I’ve worked in HR for 20 years now. I’m a HR Director these days. The best HR career advice I can give you? Don’t start in HR. You’ll be a better HR practitioner for it.

When I finished high school I applied for university thinking I’d become a forensic psychologist. I’d read too many Agatha Christie novels and I thought the criminal justice system was going to be like a Hercule Poirot unveiling in the parlour.

Half a term into my psychology degree I quit and got a full-time job as an office junior. Two weeks in the accounts officer went out to lunch and never came back. I got promoted. Quitting university was the best thing I ever did for my career.

After 18 months I decided to go back to uni and study at night.  I worked full-time during the day and trotted off to classes after a day of work. At 5.00pm the students in jeans and t-shirts would be heading out and the students in suitable work attire would stream in.

In the meantime I switched jobs. When I left it was Christmas time. You know how companies get Christmas gift baskets with yummy things to eat in them? My parting gift was the basket. Just the basket. They’d got it for free and all the yummy things were long gone.

My new job was in local government. Very different from a small family company. I worked in records. That’s a fancy name for the mail room. I opened mail. Registered mail in the computer. Filed mail in folders…My hobby project was updating the folders from those cardboard ones with the pin in the corner to the lovely shiny cardboard ones with the stickers down the side and the bendy thing you stick in to file the paper on.

If I was 5 minutes late to work because of bad traffic the second in charge would sit me down and have a “serious chat.” I always made my time up at lunch or the end of the day and I was more efficient than some of the other team members but it didn’t matter. I was late.

I switched my major to HR and went back to accounts, this time in the car trade. The casual sexism was an eye opener. I remember getting a fax (remember them?) addressed to “Mama Jugs.” That was me. Yes. The reference means what you think it means.

All up I’d been working for 5 years full-time before I got my first HR job. It was an entry-level role in an employer’s association and I loved it. I was 23. By the time I was 26 I had my first HR Manager role. The role grew as I did and by 36 I was leading a team of 17 located across four states.

I lost nothing in terms of the extra time it took me to finish my degree, but I gained an incredible amount that I couldn’t have gotten any other way that taught me what it’s like to be an employee at the lower echelons of the food chain. I hold true that it’s that early experience, more than anything else, that’s shaped me as an HR practitioner today.

What’s been your experience outside of HR? Has it helped your HR career? 


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