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The human resources career path: From HR assistant to CHRO

HR's role has slowly gained more recognition as a strategic business partner. Learn about the typical HR career path and why technology is more important to the career than ever before.

In the past, the human resources profession was widely known for paper pushing and handling employee relations. Although it's still a support function, HR has a far more strategic role than it once did.

As an example, take HR's role during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Many organizations relied on their HR departments to work with IT and brainstorm ways to connect with newly remote employees. HR teams gathered feedback, quantified data and worked on strategies to build up the virtual employee experience.

For those who are interested in making their way into the profession, here's a guide to what an HR career path looks like and where to start.

What is HR?

Human resources (HR) is a department dedicated entirely to managing an organization's most valuable asset -- the people. The department works hand-in-hand with leaders and managers to contribute to and steer the workforce so the business can achieve its strategic goals. As the concept of employee experience has risen in importance, HR has taken a greater strategic role in ensuring employees have a positive experience in terms of both physical and emotional health and as it relates to workplace technology and physical spaces.

Responsibilities and challenges

HR is a job field that has a wide range of responsibilities and opportunities.

HR is instrumental in numerous administrative and strategic tasks throughout the employee lifecycle. Responsibilities may include any of the following:

  • recruiting;
  • scheduling interviews;
  • preparing benefits paperwork;
  • onboarding and managing employee relations;
  • implementing employee experience strategies;
  • helping with technology rollouts;
  • overseeing or managing compliance related to employees; and
  • handling employee disputes.

Besides the core HR duties, modern HR professionals need to tackle changes with agility. For example, as COVID-19 created new workplace health issues and a sudden switch to remote work for many nonessential employees, HR teams faced challenges in helping to keep their workforce productive and informed.

HR technology and software

Helping IT find and implement the right technology is an important HR responsibility. Some HR professionals determine their HR technology purchases, if they do the right research and present their business case. In addition, HR teams may work with IT and other departments to communicate digital transformation efforts and lead cybersecurity awareness education.

A commonly used enterprise HR system is the human resource information system (HRIS). An HRIS automates many administrative processes. It typically can handle recruitment, performance management and learning development (L&D), just to name a few functions. A human resource management system (HRMS) is a similar system that falls under the HRIS umbrella. Both HRMSes and HRISes process payroll.

Both systems serve as the core of HR and workforce data management.

Most organizations now have an HRIS director, who is the point of contact for anything concerning the HRIS. These specialists know the system in and out, and work to develop, implement and modify these technology systems that help automate HR tasks and processes.

The HR department may serve as a consultant or a driver on numerous other technologies that affect employees, such as collaboration platforms or video systems.

HR generalist vs. HR specialist

The human resources field is often divided into two main tracks: generalist and specialist. Those who wish to enter the HR career path should study the opportunities in each.

As an overview:

  • HR generalists tackle a wide range of HR-related tasks across the whole organization. These include benefits, performance management, compliance and workforce development.
  • Specialists focus on just one area of human resources, such as talent acquisition or benefits.

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) may only need a few HR generalists to cover basic HR tasks and any employee disputes. However, larger organizations may need a whole team of specialists who can address specific areas and give more personalized attention to employees.

HR roles

Organizations need a strong HR department with diversely skilled professionals.

The HR career path is a good fit for people who have traits such as the following:

  • enjoys working with people;
  • comfortable dealing with tricky interpersonal situations and sensitive information;
  • business-savvy;
  • strong attention to detail;
  • great at problem-solving;
  • enjoys research; and
  • tech-savvy.

Here is the career path to follow for anyone who wants to pursue a career in human resources.

HR assistant

Becoming an HR assistant is the first step into the HR field. This employee typically fills out the paperwork for new hires, layoffs, benefits and other programs. Since this is an entry-level HR position, the person in this role typically fills in gaps in the department, such as organizing company events, sending out reminders and assisting other HR professionals in their daily tasks.

A bachelor's degree is required for this role.

HR specialist

An HR specialist focuses on one specific task within the department. This can include working exclusively with payroll, benefits or hiring. However, other responsibilities may include helping out in other areas, if needed, so it is important for this employee to still have knowledge in other areas of HR.

HR specialist career paths include:

  • Benefits and compensation/total rewards
  • Payroll/finance
  • Talent acquisition
  • Talent development
  • Terminations

A bachelor's degree is required for this role.

HR generalist

An HR generalist covers a wide range of responsibilities in the human resources department. These often include employee training and development. HR generalists may also review policies and suggest changes.

A bachelor's degree is required for this role.

HR manager/HR business partner

HR managers see the organization at a much higher level than HR generalists, specialists or assistants. HR managers oversees policies, procedures and compliance and ensures that anything taking place in the organization complies with the country, state and city's laws, including parental leave, paid time off and benefits.

A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement to become an HR manager. Excellent leadership, multitasking and problem-solving skills can help HR managers do well in this role.

HR director

HR directors are leaders in the human resources department. Depending on the size of the company, HR directors either work with a large team underneath them or fill in as an HR manager. This role requires diverse, strategic skills, business savvy and flexibility to adapt to an organization's changing needs.

HR directors also hire other HR team members and work with them to build the processes and functions required to execute the chief human resource officer's strategies.

A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for this role and, in some cases, a master's degree is also required.

Chief HR officer (CHRO)

A CHRO is the top leader in HR, although in some companies, that title may be chief people officer or chief experience officer. The CHRO typically reports to the CEO or another senior executive. This leader is responsible for all HR practices and regulations, recommending changes to senior management and ensuring that the organization has the required workforce to meet all business needs and goals.

One particular focus for the CHRO is staff development and retention. The CHRO continually assesses those initiatives and the overall performance of the workers. Ensuring that employee morale is high and determining any causes for low morale are primary aspects of creating a motivated, engaged, and, as a result, productive workforce.

The requirement to become a CHRO depends on the organization, but a common ballpark is eight to 10 years of experience supervising HR staff. A bachelor's degree is the minimum educational requirement, although many organizations prefer a master's degree.

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