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Columnist Martin Yate
This week's column coaches HR professionals on how to broaden their general HR knowledge while performing specialized tasks. Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.
I started at my company five years ago as the manager of talent acquisition. I am good at recruiting but wanted to get more experience in HR, including performance management, learning and development, HR business partner work, and all other areas. I achieved my PHR and am now a senior HR manager. However, my main duties still revolve around recruiting.
I do now own learning and development and play a part in the performance management process, but I feel like most job descriptions and requirements out there ask for experience in many of the legal aspects of HR, which are handled mainly by our HR coordinator. I have asked for more experience here, but my manager has said that it is easy work, that she needs me focused on the higher-level projects I have on my plate, and that working on a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) case is not a priority. Additionally, the teams I support tend to be very stable and I have only had to write up performance improvement plans and other corrective actions a handful of times. Finally, we leverage a lawyer for many of the legal matters that arise, and so I do not have a lot of experience with this area either.
I have been trying to read up on these areas, but I feel as though my lack of in-depth experience would be uncovered in a potential future interview and may leave me looking unequipped for the task, although I know I could take it all on easily. What do you suggest I do? Is it not important at this stage in my career? Should I push for more hands-on experience or just keep reading about and researching those areas I feel I have limited experience in?
You are competent in recruitment, learning and development, and performance management but feel you are at a disadvantage because you lack experience with some of the legal aspects of HR. Yet that needn't disqualify you for the next logical step on the ladder.
I think your manager's comments hold a grain of truth: You are doing important work. Your next professional step will build on this and is unlikely to require you to have hands-on expertise in the legal aspects of HR. Of course, the wider the frame of reference you have for all HR work, the more valuable and marketable you become, so your question tells me you are formulating a smart career management strategy.
The first step to develop your knowledge base is to make a prioritized list of all the legal issues (FMLA cases, etc.) that fall to an HR generalist. Then brush up on the competent handling of these issues. You can check out SHRM webcasts and the eLearning Library for programming on HR competency-based topics.
As you pursue your professional development, it helps to consider how a particular topic plays out in the real world. Watch for examples of problems you identified on your prioritized list arising at work; when a problem crops up, indicate your interest to the colleague who is working in that area. Ask questions and share praise for his or her expertise. We all like someone who is interested in our work, so this strategy helps you build your knowledge base while creating an ally and building your professional network as well.
For those issues where you cannot learn best practices through SHRM programs or by quietly asking questions at your own company, you might try posting on relevant LinkedIn groups. Sticking with FMLA as an example, you might post, "What is the most unusual FMLA case you have dealt with, and how did it turn out? In hindsight, is there anything you would do differently?"
This should allow you to speak intelligently about legal issues in an interview. You don't have to say, "I have done this …," but you can talk intelligently about the problems and solutions; as a wise man once told me, "Don't tell 'em what you don't know. They may never ask."
Your next target job may require you to demonstrate a good understanding of legal issues, but daily execution of the related tasks would likely only be part of the job in a very small HR department, and I don't think your credentials will lead you to that kind of job. Given the knowledge you've acquired, if you ask intelligent questions about how a potential employer likes such issues to be handled, you should be able to hold your own at any interview.
You also note that your company uses "a lawyer for many of the legal matters that arise." You don't need to be a lawyer to understand these matters. It is enough to understand the situations that require counsel, how they escalate to that point and when it's time to pass the baton.
You come across as a high-performing professional who wants to develop areas of knowledge and expertise. That is laudable! Don't allow minor gaps to become, in your eyes, insurmountable obstacles.
Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.
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