Career Overview: Human Resources

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012
Is the information technology department avoiding your phone calls? Do you have a cool idea to increase office productivity? You can't tell the difference between your IRA and 401(k) plan? It might be time to talk to someone in your human resources department.

What You'll Do
Human resources (HR) is a general term meant to cover a wide range of activities. Some of the work that falls to HR professionals includes hiring and firing employees, creating organizational charts and shaping corporate culture after a merger or acquisition, managing employee communications, settling employee disputes, creating benefits programs, navigating government regulations, dealing with legal issues such as sexual harassment and occupational safety, and setting up policy and programs for measuring performance, compensating, recognizing, and training employees. In other words, HR doesn't consist of a single activity or function but a huge network of them; basically, HR refers to everything related to the employer/employee relationship. Both specialists and generalists can find a home here, with specialist tracks ranging from training to pension plan administration to legal compliance. In HR, there's something for just about everyone.

Long considered a support role, in recent years HR has taken on an increasingly strategic dimension in the world of business as managers have recognized employees as a source of competitive advantage. Companies like Southwest Airlines, Nokia, Intel, The Container Store, Edward Jones, and others have shown that HR practices that create supportive environments for employees and strong corporate cultures can lead to superior returns for shareholders by being more innovative, efficient, and productive than their peers. Meanwhile, globalization has complicated the HR role, creating new challenges, such as managing employees and overseeing employee regulations in different countries and cultures, while technology has created a new array of opportunities for streamlining HR administration and practice-everything from putting benefits programs online to e-learning to automating payroll and other administrative HR tasks.

Of course, the responsibilities and activities of HR practitioners vary depending on the size of company. At a small company, the HR pro will usually wear many hats, whereas at bigger companies you'll find both generalist and specialist HR roles. Large Fortune 500 companies, for instance, divide HR into corporate and field operations, with those on the corporate side setting policy and those in the field working with divisions to implement programs and handle day-to-day issues. Many smaller and midsized businesses, or those of less than 1,000 employees, are increasingly outsourcing some or even all of the HR functions. A few responsibilities that fall to HR in both small and large organizations, such as staffing and executive recruitment, compensation and benefits consulting, and HR systems, have grown into multibillion-dollar service sectors designed to support in-house HR functions.

Who Does Well
Human resources acts as the mediator between an organization's management and its workers. This requires wearing many hats: It's an HR administrator's job to make sure that employees are working in a safe environment, that disputes are settled, and that benefits are understood and functioning properly. At the same time, HR is charged with recruiting new employees who will both fit in well and help the company achieve profitability. They also represent management when negotiating for benefits with companies administering these benefits and when implementing companywide policies that will ultimately lower costs or boost profits. The needs of HR cover a wide range of tasks and, therefore, require someone who is not only good with people, but also organized, analytical, business-minded, and able to juggle many projects at once. Requirements
You'll need at least a bachelor's degree for most entry-level jobs, although it may be possible to find a few HR assistant positions with an associate's degree in hand. Most BA-level jobs in HR start at the assistant level. To become an HR manager in a large corporation or an analyst in a specialty area, you will need an MBA, an MHRM (master of human resources management), an MS, or some type of certification. Degrees in human resources, personnel administration, industrial relations, labor relations, and industrial engineering are typical.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of HR, other relevant coursework might include business administration, public administration, psychology, sociology, political science, economics, and statistics. One HR manager at a smaller firm suggests that interested candidates take classes in organizational behavior-after all, you'll be dealing with how people behave in groups. Of course, if you know you're planning to specialize, you'll want to consider taking courses in such subjects as finance, labor relations, education, and instructional technology.

Some positions, including compensation specialists, labor relations workers, and benefits managers, require legal expertise-coursework in labor law, collective bargaining, labor economics, labor history, and industrial psychology would be appropriate for those specializations.

In addition, all human resources professionals tend to share the following traits:
  • Ability to think critically and analytically
  • Strong oral and written communication skills
  • Business focus
  • Ability to work with people of various cultural and educational backgrounds
  • Computer savvy
  • Ability to quickly switch gears, for example, from administrator to counselor to negotiator
Job Outlook
Prospects for HR jobs are better than for the economy overall. Some sectors will likely see greater growth and, with it, a greater demand for HR professionals. Computer and data processing services represent the area of fastest growth, followed by residential care and home health care. This reflects a general truism within HR: Changes in lifestyle and population trends are reflected in HR opportunities.

One such example, related to the aging U.S. population, is the need for more human resources workers in hospitals and in health allied services. Hospitals ranked eighth in overall projected HR employment for 2010, and allied health ranked eighth in percentage change from 2000 to 2010.

Another area of expected growth isn't an industry per se, but rather the area of specialized HR business services. The staffing industry is rated fourth by the BLS as an area of expected growth by the end of the decade. Both BLS statistics and SHRM studies indicate that specialized third-party firms dealing in compensation, legal services, and benefits will also grow. Career Tracks
Specific HR tasks depend on the size and unique characteristics of an organization. The majority of HR practitioners are in-house staff members who serve other diverse departments in a company. However, it's becoming more common to outsource certain HR functions, particularly recruitment.

HR Generalists
Small organizations usually hire an HR generalist to handle all aspects of personnel management, including attracting and retaining employees, arranging and overseeing training, designing compensation plans, selecting and managing benefit programs, and advising management on employment law. HR generalists must have comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the HR field.

HR Management
At the top of a large organization's HR department is the director of human resources. This individual is an accomplished manager who is responsible for developing and implementing personnel decisions throughout a company. He or she works with employment managers and placement managers who oversee departments or deal with specific issues within an organization such as compensation, benefits, or outsourcing.

Compensation Manager
The compensation manager (CM) sets the pay rates and performance pay plans within an organization. Surveys are conducted to compare current pay rates to others in the industry. The CM makes sure pay plans comply with changing laws and regulations. A keen understanding of financial planning and forecasting is required.

Employee Benefits Manager
Businesses rely heavily on benefit packages-insurance plans and pension plans-to attract and retain employees. Unfortunately, the cost of such benefits can eat into a company's bottom line. The employee benefits manager needs to understand changing laws and regulations regarding benefit options. He or she must also be able to analyze benefit packages and select the one that best meets the needs of an organization and its employees.

Recruiters can be found both in-house and with outside organizations. Many in-house recruiters specialize in one area, such as on-campus interviews. Recruiters who work outside a company may also have areas of specialization, such as technical or executive recruiting. They work with hiring managers to define managers' employment needs and must therefore be very familiar with every organization they work for.

Recruiters need to know what the best ways are to attract potential employees, such as running ads, searching the Internet, attending job fairs, and interviewing at schools. Recruiters communicate with prospective employees about personnel policies, wages, benefit packages, working conditions, and promotional opportunities. Recruiters also screen, interview, test, and check the references of applicants.

Many larger organizations hire people to supervise their employee-training programs. Responsibilities may include orienting new employees, providing on-the-job training, updating professional skills, and preparing lower-level workers for management positions. Some trainers also work at developing supervisors' interpersonal skills.

HR Consultants
HR consultants are contractors who provide advice on compensation, benefit administration, employee relations, training, and HR information systems. Professional entry-level positions, usually involving analysis or report generation, are quite competitive and exist in all categories except employee relations.

Outplacement Specialist
Outplacement specialists work with employees whose employment has been terminated. They provide company-sponsored assistance in identifying career directions, marketing, and résumé preparation. These positions can be either in-house or outsourced.
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