5 Tips for Advancing Your Human Resources Career

‍Human Resources professionals can often be so busy helping their employees with their careers that they forget to take the time to prioritize their own career advancement. But whether you’re just starting out in HR or are an experienced veteran in the industry, career path planning is crucial to having a successful career that fulfills your personal and professional goals. Career paths are especially helpful in this field because Human Resources has so many distinct disciplines you could pursue, like payroll, compliance, engagement, recruiting, benefits, diversity and inclusion (D&I), leave of absences, and more. Because there are so many different options, most professionals have to make a choice early on in their careers: Specialize in one core area of HR or remain a generalist. When faced with a major career decision like this, it’s best to know all your options so you can make an informed choice and start working toward your long-term career goals. To break down the differences between generalists and specialists, we spoke to Jovanny Chonillo, MHRM, Senior Human Resources Consultant at Tandem HR, a Chicago-based professional employer organization (PEO), who has years of experience in both types of roles. Here’s a closer look at the differences between generalist and specialist Human Resources career paths, examples of common HR job titles, and how to choose the best career option for you.

As the names suggest, a Human Resources specialist is someone who is highly skilled and experienced in one aspect of HR, like recruiting, payroll, or benefits. A generalist, on the other hand, is someone who has general knowledge and expertise across a variety of HR disciplines. While neither option is better than the other, some organizations may benefit more from one type of role than the other. For example, smaller organizations may only need one or two generalists to handle all of their HR needs, while larger organizations might need an entire team of specialists for each HR discipline to deal with the volume and complexity of the business’s needs. Generalist roles are great for people who enjoy having lots of variety in what they do. “As a generalist, you have a hand in any and everything related to HR, which means no day is ever the same and you get to work on a lot of different projects at once,” said Chonillo, who spent almost seven years in generalist roles at LabelMaster, a logistics and supply-chain company based out of Chicago. The downside to a generalist role, cautioned Chonillo, is that you can easily become stretched too thin. “Oftentimes, there’s too much going on and you have to decide what you’re willing to let slip through the cracks,” Chonillo said. “When I was a generalist, I always felt like there were 50 things going on at once…I could never fully dedicate myself to a project I was working on and I never felt I was growing or making meaningful progress because my plate was always full.” Still, even if you intend to specialize in one aspect of HR, a generalist role can lay a solid foundation for a strong career. “It naturally creates an opportunity for you to figure out if there is one area that you do want to specialize in,” said Chonillo. “In my case, I used to want to be a teacher, so I love any role or project that lets me be involved with learning and development.” Specialist roles allow you to play to your strengths and really invest in your skills in one particular area of HR. By gaining experience and a unique skill set, you can become a highly skilled and sought-after candidate in your space. For example, HRIS managers evaluate, deploy, and support the implementation of HR information systems, which track HR-related goals such as hiring, onboarding, payroll and benefits, and talent management. However, if you’re someone who needs variety in your day, you might get bored of doing similar work and projects day in and day out as a specialist. Or, should you decide to pursue a different career interest, you may feel pigeon-holed based on your specialized skill set. When it comes to making a decision as to which route to pursue, it’s important to take into account your unique passions and interests and make sure the path you choose is suited for you. This will lead to a fulfilling career regardless of whether you decide to become a generalist or specialist, or alternate between the two.

For human resources (HR) professionals advancing your career can seem daunting. With so many potential paths and specializations within HR, it can be hard to know where to start. However by focusing on developing key skills and experiences, expanding your network, and seeking out new opportunities, any HR professional can chart a course for advancement.

Here are five tips to help you boost your HR career:

1. Develop Against Industry Standards

A great place to start is by identifying the key competencies needed for success in HR roles at various levels Organizations like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI) have developed comprehensive models outlining the skills, knowledge, and abilities required of HR professionals at different points in their careers

Some key competencies to develop include:

  • Business acumen: Understanding how the business operates, its challenges, and how HR impacts the bottom line.

  • Critical evaluation: Analyzing data and information to inform HR strategies and solutions.

  • Leadership and navigation: Managing relationships and influencing stakeholders across the organization.

  • Global and cultural effectiveness: Supporting a culturally competent and inclusive workplace.

  • Consultation: Providing guidance to organizational leaders and collaborating across departments.

  • Communication: Conveying information clearly and effectively through oral, written, and interpersonal skills.

  • Relationship management: Building networks and managing conflict.

  • Ethical practice: Upholding ethical and professional standards in HR policies, procedures, and behavior.

By developing skills in these key areas, you’ll be ready to advance as opportunities arise. Consider which competencies are strengths vs. development areas for you, and create a plan to build expertise.

2. Expand Your Network

Building relationships across your organization and profession is pivotal for advancement. A robust network gives you visibility to opportunities, provides mentors who can advise you, and helps you make connections that facilitate growth.

There are several ways to expand your network:

  • Join industry groups like SHRM and your local chapter. Attend programs, conferences, and social events to meet other HR professionals. Get involved in committees or leadership roles.

  • Develop cross-functional relationships internally. Build partnerships with managers in other departments and identify peers who can be mutually supportive.

  • Seek out mentors. Experienced HR professionals can share their wisdom and provide guidance to help you achieve your goals.

  • Connect with leaders. Get on the radar of organizational decision-makers who may someday consider you for advancement.

The broader your network, the more you can learn from others while increasing awareness of your capabilities and aspirations.

