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The end to an HR career?

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The HR career ladder

Jan Hills, from HR with Guts, discusses the problems facing the HR industry as service centres and career administrators are taking the entry level positions, and she explains how, without lower level strategy roles, the industry will stagnate.


Once upon a time, there was a clear and well defined HR career ladder. This meant that when people first entered the profession there was a distinct hierarchy that they could progress through, learning along the way. However, we are finding more and more that as the profession moves to embrace the Ulrich Model, this natural career path is disappearing.

Those who have been in HR for a while will remember that before the Ulrich model, people typically entered HR in a junior generalist role. Here they could learn the technical aspects and business policies of the job.

As the role developed and their responsibilities increased, they were given more complex projects to work on with more senior clients. Some people progressed to working in specialist areas such as learning and development and compensation, but even if they stayed in a generalist role, they got the opportunity to see these specialisms by working with their peers.

“Because there used to be a hierarchy and a natural progression, people lower down the ladder had role models who were already successfully doing the next role up that they could learn from.”

Under this system, while they were learning the technical parts of the role, they were also gaining valuable skills on how to deal with clients, how to influence and how to work with more senior line managers.

And most importantly, because there used to be a hierarchy and a natural progression, people lower down the ladder had role models who were already successfully doing the next role up that they could learn from.

Line of sight

Put simply, this meant that there was a line of sight that showed what employees needed to do next, in order to progress in their career. And while the old system had its flaws, the great thing about this method was that people had a clear idea about how their career could progress and could clearly see from working with people higher up the ladder, the skills and competencies that they would need to get there.

Since the Ulrich model, it’s all change; with a pure business partner model there is no hierarchy to follow. Alongside this, the demands of the role need skills that don’t necessarily naturally develop from following a hierarchal path. This means we are finding there is now no natural career path for HR business partners (HRBPs) to progress through.

Ideally the HRBP needs to have all the skills and knowledge associated with the HR profession. What’s more, they need to know how the business makes money, the business practices that ensure it is successful, as well as deep skills and experience in analysis and change management. How then, do companies create a career path that gives potential HRBPs the training and experience they need?

Under the Ulrich model, the roles that were once given to junior personnel are typically handled by shared service centres. One of the main challenges is for the industry to find a way to provide training in these basic skills to future HRBPs.

The well of people who have made the transition from generalist to business partner is going to run dry. We see more and more companies hiring from outside but sooner or later a new supply of potential HRBPs will be needed in order to meet demand. Some companies have introduced a degree of hierarchy within their HR teams, employing HRBPs with different degrees of seniority, but even then the ‘junior’ HRBPs are still quite some way into their career.

Shared service centre role

One possible answer is to develop and train up people who have been working in a shared service centre role. However for some of those companies that are already working in this model, this is proving problematic as the service centre role is limited to giving policy and process advice.

This means that not only do people have gaps in the HR skills that HRBPs need, but also in these types of service centres we see a different mentality to the service centre hiring process when compared to the HRBP hiring process. These service centres do not always recruit people who have an ambition to be an HR professional. They are focused on people who have good customer services skills and the expectation is people are undertaking a job, not necessarily a career.

“We see more and more companies hiring from outside but sooner or later a new supply of potential HRBPs will be needed in order to meet demand.”

Some forward-thinking shared service centres are much more proactive and see their role as advisory and I have seen these service centres putting together career plans for staff. But with centres usually employed to cut costs, this is a relatively rare occurrence.

What’s more, even if service centres do implement career structures the fact that often they are physically remote from the business and other HR professionals, means that they miss out on those natural interactions that build knowledge and skill as they have few role models in their line of sight.

Centres of excellence also generally have no structure in place for people to naturally grow into. Often the centres are divided so that people are only exposed and trained in a single area of specialism.

Some centres of excellence are beginning to create career development positions; these are extra positions that allow employees to move across different areas of specialism or from the shared service centre, bridging the gap between service centres and centres of excellence from which people can then move to a junior business partner position. However, this is still quite rare and it typically still leaves gaps in business knowledge and client management skills.

Strategic contribution

And so companies are finding that there is a real challenge in finding HRBPs who can understand the business and can make a real strategic contribution. And quite simply, the HR industry must work together to find a solution, because without one this problem will only get worse as companies continue to follow the Ulrich model.

