Impossible with a capital 'i' to advance in the HR profession?

You have the CIPD 7, Associate Membership of the body, an MSc in International HRM, are considering a PhD in HR / Occupational Psychology and have four years experience working as an HR Administrator.

However, despite of all of that, you basically still can’t get above HR Administrator level to the next level or get an HR Advisor’s level role.

Part of the issue is that they don’t take on Trainee / Junior HR Advisor’s (or indeed Trainee / Junior HRBP’s) and you can’t get the necessary experience in an HR Administrator’s role to get the HR Advisor’s job.

You volunteer outside hours as an HR Advisor and as a CIPD Mentor, and attend all the events in your branch, but it still does not count or is officially recognised as a formal paid 9-5 role to make the cut.

It’s also one of those scenarios that it just does not ever happen for / to you how many applications you ever make, so are any of the following viable options to take instead:

(1) Come to terms with it and make a life long career as an HR Administrator instead, or as a Senior HR Administrator, aiming to be the very best that you can be at that;

(2) Pull completely out of the HR profession as a whole and change career sectors, professions and pathways, starting out again  from zero;

(3) Emigrate and see if you can get the role instead in another country in or outside the EU;

(4) Look at going self employed as an HR Consultant on the Peninsula model?

How would you personally deal with it if you faced a total brick wall blockage that despite your very best efforts, you just could not vertically progress, get on or up in the HR profession as a whole past HR Administrator?

  • If you find the secret, please tell me too!

    I have an MBA, a level 7 diploma in strategic management, and the level 5 CIPD, as well as many years experience in a huge variety of industries. I’ve worked mainly for charities & SME’s, in innovation, HR, LD, and office management and at all levels up to director as well as on a consultancy basis. BUT... I’m not even getting interviews. Evidently I don’t have the experience....

    The CIPD says HR has to become more business-savvy and less insular. Really? When’s this likely to start?
  • Hi, it's easy to read too much into statistics or to misinterpret data and come to a wrong or off track conclusion ...however linked in ( and I guess it's in their interests to do so) have made reference recently to the increasing number of jobs that are filled by networking. Some reports suggest %ages in the 80s. Data such as this prompts the thought that if efforts to find a suitable job are channeled exclusively through conventional routes such as job boards, agencies etc, the liklihood of finding a suitable role is likely to be lower than if the job search effort is weighted more towards networking and less conventional means. By way of illustrating the latter - one assignment I found was as a result of talking to a fellow rider ( complete stranger) having just completed the London to Brighton bike ride, one year - exhausting but in this case rewarding ! May be not quite the answer you were looking for but in a nutshell i'm suggesting a route 5 ) don't give up just yet, persist and make some serious inroads with networking, if you haven't already done so.
  • Andre

    I would suggest at least the possibility of an Option 0 before yours above (and clearly all I know is whats above)

    But you have some great admin experience, you have some solid experience (and for what its worth I wouldn't see the potential PhD as having much if any relevance to you getting on at this stage - apart from in a very few roles or academia )

    Option 0 for me would be really looking long and hard at the whole way you approach the application process from first approach to final interview. Examine what goes well and where you normally fall down. Is it you are simply not getting interviews - in which case your CV and application needs works or is it at interview? Often HR bods are the worst at critically examining ourselves and seeing us as recruiters see us. If its interviews then get a number of people to put you through lots of practice interviews and give you brutal but constructive feedback. In my experience candidates who are good at this end of the process get on , no matter what other bits they do or dont have.

    .In terms of your options - there is nothing at all wrong with a career build entirely around HR administration. Its a vital area and not just one that everyone should simply pass through. But it rather depends if you get the satisfaction and energy from this.

    In terms of moving on you wouldn't be starting from zero. But I think you need to be sure first that what ever is holding you back in progressing in HR wouldnt be present in what ever career you choose. There are no career paths (well very few) that are both very rewarding and easy to progress in. So switching careers may not be a route to the higher levels of an organisation if thats what you desire. But of you have a real passion to do something else then follow your passion - good interviewers can tell if you are passionate or faking it.

    Ditto with moving abroad. It may work but I am not sure, HR tends to be more territorial than many professions (as laws , culture etc are very different) . You would also have the issues of developing a network in another country.

    Sorry to be negative but I think given your level of experience then going down the consultancy route is a very bad idea. You simply don't have the depth of experience to really make it work and whilst no doubt you could get some clients I wonder if it will take even longer to get to do the type of Hr work you want to do via this route.

    So where does that leave us? Personally I would look at what was really stopping me progressing, get some of your CIPD branch colleagues to give you a real critique. Then I would look at what I was really passionate about and try and follow that - be that the higher levels of HR, an HR Admin career or doing something totally different..

