November 05, 2007
In HR, it’s the intangible skills that count, says Donna Bernardi Paul, vice president and director of human resources services at Trammell Crow Co., a commercial real estate services firm in Washington, DC. “The technical skills can be learned,” she says. “But skills like good judgment and attitude are crucial for being a good administrative assistant.”
Good judgment and a large dose of discretion are both key to succeeding in HR. “You must be trustworthy, because people in HR know employee information before others do,” says Rebecca Zimmerman, an executive secretary to the senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Terra Industries. “I’d say the biggest challenge is confidentiality. You can’t share information with anyone.” Confidential information ranges from who is in line to get a promotion or to be fired to what’s in an employee’s performance review and paycheck.
You must be a people person to work in HR, says Zimmerman, who divides her time between corporate relations and human resources. She received on-the-job training for her HR role. “You deal with all different personalities, so if you’re not diplomatic, HR isn’t the place to be,” she says.
Paul stresses the importance of absorbing company politics. “You have to learn the lay of the land and the people, and know who to tap into to be your mentor,” she advises.
While certification isn’t necessary, it is available through the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). SHRM offers two certification exams: one for a Professional in Human Resources (PHR), and the other for the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). The latter is for HR professionals with at least six years of experience. To learn more about certification, check out the Human Resource Certification Institute. The certification test covers several areas, including:
- Management practices.
- General employment practices.
- Human resources development.
- Compensation and benefits.
- Employee and labor relations.
- Health, safety and security.
HR Focus Areas
HR generalists wear many different hats. One minute you may be negotiating your company’s employee benefits package, and the next, you’re interviewing a candidate for a director-level position. To help determine if this is the right job for you, you need to be able to answer “yes” to the following questions:
- Do I enjoy changing gears on a moment’s notice? - Am I open to learning about areas in which I currently have no expertise?
Compensation professionals always seem to be in demand, regardless of what’s happening in the economy, and there always seems to be a shortage of well-qualified people in this area. The job requires strong technical skills as well as good people skills — a rare combination. Compensation professionals design reward systems that help companies attract, retain and motivate their employees. Consider the following questions:
- Am I a detail-oriented person? - Do I have an aptitude for numbers?
Another area of HR without enough talent to meet demand is Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS).
As HRIS systems have become more sophisticated, the demand for experienced professionals in this area has risen. HRIS professionals are often involved in product selection, systems customization, implementation and ongoing administration. If you are extremely detail-oriented and enjoy working with computers, this might be the job for you. Ask yourself the following:
- Are my PC skills strong enough to be successful in this area? - Am I detail-oriented enough to handle this position?
Training and Development Professionals
The field of training and development (T&D) has changed substantially over the last decade. In the old days, trainers were expected to teach employees how to do their jobs. Now, training professionals are responsible for building environments that embrace learning. Management and leadership development is also an important part of the job.
In some of the more forward-thinking companies, T&D professionals may be involved in designing distance learning programs as well as on-site, computer-based training programs. Before you raise your hand to take on this job, consider the following questions:
- How comfortable are you working on one very long project as opposed to lots of small projects? - Are you passionate about learning and teaching others?
Organizational Development Professional
Are you one of those people who embraces change? Then the field of organizational development may be just what you’re looking for. Organizational development professionals work closely with top management to ensure the organization’s design is closely aligned with the company’s goals, mission and vision. In this role, you may also do some training and development.
Things can get really hot in this field when a company goes through a major reorganization or merger. You may be required to work long hours when change is in the air. When considering this role, ask yourself:
- How well do you perform during tumultuous times? - Are you a big-picture person?
If this might be the path for you, consider approaching some professionals in the field for suggestions on how to break into this area of HR.
The field of Human Resources has changed significantly from the early days of personnel management. There is a much higher demand for HR people to perform in conjunction with the business, and not peripheral from it. An MBA is also highly valued for anyone in or looking to move into the field of HR.