Navigating Your HR Career Path: Expert Advice on How to Advance
Human resources (HR) can be an amazing field to work in! After all, if you believe people are a company’s best resource, what could be better than assisting them toward their own success and the success of the company?
If only it were that simple. The HR job description can look totally different between jobs and employers, and even the most motivated professionals might be confused about how exactly they are supposed to rise through the ranks of their career while juggling all the work on their desks. How can HR professionals get out of the cycle enough to get a bird’s-eye view?
“Too often HR is seen as a support function that sits outside of the day-to-day running of the organization,” says Sue Andrews, HR and business consultant of KIS Finance. “But to have a meaningful impact you need to be at the forefront.”
Sounds great! You might be thinking—but how can I make that happen? To help provide some clarity, we combined expert advice with a little HR research to help you get a better vision for your HR career path.
First of all, what are the HR career path options?
You could loosely divide opportunities for higher salary and greater responsibility in HR into two groups, advancement and specialization. Since HR exists in almost every industry—the options are in truth far more varied than that. But if you are starting at an entry-level HR job, thinking about whether you’d prefer to rise through the ranks or move into a niche area can help you take stock of your choices.
An example HR career path
“When you start in HR, you may have a title like HR associate or HR assistant,” says Tasia Duske, CEO at Museum Hack. But as you continue gaining experience, more positions will open up. Duske says HR professionals with general skills would probably move into titles like HR manager, HR director and VP of HR.
But that’s just one potential route to take in an HR career. Specializing in a specific area is also a great HR career path option—allowing you to excel in a unique skill set and stand out. Duske says you could specialize in something like benefits administration, talent management or training and development to narrow the focus of your career and find those specific opportunities for promotion. In general, the larger the organization you work for, the more opportunities you’ll find for specialized HR work.
These titles barely scratch the surface. There are recruiters, consultants, analysts, technicians, advisors ... and the list goes on. But whichever way you think you’d like to advance your HR career down the road, knowing how to advance and how to grow in your work will help you get there.
How to advance in your HR career path
We asked HR professionals from many different career journeys to share what matters most in HR career advancement.
1. Do the work of the job you want
“When I started my career, I had the mindset that I would just start doing the work of whichever job I wanted,” Duske says. “I wanted to work in HR, organizational behavior and eventually management, so I started taking on those responsibilities before I had the formal title.” Duske followed the same process to a chief of staff position, and eventually CEO. Obviously, this is something that should be done with some guardrails—don’t go putting off your assigned work to deliver an unrequested report on the impact of a benefit change just because it’s something you find interesting. Instead, seek out opportunities and volunteer to help with projects that fit your interests.
2. Don’t get mired in a compliance mindset
HR has the dual (and sometimes conflicting) responsibilities of ensuring the company is compliant with legal and company standards, while also thinking progressively and trying to move their company forward, Duske explains. Professionals who hope to advance into management and upper-level positions need to be able to do both.
“HR regulations can be difficult and complicated, and it’s your job to make sure that payroll, benefits, claims and other responsibilities are completed correctly,” Duske says. “At the same time, push the organization forward with new methods and tools of engagement, job satisfaction and retention.”
3. Find a good mentor
This is good advice for any career, but in HR when you are often the one person people can talk to about their career satisfaction—you really need someone to rely on yourself. “Having a strong mentor early in my career was pivotal in helping me set the right goals along my career path and strategically move into positions that helped advance my career from an administrative assistant to the top HR leader for multiple organizations, says HR consultant Tana Session.
4. Mix with employees in other areas
In a dream world, HR professionals have the time and connections to handle all their work, keep a constant pulse on the health of their company and know many of the employees they work with as individuals. But HR as a department can become isolated and somewhat sidelined from the rest of the company. Laurence J. Stybel, co-founder of Stybel, Peabody & Associates, advises HR professionals never to eat lunch alone or exclusively with other HR colleagues.
“Be curious about the core of the business,” Stybel says. He describes one client who started a new HR job at a potato chip company. “What was the first thing she did? She asked to spend time accompanying drivers as they delivered potato chips to stores.” This particular company had a unique selling point on deliveries, so she wanted to understand firsthand what made the business special.
“That got her career with the company on the right foot,” Stybel says. “And the CEO noticed how different she was from other HR professionals who huddled together.”
“By getting involved, you win the respect of your peers as well as those in senior management positions, who can see that you’re keen to genuinely bring something to the business,” says Andrews. She adds that you will be able later on to link your HR expertise to real issues in the company based on what you experience—which will help to establish you as a valuable asset and communicator.
5. Look at your job from another perspective
Whatever you feel is most important about your job, it’s a safe bet that business owners and company decision-makers won’t all view HR as you do. “From the business owner’s point of view, HR is important but also a cost center and not a revenue generating activity,” Duske says.
If you want to advance in your influence, aim to minimize costs and help the rest of the business run efficiently, Duske says.
“A typical HR professional wants to be the smartest HR person in the room,” Stybel says. “But great HR professionals don’t care about that—they want to be their CEO’s valued business adviser.”
6. Deliver results
Going along with understanding how your employer sees HR, it’s also vital to deliver the results they expect.
“Delivering quality results in agreed time-frames and a willingness to undertake different tasks outside your own duties are some of the most important factors in advancing,” says Dr. Christopher Chamberlain, head of HR at SimScale. Chamberlain adds that a willingness to add qualifications to your resume is key to succeeding in human resources.
7. Think proactively instead of reactively
With all the responsibilities HR professionals handle, many of them spend their time putting out fires in an organization as they appear, according to Duske. “Even if you are great at this problem-solving, you are still using organizational resources that could be better utilized elsewhere.”
“Instead, have the tough conversations with employees before it’s critical,” Duske advises. “Work on ways to improve job satisfaction before your scores ever drop.” Duske says it may take more energy and mental bandwidth, but you will save far more time and energy down the road.
8. Invest in continuing education
“Education is pivotal in advancing your HR career,” Session says. “Most organizations now prefer candidates with a degree plus a recognized HR certification.” According to the BLS, upper-level positions in HR management can also require a master’s degree.1 Depending on the size of the company you work for—and its correlated levels of responsibility—there’s plenty of room to rise in your career.
“The further up the ladder one would like to climb in HR, the higher the level of education is expected,” Chamberlain says. “My own experience followed suit as my master’s opened doors, while my doctorate opened even more.”
Education is so much more than a degree—it’s a mindset for the industry. Staying current on compliance changes and gaining certification in key areas are important too. “Those who have invested in their education and treat HR like a true lifelong profession are the ones who succeed,” Session says.
Start mapping your HR career path
There’s no one-size-fits-all journey in human resources. It’s up to you to decide where you want to go and what you need to get there. Andrews says qualifications are a start, but you also need practical experience and results in your job if you want to progress.
HR opportunities are everywhere! If you know where you hope to go—what’s holding you back? If you could use a few more ideas to find a dream career progression, check out “6 Human Resources Management Careers You Can Launch with a Master’s Degree” to see some of the higher-level HR jobs out there.
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed November 2022] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.