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Charting Your HR Future: A Career Pathways Toolkit


Whether you've always been interested in HR or stumbled into it by accident, you'll find endless opportunities to create a fulfilling career. One of the best things about the industry is the flexibility for bringing your passions into your professional work. The possibilities are vast—embrace them and forge your path.

Generally speaking, three paths can lead to an entry-level position in the field:

  • A college degree in HR.
  • A degree in a related subject, like business or industrial/organizational psychology, then applying those skills to HR by earning appropriate certifications.
  • Working for several years in an operational role at a company, then transitioning into HR.

Early in your career is a great time to experiment. Say yes to as many opportunities as possible. This allows you to discover your strengths, interests, dislikes and what aspects of HR you enjoy most. You'll also gain exposure to different colleagues, leaders and cultures, which is a great way to learn from the examples of others, both good and bad.

SHRM's Career Compass podcast is one place to find career pathway insights from HR professionals, workplace leaders and experts. Joining your SHRM student chapter and local professional chapter is another way to learn about the various HR career paths available and how other professionals advanced to their current role.

Here's a quick look at the traditional job-title hierarchy within HR.

Entry-Level HR Job Titles

  • HR Intern.
  • HR Assistant.
  • HR Generalist.
  • HR Specialist.

Midcareer HR Job Titles

  • HR Manager.
  • HR Analyst.
  • Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS) Manager.

Senior HR Job Titles

  • HR Director.
  • Vice President of Human Resources.
  • Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO).
  • HR Business Partner.
  • HR Consultant.

As in every industry, after a few years of experience, opportunities to advance will emerge. Careers are no longer linear, so you might be surprised to learn that a person who holds a position you aspire to achieve began their career in a different field, like teaching in a K-12 classroom. And you'll meet others who always knew their passion was HR.

Critical Skills for Every HR Role

Jim Link, CHRO at SHRM, says the most important HR skills are not listed in a job description or taught in school. It's crucial for applicants not to overlook these skills, which can help them land a job even without prior HR experience.

1. Critical Thinking: Critical thinking skills means taking disparate pieces of information and pulling them together to form a new thought or observation or draw a conclusion. It means being curious rather than exclusively task-oriented.

To develop critical thinking skills, Link recommends participating in a project or program that must produce an outcome, a change. This could be with a community organization or a business. He also suggests reading and getting smarter on a topic. Pick any topic of interest, take a deep dive into and move beyond reading the text to talking with others about ideas you come up with to question or progress the thought to the next step.

"When I interview young people, I ask them to tell me about an experience or an opportunity where they made something or contributed to achieving a change," Link said. "Many cannot begin to answer that."

2. Numerical Reasoning: Numerical reasoning is the ability to look at a problem analytically and use numbers to assess if the idea is good, has momentum, or can be associated with a return on investment.

"What I observe in young folks is that the idea of belonging to a group or part of a movement translates into thinking in a mass way," Link said. "This is often not the skill businesses need. HR needs people who can analyze a problem and provide a recommended solution. That often has a numerical basis to it."

You can strengthen your numerical reasoning skills without taking a math class by reviewing common formulas and their use in everyday life. For example, calculating your portion of a shared bill and a tip at a restaurant without using your phone, or pulling out a ruler and working with fractional measurements.

Brushing up on your numerical skills can be fun—there are countless math games to work your brain and avoid the trap of thinking they are just for kids. For example, BBC Bitesize breaks common math topics and equations into bitesize refreshers.

3. Social Skills: Social skills extend beyond the ability to communicate through spoken and written communication clearly and effectively.

"These skills are also related to how you connect with your peers, build a network and approach someone if you need something," Link said. "It's about how you persuade, influence and negotiate. To some degree, it takes trial and error to find your way through those things, but it also takes continued learning from mentors and professional development."

General Advice: Become "known for something," and make that expertise part of your personal brand. This is more than starting a business or being entrepreneurial, Link explained. It's about identifying and sharing your "zone of genius," the skills other people count on you for. It might be that you are reliable, how you care for and treat others, how you bring calm to difficult situations, or your tenacity and grit in difficult situations, etc.