    But there is no right answer and you are on your own individual journey (and I am sure there is someone on this forum who has followed each of the options you have outlined above very successfully) . I hope you work it out and good luck.
  • In reply to Keith:

    Many thanks for your feedback. I also wanted to mention something else here. I have mild Autism and find it difficult talking to people who I don’t know, and building relationships with people who I don’t know, especially in the workplace. Could this be a possible common denominator, namely neurodiversity that maybe appears on the applications and during the interviews in a people management profession?
  • In reply to Kevin Elvidge:

    I do networking and always come away better informed, but it also does not directly lead to or deliver a job.
  • Hi Andre

    I think that part of the solution could be reframing how you look at your situation.
    I get the sense that you see this in terms of adding skills, and adding more skills until you come out on top, indisputably the best, and if you can find the right qualification or experience to add, people will see it and acknowledge you as the best. However, recruitment is more like finding the right shape of peg to fit into what may be a very funny-shaped hole. As I was taught to explain when administering psychometric tests, there are no right or wrong answers, just a better or worse fit.

    It is not dissimilar to the idea of best practice. There are other threads on here where people have talked about best practice and some very experienced people have challenged the idea and pointed out that HR is rarely a one-size-fits-all exercise. We should be looking for the best solution in a given situation, not some abstract "best".

    Further down this thread you share with us that you find it difficult talking to people you don’t know, and building relationships with people you don’t know, especially in the workplace. I would say that this would most definitely affect your interview performance. However, we are all very used to making reasonable adjustments in recruitment nowadays. Is there an adjustment that you could request that would help you to interact with an interviewer?

    I would say that you need a talent for sales and self-promotion to make HR consultancy work. You might be able to get some clients by recommendation, but if you make this your career you will need to get good at cold calling, building relationships with strangers and talking to people you don't know. From what you have told us about yourself, you would not be playing to your strengths as a consultant.

    I would suggest that you target HR Admin roles in big companies with large HR Departments. Use your existing skills to get into a company and then start looking out for a promotion opportunity once you have built relationships across the organisation.
  • In reply to Elizabeth:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    What you say is true, but why are PhD degrees as an example far more common and valued in other advanced economies such as Germany and the United States of America, where far more Directors and CEOs routinely hold them than in the United Kingdom?

    One other reason why I wish to 'superskill' myself up is for the longer term objective of immigration where more degrees, pieces of papers, years of experience et al give you more points. I wish to eventually experience living and working in HR in another country.

    Kind regards

  • In reply to Andre:

    If, since you started this thread, you have now decided that your goal is to work abroad and your reseach tells you a PhD will be required, then go for it. As Keith has already pointed out, it is unlikely to help you to secure your next job in HR in this country. I have never tried to secure an HR role outside this country and have no relevant knowledge to share but others may be able to advise.
  • In reply to Elizabeth:

    I would ideally like to work in HR in the Benelux countries. I can speak Dutch, but how international in practice is the CIPD Level 7 qualification, or is it mainly a question of requaliying and starting out again from scratch?

    Although EU employment law exists, they also have their own national labour law, HR policies and procedures. Possibly working for an international NGO in The Netherlands or Belgium could be an option here. The CIPD is based overseas in Dubin, Dubai and Singapore, but it still seems to be a more UK specific qualification, as opposed to being able to be used in continental Europe. The only international dimension to it as I understand is that CIPD Associate Members can join the Australian HR Institute, Australia's equivalent of the CIPD. However, HR as a profession is not on the national skills shortage occupation list to immigrate to Australia by.
  • In reply to Andre:


    In my experience many/most international HR organisations are not awash with PhDs and they are very much the exception rather than the norm. Even in Germany. I have worked for a number of international business and I haven’t come across many people so qualified and so far none in HR. Now that may well just be me.

    I think the danger for you is that a PhD and experience at the administrative level just confuses people be that in the UK or elsewhere.

    I go back to my earlier advice. The key for me is finding out what is really blocking your progress and developing the skills and techniques to remove that blockage. I would be amazed frankly if that was a qualification.

    But if you are passionate about studying for a PhD and can fund it then I wish you every success. It will certainly give you access to a lot of thought leadership on a particular targeted area of HR and the time and space to explore it at a really in-depth level.
  • In reply to Keith:

    I think the barriers in my case come down to two key factors, namely age and experience.

    (1) I did not break into HR until the age of 40 as a mid career changer. and unlike the vast majority of members of the profession, did not enter it in my 20s and 30s. I feel that I don’t fit the stereotype in that respect, and employers may either not bother so much with the over 40s. Itis also a proven fact (I will be 45 next month) if you read the book by Robin Bell, Finding work over 40. that it is more difficult to get jobs over the age of 40.

    (2) Elizabeth makes good suggestions, but I can’t get into or get a job in a company. They don’t take me and it does not happen. An HR Administrator is an HR Administrator and the role does not offer the opportunity to obtain the experience to be an HR Advisor. Few Junior or Trainee HR Advisor roles exist and the ones that I applied for either did not get back to me or just sent a rejection email.

