Before I started my HR career, I trained and worked as a professional actor. I made the decision early on to change my career path after fairly rapidly realising that the cutthroat world of professional theatre was unlikely to offer me the financial security I was looking for!
An extremely competitive career path
Little did I realise it at the time, but by choosing to break into HR I was also unwittingly selecting another extremely competitive career path. For reasons that I confess to still not fully understanding! – HR as a profession is highly oversubscribed and competition for entry level roles can be intensive. Junior candidates for roles will also too often face the frustrating barrier of needing to have experience to be shortlisted for a position, but needing the position in the first place in order to obtain that experience!
In hindsight I was incredibly fortunate to obtain my first HR role after just a year working as a secretary, and was successful in being appointed to the very first position I applied for, as an HR Assistant working within a call centre. I know now, from speaking to others attempting to break into the profession, that the path in rarely runs this smoothly – and I believe I simply benefitted from being in the right place at the right time! – and I am frequently asked by students and graduates how they make that jump onto the first rung of the HR ladder.
There is no magic formula which will guarantee success, but there are certain things you can do which will absolutely maximise your chances. Here are some of the things I would recommend all HR-hopefuls consider doing:
Get the basics right
The blog post I wrote for Benefex on 6 Steps Towards a Great CV is probably a good place to start. As with any job application, getting the basics right is essential. When I advertised for an HR Administrator role at Benefex earlier this year we had almost 200 applicants. To stand out, your application needs to be absolutely first class. A load of spelling errors or a generic cover letter which doesn’t specifically reference how you meet the role brief or why you want to work for that company simply won’t cut it. Take time on your application and ensure it stands out from the crowd – it’s going to be essential if you want to make it to interview stage.
Don’t sell yourself short
As I referenced earlier, the Catch 22 of attempting to break into HR can be roles which ask for previous HR experience… but you need to get the role in order to have the HR experience in the first place! The good news is, if you’ve ever worked before – or even volunteered – you are likely to have a whole load of very relevant experience which you can shout about. Sure, you might not have worked in a dedicated HR role… but have you ever worked alongside people? Have you been involved in a recruitment process? Perhaps you’ve got a huge amount of administrative experience. All of these are going to be enormously valuable in an HR role.
When I applied for – and got – my first HR position, I talked a lot about the relevant experience I’d obtained while working as a secretary. I’d been the first point of contact for candidates arriving in the office, and had taken them through their assessment tests. I’d helped enter data into the company’s HR database. I had a large amount of Excel experience. I am fairly convinced that writing about all of this in my cover letter is the reason that I was shortlisted for interview, despite the advert having stated that previous HR experience was required.
Think about your drivers
Once you’ve made it to interview stage, you will almost certainly be asked the question: ‘So, why do you want to work in HR?’ For me, this is a make or break question for candidates. What are your real reasons for wanting to get into the profession?
The answer I hear most frequently is a variation on ‘I like people/I want to work with people’. Which is all well and good, but given most roles involve an element of human interaction, I don’t see how this makes you more suited for HR than any other profession. Personally, I don’t believe that ‘liking people’ is a critical attribute to work within HR. I think you need to be able to empathise with people, support people and develop people… but liking people? In my view, it comes across as fairly wet as a response.
When it comes to great responses to this question, there is no right answer, but it is worth really taking the time to analyse and think about the reasons you do want an HR career. For me personally, it has always about being able to play a part in driving the achievement of business objectives by working cross functionally with all departments, and helping to shape an organisation’s most important resource – its people.
Look at alternative routes in
Entry level HR roles are always hotly contested, and competition for each position can be extremely fierce. If you find you’re not even getting through the shortlisting stage, why not consider another route into the profession?
I refer back to my comments on experience. In every role, you will be working with people in some way, and thereby gaining experience which will be highly relevant to an HR position. Why not look for an operational role within an organisation with a large HR team. Companies will often recruit into their HR team internally, and, by demonstrating outstanding prowess within an operational role, and learning your business from the ground up, you will be in the best possible place to succeed when such a vacancy does arise. I would cite as an example my People Advisor – Alex – here at Benefex. Alex started her Benefex career working within our call centre, before successfully applying for the HR Administrator role when it was advertised internally. She has since been promoted to People Advisor, and deservedly so, because her operational experience and understanding of our business makes her the best advisor that I’ve ever worked with.
In summary: getting that first, elusive HR role can be difficult, and there are no silver bullets to success. However, by persevering, by demonstrating your commitment and aptitude, and by being really able to articulate your reasons for seeking a career as an HR professional, you do everything in your power to maximise your chances of achieving success.