"You need to be known for something before anything else and that others can rely upon you for something," Link said. "This is incredibly important and will make a meaningful difference in your career and the organizations in which you work."

HR ROLES: A SNAPSHOT

Organizations may have different titles for similar roles, and there may be several pathways or specialties within the job categories highlighted below. As your career progresses and you advance into leadership positions, the education and experience requirements will increase alongside the level of responsibility.

A sampling of HR-related job descriptions is available on the SHRM website. Filter for human resources in the menu titled "All Sectors."

Generalist vs. Specialist

As the name suggests, HR generalists are professionals with knowledge and skills across many HR disciplines. These roles offer a good deal of variety in the type of work performed.

Specialists choose one aspect of HR and invest in developing expertise in that area. Some specialists manage global HR—a growing specialty area—while others concentrate on organizational development and meeting the organization's needs for workers in the future, payroll, recruiting, benefits or analytics. Still, others pursue HR consultancy or teaching HR in an academic setting. Many options are available depending on the area of HR that interests you most.

The company size may also factor into whether you choose a generalist or specialist position. Smaller companies are more likely to hire generalists who can handle a broad range of HR duties. Larger organizations typically hire specialists or an entire team of specialists.

HR Generalist

The Human Resource Generalist is involved in the day-to-day functions of the human resource department, which can range from hiring to overseeing pay, benefits and leave, and managing company policies.

Most HR professionals start their careers as an HR assistant or coordinator because the role allows them to experience all HR tasks.

Generalists can continue on this path and advance into management and leadership roles or transition to a specialization. Some people alternate between generalist and specialist positions at different points in their career.

Sample Job Summary

The Human Resource Generalist will run the daily functions of the human resource department, including hiring and interviewing staff; administering pay, benefits and leave; and enforcing company policies and practices.

Sample Duties/Responsibilities:

  • Training.
  • Compliance tracking.
  • Recruitment and interviewing facilitation.
  • Background checks.
  • Compensation, benefits, disciplinary matters, performance and talent management, and occupational health and safety.
  • Federal, state and local employment law compliance.

Examples of generalist job titles include HR business partner, HR generalist, HR assistant, HR manager, people services specialist, HR director/VP of HR. The most-senior HR generalist roles are Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO) or Chief People Officer (CPO).

Talent & Acquisition

Talent acquisition professionals, or recruiters, focus on the methods and processes for identifying, recruiting and retaining the staff a company needs to operate. This role also includes evaluating current tactics and proposing changes as needed for attracting, hiring and onboarding new employees.

Sample Job Summary

The Recruiter will research, develop and implement effective recruiting and staffing strategies to attract a diverse pool of qualified and capable talent to the organization.

Sample Duties/Responsibilities:

  • Assessing the current and future workforce needs. Factors considered in workforce planning include government influence, economic conditions, business competition and workforce demographics.
  • Recruiting external and internal candidates and involvement in the hiring process, such as screening candidates, interviewing, pre-employment testing, writing offer letters and onboarding new hires.
  • Staying current on various federal, state and local laws and regulations.

Examples of talent and acquisition job titles include recruiter, recruitment and retention specialist or manager, staffing specialist or manager, or chief talent manager or officer.

Employment Law & Compliance

Human resource compliance officers play a critical role in organizations of all sizes. The HR compliance officer's job is to ensure the company adheres to all compliance laws and to educate employees about potential compliance issues.

"Many HR generalist roles require a good working knowledge of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulatory and compliance guidelines. Business classes or an HR degree covers enough HR law and compliance for generalist roles," Link said. "Those who choose to specialize in HR law earn a law degree."

Sample Job Summary

An HR compliance specialist will help monitor compliance with external and internal regulations and support the compliance team with identifying potential operational risks and educating employees about compliance policies and potential issues.  

Sample Duties/Responsibilities:

  • Creating or maintaining an employee handbook.
  • Organizing compliance training to avoid legal or financial liabilities.
  • Drafting procedures, policies and processes.
  • Conducting employee-related investigations and handling sensitive employee information.
  • Staying current on federal, state and local labor laws.

