6 Tips For Climbing the HR Career Ladder

Everything you need to know about advancing your career in HR

For those considering a career in human resources, job prospects have never been better. After high-profile HR nightmares at companies like Uber and Thinx, the field’s importance is as apparent as ever.

Want to capitalize on the trend? As your day-to-day responsibilities pile on, it may seem hard to step back and find the time to focus on your career. Between navigating an ever-changing compliance landscape and staying current with industry developments, investing in your own career—not just the careers of your employees—seems like a stretch. It doesn’t have to be.

There are easy, low-cost ways to broaden your skills and strengthen your credentials. Whether you’re just getting started or looking to make your next move up the career ladder, we’ve put together everything you need to know to take the next step.


1. Be Proactive

A proactive attitude can help in any career, but it’s especially important in HR. Why? You’ll face a variety of situations that require creative solutions. The more innovation and enthusiasm you bring to your role, the easier it is for leadership to trust you and know that you’re doing a quality job.

At growing companies, small HR teams often have to start from scratch to create and implement processes that will scale effectively. In most cases, it falls on HR teams to take the lead on initiatives that build a set of cultural values designed to support the company long-term. Here’s a tip: don't wait for someone to assign these responsibilities to you—recognize what your company needs and act on it.

Work beyond your job scope to identify systems and processes that need attention and lend your expertise. Don't sit back and watch your company grow or wait for your role to unfold; look for opportunities and act. Everyone loves a positive go-getter who has the company’s best interest in mind.

Follow these three steps to be proactive once you identify challenges or gaps within your organization:

Get Leadership Support

As you approach uncharted territory, make sure you work closely with your leadership team. Want to introduce a new performance cycle? Thinking of incentivizing employees to go paperless? Pitch ideas to your C-level executives and keep them in the loop as you implement. There’s always room for innovation, but it’s important to have leadership buy-in as you try new things and scale your efforts.

Ask for Feedback

Never be afraid to experiment, but always be sure to measure your effectiveness. If your ultimate goal is to increase employee engagement and retention, it’s critical to gather direct feedback on your new initiatives. At smaller companies, have as many in-person conversations as possible, and as you scale, check in with employees through pulse surveys.

Learn from Mistakes

When building out HR processes, expect a lot of trial and error. If you introduce Summer Fridays and notice a big decrease in productivity, you’ll need to backtrack and rethink the perk. If your goal was to reward and incentivize employees, there may be a better way to do so that doesn’t negatively impact the business. Perhaps a summer company outing or monthly team happy hours would be a better alternative, for example.


2. Learn the Full Scope of HR

There are a variety of career paths that HR professionals might follow as they advance their careers. From talent acquisition associate to payroll guru, it’s helpful to understand each aspect of HR before settling on a specialization. HR generalist roles are a great way to dip your toes into a variety of functions and gain insights into HR’s most common challenges.

If you’re on a small (or one-person) HR team, you’ll most likely be asked to perform an array of tasks and be challenged to execute across disciplines. You’ll likely have a hand in culture, benefits, payroll, and hiring—but as your team grows, you’ll have more time to focus on a specific function that appeals to you. Whichever function you zero in on, having generalist experience can make you well-positioned to take on a managerial role down the road.

Explore all areas of HR before deciding on one specialization—there are a lot of different areas of HR (benefits, payroll, employee development, etc.). It's nice to see all aspects before deciding to specialize in a particular area—or you may even decide to be an HR generalist that handles a variety of duties in the long run.

There are three ways to gain exposure to the full spectrum of HR duties. We’ve summed them up below:

Shadow Your Peers

Consider shadowing members of your own, or even external, teams to gain exposure to different roles. Spend time with the HR Director to see if you like managing a team; learn how to process payroll from the finance team; or even talk through current benefits plans with your broker. Your colleagues won’t fault you for deepening your understanding of the business, and you can learn a lot from simply watching.

Experiment with New Initiatives

If your role doesn’t touch on an aspect of HR that interests you, work on initiatives that give you exposure to those areas. For example, if your main focus is recruiting, but you’re interested in employee engagement, dedicate some time to a cultural initiative. Suggest a wellness, charity, or social activity and help bring it to life. If it’s successful, you may get to spend more time on similar projects in the future.

Understand Long-term Opportunities

Is your ultimate goal to manage others? Work with the CEO to fill leadership roles? Or be the go-to resource for people analytics? Each role has distinct responsibilities that require a diverse skillset. As you explore different opportunities at the ground level, be sure to keep your long-term path in mind and consider what experiences will be most valuable to you down the road.


3. Consider Certification

While many HR practitioners at small and mid-sized companies “fell” into the profession, it’s important that your growing HR experience is reflected on your resume in order to advance your career. If you started as office admin for a five-person company and developed into an all-encompassing recruiting, payroll, and benefits role, you want your credentials to reflect your on-the-job expertise.

This might mean going back to school for an MBA in an HR-related field—or it might mean getting an industry certification, like a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) or Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) certification. With a certification in your back pocket, it can be much easier to show your qualifications and advance your career.

Take advantage of every opportunity to advance your skills, including certification. If your superiors know that you are serious about building skills and see that you are engaged, you will get more opportunities to advance your career.

Consider these three approaches as you take steps toward HR certification:

Consult Your Mentors

Whether your ultimate goal is to be a director or a specialist, someone has done it before, so learn which certifications helped them the most in their journey. Some professionals may have found that higher education was crucial, whereas others might think industry certifications were just as useful for their career advancement.

