The Truth: What It’s Really Like to Work in Human Resources

In many careers, you have an idea of what to expect before getting into it. No one ever wonders what exactly a police officer or accountant does, but that is not the case with HR. We do not generally produce a physical product, we do a lot of work behind the scenes, and we often deal in ideas and employee issues. Because of this, it is hard to describe HR to an outsider.

I started working in HR without any prior HR education or experience, so everything I learned about HR was on-the-job. I never really understood what the HR people did at my previous jobs. I learned what HR is while working in HR. In today’s post, I will share the top five things I learned about our industry while working in it.


Being an unofficial therapist is a big part of the job

We often deal with employees when they are struggling. We hear details about someone’s situation when they come to us to request leave, are struggling to get to work on time due to troubles at home or are dealing with a bullying supervisor. We are a sounding board for employees, and we often have to come up with solutions. I like being the friend people come to for advice, so this part of HR was a natural fit for me.

No matter how hard you try to help, sometimes you have to let an employee go

This has been one of the hardest realities for me to face about working in HR. I like believing that anyone can turn things around. I like working with managers to come up with a performance plan to help an employee get back on track. Sometimes it works, and an employee will go from being an underperformer to a superstar. But this is not always the case. Sometimes no matter what you do to help an employee, they still will not improve, and you have to make the difficult decision to fire someone.

HR means variety

HR people do a little bit of everything. In my last HR job, it could be both fun and frustrating that no two days in HR ever looked the same. Just when I thought I would have the whole day to catch up on paperwork, an employee might walk in the door with a serious complaint, taking my day in a new direction. I like that the job constantly had me thinking on my feet.

There is also the opportunity to get hands on opportunities to learn what employees do in their jobs. In my last HR job for a grocery chain, I helped out with  inventory and even bagged groceries the day before Thanksgiving. This would be followed by time in my office spent calling references, answering email or following up with employees needing leave paperwork. The constantly changing nature of the job is a great fit for people like me who are not content to sit and stare at a screen all day.

Don’t let the challenges become all consuming

Sometimes dealing with employee issues and minimizing liability can become quite stressful. It is easy to become jaded working in HR, and I have worked with and met HR lifers who have gotten to the point where they snap at employees regularly and avoid answering the phone unless necessary. But it does not have to be this way.

My time in HR has taught me not to let the hard stuff become all consuming. I learned this by focusing on the positives—of which there are many in HR. We do not just fire employees and break up squabbles between coworkers. We often go to the table and make a case for better pay and benefits and improved workplace safety, and it is rewarding when these things happen.

Sometimes you see the best in people

Despite the headaches and the stress sometimes caused by dealing with employees, there are also moments where you see the best in people. Some of my most satisfying moments in HR have been when I get to tell a hardworking employee that they are getting a promotion. I love sharing in that excitement with someone.

I have also seen just how generous people can be when a coworker deals with a death in the family or a serious illness. I have seen employees arrange fundraisers, donate paid time off and offer to cook meals. Being in HR often means that you are often in the middle of such acts of generosity.

I have learned to revel in these moments and to remember them whenever an HR situation gets the best of me. And I have also learned it is important to take time off now and then.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.


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