In union environments, this role is commonly referred to as a labor relations specialist, with duties that involve:

  • Interpreting union contracts.
  • Assisting with collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
  • Handling labor grievances.
  • Advising supervisors on union contract interpretation.

Examples of employment law and compliance titles include compliance specialist, compliance analyst, payroll and compliance manager, employment investigator, or labor relations specialist.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

DE&I specialists play a pivotal role in establishing and attaining an organization's diversity goals. These often include recruiting a more diverse pool of candidates and increasing opportunities for internal promotion of minority employees.

DE&I professionals also strive to eliminate bias from internal procedures, promote pay equity, and educate employees about diversity and inclusion. They also identify and address barriers and ensure the company remains accountable for achieving its DE&I goals. Critical to this role is a company culture where all employees feel seen, heard and valued.

Sample Job Summary

The DE&I Manager will develop and implement the organization's diversity initiatives and strategy to attract, hire and maintain a diverse workplace.

Sample Duties/Responsibilities:

  • Researches, develops, recommends and executes creative strategies to foster the organization's diversity, equity and inclusion goals.
  • Reviews current practices and policies, assessing and analyzing the extent to which they support or hinder the company's diversity goals.
  • Drafts and implements recruiting and hiring strategies to attract employees from diverse backgrounds.
  • Maintains knowledge of diversity-related issues, legislation and best practices.

Examples of DE&I roles include diversity and inclusion strategist; project manager DE&I; director of diversity, equity and inclusion; diversity, equity and inclusion manager;, and diversity, equity and inclusion analyst, coordinator, and trainer.

Human Resource Analyst

An HR Analyst collects various data points that are then analyzed to evaluate HR processes and recommend enhancements. This role focuses on analyzing data and statistics such as retention rates, sales quotas and performance reviews to identify trends within the organization's workforce.

HR Analyst roles can vary. For example, a people-focused analyst may look at retention, performance reviews, how long it takes to fill a position, the onboarding process and the productivity of new employees. However, a compensation analyst looks at pay market surveys and pay benchmark data to help determine a pay range and total benefits packages to aid recruitment and retention efforts.

Sample Job Summary:

The HR Analyst will collect, compile and analyze HR data, metrics and statistics and apply this data to make recommendations related to recruitment, retention and legal compliance.

Sample Duties/Responsibilities:

  • Analyzes data and statistics for trends and patterns with attention to recruitment, hiring practices, motivation, turnover and compliance with employment laws and regulations.
  • Prepares reports of data results, presenting and explaining findings to senior leadership.
  • Identifies and recommends reasonable short- and long-term goals, milestones and benchmarks for key performance metrics.

Examples of human resource analyst roles include associate HR analyst, HR analyst, people data analyst, compensation analyst, HR information system analyst or senior analyst.

Total Rewards/Compensation & Benefits

Benefits specialists are responsible for planning and managing a range of employee benefits, such as health, dental, vision, short-term disability, life insurance and retirement plans. They also look for opportunities to expand the offerings within a company's budget and mission to stay competitive in recruitment.

Sample Job Summary:

The Compensation and Benefits Administrator coordinates and manages the employee compensation and benefits programs.

Sample Duties/Responsibilities:

  • Designing and managing compensation structures.
  • Administering benefits plans, including insurance and savings programs.
  • Researching and comparing incentive compensation plans offered by demographically comparable organizations, and making recommendations for enhancements or improvements required to keep the organization's plans competitive and effective.
  • Completing records, reporting and other documentation required by federal, state and provider rules, regulations and policies.

Some specialists perform tasks within all compensation, benefits and job analysis areas. Others specialize in just one of these areas. Examples of total rewards and compensation roles include compensation, benefits and job analysis specialists.

Employee Engagement

Employee engagement roles encompass a range of management and consulting positions aimed at fostering a motivated and productive workforce. Typically situated within the company's HR department, these roles involve initiatives to enhance employee engagement by modifying corporate culture, implementing policy changes and improving the work environment.