At present, companies are still recruiting their HRBPs who have been trained in the generalist route and the way they identify people who will make the best HRBPs are those who have, through the experience of their role and natural aptitude, acquired the ‘difference that makes a difference’, which is the additional deep business and strategic skills that can make an HR employee really stand out.

“Our research has taught us that the very best business partners achieve success through their attitude, understanding and beliefs about what makes HR successful.”

Our research has taught us that the very best business partners achieve success through their attitude, understanding and beliefs about what makes HR successful. This gives hope to finding a solution to the current problem, as it demonstrates that, at least in part, the skill of an HRBP comes from their innate ability and beliefs as much as their career path. Such people are of course highly sought after by employees.

So, what is the solution? How can the industry find a new way to provide a career path to future HRBPs and find new ways to provide opportunities for people to identify themselves as having the innate qualities needed?

Well all is not lost; across the industry we have seen pockets of good practice and innovation that if combined and standardised could forge the way for a new system for developing HRBPs. Our colleagues at Orion Partners are also currently carrying out research to help shed some light on the future. I have found that the best practice has the following features:

  • Companies that have the best chance of recruiting new HRBPs tend to have a clearly articulated description of the experience, skills and knowledge a future HRBP needs and the types of roles which will best provide that experience. The industry as a whole needs to adopt and standardise this if it is to have a clear idea of how to progress.

  • When recruiting for the shared service centre roles, those managers demonstrating best practice hire for at least some skills, in some positions that demonstrate skills and beliefs needed to be a senior HRBP or HR specialist.

  • Some centres now have plans where key identified staff are given the opportunity to rotate through different areas of the shared service centre and centres of excellence, meaning they can broaden their HR skills and understanding in preparation for an HRBP role. This should be adopted as common practice.

  • In some service centres and centres of excellence, identified staff are assigned to work on projects and assignments that involve direct contact with HRBPs. In this way, the ‘natural hierarchy’ can on some levels be recreated as staff work alongside the HRBPs and take responsibility working in line roles or at least on business projects.

Other useful practices that contribute are :

  • Identified staff being provided with mentors in the business.

  • The creation of ‘role shadowing’, whereby juniors work alongside HRBPs for an extended period of time in a ‘turtle position’. These are positions created alongside HRBPs or heads of centres of excellence and provide broad exposure to the day to day responsibilities and skills. These ‘turtles’ can actively prove useful as they can help the senior HRBP to manage their workload whist learning.

In conclusion, the Ulrich model doesn’t mean that there is no career path for potential HRBPs, but it does require people to create a more intentional career path. Whilst implementing the model, HR directors need to think about the career path for the future and put it into the design of the HR structure.

If the industry fails to recognise this and chooses instead to bolt it on at a later date, this will spell bad news for the development of HRBPs. Some people are beginning to make the change. If we all follow their best practice, we can work to avert the potential recruitment nightmare.


For more information, please visit HR With Guts.

One Response

  1. More complex but achieveable..
    Jan’s comments resonated with me and I agree with the overall conclusions that career progression is still possible but is more complex to map and achieve.

    When I joined HR (1987!) as Graduate Trainee Personnel Officer there was a clear linear pathway through the ranks with sideshoots into areas such as T&D for those so minded.

    My current team at the National Trust is structured on Ulrich lines – we have however been very mindful from the outset of the issues around career progression so would more see ourselves as Ulrich Plus e.g. we have roles that work across the Department on service integration issues which give the postholder broad experience. We also ensure our service centre team get out into the business (starting off taking notes at hearings and progressing as their confidence and competence grows)in order to enrich their primary phone/e-mail based roles. These roles however are designed for people who want to offer an HR service not act as call centre ‘logger & floggers’ – this orientation is clearly tested in our selection procedures and supported by an individual development plan which includes CIPD study.

    There is one big advantage to the current more crazy paving rather than ladder approach to careers – this is the greater acceptance that plodding a well worn path is not going to escalate your career. Rather, alignment and credibility within the business is required and this can be best achieved by taking secondments, project roles and other opportunities outside of mainstream HR which deepen understanding and enrich skills that can then be drawn on back in the HR environment.

    HR offers a fabulous career and to me those going forward who will be most successful are those who sieze the widest range of opportunities to’round off’ their business and interpersonal acumen.

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