Senior HR policy specialist, HR writer, author, and career development blogger
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Personal development: why and how you need to maintain your non-HR skills

2nd Aug 2019
Senior HR policy specialist, HR writer, author, and career development blogger
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HR concept image illustrations of people and HR processes
iStock/anyaberkut

In all the talk about the need to develop digital skills, some have forgotten about the other non-technical skills HR professionals need beyond their core capabilities.

As people professionals, we value the people-centric nature of our work. The campaign to ‘put the human back in HR’ is an age-old movement for good reason.

With the realisation that AI is no longer a Hollywood take on the future but an inevitability for the workplace – and indeed other areas of life – there’s a risk that we may forget the human side of HR alongside technology.

We should be mindful, however, not to neglect the forgotten yet crucial technical skills each HR professional needs in their toolkit.

We might be competent in delivering workshops, holding a disciplinary meeting or making sure employees get paid on time, but what other non-HR skills do we need to hang on to that supplement our expertise?  

Project management

Whether you’re in a strategic or reactive position, understanding the basics of project management will help you carry out your role effectively and efficiently.

“Unpredictability is a fundamental part of human nature’”, says cognitive scientist Art Markman, and this is something we can probably all agree on.

Structuring projects, cases or daily tasks reduces this risk of stakeholder unpredictability.

It needn’t be a formal, mechanical approach - we just need to map out the most likely eventualities of a process.

Rather than thinking about the here and now and reacting to whatever happens, we can look ahead and identify the risks, the hiccups, and possible hurdles that might throw the process off course.

There’s a risk that we isolate ourselves in an HR bubble and may overlook the practicalities of what we ask our managers to do.

We can also take preventative action now to either move things around to better handle the risk, or to avoid it altogether.

We can use this approach to clarify the ultimate aim and time restraints of what we’re tackling right now.

Looking down the line of a grievance case right down to the possible resolution(s) from the point it’s handed in means you can identify the multiple tasks that can happen in sync and/or in sequence.

Understanding how management information will be used to demonstrate the effectiveness of management training to the executive board now means you can design how best to evaluate a training programme and the data you want to capture.

While free project management fundamentals courses are available on MOOCs (massive open online courses), you can develop these skills by simply pausing and thinking things through methodically, rather than just reacting and fighting fire.

Use pen and paper, sound out your ideas to colleagues or map it out on a Gantt chart if you like playing with graphs – whatever works for you to think your way through what you need to do from beginning to end and all the possible tangents.

Managing people

As people professionals we like to think of ourselves as being able to manage people well, and we have the HR procedures to prove it.

There’s a risk, however, that we may lose touch of how people are managed in a people management capacity, not just in an HR capacity.

For example, someone in HR may know the ins-and-outs of what a manager should do to keep their team motivated or how they should handle poor performance, but when it comes to them being a line manager, will they apply this theory to their team as effectively?

Our position as a credible partner of the business relies on how we look within our organisation to ensure the service we provide fits naturally and without resistance.

In my experience, I have seen this isn’t always the case, and there’s a risk that we isolate ourselves in an HR bubble and may overlook the practicalities of what we ask our managers to do.

It makes sense that line managers are experienced and possibly qualified to manage people (although this isn’t always the case) seeing as they play an influential part in employee wellbeing and engagement. Meanwhile, we consider ourselves experts when it comes to managing people, when we may just be managing them through an HR process.

We don’t need to enrol onto a management course (although if this interests you, go for it!), but we need to at least understand line management from a manager’s perspective.

Appreciating this will provide us with much-needed context to do what we do.

Industry knowledge

In addition to the above point, in terms of relevance, we also need to consider the industry in which we work.

I don’t consider us as working in the HR industry - you provide HR expertise to an organisation that is within a certain industry.

If you work for a restaurant chain, you work in the hospitality industry, or if you’re doing HR for a hospital, then you’re in the medical sector, and so on.

Separating HR and your organisation’s industry like this ensures you keep your HR expertise relevant and practical.

Our position as a credible partner of the business relies on how we look within our organisation to ensure the service we provide fits naturally and without resistance.

HR theory can only help businesses with the right technical tools and practical relevance, and when it's specific to your organisation.

For example, if you were to look at revising a policy based on a recent case law update, you’d need to consider what needs to change and how this will specifically affect your organisation within its industry.

Changes to overtime pay will impact the media industry in a different way to the hospitality industry – being mindful of how your industry relies on overtime will mean that any changes to policy will work in practice.

I keep on top of industry knowledge by diversifying the people and companies I follow on social media. It’s an easy way for me to be updated on what is affecting not just HR but business and my specific industry.

You don’t need to be an expert on medicine, IT, animals, or whichever the industry you work in, you just need to be aware of what’s happening more broadly.

Employment law

Whether you work in L&D, organisational design, policy or recruitment, having a strong understanding of employment law will help steer your actions without meeting legal difficulties.

Employment law is different from HR – employment law feeds HR. We may understand how to offer fair and open competition when it comes to advertising a role, but we might overlook the legal reasons for why we need to do this, and the legislation that drives the process.

We don’t need to be legal experts (unless that’s your specialism) but it’s expected of us to have some legal grounding to help make decisions.

One of the best ways I personally keep up to date with employment law is paying attention to case law updates.

Searching for ‘employment case law updates’ on the internet brings up a host of sites that notify you of updates and the impact they have on HR and businesses.

In lieu of other means of understanding employment law (books, courses etc.), I also find it helpful to proactively look into cases that are referenced in articles.

Try not to skim over the name of a specific case; instead, paste it into a search engine and learn more about it. The article you’re reading might cover just one small element of a much bigger and more interesting case.

HR theory can only help businesses with the right technical tools and practical relevance, and when it's specific to your organisation.

These are just a few non-HR skills we need to maintain when offering our expertise that I personally find useful in my career. Are there any others that you feel have helped you?

Interested in this topic?

My new book, HR Beyond the Theory, offers advice on practical workplace skill development for new and aspiring HR professionals to help them succeed early on in their careers.

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