As an employee engagement professional, your responsibilities may include managing employee rewards programs, assessing employee positivity levels and addressing any negative influences. Moreover, you will often collaborate with various departments to facilitate effective communication and ensure each group has the necessary resources and support to fulfill their respective roles.

Sample Job Summary:

The Employee Engagement Specialist is responsible for providing support and guidance to staff related to workplace issues, policies and relationships. This role serves as a resource to help employees navigate obstacles to a successful and productive work experience.

Sample Duties/Responsibilities:

  • Acts as a member of the HR Services-Employee Relations team, collaborating with HR business partners and maintaining open lines of communication with other HR functional areas.
  • Manages various employee notifications from the beginning to the end of process.
  • Responsible for analysis and reporting of data contained in the HR systems.
  • Assists with managing the exit interview process, primarily conducting exit interviews, but also may be called upon to assist with providing data and reports from exit surveys.

Examples of employee engagement roles include employee relations coordinator, employee relations specialist, employee relations manager, employee/labor relations representative, senior manager of employee relations or VP of employee relations.

Learning & Development

Learning and Development (L&D) professionals design and manage employee development and training initiatives. These departments are responsible for identifying skills gaps within the organization and devising internal learning programs to equip employees with new skills and enhance existing ones.

The role is also responsible for training new and current managers, facilitating ongoing employee development, tracking and analyzing employee participation rates, and evaluating L&D program effectiveness and identifying opportunities for improvement.

Sample Job Summary:

The Training Associate will organize, facilitate and deliver training programs for employees.

Sample Duties/Responsibilities:

  • Conducting training sessions and administering on-the-job training programs.
  • Evaluating training programs and external providers.
  • Maintaining the necessary records of employee participation in all training and development programs.
  • Conducting training needs analysis.
  • Identifying training needs for specific industries, such as sales techniques or safety programs.
  • Managing strategic continuous improvement processes for the organization and aligning development programs with the business goals

Examples of learning and development roles include trainer, employee development specialist or manager, leadership development specialist or manager, organizational development (OD) specialist or manager.

Salaries for HR Professionals

Salaries for HR professionals differ and are dependent upon many factors such as an organization's size, economic activity, geographic location, and profitability.

SHRM's HR Compensation Data Center, powered by Salary.com, features customizable salary information for numerous job titles across industries. As part of your SHRM membership, you can access one salary report at no cost; additional reports are available.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook also provides general compensation information and job growth expectations.

A Look at Pathways to Leadership

Finding your place in HR can be lot of fun as you discover different aspects of the industry and how to align your personal interests with your career. An HR career also offers an advantage—the opportunity to specialize, change direction or enter from a totally different prior position.

To offer inspiration for your career journey, here's a look at how these six HR leaders began and advanced in their careers.

Angelo Apollos, SHRM-SCP
Current Title: AVP, Human Resources Business Partnering at Inovalon

"After a failed attempt to launch my corporate/professional career in an inside sales role, I reached out to the recruitment consultant who placed me to ask for guidance. Ultimately, my position was eliminated in a companywide restructuring just before my first anniversary. My recruitment consultant took pity on me and offered me a temp assignment as a receptionist for their agency where I got exposure to all aspects of agency life.

"Eventually, I was offered a permanent position as recruitment coordinator and started working closely with the executive search team. The leader took me under her wing and was my first true mentor. She helped me understand my career interests, goals, strengths and weaknesses. Through her mentorship, I started to explore the prospect of a career in HR, which led me to get my HR qualifications.

"A few years later, when I moved to the U.K., I landed a temp job in the personnel department for the technology arm of a global financial services firm. In this role, I spent weeks entering and converting hard-copy employee and payroll records into electronic format in the firm's computer system. As they say, the rest is history!"