Do Your Research

What’s the difference between PHR, SPHR, SHRM-CP, or an MBA? What can each do for you? Which will provide the best ongoing resources and opportunities? Each has its advantages and there’s no wrong decision, but make sure to identify the certification that best aligns with your experience and career goals by putting in the time to research.

Get Involved in HR Communities

Whatever route you choose, you will be among like-minded peers who can help you further develop your skillset. If you pursue a Master’s, make real connections with your classmates. If you go for your SHRM certification, utilize the organization’s online resources and attend conferences to get involved with their network.


4. Spend Time Outside the HR Bubble

It can be easy to get caught up in the HR bubble—in other words, to fall into the trap of HR tunnel vision. Whether you tend to only converse with HR peers or just get into a heads-down routine, it’s important to come up for air once in awhile. It may seem counterintuitive to recommend that you not focus solely on HR. But you can actually make a greater HR impact if you have a well-rounded understanding of your company’s business and its people.

Spend time walking around the office, getting to know employees, or pursuing mentorships with leaders outside of the HR space to help broaden your perspective—all of which you can apply back to your role.

There are countless resources outside of the HR bubble. Here are a few ways to start taking advantage of them:

Take a Walk

Set aside time daily or weekly to step outside of your department and walk around your office. Chat with employees in common spaces, invite them to grab a coffee, learn what they did over the weekend, find out what projects they’re working on right now. This puts the human in human resources and not only gives you a better understanding of your employees, but gives them a better understanding of you (and gives a face to the HR department!).

Cultivate a Range of Mentors

HR mentors are great in terms of best practices, troubleshooting, and career advancement, but it’s also important to have mentors outside of the HR space who can broaden your perspective and expand your toolset. Leaders in other departments can help you better understand business practices and inspire creative solutions.

Gain New Skills

HR is a perfect landscape for creativity. Amassing skills outside of the direct HR function can be applicable to many of your own initiatives. Tune into a webinar on marketing and apply what you learn to talent acquisition. Take a Photoshop workshop to help you better communicate internal events or explain complex benefits topic in a visually appealing way. Whatever your outside interests, there is likely a way to translate them into HR.


5. Utilize Free Resources

Thanks to the internet, you now have a world of free resources right at your fingertips. These resources can help you with everything from answering basic how-to questions to finding a network of HR professionals. There will always be paid resources, events, and certifications that you can try, but don’t overlook the opportunities that are publically available at no charge.

Continually challenge yourself and put yourself in the way of learning. Ask for projects from your managers, attend conferences, get an HR certification, ask deep questions, and connect with local HR peers to swap stories and get support. The best things in life are free—even in HR. There are a wealth of free HR resources available to you if you know where to look. Here’s how to get started:

Network

Making connections is free and the best way to do this is to start reaching out. Read a blog post that inspires you? Email the author. Interested in learning how other small HR teams are building company culture? Reach out on LinkedIn. Join online networks, attend local meetups, and before you know it, you’ll have a whole network at hand whenever a question arises.

Learn

There are countless free ways to grow your industry knowledge. Webinars, meetups, and local roundtables are just a few ways to enhance your HR knowledge. Subscribe to informational newsletters and participate in community networks such as LinkedIn or Slack groups to stay in tune with thought leadership in the HR space. Engage with open communities, like HR Open Source to share ideas among a network of HR practitioners with a range of experience.  

Give back

Whether you have six months of experience or six years, you most likely have unique insights to offer. Wrestled with a payroll issue, culture initiative, or benefits communication? Odds are someone else is up against a similar hurdle and would love to hear how you overcame the challenge. Don’t discount your own experience or thought leadership.


6. Highlight Relevant Skills

HR experience doesn’t only come from HR roles. No matter what previous titles you’ve held, you may have amassed numerous skills that are applicable to a wide range of HR positions. Don’t underestimate just how well your other experiences—be it in design, sales, or customer support, for example—might translate into HR qualifications.

When you’re looking to make the jump to your next role, having on-the-ground experience, even with an administrative title, can make you just as qualified as someone with the “right” HR title. Work with your peers and mentors to make sure that your resume clearly reflects your HR abilities. Highlight any people management, coaching, mentoring or other HR-related duties that you have had in previous roles.

Consider these tips to help you capture the full range of your qualifications as you prepare to make a career move:

Audit Your Job Duties

When you’re ready to make the next step in your career, write down all of your job duties so that you can translate them to the requirements of the future role. For example, for someone looking to move from office admin to HR Generalist, it will be crucial to show that your office duties prepared you with experience in  onboarding, payroll administration, or employee event organization, to name a few.

Ask for Help

It’s almost guaranteed that someone before you has forged a path, so reach out to others who have had a similar career progression. Get a sense of what skills were useful to them when moving into a new role and what was challenging in their transitions so that you’re prepared.

Aim High, but Don’t be Afraid to Start Low

Aim high as you build your career in HR, but don’t be afraid to accept a title that is seemingly below your experience level either. Titles in the HR landscape can represent vastly different responsibilities depending on company size and structure. You could be an intern on a one-person HR team, doing everything from recruiting to payroll—which might give you more experience than as an HR Associate on a five person team.


Conclusion

Every HR person follows a unique path, and while it can sometimes feel like a lonely road, there are a wealth of networks and resources available at every stage of the journey. Whether it be blogs, conferences, social networks, or working with a mentor, the best way to advance your career is to get involved in the HR community. Cultivating that support network will help you gain confidence, drive innovation at your company, and move your career forward.

The most successful HR professionals draw on their creativity and drive to help improve their work environments. There’s always room for new ideas. You’ll have some wins. And remember, the most successful HR pros have gotten where they are because of what they learned from mistakes they’ve made too.