While many Human Resources team members are satisfied professionally as individual contributors, others covet the bump in responsibility, increased leadership opportunities, and chance to work with senior leaders that accompany a shift to Human Resource management.
A management position is a career milestone, and often part of a promotion. For Human Resources professionals who have worked in entry-level HR assistant positions, been specialists, and gone on to work as generalists, becoming an HR manager represents a big step forward in their career: the shift to a leadership role.
Human Resources managers direct, plan, and organize the HR function while working with business leaders to align People strategy with business strategy. With a median salary of $121,220 in 2020 and faster-than-average growth according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), HR manager is a desirable mid-career role that prepares professionals for senior Human Resources positions.
Whether you’re just starting out in the field or anticipating a promotion in the near future, these five tips will help you become a Human Resources manager.
5 Tips for Becoming an HR Manager
1. Consider a master’s degree after you’ve earned your bachelor’s.
Most organizations will only consider a candidate for an HR manager position if they have a bachelor’s degree in an HR or a related field, like business administration. But while a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for a promotion to an HR manager position, some candidates choose to pursue a master’s degree as well.
“A great number of people are coming into the field with master’s-level education and understanding, which raises the bar in terms of the technical and theoretical knowledge required for modern Human Resource management,” said Rolf Bax, Director of HR for resume-building site Resume.io.
In fact, the Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI) 2018 report The State of Skills and HR Education found that 38% of HR professionals have a master’s degree. Postgraduate degrees deepen critical thinking ability and provide excellent opportunities for networking — powerful ladders for the ascension to HR upper management.
But the question of which degree to pursue isn’t a simple one. HR professionals who go on to earn a master’s degree most often opt for either a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Science in Human Resources Management (MS-HRM). HRCI data from that same report showed that 42% of postgraduate degree holders in the HR field have MBAs, while 40% have degrees in HRM.
Getting an MS-HRM degree generally makes the most sense for individuals who would like to deepen their expertise and understanding of specific HR functional areas, while MBAs are a wise path for those who would like to gain a better understanding of the business ecosystem as a whole. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) published this helpful resource of expert tips from HR professionals on the MBA versus MS-HRM debate if you’d like to explore this more.
2. Get certified.
Obtaining HR professional certifications and holding these credentials has a number of benefits:
- It demonstrates mastery. Getting certified requires a significant time, energy, and financial commitment, and many certificates even require ongoing professional learning. So pursuing this path signals that you take your career seriously. “It takes effort on the part of the individuals to seek out professional development activities that will keep them up to date with emerging changes in the HR field,” said Annette Harris, Associate Human Resources Director at a Jacksonville, Florida-based manufacturer.
- It keeps you up to date on best practices and regulations. Secondly, earning and maintaining credentials deepens your knowledge of HR best practices, and keeps you abreast of the oft-changing rules and regulations HR professionals are responsible for. “Maintaining an HR certification shows an employee’s motivation to stay relevant, and supports [an] organization’s compliance with changing state and federal laws,” Harris said.
- It increases the likelihood that you’ll be promoted. Earning HR credentials also increases your odds of being promoted and can result in higher pay. According to 2018 data from Payscale, certified HR generalists have a 16% greater chance of being promoted to HR manager than those without. The same report found that Human Resources managers with certifications earn 15.8% more than their counterparts who lack these credentials.
Matt Erhad, Managing Partner of executive recruitment firm Summit Search Group, pointed out that certifications are especially helpful for those without a bachelor’s degree. “In most cases, hiring managers look for at least a related bachelor’s degree when considering management candidates. If you don’t have a degree, getting [a certificate] can unlock a lot of opportunities for management that you may otherwise miss out on,” he noted.
A spectrum of certifications exist for HR professionals, which typically correspond to experience and interest. Human Resources professionals hoping to receive a promotion to HR manager generally have five years of experience in the field or more, according to BLS data. For these professionals, the most common certifications to work toward are SHRM-CP, SHRM-SCP, and PHR, depending on one's eligibility requirements, such as years worked in the HR field and undergraduate and graduate degrees held.
3. Network with other HR professionals.
For Human Resources professionals — the ones actually responsible for recruiting and hiring — “networking” can sound like a gimmicky way to find one’s next job that HR pros are exempt from. In actuality, networking is an effective, fulfilling way to strengthen your problem-solving abilities, increase your mentorship opportunities, and open up pathways for new career possibilities — all of which support HR professionals in transitioning from more entry-level roles to Human Resources manager.
First of all, a strong network can help with tough problems. “There are not always resources within an organization that can guide an HR professional in making critical decisions,” Harris said. But by reaching out to those in your network, you may gain new insight or perspectives to help find or create solutions.
Harris also noted that networking provides powerful opportunities for mentorship — a relationship that can have a significant impact on your day-to-day life and long-term career. Research shows that mentees benefit from a slew of positive career outcomes, including earning more money, receiving more promotions, and feeling more satisfied with their career than those without mentors.
And importantly, “networking may open up the door to future career opportunities that may not be available at the individual's current organization,” Harris said.
For HR professionals looking to network, joining online spaces like Slack communities and LinkedIn groups is a great place to start. These avenues will connect you to a range of HR professionals across industries and career levels. With time, you may feel drawn to join more established professional associations, like SHRM or the Association for Talent Development (ATD). But since these organizations come with hefty price tags, it’s wise to explore free or low-cost options first.
4. Learn about HR by trying out different roles.
Working across the various functional specialties of Human Resources exposes would-be managerial candidates to the intricacies of each sub-function. “Learning the functional areas of HR (employee benefits, recruiting, employee relations, compensation, employment law, etc.) can enhance an individual’s ability to lead teams of HR representatives,” Harris said.
The benefits of working across HR go beyond a well-rounded resume. For example, trying out different roles in Human Resources benefits employees in the following ways:
- It’ll enable you to learn the challenges firsthand. Because each specialty of HR has its own challenges and complexities — and rewards — understanding the finer points will support managers who go on to lead teams of people responsible for these tasks. For instance, an HR manager who has worked closely with the company’s applicant tracking system (ATS) will understand any frustrations, limitations, or roadblocks their employees may face, as well as how to overcome them, what’s possible, and how to best harness the software.
- It’ll help you better understand what you love about Human Resources. By working across the various sub-functions of HR, professionals will also come to understand what they enjoy most about the field. “Some individuals are motivated by human interaction, some by solving complex problems, and others by data analysis in the business,” said Harris.
Gaining experience in different roles benefits both the employee and the organization. “The individual can determine which functional area of HR they are passionate about working in, and a company can benefit from having an HR professional who can provide significant strategic contributions in multiple HR functions,” Harris noted.
Working in different HR specialites doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to hold a formal position in a sub-function. There are a lot of ways to broaden your experience in Human Resources, and many ways to get creative here. For example, HR pros can seek out opportunities to work across the HR organization on a project basis or by shadowing a colleague, and still gain valuable, hands-on experience even without officially holding a job title in a given area.
5. Talk about your career goals.
The presumption that being promoted to a management position is automatic and the only way to advance your career is no longer relevant. Today, it’s commonly accepted that not everyone wants to be a manager, and remaining an individual contributor throughout the course of your career is a respected trajectory in its own right. Because of this shift, letting your career aspirations be known is a must. If you want to make a move to management, voice this goal and tell your manager.
Talk about your career aspirations during both one-on-ones and more formal performance reviews, and if your manager isn’t broaching career development conversations, initiate the conversation yourself. For instance, you could email your manager in advance of your next one-on-one and say something like, “I’d love it if we could reserve 15 minutes on the agenda to talk about my career growth and aspirations.”
Seeking out leadership opportunities in your current role is another way to signal to decision-makers at your organization that you’re eager for managerial experience. “You don’t have to wait until your promotion is official to be a leader within your department,” Erhard said. You could seek out project lead responsibilities or take the initiative to develop programming you think would be helpful for employees. These are purposeful ways to build leadership experience and demonstrate your desire for more responsibility to those around you.
A promotion to HR management represents an exciting foray into a strategic planning role where you’ll be positioned to make big changes across your organization. Human Resources managers work closely with senior management to ensure alignment across the business and those responsible for its operation — the people.
The field of Human Resources is vast and growing, and there exists big potential for growth and promotion. These tips will help HR professionals fresh out of college as well as those vying for their first role in management pursue a successful, fulfilling career in Human Resources.