Career Pathway:
Head of Human Resources, North America, Travel Zoo
Senior Principal People Business Partner, CA Technologies
Senior Principal, HR Business Partner, CA Technologies
Director, Human Resources, CA Technologies
Senior HR Generalist, CA Technologies
Senior Consultant, HP
Senior Consultant, QPL Ltd
IT Recruitment Consultant
HR Associate, HSBC Global Investor Services
HR Analyst (Contract), ABN AMRO Bank N.V.
Assistant Recruitment Consultant, Trinity Group Consulting
IT Recruitment Operations Support, Drake International
Sales & Marketing Coordinator, Drake International

Education: Bachelor of Business Management; Diploma of Business Administration; Diploma of HR Management

Advice: "It is important to be super curious and professionally inquisitive. You have to learn as much as possible about your chosen field and do your best to stay abreast of changes. Do not sit back and wait for your employer to train you, go out and learn for yourself. The tech industry moves and changes so rapidly, requiring concentrated effort and time to stay current. You don't have to understand the deep technical specifics of software engineering, but you do have to understand at a high level how all the elements and layers fit together and then, more broadly, how the overall tech industry landscape is shaped.

"You have to learn how to be comfortable with ambiguity and change. HR in the tech sector requires a highly agile mindset, and change resiliency, so you have to develop your adaptability and the art of juggling (often competing) objectives.

"HR professionals, regardless of industry sector, typically see the very best and the very worst of leaders and employees. The good in people is often great, inspiring and uplifting. The other side of that coin can be challenging to manage and navigate."

Nancy Betz
Current Title: Retired CHRO and Admin Officer and Executive Advisor for SHRM

"I started my career as a legal assistant before moving into HR in a corporate setting as an HR specialist working in compensation. I then moved to learning and development and into an HR generalist role before becoming a director level, and then CHRO."

Career Pathway:

SVP/Chief HR and Administrative Officer with their Executive Network, Federal Home Loan Bank
VP/Chief HR and OMWI Officer, Federal Home Loan Bank
Director, HR, Federal Home Loan Bank
Director, HR, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage
Global Director, HR, Pioneer, a DuPont Company
Director, HR, Optimum Quality Grains, a joint venture between DuPont and Pioneer
Human Resources Manager, Pioneer
Compensation Coordinator, Pioneer 
Training and Development Coordinator, Pioneer Hi-Bred International

Education: Bachelor of Science in Business Management; Master's in Adult Education/Learning and Development (closest program offered at the time to Human Resources)

Advice: "Build relationships with key stakeholders along the way and help the business solve its business issues. Find a sponsor or mentor to help you learn the culture and grow your career. I chose an extremely tough, difficult partner to mentor me, and I learned so much in a short time from her, and it helped me grow my career in the company. 

"Don't be afraid to take on challenges that come your way. I often felt unsure and intimidated at the time of career opportunities, and all worked out well. You can find people along the way to help you by building and nurturing your network. This requires work but is very important to do for your career." 

Beth Goldstein

Current Title: Former CHRO, Consultant & Coach, Beth Goldstein Consulting, and SHRM Executive Advisor

"I started my career running a business, not HR. I ran multiple retail locations and was accountable for the profitability of each. I managed managers, each of whom was responsible for the hiring, development and retention of their teams. It was a fantastic experience and really helped me develop business acumen and leadership capabilities. Eventually, I had an opportunity to transition into HR, which was a great match for my strengths."

Career Pathway:
Consultant, Executive Coach, Beth Goldstein Consulting
CHRO, CoolSys, Inc.
CHRO, Smile Brands, Inc.
VP, Organizational Development, Borders Group, Inc.
Director, HR, Borders Group, Inc.
Regional Human Resources Manager, Borders Group, Inc.
Regional Human Resources Manager, Contempo Casuals
District Manager, Contempo Casuals
Store Manager, Contempo Casuals
 

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Psychology; Master's in Business Administration

"I got my MBA much later to ensure I had the knowledge to be part of the C-Suite, where you must be able to speak the language of business in order to influence strategy and drive change."

Advice: "I moved up in my career by saying 'yes' to the opportunities that were offered to me, by taking initiative to develop my capabilities and by working hard to get results, often exceeding expectations. Trying different things gives you insights into what you like, what you're good at, what you want to do more of, and what you don't want to do.

"Being open to opportunities also exposes you to different colleagues, leaders and cultures. This is a great way to learn from the examples of others, both good and bad. One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned was taking the initiative for your own career. Ask questions, volunteer, make suggestions. You will be surprised how much that is appreciated and recognized!"