    The feedback I do receive is that other candidate’s had more relevant and matching experience that better met and fitted the needs of our business and requirements of the role in question.

    It’s a highly complex situation, but I would say that due to a combination of the market, employer’s requirements and other structural and systemic factors, I am blocked from going any further or deeper in this profession.

    Despite of all my studies, I can’t get the job and experience to get above HR Administrator level in a nutshell.
  • In reply to Andre:

    Andre, sorry to read about your frustraztions in trying to move into a more responsible role.

    My experience is that people who provide an excellent service in an administrative role and demonstrate the ability to understand  where the role fits in terms of HR services to management, can and do move into an advisory role. However this is unlikely to happen in a small organisation (no scope) and is more likely in large organisations that are accustomed to managing people development. Usually the person in question has initially continued with the admin role but has taken on additional responsibilties (often project work) that calls far a deeper understanding and calling for some recommendations either in applied solutions or policy changes.If this works out, then more an more "professional" duties can be added progressively

    Could you consider this type of approach, once you are in an admin job - i.e. after demonstrating your operational ability and effectiveness, ask for additional duties or projects, or taking part in some of the wotk carried out by advisors or managers?

    Moving from a pure admin role to a pure advisory role without passing through a phase of planned and organised development is rarer (except in start-ups where the organic nature of the company calls for perpetual and rapid change by jobholders).

    Finally, the applicability of HR qualifications is usually fairly country-relevant because of specific labour laws, operational HR processes, employee representational bodies, national cultures, country-specific employment packages (a French package is nothing like a Dutch package or an American or Chinese package) - so unless you plan to work in "soft" areas like people development then an international transition is far from easy.

    Good luck with you search

  • Hi Andre,

    I work as an Assistant HR Advisor for a health and social care charity and I've noticed this level of role becoming more common, I've seen a few similar roles advertised within the NHS among other places. I've found it to be a really good stepping stone to the next level.

    It might not be easy to make the jump from HR Administrator to HR Advisor, but there may be roles out there that are kind of 'in between' that aren't so obvious on the job title front, like HR Officer or HR Co-Ordinator. It's worth focussing on the job descriptions more than the titles.

    I'd say the voluntary work should be counted, maybe look at how this is being sold on your CV.
  • In addition to Keith's "Option 0", I would add an "Option 5":

    Keep doing what you're doing and don't underestimate the influence of luck and good timing in success.

    To some extent some would say "if you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you always got", which is true to an extent. But the world of employment is an ever-shifting one in terms of what the market is looking for and there is a strong argument that, if you're applying for jobs appropriate to your qualifications and experience, it's just a numbers game: the more you apply for, the better your odds of securing something.

    However - and this seems to be a repeating theme on this kind of thread - I do have to ask: if you are currently only ("only") working as an HR Administrator, why do you have a Level 7 CIPD qualification and an MSc in International HR? These are qualifications appropriate to an HRD or senior HRM.

    My suspicion - as a recruiter - when I see these qualifications is one of two things: either this candidate has substituted education for experience and is only interested in having a job for as long as it takes to get the next foot up the ladder, or this candidate isn't really interested in HR practice and would rather be in academia.

    So don't dismiss Option 6: Pursue an academic career in HR education.

    As for your other options, my question to you is the same one I ask whenever I'm career counselling: what do you want?

    In a recent chat, I was told "I want to earn at least £60,000 per year", but when I posited options that would help him move towards that, it turned out that - over the earning of money - what he really valued was stability for his family. He wanted to stay in his home and keep his children in their schools far more than he wanted to earn more money. But his most important priority was his own mental health - which had taken a few knocks over the years. By consciously prioritizing money, he was defining himself as "unsuccessful" when, in fact, by the measure of things that were *truly* important to him, he was already a roaring success!

    You, too, may need to re-define your assumed definitions of success. We are used to looking at CEOs and leaders and high earners as "successful". But success should be considered "achieving the things in life that are most important to us". If the most important thing to you is your children's education, or the happiness of your marriage, or your ability to contribute to your community, then achieving those things is success, regardless of the state of your bank balance.

    From your opening lines alone it seems clear to me that what's important to you isn't professional development, but academic development. If that's really what matters to you, why not continue down the road where you are already successful instead of trying to divert down a road where success is not only elusive but, in truth, less valuable to you.
  • There does come a time when it is just going to continue to hurt your head banging against a brick wall. But, I was around 40 when i did my IPD Diploma and I too couldn't get a job in HR despite having lots of training and other relevant experience. I was even told at a recruitment fair that I was too old.
    That was red rag to a bull. So I just kept trying.
    Have you thought of getting employed in a larger company with more HR staff where you can progress internally until you've got the experience you need to move onwards and upwards?