Published
28 Jul 2016

From HR assistant to HR advisor - how to make the jump

28 Jul 2016

Lack of advice for HR professionals?

Human resources is increasingly becoming a career of choice for many high-calibre and ambitious young professionals. Its ability to work as a true business function is becoming more recognised and respected within the corporate world and it's becoming an increasingly commercial and strategic business entity. As more individuals are attracted to the industry, the importance of development for these budding HR professionals at the early stages of their careers is growing.

With this in mind, why then is there a severe lack of advice and guidance out there on how to build a career within HR at the junior level?

Navigating your HR career path

The CIPD offers an ‘HR Career Map’ but this unfortunately doesn’t reach the entire HR community as it's for members only. Even for those who are members, the product is largely unknown. Apart from that, there isn’t much educational material and advisory literature out there to help guide junior HR professionals on how to progress within their careers, and what there is isn’t always enlightening.

As HR recruitment specialists, we frequently meet candidates who are struggling to make that next step into a more advisory level position. Commonly, candidates find themselves stuck in a catch 22 situation between wanting to step into an advisor role but employers only wanting candidates who are advisors already.

So, how can you gain advisory experience without already being an advisor, and how can you take those first tentative steps up the HR career ladder?

Understand the different nature of the roles

First of all, it’s very important to understand the differences between the skills and responsibilities of an HR assistant and an HR advisor. Comprehending this will mean you can get a clear idea in your mind where you are professionally in relation to these roles.

An HR assistant’s role comprises primarily the administrative elements of HR. It often touches on the full remit of HR and will see a person having co-ordination and organisational responsibilities. In relation to recruitment for example, they will organise rooms for interviews, manage the preferred supplier list, organise offers of employment and contracts and provide basic management information.

In contrast, the HR advisor will be conducting the interviews, managing relationships with key stakeholders and will look at things like candidate attraction strategies and human capital planning. So how can you take the next step?

Search for HR assistant jobs or HR advisor roles now. 

Be tenacious in your approach

HR is fundamentally about experience. At this stage of your career, it really is the more you put in, the more you’ll get on. The individuals who progress quickest in their careers are those who really push themselves in the direction they want to go.

The best way to really build on your skill set and experience and move beyond being an HR administrator or assistant is to use your initiative, be tenacious and push your job description as far as it will allow you to go. Put your hand up and volunteer where possible and take every opportunity to get that extra experience.

Human resources departments are renowned for being very busy with a high volume of work. On top of this, especially post-recession, they’re being able to expand their remit to involve the more strategic elements as businesses invest in their support divisions again. This means there's more flexibility for project work and proactive HR, so see if you can get involved in something that doesn’t necessarily come under your remit. Even ask if you can read through literature or sit in on meetings. It all counts as exposure and will help you build on your HR knowledge in a practical setting and will add more strings to your bow.

If you're in a role where you feel you are constantly treading water to stay afloat underneath a mountain of admin, it's worth taking a step back and thinking if your time could be used more resourcefully. For example, how can processes be made more efficient? If your firm works with ten recruitment agencies for one particular discipline, one could argue that it could increase unnecessary workload and isn’t business-efficient. Therefore, what commercially-focused ideas can be offered to cut this down? The most impressive HR assistants we meet are those who can identify room for improvement within their current teams and have added value and improved process. It shows both commerciality and innovative thinking.

Understand your business

This is about making yourself more marketable. It will impress at interview if you can discuss your current business' strategy and will show an increased level of business acumen. This can be gained by observing the inner workings of the business around you. For example, if there's a period of high volume recruitment, sit back and think why this is. Is there a skill shortage, a new business case or maybe they have identified a gap in the market? Asking why and how shows the kind of thinking that will give you a more holistic approach to HR.

The best HR practitioners are those who really understand the business they are in. These HR professionals, when asked about strategy, will talk animatedly about raising share prices, improving staff retention and employee engagement and always increasingly profitability. These professionals will have an intrinsic understanding of HR’s position within the workplace. So try to apply this to your responsibilities and the responsibilities of your team around you. This will give you that edge in truly understanding your team, your department and most importantly, the business.

Be realistic

HR is an experience-led profession. Unlike other qualified professions, such as like law where it's often length of experience that dictates salary, Human Resources looks at the type of experience you have, and what you've done. Leading HR professionals at all levels will always tell you how they have personally been able to make an impact and add value.

Therefore, it's important to understand that a qualification in HR doesn’t automatically guarantee career advancement. Of course, it is key in learning the theoretical sides of HR, which is highly important, but it does not always give you the practical experience often needed to progress. Things like the CIPD qualification really gain value when you can study it alongside a role that allows you to bring what you learn in college and apply it at work in real situations. This mix provides you with the knowledge and experience to take the next step and will make you a more rounded HR professional.

Plan your next move carefully

It's also important to understand that not everyone’s career develops at the same rate. Yes, sometimes you need to be in the right place at the right time and people finding their first role offering them great exposure and hands-on experience underneath excellent managers who mentor and nurture them professionally. Don’t look at people around you and measure the speed of their progression in HR and think you should be in the same role. It's your skill set, your knowledge and your career that ultimately forges your progression.

Another thing to think about is that it isn’t always a bad idea to take a sideways step. If you aren’t getting the opportunities and exposure in your current HR assistant role to build up to advisor level, maybe moving to a different organisation into another HR assistant role with more learning opportunities, and a clearly defined career structure, could be a good stepping stone up to the next level. It does not look bad at all on a CV if you make the proactive decision to move for more exposure, if anything it makes you look ambitious and focused. It is important to balance this with a level of stability.

Find out how HR really functions

Ensure the businesses you are focusing your search on offer conducive HR environments. Consider what HR’s position is within these organisations, rather than brand or reputation. If you're focused on a career within HR, ultimately you want to be working in a business that uses HR as a true business function and is leading the pack in innovative HR operations and strategy. Just because a brand is highly recognisable, it doesn’t necessarily mean HR is going to offer you a good base to learn your trade.

Thinking about how HR is structured and how it's used is a good indication of what kind of culture you will be going into. For example, how does the business perceive the HR function’s overall role? Similarly, looking at team size is important too. If the team is larger, there is more likely to be potential for progression and often a more defined and clear HR proposition, but in a smaller team there can be more potential for variety and exposure and HR practise won’t necessarily be set in stone. It's a matter of finding a balance between the two and also working out what suits your personal working style.

As a word of caution, always be wary of sponsorship. While being funded through your CIPD qualification is of course attractive and shows willingness on your employer’s part to develop you and your career, it's important to remember that you are usually tied into a two to three-year payback clause. Thus, once qualifying over a two year period, you're committing yourself to a firm for five years. During the early years of your career, this can sometimes be a hindrance. You have to think carefully whether this organisation can offer you the correct career prospects over those five years.

Be proactive to springboard your own career

Ultimately, HR is an industry that's driven by personality, business acumen and relationship management. Experience is everything and theoretical knowledge is important, but Human Resources is never formulaic and has to be constantly adapted to match changing business needs. Therefore, having the experience and the understanding to think outside the box and be innovative in your approach to your work will make you a more rounded HR professional and will definitely move you away from a purely transactional HR mentality.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix or an easy answer to progress within HR. It's an industry that you have to invest time and effort into. After all, you don’t get a 26 year old strategic HR director on £150k. In Human resources, you have to pay your dues to rise through the ranks and have the experience to be able to function at the more senior levels. HR is a brilliant area of business to forge a career within, especially as its importance is becoming more universally understood, but ultimately the people who excel in this industry are those who push their careers proactively and get themselves to where they want to be.