You don’t need a degree to work in HR

If you went to University, let me ask you a question:

How much of the taught subject matter are you using in your work?

I asked myself the same question and the answer is “very little”.

I am sure that there are certain professions, certain vocations where the content matter of a university degree is a necessity. And yet, in the majority of roles, I’m not so sure.

The CIPD released a brilliant piece of research last week highlighting the expansion of Higher Education in the UK and the resultant increase in graduates working in historically “non-graduate” roles.

There are several hypotheses to explain this, some with positive outcomes, some without.

Two things immediately strike me as being highly culpable in this trend,

  • the homogenisation of higher education post the 1992 reforms
  • the insistence of businesses to require degrees for non-degree roles

I’ll leave the first for people better placed to comment on the education sector (although you can check out this brilliant assessment from Peter Scott as a start).

I want to talk about the second point.

Why do I think we ask for degrees?

  • We’re lazy. We ask for a degree when no degree is necessary because simply it makes life easier.
  • We lack creativity and fall foul of unconscious bias. We have degrees and therefore it must be a requirement.

Don’t believe me? I ran a search on Changeboard of the HR jobs that specifically called out a degree as a requirement in the ad and there were over 170, (I don’t mean to pick on Changeboard, I did the same search on HR Magazine and got a similar return).

With over 20 years working in the profession, I’m yet to come across a role where a degree is of critical value. And of course, the irony is that in the case of HR, the degree will often be in a subject matter that probably isn’t relevant to the role.

We’re stuck in the past and assuming that a degree in some way differentiates the ability of the candidate, but more importantly we are sending out a message that you have to have a degree to work in HR. A pattern that is replicated across numerous other roles and professions.

There are certain life skills, there are certain intellectual processes that do come from study, I complete get that. But can they be obtained in other ways? Of course.

Our duty as a profession is to challenge the preconceptions of requirements, to throw our doors open more widely and to make our assessment and selection processes based on genuine capability, talent and potential. Not on meaningless qualifications.

But if we can’t do that within our own recruitment, what chance have we got in other areas of the business? We need to get our own house in order and be ruthless with our own professional approach.

Let me put it simply,

You don’t need a degree to work in HR.

So let’s stop saying you do.

Can you make the case?

There are two truths that I’ve learnt through blogging:

– If you write enough words the statistical odds are, that at some point, you will land on something that makes sense.

– If you reread that particular “thing” enough times, you’ll wish you wrote it slightly differently.

On this occasion, the specific phrase is one that I wrote in January 2013,

“We need to accept that you don’t get influence through control, you get influence through other people’s positive experience of you. Get influence through people wanting you involved not by telling them you have to be.”

Fast forward two and a half years and I’m sitting with some fellow HR Directors listening to the Conservative “political beast”, Kenneth Clarke MP, speaking about the challenges of winning the debate on continued involvement in the European Union. Critiquing the state of current politics, one particular statement he made really stood out (and I probably paraphrase a little),

“We used to look at the opinion polls and think, ‘how do we win the debate and convince people our arguments are right’, but now we look at the polls and say, ‘let’s do what they want’.”

In some ways, I think this is an argument that the HR profession needs to heed and particularly when we think about how we use data and analytics as a force for good work and organisational performance and success.

There’s a lot of pressure within organisations for HR to do what the “voters” want, and this has undoubtedly been one of the biggest weaknesses of the drive for HR to be more, “commercial”. Being truly commercial is more about leading the debate than it is following opinion, it’s about having a strategic direction and understanding the steps that need to be taken to achieve it, it’s about cohesive “policy making” and having a view.

One of the things that we overlook in our discussions on data and analytics is the, “so what?”. We can have all the data in the world, but what if it indicates something that is against the prevailing mood of the organisation or the leadership team? What then? Do we have the influencing skills to really carry the debate forward?

The fact is that data is only half the argument, how we use it, how we create the experience of the profession that positions us as experts of everything relating to the employment experience and how we develop the platform of knowledge and insight is as important as the data itself.

