10 Things I Learned From Working in HR

An earlier post from 2008:

Are you thinking about a career in HR? Are you a line manager considering giving HR a try? Or, how about a training or OD specialist, considering a cross-functional developmental assignment as an HR generalist?

A while back, when I was a training director at a large multinational, that’s exactly what I did. I was advised that if I wanted to be considered for a VP position, I’d have a better chance if I ventured outside the corporate ivory tower and took a development assignment as an HR generalist out on the front lines. After all, there was only one training and development VP job, but over a dozen HR VP jobs. The same seemed to be true on the Monster, Yahoo and job boards – about a 5 to 1 ratio.

The thinking was that even if I came back to OD/training & development, I’d be a stronger specialist, having gained valuable cross-functional experience.

At first I was skeptical. For one thing, although I never worked in a pure HR role, I had a good amount of exposure, and didn’t like what I saw. It just didn’t seem like a good fit for me. And what about my lack of HR experience? “Don’t worry about that”, I was told by my advisers. “You’ve got all of the important, transferable competencies; you can learn the technical parts” (that bit of advice from a VP that had a staff of minions to do the technical parts for her).

So I said “what the hell”, and gave it a shot. For eighteen very long, painful months. I survived – barely. It turned out to be one of the most developmental experiences of my career. Here are the lessons I learned:

1. The importance of Excel – and Access, and pivot tables. For my entire career, I had somehow managed to achieve success without having to learn Excel. Most of my work could be achieved with dazzling PowerPoint models and Word documents. I quickly learned that HR generalists need to crunch a LOT of numbers. Performance appraisal correlations, adverse impact analysis, restructuring costs, incentive plan payouts, and a staggering amount of other calculations. And – the numbers actually had to be correct.

2. HR clients expect the right answers – and quickly. There’s little tolerance for “maybe”, “it depends”, or “I’ll get back to you on that”, responses that served me so well in previous roles.

3. Work shifts from a few big projects to one never-ending series of tasks. In most of my roles, I always had 6-12 big projects that I was juggling. Every day you might push 1-2 boulders a few more feet. As an HR generalist, tasks get added to a running to-do list faster than you can cross them off. There’s no such thing as “done” at the end of a day. Some days it felt like the classic “I Love Lucy” chocolate assembly line episode.

4. HR is a 24/7 job. Hiring and firing doesn’t take time off or a vacation. You can’t leave an “OOO” (out of office) email and shut off your cell phone for a few days.

HR Generalists have to know a lot about everything. Duh. And no, the technical part of the job can’t be learned in a few months or through a SRHM self-study certification program (hey, it was better than nothing!). I gained a whole new appreciation for the HR vet that maybe wasn’t deep in succession planning or team development, but knew enough to get by, along with thirty other things I knew absolutely zip about.

6. The value of a strong HR admin, HR VP, and a supportive team. An HR admin knows about and takes care of all the little technical details involved with on-boarding a new employee, ADA, FMLA, and the EEOC. A strong VP knows how to go head-to-head with tough executives, strategically position the function, coach and inspire. Unfortunately for me, I had neither. But I was blessed with a supportive and patient team that helped keep me from drowning.

7. An effective HR pro really needs to understand the business strategy and every function of the business. For me, that was the most developmental part of the experience. It wasn’t learning how to design compensation plans or write a legally defensible restructuring plan. I had the opportunity to learn all about marketing, engineering, research, product development, manufacturing, sales, acquisitions, and strategic planning. I’ve been fortunate to work in companies where HR has a “seat at the table”, and I learned a lot of business acumen from sitting at that damn table.

8. HR can be a lonely, isolated role. It’s kind of like police work – it makes for difficult family or neighborhood barbecue chit-chat. It’s important to network, internally and externally, in order to share best practices and hang onto a thread of sanity. Or have a good shrink.

9. What it’s like to struggle in a job. This was a personal character lesson learned for me. I had always had stellar performance appraisals, promotions, and the prestige of “high potential” status. For the first time in my career I was “average”, or even below average in many aspects. It felt like my golf game. I’ll always have an appreciation for what it feels like to be in over your head.

10. Finally, I learned the value of HR and a competent HR pro. Even though I personally hated the experience, I’ll always appreciate how demanding the role is, and how critical the role can be to the success of any business.

So those are my top 10 learnings. What other “lessons from experience” would you share with someone considering a move to HR?