets the business agenda a lot quicker than my generation did. They are well-informed. It's a different quality of person." Ely backs up the theory that top graduate talent is beginning to show more interest in HR. "While the brightest graduates haven't traditionally chosen HR, that is changing," he says. OSullivan says while HR used to be taken as a "soft option" by international students, this is no longer the case. And as fewer companies have the budgets to send people on extensive courses, the students she teaches are increasingly self-funded. "They have to jump through more hoops, but they are more ambitious," she says. "We are getting better students because of it."

Despite this gradual positive shift, however, Morrison believes HR professionals can do "a lot to sell ourselves better". "I don't think HR has got into people's minds as a career," he says. "I don't think people see the entire remit. If people say they want to work in an area that adds strategic value, they aren't told HR, they are told finance." Dunlevy agrees HR is "misunderstood as a career". "People don't know enough about it. If you want to be an HR director, what do you need to do? It's not clear." This is confirmed by the fact Peart says the National Careers Service describes HR career progression in just three stages: HR admin assistants, HR officers and HR managers. Evidently, the higher levels of what can be achieved in HR are not so widely known.

According to Wing, attempts to better sell HR to high-flying talent should focus on a few areas. "There are lots of different career paths: you can specialise or be a generalist, and it's transferable as you can move sector and industry," he says. "Once you're in, promotion can be quick - HR people tend to move around a lot. They know how to play the game as they see people leave organisations all the time." HR is also becoming increasingly international, so motivated professionals may well travel extensively or live abroad. "In Asia and other emerging markets, HR is an unsophisticated discipline," Wing says. "They are looking to the West for best practice and expertise. It's a balance between the cost of expats and building capabilities locally. HR people from the UK stack up well professionally and are seen as a good bet."

However, there is one glaring downside for the most ambitious talent considering pursuing an HR career. "Few HRDs become CEOs," says Wing. Recent research from executive search organisation Mullwood Partnership, published in the May issue of HR magazine, finds 63% of HR leaders want to move beyond their role, yet only 5% of the CEOs surveyed had an HR background. "Having influence at board-level helps," says Ely. "The most ambitious people see who's around the board table. That's why people get into finance. The more HR people get into that slot, the more belief there is. We are a hell of a long way from that now." And OSullivan says many of her most ambitious students choose to leave organisations and strike out on their own. "They tend to go out as consultants as a while if they are not being developed in organisations," she says.

Even if we are some way from seeing HRDs regularly make the jump to CEO-level, role models are clearly crucial in making sure HR is seen not only as a career, but a career of choice for top talent, at graduate level and beyond. "People need to be able to look up and think 'what a cracking job they've got'," says Ely. HR also needs to make sure those who have never worked in the function see it not only as an aspirational option, but an achievable one. "We need to make it more public," says Hughes D'Aeth. "I've got one person at Amey who told me he is keen to work in HR, but always thought the door was closed. Why should it be?"

As Ely says, HR has a rare chance to raise its profile among the talent pool, both present and future, in today's competitive landscape. "It is where business can gain a competitive advantage," he says. "To find, retain and motivate the best talent is very important right now, so HR can come to the fore." Achieve that and who knows? Perhaps in a classroom in the future, a child will say: "When I grow up, I want to be an HR director."

How do you sex up HR?

We asked two experts, one from advertising, the other from marketing, for their views

David Miller, managing director, Red Brick Road advertising agency

“One problem with the view of HR is I don’t know any famous ?faces associated with it. There aren’t many well-known role ?models or ambassadors for graduates to see. Where are ?the poster boys and girls? 

“You need a bold advertising campaign with testimonials: who found the person who is now CEO of that great company? It could pick out the unsung heroes. Ask high-flying CEOs who helped them get their break or who helped develop them. Create ‘hero HR’: HR as the silent champions. That would show just what HR can do.

“The other thing I’d pick out is the versatility of a career in HR: being able to work in a variety of industries and specialisms is a key selling point for ambitious graduates who crave change. I’d do something similar to what the Army and Navy have done to sell the variety of jobs available. The campaign would showcase the variety of roles a person can have in a career in HR and the different cultures you could find yourselves in. Frame it as accelerated learning, like in a top management consultancy.” 

Louise Cretton, freelance marketer and non-executive director 

“For me, HR is an odd mix of being too soft and too hard. Too soft because it often seems HR people talk and talk about best practice without getting much done; too hard because it is often associated with negative process. 

“But when I have met a good HR person, they are such a joy to talk to. When you think about it, it is one of the most powerful roles in any organisation, as people bring the most value. HR wields a lot of power, so the profession should bring that forward.

“One problem is the CIPD doesn’t seem to be very dynamic. I think HR needs a more attractive, edgy alternative professional body to take it up a notch. It could get some hard academic thinking behind it, linking to subjects like behavioural economics, sociology, anthropology and psychology. Then you need to get more HR people in the press: a weekly HR director column in the nationals, for example, or recruit a panel of HR experts to act as media experts, so the press can approach them whenever a story breaks.”