Skills and competencies

What skills and competencies do you need for a career in HR?

16 Feb 2024, 15:38

Interested in a graduate career in human resources (HR)? Find out what skills you need to get started, why they’re essential and how you can develop them while you’re studying.

Employees gathered around a computer screen: skills for HR professionals

It’s essential to know about the skills needed to work in HR if you’re thinking of a career in this field. While it’s a rapidly changing one thanks to changes in the law, IT and the economy, the skills and behaviours needed remain similar. They’re also distinct from the skills called for in many other graduate areas of work: HR departments are often called ‘people services’ and to be successful within this you need people skills as well as knowledge of HR-related laws, processes and systems.

What skills are needed to work in HR?

What you do from day to day in HR depends very much on the size of the organisation and the industry it’s in. In a small company you’re likely to get involved in a range of projects while in a large employer there’ll be room to specialise. However, there are a number of skills that, if you can demonstrate in your application, will help you make a great start in an HR career.

  • The ability to see others’ perspectives
  • Organisational skills
  • Communication skills
  • Commercial awareness
  • Enthusiasm for learning
  • Coaching and training skills
  • Problem-solving abilities
  • Research and data analysis

Key HR skills explained

The ability to see others’ perspectives

You’ll be working with people with different perspectives from your own from day one – for example, job candidates, people needing support or managers seeking advice. It’s essential that you can recognise and acknowledge their viewpoints, even if you don’t share them. Not only will this help you build strong working relationships but it’ll also help you take an objective stance. This is crucial in a people-focused profession in which you’re likely to encounter people in emotional situations.

Organisational skills

A lot of HR work is about planning – for recruitment, learning and development, process changes and more. Successful HR professionals plan ahead, identifying the steps to be completed and the obstacles to be avoided. They also keep clear records of goals and progress so that they can delegate when they need to. Much HR planning is aligned to the financial year because it’s connected to business planning, so it’s important to be able to demonstrate the impact of planned changes to leaders. Good records will help you here, too.

Communication skills

The issues you work with in HR, such as pay, health and safety, and employment, have a huge impact on people’s lives. Clarity is essential when you’re communicating about these topics; without it, misunderstandings can arise that affect employees and the organisation itself. For example, unclear training could mean people not following health and safety laws.

Commercial awareness

Commercial awareness is called for in many graduate careers besides HR. It’s about understanding how an organisation operates, how it fits in to its sector or industry, and how that’s affected by wider influences such as the economy. It can also encompass knowledge of competitors and trends in the industry.

Commercial awareness matters in HR because ultimately its role is to support the organisation to achieve its goals via its people. That means you need to know what direction it’s going in, what could threaten its success and how any people-focused initiatives you put forward will provide a return on investment.

Enthusiasm for learning

Employment law and HR-related processes change regularly and, as an HR professional, you’ll need to keep up to date. Depending on your role, you may be involved in developing and updating company policies and processes, communicating them and/or implementing them.

It’s essential to be constantly curious about anything that could affect the HR profession and your employer – for example, changes to legislation, trends in recruitment and ways of working and instances of best practice in other organisations – and be proactive in keeping your knowledge current.

Coaching and training skills

Both of these skills involve bringing about change. Coaching is about supporting people to identify their goals and helping them achieve them (for example, you could coach a manager on how to resolve a problem in their team) while training is about providing guidance that helps people learn new skills or approaches to work (for example, you could design and run training workshops for managers). Both call for specialist skills – for example, you’ll need knowledge of learning theories to develop training sessions.

Problem-solving abilities

Working with people means working with problems, so it’s important to have some strategies to resolve them. You don’t need all the answers, but it’ll help to have a cool head, an objective viewpoint and knowledge of some essential tools and techniques to deal with difficult situations. The kinds of problems you encounter in an HR role depend on the size of the organisation and what it does, but common situations include grievances from staff, health and safety issues, employee discipline and performance and legal matters.

Research and data analysis skills

Solving problems often involves analysing data and identifying trends, which organisations have much of thanks to human resource management systems, learning management systems and similar tools. Data helps HR teams to make evidence-based decisions, to gain support for new initiatives and policies from stakeholders (including senior managers) and to evaluate the success of those policies or initiatives. AI is increasingly being used to summarise data, but a human touch is still needed to interpret it and use it for decision making.

Research skills can also resolve problems and provide solutions. As well as outlining relevant legislation and legal cases, research can also reveal new approaches to try. You’ll need to apply critical thinking to your research to make sure your sources are credible and suitable for use in an HR situation.

How to develop HR skills

As you’ll see, many of the skills you need to get a job in HR are soft skills, not technical ones. This means that gaining work experience in HR is not the only way to build them.

Think about the following:

  • Develop communication skills, empathy and problem-solving skills by working with people who are different from you. This could be through volunteering for a student helpline, trying out a new sport or extracurricular activity, or working in a call centre or customer-facing job such as retail. Try to build rapport by listening, considering their perspectives and looking for ways to agree.
  • You can develop commercial awareness through any jobs you do while you study, along with work experience, internships, placements and volunteering. Think about the bigger picture that surrounds the organisation you work for, what affects it and in what ways. Look out for news, podcasts and videos about the industry and talk to colleagues about it if you have a chance.
  • If you don’t have experience of coaching or training through sport, volunteering is a great way to build it. If your university offers the chance to act as a mentor for other students, take it. Look, too, for opportunities to help other people do something new, such as tutoring and language teaching.
  • The fact that you’re at university shows that you’re able to learn – but what techniques do you use to learn and why are they effective? Giving some thought to this will help you understand how to keep up to date when you’re working. Reflect on when you struggle to learn as well – seek guidance from an academic skills tutor if you need new approaches.
  • Similarly, you’ll need to conduct research as part of your degree. If you’re not confident, look for tutorials run by the library or academic skills team. You may not need to analyse data as part of your course but you can still learn how to do it while you’re studying. You may do it already if you look over your finances to see what you’re spending money on, or have viewed the contact list for a society you’re involved in. You can also look for free online courses, study skills sessions and opportunities within part-time work.
  • Seek out internships and placements in HR to gain a taste of what it is like to apply your skills in the role.

Where next?

For more information about knowledge, skills and behaviours required by HR professionals throughout their careers, explore the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s profession map .

You may also find our exploration of different careers in HR and advice on getting a graduate job in HR and recruitment useful.

You can search for HR graduate jobs on targetjobs – and, if you register with us, you can follow top employers and get a unique feed of advice, vacancies and events tailored to your interests.

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This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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