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Simon Geere

Alexander Lloyd

HR Senior Manager

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How important is industry background when taking on a new HR hire?


“Every star has that certain something that stands out and compels us to notice them.”  Maureen O’Hara

When Maureen O’Hara was originally quoted, she was doubtlessly referring to the dazzling world of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but it applies to all of us, in all of our professional lives.
When you are recruiting, you are looking for that star; the one candidate who not only meets your criteria but whose previous successes compel you to notice them.
A strong trend has been evident over time from the recruiter’s perspective that these successes in HR must have been achieved in a similar sector to a potential employer’s own. HR is 100% a transferrable skill – it’s core competencies can be applied in all sectors and across all industries.
Surely then it is of little consequence what background an HR professional has when considering a new hire? The simple answer from many employers is no. From their perspective a similar background provides them with a context and direct comparison as to how an HR professional might bring value to their own business.
Assessing a candidate’s suitability and potential for success in a company naturally requires a comparison of the impacts of their previous successes.  
Are skills easily transferable?
As human beings, we constantly compare – we need relativity in order to make what we consider informed decisions.
However, we have a strong tendency to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable, so if you are able to compare the impact of a candidate’s success in an environment that is similar to your own then it is a much easier process of rationalisation  than setting these in a vastly dissimilar environment.  
In many respects it’s viewed as the ‘safer’ option – there are obvious practical benefits to an incoming HR manager or HR director having the ‘right’ or similar background, for instance. Primarily, they understand the industry and it’s specific demands.
This is a strong advantage into settling into a new role as they should be one step ahead in getting to grips with the company processes and the type of strategies required for HR to add value and aid the company in its plans for development and growth.
While there are benefits, success isn’t guaranteed and someone who is a star in one company might not always be a star in a similar one. The role of culture in HR can’t be underestimated. One financial services company may have vastly different cultural values to another, and the biggest influence comes from the top.
Having a board or senior management that understand the value of HR and truly believe that their people are the most important part of their business so invest in and develop them, will greatly aid an HR professional in making a positive impact and contribution to the company growth.
However, if that HR professional then moves to a company where the buy-in to HR from the top is less, and the senior management are more focused on numbers than people, they will struggle to have the positive impact and success that they have had elsewhere.
How to bag the right candidate
This will also impact on their engagement and buy in with the business. Great successes are not always achieved in a nine-to-five environment and require the individual to go that extra mile. If the buy-in to the company isn’t strong, then their engagement levels will be lower and the successes will be fewer.
While candidates with a similar background can bring advantages with their experience, it doesn’t automatically follow that they will be able to replicate their previous successes in a new company.
There are more complex elements to take into consideration and discounting others simply because they come from slightly different sectors might lead you to fail to recognise that potential star. Consider the following:
  • What industries have similar cultural and organisational elements to your own? Consider opening your criteria to include these and widen the scope of potential candidates.
  • If the candidate meets all other criteria then don’t discount them purely because their industry background doesn’t exactly match yours.
  • Do you trust your consultant? If you do, then use their knowledge of their candidates and your business. They should have met most of their candidates face to face and will be able to advise you on the likelihood of their cultural fit for your business.

Simon Geere is HR senior manager at recruitment consultancy, Alexander Lloyd.

This article was first published by our partner, online jobs board Changeboard.

2 Responses

  1. Industry does not matter if you can learn quickly and understand

     In my career I have worked for Ford Motor Company in car and tractor factories, worked in Urban regeneration in the Public Sector (London Docklands Development Corporation), Waste Management – including negotiating on landfill sites and with tanker drivers, Fund Management – working with Fund Managers, Traders and Analysts (here and in the States), Telecoms at COLT Telecom and Insurance/reinsurance.  As a manager I have hired great HR people over the years from outside of the industry that I was working in at the time.  As long as the HR person is a great HR professional in their field, the job matches their capability, they have a real understanding of business and they are willing to learn the new industry quickly – then I would go for the person – not just ‘industry experience’.

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Simon Geere

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