Sometimes, as in politics, we’re going to need to be brave and take forward an argument, a belief, a perspective that won’t be immediately welcome or in line with the prevailing opinion. At that point, we’ll test our ability to use insight and data to win the debate and convince people our arguments are right.

That’s when we’ll truly test our mettle and our organisational worth.

That’s not talent, that’s process

Sometimes there is an unassailable truth that needs to be told. A guilty secret that needs to be revealed. A lie that needs to be challenged.

Because, in your organisation, you’re not managing talent, you’re managing process.

Well, if you work in 99% of organisation you aren’t. And if you work in the other 1%, you’re lying.

The thing is, the language that we use around “talent management”, the behaviours that we all display, the way in which we approach it has as much to do with managing talent as chocolate has to do with teapot formation.

Most of us don’t know how to measure talent. And where we do measure, we’re not really measuring talent at all.

HiPo? Is the definition of talent someone who is capable of being more senior?

Because Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Sylvia Plath. They were all destined for management?

And if they weren’t then they clearly weren’t talent.

Our organisations are based on a myth of hierarchy that assumes that power and value is added as one progresses, rather than understanding the true mechanisms that drive organisational performance and rewarding the people who truly add value.

As a result we reward a politically charged, single focussed, rise to the top. A game that is suited, not to the most talented, but the most politically adroit. We promote the people who impress by playing the game, and we neutralise the people who don’t fit the mould.

You’ll argue that you don’t do this, that you’re different. But you’re not.

And that’s because our organisations, our businesses, the western world is geared up to systemically ignore true talent. Your reward systems, your recruitment processes, your learning and development programmes. Not a single one of them really recognises talent.

And the funny thing is, the hours we spend on “talent management” the grids we fill in, the conversations we have, the investment we place in systems that effectively wipe the lipstick off the pig are a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

You would still make the same promotion and development decisions without doing it.

Until we are willing to re-engineer the way in which our organisations operate, to refocus our energy on the right argument, rather than the incessant and dogmatic pursuit of a rather badly dressed up false promise.

Until then, we will always be managing process.

And that has nothing to do with talent.

These things I know…..

I’m speaking at a myHRcareers networking event this week. If you haven’t come across these guys, it is worth checking them out. One of the things that interests me is the chance to speak to people earlier on in their careers about HR, the world of work and what to expect (and avoid).

I kind of fell in to HR, as a lot of people did. And I made my way based on the good and the bad advice that I received from the good and bad managers around me. I never felt I particularly fitted in to the networking events or the branch events. They just didn’t seem to be people like me or who thought like me. I’m sure there were opportunities, I just never found them.

In looking back, and in preparation for Wednesday night, I thought back to the things that I’ve learnt about HR as a career and what that means.

1) Most people will have to do a whole lot of shit jobs, before they get to do a meaningful one. Most HR jobs are pretty tedious, in tedious companies, with tedious managers. You just have to realise you’re earning your stripes. Keep your head down and hold on to your dreams. In time you’ll get the opportunity to do something where you can make a difference. Remember the reason you want to, when you get there.

2) You’ll work for a lot of people who you don’t respect. The fact is that our profession is littered with more ineffective, unintentionally dangerous and damaging rejects than the QC department at Durex. That’s the way it is. Learn from them, remember what annoys you, what frustrates you and resolve to do things differently when you get the chance.

3) Nothing that you learn during your studies will help you in your employment. That doesn’t mean it is worthless; it just doesn’t help. Learn by speaking to others, listening, observing, trying and failing. You will make have less failures than you have successes, but you will remember them twice as clearly. That’s a good thing.

4) The difference between a great HR person and a rubbish HR person, is that a great person can tell you why they do their job as well as what they do. Never forget the why. And if it doesn’t have people at the heart of it, you’re a rubbish HR person in disguise.

5) This isn’t heart surgery. Nobody dies. That means that you can relax, have a little fun, be human and make people laugh. Trust me, they’ll love you more for it and it won’t cost you anything. Your reputation isn’t built on how far you can get the broom up your own arse; but if you really want to, there won’t be a shortage of people volunteering to help you with it.