HR – it's all about tea and sympathy isn't it? As long as you can make a good brew and offer a biscuit when the going gets tough for employees, you're all set for a career in the sector.
Well, not necessarily. This is one of the oldest, and most widely spread, misconceptions about HR. And if it was ever true, it certainly isn't now.
Of course, in an HR role you are likely to encounter some challenging situations, and it will often be your job to guide employees through them. So, you'll need solid interpersonal skills as well as the ability to deal with people – and personal issues - in a sensitive way. But there's a lot more to an HR skill-set than that.
Here's a selection of the types of skills that HR employers currently expect.
Commercial sense. No business function operates in a vacuum, and HR is increasingly required to demonstrate it can contribute to wider business objectives. This means commercial and strategic objectives, not just those that relate solely to people.
Consequently, as well as showing an understanding of HR's role in a wider commercial setting, you'll also be expected to continually demonstrate how your work – and the work done by your HR team – helps to drive larger-scale business success.
Organisation and planning. HR can be a complex affair, with HR professionals at all levels expected to juggle a range of responsibilities and tasks simultaneously. You will therefore need to organise your time and workflow effectively.
Of course, people and organisations are unpredictable, and at times in HR curveballs will be thrown at you. But a well-disciplined and organised workload means you'll be better placed to deal with them when they arise, without too much impact on your day-to-day work.
Technology. HR is becoming a technology business as much as a people business. Technology is increasingly integral to the work done by HR, so a willingness and ability to utilise existing technology and seek out new solutions will serve you well.
Software packages and digital solutions exist for a wide range of HR tasks, and technology's prevalence in the sector will undoubtedly grow. Tech-savvy HR professionals aren't just in high demand now; their value will increase in line with the growing importance of technology in the sector.
Industry awareness. HR, as with many areas of business, is subject to change – much of which is unplanned. Whether it's a change in employment law or a newly-introduced method of addressing a key issue, you will need a finger on the pulse of the HR sector in order to keep on top of things and to respond in your work.
Keep up to speed by reading and subscribing to industry titles – and also by staying abreast of general business and political issues, which will help you with the task of putting your HR work into a wider context.
Collaboration and communication. Your ability to communicate with your HR peers and employees from around the organisation will help you to influence strategy as well as succeeding in the day-to-day side of your work. Clarity in your communication, and an attention to detail, are crucial.
So too are negotiation skills, which will not only help in sensitive employee-focused situations, but will also help to influence your colleagues and superiors in order to get decisions made and to reach strategic goals.
An everyman approach. In HR you will need to liaise and communicate effectively with colleagues and stakeholders from all levels of the organisation.
From the stockroom to the boardroom, everybody in the organisation will need to be dealt with appropriately. It's important to know who you are dealing with and to address the situation accordingly. Organisational knowledge and the odd bit of research will keep you on top of things.
Balance. One of the biggest – and oldest - questions is about who HR is intended to serve; the business or its people. The fairest answer, of course, is that HR exists to serve both business needs and the needs of its employees.
As such, you will need to balance your approach and your work to ensure that your output is not disproportionately weighted in favour of one set of stakeholders over another.
Data skills and numeracy. It's impossible to read about HR at the moment without seeing reference to data – specifically, 'big data'.
Intelligent data interpretation is now a key HR skill, and can help to you measure and track various aspects of business and people performance, as well as enabling data-savvy HR departments to plan ahead and build future strategies.
The extent to which you will be required to analyse and use data will, of course, depend on your role and organisation. But given the direction of change in the sector, it's safe to say that 21st century HR professionals need to be just as comfortable with an analytics tool as they do with a CV or covering letter.
The Profession Map provided by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development is a useful, detailed guide to the types of skills and attributes that modern HR professionals are expected to have. Take a look at the map at the CIPD website.