As the business world adjusts to the “new normal” in the wake of the COVID pandemic, one thing is clear: People need each other. And that’s as true in Human Resources as it is anywhere. After the unprecedented challenges of steering the People side of the business through the past 18 months, many HR professionals have realized just how critical having a robust community of like-minded peers who can challenge, educate, teach, brainstorm with, and support them truly is as they build their careers.
In a world that’s busier and more stressful than ever — and one where the in-person meetings and conferences that drove networking in the past are once again in flux — taking the time to build and nurture a professional network can be daunting. But Human Resources experts say networking with other professionals in the HR field is essential. Here’s their blueprint for how to do it.
The Importance of an HR Network
Creating an HR community is about meeting other Human Resources professionals, of course; finding people who understand your work is important in any field. But it’s especially important for HR pros, experts said, given their unique relationship to their colleagues.
“HR professionals often have to deal with workplace challenges they can’t talk about with internal colleagues,” said Phyllis Sarkaria, founder and CEO of The Sarkaria Group, an executive coaching and leadership consultancy based in San Diego, CA. “That’s just one reason why having a strong network of HR practitioners at various levels of experience is so important. When you’re dealing with a particularly thorny issue, there will likely be someone in your network who has had a similar problem and can provide insights into what worked and what didn’t.”
“You can't interact with employees the way [people in] many other roles can because there is a potential that it could put you in conflict, so networking with other HR people is extremely important to prevent feelings of isolation,” agreed Jennifer Doherty, founder of JSD HR Consulting and a specialist in Human Resources issues at small to midsize businesses. “It's an ever-changing field involving lots of legislation, and it's very beneficial to have a core group where you regularly discuss these changes so you [can keep] abreast of everything that is happening.”
In addition to the support, the learning opportunities that can arise from your network — whether they be formal professional development opportunities like recertification trainings through organizations such as the HR Certification Institute (HRCI), an upcoming meeting to talk about best practices in staffing, or a webinar about healthcare developments — can be invaluable to your career.
“There are complex situations in HR, and networking with other professionals to understand how they managed some of these situations can increase your ability to do your job well,” said Annette Harris, an HR professional and founder of Harris Financial Coaching, a business that offers financial coaching around debt management, retirement planning, and wealth building, among other services.
4 Best Practices for Successful HR Networking
When it comes to how to meet people in your field and create meaningful connections, there are certain ways to make the most of your efforts — whether in person or in virtual or online spaces. Read on for the steps you can take to create, nurture, and maintain a solid HR network that will last through the years.
1. Cultivate your existing relationships.
The best place to start, experts agreed, is by making stronger connections within the network you already have.
“I believe in really making it a priority to keep in touch — nurture all the contacts you make throughout your career,” Doherty urged. “There's so much to this field, and so many unique experiences that people have; you never know when you might come across something that might require tapping into your network to solve, or when you might need some advice or support.”
Whether it’s scheduling a catch-up with current HR coworkers or sharing, liking, or commenting on a former colleague’s work on social media, maintaining strong relationships with the people who know you and your work best is the foundation of a solid professional network. And it’s critical to make it a priority, experts added.
“Make it a point to block [out] time for networking on your calendar,” advised Barbara McMahan, President of HR and organizational development firm Atticus Consulting. "Commit to networking just like you would a meeting with your boss.”
2. Get organized.
Professional organizations are a built-in source of like-minded professionals, all concentrated in one place. National groups like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the National Human Resources Association (NHRA) host events, seminars, and trainings (both virtually and in person), including many on a local level. Mastermind — or peer-to-peer mentoring — groups dedicated to HR are another avenue for broadening your connections.
And don’t overlook online resources either. While LinkedIn is essential, don’t ignore the opportunity in other channels.
“I learned way too late in my career about the networking goldmines that live on Facebook and Slack,” said Lauren Mason, Head of People for workplace learning platform Learerbly. “These groups have offered me such a treasure trove of connections, insights, and resources and I wish more People people knew about them!”
One final piece of advice: Don’t hesitate to look outside the Human Resources world.
“HR is not industry specific,” Doherty said. “It’s a career that can take you into literally any industry, so general business masterminds or industry associations are also great.”
3. Make the most of events.
Whether they’re sponsored by your company or by an industry group you’ve joined, networking events and industry get-togethers are fertile ground for building new relationships. (This is true for in-person and virtual events alike!) But make sure you enter them with a solid plan to maximize your time.
Sue Andrews, senior Human Resources professional for finance brokerage firm KIS Finance, said advance preparation — such as knowing probable attendees you’d like to meet and having goals for how many people you want to have conversations with — can help you avoid wasting time on things that don’t serve your goals. “It’s also a good idea to go to events on your own, as this forces you to step out of your comfort zone and interact with others,” she added.
If that feels daunting or awkward, experts said, give yourself a task to do. “When you are networking, it can be very difficult to join a conversation. Being the person who invites others [into a conversation] is a great way to connect and build a relationship,” said Jodi Brandstetter, author of Hire by Design and owner of Loveland, Ohio-based boutique Human Resources consulting firm Lean Effective Talent Strategies. That can mean smiling and inviting other attendees into the conversation when in person, or asking questions at an online panel to keep things flowing. Either way, looking for ways to include other people will keep your mind off your own nerves, while cementing your ties with colleagues at the same time.
4. Pay it forward.
Positioning yourself to be of service to others in the community isn’t just an effective way to develop deep relationships — it enriches the entire community, too.
“As a professional in your own right, you have a lot to share with new entrants in the profession and veterans alike,” noted Paul French, Managing Director at international executive search firm Intrinsic Search. “Networking is about providing value to others, and sharing your knowledge is an excellent way to do this.”
“Look for ways to help HR colleagues,” Sarkaria recommended. “What challenges are they running into? If you’ve solved a similar issue, share your lessons learned. When appropriate, share processes, forms, and job descriptions.
“Help one another succeed,” she continued. “It builds up the profession and strengthens your network. Even if you aren’t able to assist, consider who you can connect them to in order to provide assistance. It's a great way to pay it forward, and will come back to you when you need help.”
No matter which paths you’re exploring, experts agreed that the fundamentals remain the same — and that includes a willingness to pitch in. “Get involved!” McMahan encouraged. “Go beyond just having your name on the membership roster of an HR organization, and join a committee [or] take on a leadership role.”
“Making contacts is about a lot more than just joining the organizations — you have to show up and participate,” said Thom Singer, executive search consultant and host of the Making Waves at C-Level podcast. Actively participating in and fully engaging with the community is not only the best way to forge new relationships, he said, it’s how you invest in them: “The more you participate over time, the better chance you will have to build meaningful connections.”