HR has never been more popular – but that doesn’t mean everyone should try it

The profession is recognised for its strategic acumen, but we need to be better at explaining what it really involves, says Evelyn Costello

HR hasn’t always had the best write-up. This was perhaps best demonstrated by a 2012 KPMG and Economist Intelligence Unit study of more than 400 C-suite executives in which just 17 per cent of respondents said they believed HR did a good job. Lucy Kellaway, a former FT columnist, was among a host of commentators who subsequently referred to HR as “non-work”. 

Six years on from the KPMG study, there are signs these views are changing – in some ways, at least. Today, HR is seen as an increasingly important part of many businesses, with a range of studies backing this up. From my own recent experience, even small organisations – which have tended be very sceptical about HR – can see its value. 

These changing attitudes may partly explain the groundswell of people trying to make their way into the profession. In my nearly three decades of working with HR departments, it’s seldom been a more popular career choice, both among entry level and experienced candidates. In fact, we’ve seen a number of cases where relatively senior professionals from other disciplines change career to work in HR – in some cases, taking significant pay cuts to drop into a more junior role. 

Part of this is due to the growing popularity of the role. But it is also about an attitude that seems to have arisen in the past year or so: more and more workers believe they have what it takes to ‘do’ HR. It is, in the eyes of many, a cushy job which largely involves sitting around with a pot of tea gossiping with moany employees. 

Of course, anyone who works in HR knows that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s an opinion that belies the complex, challenging and almost dichotomous role the function plays in organisations of all sizes. 

On the one hand, yes, HR does have a ‘fluffy’ aspect to it. A big part of its role is speaking to employees about their problems and finding ways to solve them in a constructive fashion. But an HR function can be much more than that – acting as a sounding board for workers when new policies are introduced and helping employees and employers to find common ground. 

On the other, they’re a strategic part of the company – and with that comes an ability to deal with difficult situations and have tough conversations. An HR person needs to stand alone, yet be trusted by everyone in an organisation – managers and employees alike. With that comes a lot of pressure – they might be the only person who knows about an individual member of staff’s problems at home, or they may be aware of forthcoming redundancies. 

Working on both sides of a business can be a lonely place – you have to be personable, but you can’t be anyone’s friend. Perhaps the most vivid depiction of an HR person is the American version of The Office’s Toby Flenderson, despised by branch manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) for “not really being part of our family” and trying to stop unprofessional behaviour.  

Perhaps good HR professionals are a victim of their own success. The reason so many people think they can ‘do’ HR could be that the competent HR professionals in their own organisations make them believe they could do the job too. 

We need to introduce some realism back into what it means to be an HR professional. While it is undoubtedly a good career, it’s also not a land of tea and honey. A good HR person brings together an array of skills, understands what makes people and businesses tick, while juggling very different expectations. And not everyone can do that. 

Evelyn Costello is senior consultant – HR at HRC Recruitment