Why 'liking to work with people' is the wrong reason to enter HR

By Lisa A. Burke-Smalley Ph.D.

September 28, 2017

Too often, I hear students declare: "I want to work in HR because I like people." Increasingly, I find this motivation demonstrates a misguided view. Not only is this rationale inconsistent with longstanding evidence, but it contradicts the current HR emphasis on evidence based decision-making, analytics and strategic visioning. In addition, this rationale can lead to dangerous decision-making, conflict avoidance, and fudging to appease others, rather than meeting organizational goals and needs. Finally, it sets up the HR practitioner to be disappointed by the reality that not all people in the workplace are even likeable—for those with years of work experience, particularly in team-oriented contexts, there exists a large number of co-workers who require grace and courtesy to achieve successful collaboration.

McClelland and Burnham's (1976)[i] seminal empirical work revealed that managers with a high need for affirmation typically underperform those with a high need for influence. To be liked by others as a career goal is perilous for HR professionals because—like top executives—they often must deliver unfortunate news to rejected applicants, terminated workers, stressed-out line managers, low-performing employees, and other parties. Instead, I would suggest that prospective (and current) HR practitioners seek to be respected, rather than liked, by their peers as a function of their competence, commitment and character. While I'm certainly not advocating abandoning relationship-based approaches, I believe it's time we explicitly acknowledge as a field that relational tactics are no longer sufficient to accomplish an HR professional's work responsibilities.

Some specialty areas of HR are quickly becoming more data-intensive, particularly with the contemporary workplace emphasis on HR analytics and evidence based decision-making, where there is increasing reliance upon workers with quantitative and analytical skills. For example, benefits administration is faced with mining data to reduce claims cost; compensation analysts are tasked with containing labor costs and producing affordable extrinsic motivators; recruiters are challenged to reduce human bias and subjectivity in hiring decisions, and learning specialists are expected to show a return on investment. As such, HR departments are progressively sourcing workers who have the research and data analytic skills to increase the value HR brings to an organization. If the worker also demonstrates a degree of emotional intelligence, then that is "icing on the cake," and those individuals should command a premium in the labor market.

Students and others beginning a career in HR would do well to consider Zenger and Folkman's (2015)[ii] published data on attributes of successful HR executives. The competencies uncovered in their investigation include strategic, problem-solving, boundary spanning, and goal-setting skills. Based on these recent findings, HR professionals who exemplify such characteristics will be viewed by critical stakeholders (such as top executives and line managers) as adding the most value in their company. These findings should be useful for current working professionals, as well as college students seeking a major that fits their career and life values.

Bottom line: you don't need to "like working with people" to be successful in HR. In fact, in some cases it will limit your performance and only serve to keep the field of HR locked in the past. We need to appropriately educate prospective HR professionals on the current skills it takes to be successful in a challenging yet rewarding field of practice.

Dr. Lisa Burke-Smalley is a Guerry Professor of Management at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga College of Business.

[i] McClelland, D. C., & Burnham, D. H. (1976). Power is the great motivator. Harvard Business Review54(2), 100-110.

[ii] Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2015, August). What separates great HR leaders from the rest? Retrieved from


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect