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10 Tips for Navigating Your HR Career

HR professionals share the best career advice they've received—and how it changed them.

We all remember at least one person in our lives who cared enough to share a bit of wisdom that we’ve carried with us throughout our careers. The advice from that first boss, a mentor or even a client was a beacon guiding us through tough situations. Without it, we might have wasted years fumbling around in the fog. 

We asked HR professionals via social media to tell us about the most meaningful advice they were given and how it changed the way they did their jobs. To pay it forward, they’re sharing the best career advice they’ve received so that others can benefit as well.

Stand Up to Bullies

My first HR boss gave me some advice that has helped me to be brave as an HR pro, something I believe is critical to career success.

I went to her after several interactions with the company’s chief financial officer. This man was a real bully and often treated me (and others) badly. In one particular meeting, he argued every point I was making and was totally disrespectful in front of a number of non-HR managers. He made several snide remarks about HR just being an expense and a roadblock. I was upset and asked my boss to intervene. I was afraid of him.

She said that she could speak to him but [noted that] if she did, she believed he would continue his behavior. She said it would be much better if I confronted him. She spent time with me role-playing how to deal with him. She suggested I go to his office and ask to talk to him. She suggested entering the office, closing the door, and telling him that I didn’t like his behavior and would not tolerate being treated badly by him. She suggested I tell him that we were both professionals who needed to work collaboratively to be successful. 

I did what she suggested. When I closed the door, he looked shocked. I proceeded to tell him what my boss and I had rehearsed. He seemed surprised and then apologized. From that day forward, he was not only respectful but became an HR ally. 

The experience taught me not to be afraid to confront issues directly but respectfully with people. If you believe in your own worth, you can’t be bullied.

—Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP, president, PGHR Consulting Inc., Freedom, Pa.

Study the BusinessSpot2.jpg

Learn the operations! That’s the advice I was given from an operational leader early in my HR career. It helped me understand what employees at all levels did every day, the challenges they experienced and how HR could be a true partner. 

I learned by working the schedules that my operations team worked. I came in overnight for a few days, then early mornings for other days. I worked side by side with employees from entry level to supervisory level for about two weeks. We developed a camaraderie. 

From an operations perspective, they got to know me and trust me. This made them more open to training and learning opportunities I suggested. From an HR perspective, it gave me insight that helped me when I was recruiting new talent, addressing employee concerns and developing training.

—Vilma Brager, managing principal, Insight HR Consulting LLC, Huntington Beach,  Calif., and president, Inland Empire SHRM chapter

Welcome Feedback

Feedback is a gift. If you’re no longer receiving feedback, it means your mentors, hiring managers, supervisors or HR business partners see that you’re not open to improving. Invest in yourself. You’re not entitled to mentoring or growth opportunities. 

That advice came from my mom, Lara Morrow, vice president of culture at BerylHealth, when I was an intern there. I learned to never take a learning opportunity for granted; I always consider the feedback I’m given; and I help all of the candidates, interns and team members I work with to adopt the same mentality. 

When people stop providing feedback, it’s a red flag that you need to get introspective and create an action plan to grow your soft skills. This sign has shown me how to remain in touch with my teams, build strong relationships and curate my career path. More importantly, this wisdom has helped me assist many people around me. 

—Ashton Adair, head of talent retention, HubSearch, headquarters in Avon Lake, Ohio

Consider Others’ Perspectives

Early in my HR career, I was having trouble getting employees to complete their open enrollment despite multiple reminders. The HR director pulled me aside and said the most challenging thing I will face in my career is not harassment investigations, termination meetings or staying on top of employment law changes, but something that seems simple: getting other people to do the things they are supposed to do. 

This changed the way I interact with the employees I work with. I’ve become more forgiving of their failures and [gained an] understanding that policy acknowledgments and benefits enrollment are all important—from HR’s perspective. From the employee perspective, these might be seen as more “HR paperwork.” It’s important for HR professionals to understand that we need to help employees understand the value and purpose behind what we require of them.

