“I could never do your job.”

This was the response I received from a co-worker today after watching my handling of a particularly awkward and emotion-laden employee question. I chose to take it as the compliment that I know it was intended to be.

What is it about our profession that makes others walk around us on egg-shells and either curse or admire us from afar? Is it the same thing that makes my co-worker’s statement the pinnacle of flattery for those of us who balance employee and employer needs like human teeter-totters?

Is it hard to become a successful HR professional? And if so, why? Let’s look at the minimum qualifications.

Education and Certifications: There are a wide range of specializations within the general discipline of human resources, so specific qualifications will be determined by the employer and the function of the role.  However, many HR positions require the completion of a 4-year degree in HR, business, social sciences, or a related field.  This has become more likely to be a required (as opposed to desired) qualification as more candidates enter the workforce with a college diploma.  According to the 2010 US Census, over 1 in 4 adults have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.  Though not all degrees relate to HR work, that still provides for a large pool of “qualified” candidates.

HR professionals with a few years of work experience are likely to seek certification as a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) through the HR Certification Institute.  I know that this is strongly valued by my organization, which supported my efforts to earn my certification when I was ready.  In order to move into managerial positions, a master’s degree may also be required.

Technical Skills:  HR personnel must understand employment laws that relate to their business and how to apply them to real life situations.  Additionally, the use of Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS) for managing employee data, recruiting workflow, training, and compliance record-keeping requires us to possess solid computer and internet technology skills.  Depending upon the industry, we may also be required to understand technical aspects of the business we support, whether the industry is manufacturing, computer programming, or legal services.

The Elusive “Soft” Skills: These intangible assets may be the most valuable parts of an HR professional’s tool kit. At the heart of the matter, we are people-persons (I wanted to write “people-people” but it just doesn’t look right). Though I know this opinion is not unanimous.

I remember the attitude of the first HR manager for which I worked. She had a contrary belief to this philosophy. She dismissed others in the field who said they wanted to be in HR, because they “like people.” Granted, that is a simplistic response considering all of the other expertise and experience that I’ve already mentioned.

However, I still believe that “liking people” is a prerequisite for wanting to dedicate 40 hours a week to serving others. After all, that is what we do. We are your honorary mothers (strict and caring), your work wives/husbands, your party planners, and your counselors. If we don’t like people, it will show. And we probably won’t last long in this line of work. Or at least, we won’t enjoy it very much.

I’ll paraphrase a quotation I enjoy to explain why I’ve often felt that HR is a thankless profession: if you do HR right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.

And that is why it was so nice to hear someone present me with the highest compliment – that they would never want to do my job in a million years.

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