Human Resources, at its core, is about people. It’s the reason many HR leaders enter the field in the first place — to focus on and collaborate with people. But in fulfilling their HR roles, Human Resources professionals also need to learn the ins and outs of another industry: the one their employer belongs to. The Human Resources department for a law firm needs to be equally well-versed in the legal field as it is in HR, just as the People team at a software startup needs to be as responsive to what’s happening in Silicon Valley as it is to best practices in Human Resource management.
For HR professionals looking to take the next steps on their career path, the universality of Human Resources can be a boon. Whether private or public, nonprofit or government, big or small, there’s an HR opportunity to be found in almost any field. But given how much the experience of HR is determined by the industry it functions in, seeking out roles in new fields can be daunting, too. Before you’re able to progress in your job search, you need an answer to this key question: When evaluating your next opportunities in Human Resources, does industry matter? We asked Human Resources experts to weigh in — here’s what they said.
What Doesn’t Change
The good news, experts said, was that while company culture, training and development strategies, and work environments can differ, there’s a lot about Human Resources that remains consistent, regardless of industry.
“HR is all about people. Regardless of industry, HR practitioners are going to have to exercise their skills in empathy, trust-building, and performance motivation,” said Kelli Mason, diversity and inclusion expert and cofounder of employer review site JobSage.
Or, as Michael Moran, owner of Austin, TX-based staffing agency Green Lion Search Group, put it, “The core, big-picture work is always the same: Your role is to manage the employee experience.”
Moran said Human Resources pros considering taking a position in a different field can be confident that foundational HR processes and practices — and even some of the tools — will be consistent. “Many of the basic job functions and day-to-day tasks will be the same and are universal in HR departments across industries,” he said. “It’s also likely you’ll use similar databases, software, and other tools — even if it’s not the exact same program you’ve used before, these programs tend to share key functions and interface styles.”
While Human Resources practices may be similar, People industry veterans cautioned that there can indeed be differences in expectations and performance management norms. Moran said that while each industry will have its own organizational behaviors, there are specific areas in which you can expect to see differences manifest.
“What differs between industries are the expectations of employees; the type of workplace environment that is most typical; and the laws and regulations regarding employee compensation, training and certification, and workplace protocol,” explained Moran. “This is the main place you’ll need to increase your knowledge if you’re transitioning from one industry to another — especially if it’s in a completely new sector, like from an office environment to the manufacturing, healthcare, or hospitality sector, for example.”
Industry regulations can vary widely across these different sectors, Moran said, and prospective candidates will need to familiarize themselves with protocols and expectations they may not have encountered before.
Deborah Murphy, PhD, an HR consultant for Human Resources outsourcing and consulting firm FlexHR, agreed that there’s industry-specific knowledge it can hard to acquire without being in the field itself, whether that’s retail, entertainment, sales, or another sector.
“HR generalists and leaders benefit from some experience in the industry,” said Murphy. “For example, manufacturing leaders will do well to understand total quality management [TQM], process thinking, and OSHA [US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration] requirements, while banking professionals should understand compliance.”
Even beyond industry practices, Mason said, employee expectations can vary dramatically by sector, which can have a large impact on HR functioning.
“Performance motivators can be different across industries,” Mason noted. “In industries like tech, where most employees have room to advance in their careers, motivators can include benefits like professional development opportunities, tuition reimbursement, or mentorship programs. In industries like packaging and order fulfillment, however, where there is less room for growth, HR teams might find more success with ‘just in time’ performance motivators like cash bonuses based on weekly, monthly, or quarterly output, or with employee-of-the-month-style recognition.”
Regardless of industry, a number of experts said there is another big difference that can affect Human Resources: whether or not the workplace is unionized.
“Union workplaces have a lot of very specific rules and guidelines to work within as a result of the union contract that HR pros need to be aware of, and/or have past experience with,” said Jessica Donahue, Human Resources consultant and talent management strategist and founder of Adjunct Leadership Consulting.
What You Need to Know to Change Industries
Considering making the change? Experts agreed it’s absolutely possible — but potential candidates will need to do their research.
“Your role as HR is to help foster a productive, positive work environment that serves the needs of both the business and the employees,” Moran said. “To do that effectively, you need to understand what those needs are, and you can’t do that if you don’t know anything about the industry.”
Presenting yourself as a viable candidate requires more prep work for cross-industry candidates — in addition to researching industry norms around HR standards and practices, experts said there’s no substitute for speaking to industry insiders.
“[My] advice for HR workers [is] to learn absolutely everything they can,” Murphy said. “Learn the work, learn the priorities, ask questions, be curious, be humble enough to say you don't understand, [and] then have the courage to question when something doesn't make sense.”
Murphy recommended that candidates looking to change industries seek out contacts in their targeted field to whom they can reach out with questions — including industry specifics, such as which roles are the most highly prized, and how that affects the way the company and the industry operates. Knowing the talent acquisition and retention priorities of a given field can provide valuable insight into that sector.
Another thing to consider: Compensation conventions may vary.
“The norms in terms of compensation and benefits can be very different as you cross from nonprofits, private industry, or government work,” said Phil Davis, SVP of FlexHR. If possible, check in with HR managers and peers as you’re doing your research to get a sense of how the industry you’re targeting (and not just the firm in question) views things like benefits, work-life balance, and total employee rewards.
Bottom line: Experts agreed that Human Resources professionals who are looking to grow their careers can gain new experiences by taking their talents to roles in different fields. And with a solid foundation in HR, they can feel confident about what they bring to the table. Being prepared, doing your research, and approaching the opportunity as a learning experience can make a cross-industry move a powerful next step in your career, as well as give you a chance to hone your professional skillset.
“If you're considering switching industries, go for it,” Mason encouraged. “You may encounter an initial learning curve, but if you're truly a people person, you'll be able to support your employees regardless of their industry.”