—Tony Davis, J.D., HR director, Reese Law Group, San Diego 

Lend a Helping Hand

Carl Sokia, who was the director of human resources at the Sheraton Hotel in Steamboat Springs, Colo., told me that to get to where he was, he was always open to lending a helping hand wherever needed. I have always taken that with me and was promoted four times in the same company because of it.

—Lauren Browne, ­business operations ­manager, Larsen ­Development, Denver

Find a Champion

When I made a midcareer jump from legal to HR, my mentor told me that “any major project or initiative that is ‘owned’ or sponsored by HR is almost always doomed to fail.” At first, I was confused (and disheartened), until he explained.  

While the management of human capital is critical to a business’s success, ultimately it’s the business that determines the objectives, owns the budget and has the real “power” to drive operational behavior. It stands to reason that initiatives typically seen as “HR projects” will be more successful if they are championed by the business leaders. 

As a result, the best HR leaders partner with business leaders and share their expertise and advice in the context of business realities to secure business sponsorship. They are often adept at subtle persuasion, advocacy and even shuttle diplomacy behind the scenes.

This doesn’t mean that HR is relegated to the status of a wallflower at a dance. Implementing new programs and policies, handling change management processes, and communicating the changes will still require HR to be strong, vocal and visible. We just need to remember that to accomplish good things, sometimes we lead from the front and sometimes we lead from behind by supporting others. I’ve seen my mentor’s theory borne out over my years in HR.

—Noelle Gumm, attorney and HR total rewards consultant, Orlando, Fla.

Maintain Your Morals

My grandfather told me, “Ensure your dreams never lead you to a place your talent cannot keep you, and be sure to carry your morals with you.”

We tend to be told we can do anything we put our minds to, but we don’t really hear that some things aren’t worth our thoughts. I’ve carried that with me throughout my career, and it has pushed me to learn more about my industry, peers and overall role. It has also caused me to take a deeper look at my core values and truly aligning those with an organization to ensure the best fit for it, as well as myself. This has led to greater fulfillment in my personal life and has allowed me to have a greater peripheral view during the most trying times.

—Jessica Long, executive vice president, talent and organizational development, Legence Bank, Eldorado, Ill.

Always Be PreparedSpot4.jpg

“You interview for your next job every day.” That advice came from a prior CEO. I was already in my senior manager role, so while it didn’t affect me, I spread this gospel to other employees within Sunflower. I think a lot of employees took this to heart and realized that how well they do their job and follow our culture of servant leadership makes a big difference in achieving promotions down the road.

—Tom Zerfas, SHRM-SCP, retired senior manager of safety and HR, Sunflower Electric Power Corp., Hays, Kan.

Be Honest

My first HR supervisor told me, “Get to the point in a difficult conversation. Say, ‘This is a difficult conversation,’ and then give them the news. Don’t dance around it.” This has helped me through a lot of tough conversations. Be honest. Don’t beat around the bush.

—Cassidy Maples, senior HR ­coordinator, Salina Family ­Healthcare Center & Smoky Hill Family Medicine Residency Program, Salina, Kan.

Search for InspirationSpot3.jpg

In one of my early jobs as an HR consultant in New York City, one of my clients gave me the best HR career advice I’ve ever received. My job was to provide administrative and compliance-related HR support. But the client, a small-business owner, shared his belief that to be successful, HR professionals needed to go beyond understanding the business they were supporting and learn about the inspiration that drives the business owner. 

Each time we met, he made it a point to discuss what was going on with his business, both the successes as well as the struggles. He was always curious to hear my thoughts. These interactions enabled me to stretch beyond the bullet points in my job description and begin to develop my coaching skills. 

I started to model the same conversational format with my other clients. After sharing the standard administrative and compliance information, I would ask each of them how things were going with their businesses. I was always curious about the successes, but I also wanted to learn how they kept themselves motivated during challenges. They all became energized during this part of our conversation. I was able to learn firsthand what fueled their passion, and they enjoyed sharing their wisdom. Their energy was contagious. 

From these interactions, I was able to become not only a skilled HR business partner but also an effective trainer and leadership coach.

—Susan Russo, SHRM-SCP, HR training consultant, Susan Russo HR LLC, River Edge, N.J.

Illustrations by Laurindo Feliciano for HR Magazine.