All animals are equal….

There’s an assumption that often runs through recruitment, that industry experience is necessary. That somehow the experience of a particular environment is more important than the skills and knowledge that may have been developed. It has happened to me in my career that I’ve not been considered for a job because, “they’re looking for someone with experience in x industry”.

I find this peculiar. In my career I’ve worked in,

the public sector
professional services

In my team, we have people from a range of backgrounds, transport,manufacturing, media and financial services. But something I noticed over time was we have a lot of people who’ve worked in retail.

A disproportionate amount.

I tweeted something about this last week

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 21.22.03


and the response was really interesting. In general, there was a lot of positive reaction. But, of course, some people tried to argue the point. So let me tell you what I think.

No career path is the same and there is no “right” way to develop your career. But certain sectors provide a quicker, more intense training ground and experience than others. And retail is one of those.


Because it is fast paced, fundamentally aligned to the brand, customer focused, varied and genuinely commercial. Pretty much everyone working for a retailer understands why they are there, what they are there to deliver and their role in making that happen.

Each of the sectors that I’ve worked in have given me something different and something challenging, but as a learning ground, I don’t think anything was as formative as my time in retail. And when I recruit good people, a lot but not all, come from retail backgrounds.

So that doesn’t mean that good people only come from retail, or that retail produces only good people. But there is a higher likelihood that you’ll find a bright, commercially astute, experienced and organisationally focussed individual. They might add something to your organisation, even if they haven’t worked in that sector.

The myth of recruiting within sector is dangerous, arrogant and essentially lazy. Cross pollination is the new black, variety is the spice of life and change is the new normal.

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

It’s just the way it is.


  1. Michael Carty (@MJCarty) · May 12, 2014

    This is a thought- provoking post, Neil. I think your argument that a retail background provides “a quicker, more intense training ground and experience” than some others is a compelling one. But I will be equally interested to see the views of others as to which sector they think most conducive to HR success.

    If it’s of any interest here, the latest XpertHR Benchmarking survey on HR careers found that retail was the second most common non-HR business function in which UK HR professionals had previously worked during their careers (Data here: Around three in 10 (or 29.7% of) UK HR professionals have worked in retail. However, exactly double this number (59.4%) have worked in admin functions. And it’s worth noting that the third most commonly-cited function was customer services, mentioned by 27.7% (a function with some extent of parallels/ overlap with retail, I would have thought).

    Really looking forward to seeing other comments in response to this post!

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      Thanks Michael, my main interest was people who had worked in HR in retail businesses, but I think working in any function in that sector is amazingly good grounding. Potentially depressing stat on admin backgrounds…..

  2. Roger Philby · May 12, 2014

    Neil, fundamently agreed with the sector point, we have irrefutable data that tells us previous sector experience statistically speaking has the weakest correlation with performance in role, regardless of the function. Also like your point on retail, not sure i totally agree with it though, I think you got a lot out of retail because you would have sought and got a lot out of any environment you were in…it’s about you, not the environment (last compliment you’ll get from me :)). We have hired 2 HR people with retail experience and they are great but back to my first point, i think they would have been great regardless. I would not actively seek HR people as Consultants from a retail experience in replace of just seeking the right person, which I also think is your point 😉

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      I shall cherish that compliment Roger! I think the right person is the main focus, yes. But my experience is that a disproportionate amount of them come from retail backgrounds. Albeit a completely unscientific sample!

  3. Totally agree with cross sector ‘pollination’. Some of the most impactful appointments I have made have come from those willing to be the one that asks why things are done in certain ways rather than accept that is how things are done: and they tend to be the naturally inquisitive people new to an industry sector.

    Some functions lend themselves better to industry experience (sales and associated black books for example) but it is rare in my experience that sector experience is compulsory for a number of business functions (HR, IT, Ops, Marketing etc) and should a client ever ask for it I challenge them to prove that their case really is valid.

    To your point on the traits of retail HR people, I tend to agree that those traits are true of the sector in general but in seeking candidates I would tend to look favourably on them rather than consciously seek them over others, which I think was your point anyway.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      I agree Chris, I wouldn’t say someone had to have a retail background. But if a CV came across my desk where the person had a good retail pedigree, I’d be very interested. Thanks for making a great point.

  4. interimity · May 12, 2014

    Two comments
    a. cross sector recruitment would have done the finance sector a helluva lot of good (they were one of the worst offenders for only recruiting from their industry and look at what inbreeding did for them. Furniture and empty beer cans all over the front lawn.)
    b. more important than sector for HR is having worked (and been successful) in the business and NOT just in HR.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      Completely agree re the finance sector, far too much group think there.

      Completely disagree with your second point. See my next blog post.

  5. Henry · May 15, 2014

    FMCG too.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      Maybe in the 80s, yes.

  6. Pingback: Customer focus, leadership visits and police cars | 101 Half Connected Things

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