Kelli Kombat

Current Title: Vice President, DEI Business Leader, Spark Foundry and CEO, Coaching Engagement and Optimism

"I had an opportunity to have a career path early in my career and shadowed some of the brightest and best at Ford Motor. I worked as a generalist and continued to diversify my career in a variety of industries and levels."

Career Pathway:
Global Head of Talent & DEI, IDEO.org
Global Director, Employee Experience & DEI, International Trademark Association
AVP Human Resources, Supply Chain, L'oréal
HR Director, Americas, Volvo Cars
AVP Human Resources, Multicultural Beauty, L'oréal
Human Resources Director, L'oréal
Human Resources Association, Ford Motor Company

Education: Bachelor of Science in Mass Communication; MBA with a concentration in HR Management

Advice: "Trust your instincts. The grass is not always greener. Focus on your values. They will never steer you wrong. Never stop learning. Surround yourself with people who are humble and those who have a growth mindset.

"Center your work on organizational justice in everything regarding the employee experience. Inclusion is innate. It's our job as HR professionals to create a coaching culture with a goal of belonging. DE&I is not a pillar and certainly not the work of just HR. It won't be effective unless there's galvanizing effort and plenty of ambassadors. 

"DE&I work can sometimes feel like the work of inches. Lean into your patience, and don't just do what is fast, fun or easy. Ask a lot of questions, learn your biases and then work on your cultural fluency. Finally, it's important to get a coach. Take that engagement seriously, set meaningful goals and be open to the process."

Jim Link
Current Title: Chief Human Resources Officer, SHRM

"I grew up on a family farm and in college I worked as an HR intern at GE. Through that internship, I learned the importance of connectivity and communication, especially when conversations are tough or difficult. I also saw firsthand how vitally important it is to have empathy in management and leadership."

Career Pathway:
Chief Human Resources Officer, Randstad
Managing Director, Human Resources, Randstad
General Manager, Human Resources, Porsche
Director, Human Resources, The Pillsbury Company
Human Resources, General Electric
HR Internship at General Electric

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Public Relations; Master of Arts, Organizational Communication

Advice: "Where possible and as much as possible, develop your critical thinking capability. Critical thinking is the ability to look at disparate variables of pieces of information and pull together an outcome from that intellect. If you have that or can fine-tune what you have, it will help you secure a job and make you more successful than any other skill at this time.

"Establish an HR network. Read, read and read about HR and business. Develop a sense of business acumen and the connection between how a business operates and how to set people up for success."

Amy Mysel
Current Title: Seasoned CHRO, Principal, Mysel Consulting, LLC and Executive Advisor, SHRM

"My first job was in recruiting, and it helped me learn a lot about the business. I also got some early 'wins' by filling jobs quickly and building a good reputation. In addition, I was working directly with many senior leaders, including the CEO, and built their trust by filling jobs successfully and managing the candidates and company reputation well."

Career Pathway:
Interim Vice President, US Pipe and Foundry
Principal, Mysel Consulting, LLC
Vice President, Human Resources, Provisur Technologies 
Senior Vice President, Human Resources & Communications, True Value
Executive Vice President, Human Resource, Planning & Communications, Market Day
Vice President, Human Resources, Caremark International
Vice President, Lee Hecht Harrison
Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Foote, Cone and Belding (FCB)
Recruiter and then Executive Director, Playboy
Manager of Manpower Planning (a recruiting role)
Personnel Manager

"I had an unusual leap formed from recruiting to executive director at Playboy when the vice president of HR departed. Since 1980, I've remained in VP HR roles."

Education: Bachelor of Arts, liberal arts

"Take business courses during your undergraduate studies. I did not go back for my master's but would recommend it now. The credential and business acumen it builds is invaluable."

Advice: "Work on balancing your own goals to come up the ladder through a variety of functions so you learn the underpinnings of HR with the needs of the organization. Don't fear taking on new roles that you don't know as much about. Believe in yourself and your capabilities. Look for mentors throughout your career, and maintain those relationships long term."

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