Do HR professionals “fall” into the career, or is their path more deliberate?


September 5, 2017

  • The path to an HR career is not always straight and narrow. Almost half of HR professionals “fell” into the profession. What does the career journey into an HR generalist role look like?

  • Getting an HR degree is a direct way into the role of an HR generalist and one that some HR professionals follow. Numerous HR programs exist to prepare professionals for generalist and other HR roles.

  • An HR degree is not the only path for HR generalists. For many, it was an unexpected opportunity. Prior to becoming a generalist, about half of those we interviewed held other HR positions or jobs that overlapped with HR. But the list of experiences does not stop there.

  • Our interviews revealed that an array of specialist work experiences can help prepare for working as an HR generalist. Almost any work in an HR specialist role increases exposure to the different aspects of HR, providing broad awareness and understanding of the function.

  • Others were educated in a non-HR field or held roles such as sales, administration, project management, teaching or legal. Interviewees felt that non-HR positions prepare aspiring HR generalists by exposing them to the people side of things and to diversity of thought.

  • In addition, those coming from fields outside of HR felt well-equipped to tap into Business Acumen and Critical Evaluation (see the SHRM Competency Model) when making HR decisions and developing enterprise solutions.

  • There is no clear answer as to which positions best prepare people for the generalist function; however, a few specific job experiences stand out.

  • Learning industry-specific challenges through non-HR roles can help prepare individuals for an HR generalist role by providing intimate knowledge of day-to-day employee challenges. This experience helps HR professionals know how to design strategies that optimize employee performance while balancing individual needs.

  • Some found working for a small organization or a startup helpful due to “trial by fire.” People were thrust into the work, looked upon to perform well and expected to learn quickly.

  • As a way to advance their HR career, many who started out with education in a non-HR field went back to school and earned an HR degree (either a bachelor’s or a master’s in HR).

  • Regardless of their specific path, those who fell into HR augment their education and work experiences with professional development focused on HR competencies (such as Relationship Management, Communication or Business Acumen). They also enrich their HR support systems and become HR certified.

  • Bottom line: There are endless ways to enter a career as an HR generalist. Mastering the role involves drawing from a variety of experiences to ensure solid translation of HR knowledge to organizational application.

  • Day-to-day success might include helping an individual employee or checking tasks off a to-do list, but career success involves continual learning, diverse opportunities, challenging projects and progressive accomplishments.

  • For those looking to enter the HR profession, consider an HR program that allows you to build on HR competencies and knowledge.

  • If you happened to fall into the profession, you are not alone. SHRM is your professional home, and we are ready to answer your questions and help develop and advance your HR career.

  • Sources: SHRM 2017 HR Careers Research Series; @SHRM_Research Twitter poll on Apr. 21, 2017.
    Photo credit:

Whom we interviewed: 25 HR professionals who fell into one of three groups—leaders of an HR department of one, current HR generalists or HR generalists who had moved on to other roles. 

Why? To learn about the career paths into the HR generalist function or role. Specifically, we were interested in these key questions:  
  • What do career paths look like that lead into a position as an HR generalist?
  • When are people making the decision to go into HR? 
  • To what extent do people enter HR through HR programs versus shifting from another field?
  • What specific work and learning experiences do people entering the HR field as a generalist have?
  • How much previous work and what learning experiences are necessary for people entering the HR field as a generalist?
  • What are the best ways for someone to prepare to be a good fit for and succeed in HR as a generalist? 

How? We sent a survey asking 500 of our members if they were interested in participating in an interview with SHRM Research. Of those who expressed interest, 30 HR professionals were selected and invited to participate. The selection criteria were as follows: 
  • 10 HR professionals from each of the three groups.
  • Each group varied by number of years of experience, education, degree type, location and title.
The interviews were conducted over the phone June 2-22, 2017. Each lasted 30 minutes to one hour. Five of the 30 invitees declined or did not respond to the invitation. 

Share your HR career journey with us on Twitter using the hashtag #myHRcareer 

Note: The information contained in this slideshow is based, in part, on the findings from SHRM research. Results from qualitative research studies should be interpreted with caution due to smaller sample sizes and reduced generalizability of results. For questions about this research, please contact Lindsay Northon at For general questions about SHRM Research initiatives, contact 

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs
Post a Job

Earn a SHRM Talent Acquisition Specialty Credential.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect