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How to break into HR: Advice from Sue Liburd

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The human resources field is extremely broad and diverse. Careers in this industry are some of the most competitive and desirable in today’s job market. HR professionals have endless opportunities, and can work in nearly any industry or part of the world. If you’re wondering how to break into HR, start with this episode of The Intern Group’s podcast How to be the difference.

Johana Molina and Paul Lynskey sit down with Sue Liburd MBE DL, an award-winning businesswoman with over 25 years of experience in behavioral change, human resource management, and people development. Johana, Paul, and Sue talk about what a job in HR looks like and the different skills needed to succeed in the field. Sue also explains how diversity and inclusion can mean very different things throughout an organization and where the future of HR is headed.

You can listen to the full episode here.


What does a career in Human Resources look like?

If you’re wondering how to break into HR, it’s important to start with the basics. According to Sue, the employee lifecycle is at the heart of every career in HR. From recruitment and selection to onboarding and performance, to leaving an organization, HR plays an essential role. Each of those areas is impacted by a wide range of things, including learning and development, rewards, and remuneration.

Broadly, a career in HR means you are responsible or influencing the employee’s life while they’re at your organization, Sue says. You can be a generalist, and work across the entire employee lifecycle, or you may have areas of specialty. That distinction often depends on the size of the organization you’re in. Big corporations tend to have specialist teams, which look only at rewards, or only at learning and development. At a smaller organization, HR professionals might combine more pieces of the lifecycle.


What are the skills or habits you need to succeed in HR?

Sue says there are a lot of skills that are essential. When considering how to break into HR, make sure you have at least some of the requirements on this list. These eight are the really core skills and competencies you need in the field, regardless of your specialty:


Be comfortable with conflict:

The role of HR professionals is frequently to have difficult conversations. According to Sue, if you’re someone who shies away from conflict, you’ll likely struggle in this field. HR professionals set up and facilitate those tough conversations, and help both employees and managers have those discussions. The word “conflict” gets a lot of bad press, Sue says. But at its root, conflict is just about being in a state of opposition – two parties with different points of view. As an HR professional, you bring those views together.


Maintain an organizational focus:

Sue says a lot of people join the HR field because they genuinely like other people. But that’s not enough, she says. The field is all about a balance between the needs of an organization, and the needs of individual employees within it. Sue says she’s seen people burn out or become disillusioned because they can’t manage that balance. Fundamentally, HR is a function of the businesses. As an HR professional, your role is to enable the business to thrive, grow and evolve, and to make sure the talent within that organization can meet its potential.


Be discrete:

Sue says if you can’t keep a secret, you shouldn’t go into the HR field. It’s absolutely crucial to be discrete, she says. If someone shares something with you, and you share it elsewhere, your whole reputation can be damaged, and your career within the organization may be in jeopardy. You’ll sometimes be under a lot of pressure. But it’s important to hold the like, Sue explains. The secret to this is setting boundaries. Set up conversations appropriately. Be ready to stop people if they get close to crossing a boundary. And remember, there’s no such thing as an informal conversation when you work in HR.


Two women look at documents on a table


Be an effective communicator:

“Your ability to actively listen is a superpower,” Sue says. You have to be able to pay absolute attention. Listen to what’s not being said, as well as what is being said. In HR, you listen more than you speak. And, you’ll do a lot of writing, because it’s a very evidence-based profession. Sue recommends taking regular courses on presenting and other communication skills.


Be able to give and receive feedback:

HR professionals spend a lot of time giving feedback. Every stage of the employee lifecycle requires it, Sue advises. In the recruitment and selection process, you may have to give feedback to a candidate about why they weren’t the right fit for a role. Later, you may end up giving an employee feedback about performance. Regardless of where in the field you work, feedback is absolutely



Stay organized:

Sue recommends taking a basic project management skills course to help you break into HR. If your mind isn’t naturally organized in an administrative way, learning those basic skills is extremely useful.


Intercultural sensitivity:

As an HR professional, it’s essential to understand that different departments within an organization have different cultures. The sales and business development side of a business is very different to finance. You’ve got to be able to move around between these different cultures, and navigate the times when they intersect, Sue says. When those internal cultures come together, there can frequently be friction, pushback, or conflict, she says. That’s where your intercultural sensitivity comes in.



Last but not least, Sue says ethics are key for successful HR professionals. Once you break into HR, you’re a gatekeeper of an organization’s standards, she says. Therefore you have to be able to hold yourself and other people accountable, and again, to have those uncomfortable conversations.


Dreaming of becoming an HR professional? Consider doing an internship with The Intern Group.



Untitled, by Christina @ on Unsplash.

Untitled, by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash.

Blog by Maeve Allsup

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