3. Read Widely

Ongoing learning is essential for honing your expertise and succeeding in higher-level HR positions. Reading industry publications, books, blogs, and more can help you stay on top of the latest trends, best practices, technologies, and challenges facing the HR field.

Some topics to devote attention to include:

  • HR law, regulations, and compliance

  • HR technology and automation

  • Data analytics

  • Talent and succession management

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion

  • Organizational development and learning

  • Compensation and benefits

  • HR trends and innovations

Reading broadly makes you a more valuable advisor and gives you content and ideas to share in discussions with stakeholders. It also shows your dedication to continuous improvement.

4. Update Your Resume Regularly

While you may not be job hunting, periodically updating your resume is a smart way to advance your career. It allows you to:

  • Catalog your achievements. Refresh your memory on projects completed, skills gained, and successes delivered over time.

  • Assess your trajectory. Review the progression of your roles and responsibilities. Identify milestones that exhibit upward movement.

  • Spot gaps. Determine areas where you may need to seek additional experiences to become qualified for more senior roles.

  • Be prepared to act quickly. If an opportunity arises, you’ll have an up-to-date resume ready to go.

This exercise keeps you thinking strategically about your career path and progress.

5. Explore Different HR Roles

Finally, taking on diverse assignments and positions expands your experience and prepares you to assume higher-level responsibilities. Options may include:

  • Volunteering for special projects. Look for cross-functional initiatives or business projects you can contribute your HR expertise to.

  • Job rotation or shadowing. Spend time learning other HR specialties like recruitment, compensation, or learning and development.

  • Lateral moves. Consider sideways moves into related areas like people analytics, diversity and inclusion, organizational development, or even operations.

  • Interim leadership roles. Act as interim department head when a director is out to build leadership experience.

  • Committee service. Join organization-wide committees focused on key business priorities.

  • Speaking opportunities. Offer to present at HR conferences or internal leadership meetings.

Challenging yourself with new experiences builds a well-rounded skillset and showcases your versatility as a leader.

Keep Advancing Your HR Career

By setting your sights on advancement, honing in-demand skills, expanding your network, pursuing continuous learning, and taking on diverse roles, you can build momentum in your HR career. Be purposeful and proactive, but also patient with the process. Achieving your goals may take time, commitment, and calculated risks. With the right mindset and plan, you can chart a path to success and leadership in the HR field.

how to advance human resources career

Common HR Generalist Roles and Responsibilities

Interested in the generalist route? Using the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) resource center, we’ve compiled a brief list of popular generalist job titles and descriptions ranging from entry-level to executive-level positions. Here’s an idea of what a career as a generalist could look like for you.

HR Assistant / CoordinatorÂ

This is where most people begin their careers in Human Resources. An HR Assistant or Coordinator is an entry-level role that lets an individual roll up their sleeves and learn about all the day-to-day HR tasks. It’s usually a very generalized role that might help out with recruiting, benefits, payroll, employee relations, engagement, performance management, and whatever else needs to get done. “It’s a great opportunity to learn and understand how the various disciplines of HR impact an organization,” noted Chonillo. “Plus, by gaining exposure to all the different facets of HR, employees can determine if they have a passion for one discipline and decide if that passion could develop into a more specialized role.” This is an excellent place to start if you want to work in Human Resources, and it can be an important jumping-off point for people’s careers.

An HR Manager has more decision-making power and ownership of day-to-day HR processes, which, according to Chonillo, could include “ensuring you’re going to meet your 401(k) participation goals, deciding how to revamp communication during open enrollment, or brainstorming initiatives to increase employee engagement.” “Managers still receive a certain level of oversight from their superiors, but they are more empowered to make decisions and be analytical than an HR coordinator,” he said. As you gain experience or as the staff at your company grows, in this role you might lead a team of assistants or coordinators and be in charge of monitoring their performance and ensuring team goals are met.

HR Series: Human Resources CAREER LADDER/Growing your HR CAREER


How to get more experience in HR?

For a thorough understanding of HR functions, I suggest looking into specialized certifications like the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) or Professional in Human Resources (PHR). To obtain practical experience, look for volunteer opportunities, part-time jobs, and internships in various HR settings.

How to get promoted in HR?

To get promoted in HR, continually develop your skills through ongoing training, broaden your skill set beyond traditional HR functions and position yourself as an HRBP. Take on additional responsibilities to demonstrate your initiative and leadership potential.

How do I Advance my HR career?

Focusing on the organization (and the job at hand) is a win for the organization that also opens doors to new professional opportunities. Being able to show tangible, measurable results is the best way to advance your HR career. —Angela Crawford, human resources director, Wake County Government, Raleigh, N.C. How have I advanced my career?

What career options are available for HR professionals with an advanced degree?

It’s important to understand the different career options available for HR professionals with an advanced degree before you begin your studies. This can help you determine a specialty or choose the program that’s best for your goals. One degree you might consider is a Master’s in Business Administration in Human Resources.

How do I choose the right HR career path?

The path that you take will depend on your ambitions, interest, and skills — which means that what is right for you can look very different from what is right for another HR professional, even if you have the same starting point and experience. That said, there are still guidelines that you can follow to identify the right path for you.

How do I start a career in HR?

Some individuals find that they need to start out in different positions, such as an HR assistant or a line manager role where they gain experience in the company and later move into a professional-level HR role. Others start out at small organizations without an HR department and assume HR-related duties under a different job title.

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