Sectors 17.06.20

9 Essential Skills That Are Always In High Demand For HR Candidates

If you’ve always been told you’re basically the human version of the sorting hat, it makes sense that you might feel drawn to a career in HR. After all, the job is often about seeing playing to people’s strengths while being tactful and diplomatic. But, the truth is…
Kim Connor Streich
Kim Connor Streich

If you’ve always been told you’re basically the human version of the sorting hat, it makes sense that you might feel drawn to a career in HR. After all, the job is often about seeing playing to people’s strengths while being tactful and diplomatic.

But, the truth is that you probably need slightly more than a nickname on your CV to snag a job with the industry. Human resources is a competitive area, and to get a gig you’re going to need some tangible skills to your name.

While each job will require slightly different skills, the good news is that broadly the industry are all looking for the same things. So, here’s our run down of some of the essential skills you need to take your first steps into a HR graduate job.

Interpersonal Skills

It sounds obvious when you spell it out, but human resources basically all comes down to managing humans. And if you’re managing humans you need to have a good arsenal of interpersonal skills in the bank.

You could find yourself managing an array of tricky or sensitive situations on a day to day basis, so it’s important that you’re able to be discrete, tactful, and sensitive. It also pays to be both decisive, fair, and diplomatic – and employers will be looking for you to come with examples of similar situations.

In general, you’ll also just be interacting with people from all levels of the business, so you’ll need to be able to get along and empathise with a wide range of people. Think about the ways you can weave this into what you’ve already written in your CV or cover letter and, crucially, remember that they’ll also be looking at how you act in the interview too.

IT & Tech Skills

Putting soft skills aside for a second, HR is the one area of the business where you definitely can’t get away with being tech-phobic. You’ll be responsible for managing a whole range of systems from payroll to recruitment, so it’s vital you’re able to get your head around the required software.

While you won’t be expected to walk in having used every piece of kit under the sun (trust us we Googled HR software, there’s a lot of it), departments will want to see evidence that you’re a “digital native” and able to easily get what’s going on. So, in short, don’t forget to tot up the programmes and software you can use on your CV skills section. In general, the more niche the better – everyone knows how to use Microsoft Word, but not everyone will have listed that they know how to deal with the backend of WordPress, or have got to grips with MailChimp, for example.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that tech skills aren’t just about using what’s in front of you. You’ll be expected to have a critical and logical understanding of what the company is actually using various tech for, as looking at suggestions for better ways of working will also fall within your remit in human resources.

Numeracy & Budgeting

Yep, HR really are looking for a mixed bag, aren’t they? As much as you need to have a way with words, you also need to be able to get your head around the figures. From budgets to expenses, the human resources department often finds itself at the sharp end of adding up.

Don’t worry, it’s not like the days of your non-calculator GCSE exam though – no one is going to be checking up on your mental maths. You will, however, be expected to put a budget together without losing a load of cash thanks to a rounding error, as well as getting people’s salaries and taxes right.

Perhaps one of the simplest leg-ups you can give yourself is to properly learn your way around an Excel spreadsheet. And, we don’t just mean knowing how to colour in all the boxes and make a pretty picture. You can find lots of free and low cost courses online that will teach you the basics of data sets and formulas. Trust us, you’ll feel like a wizard afterwards.

Time Management & Independent Work

It might seem like we’re throwing a lot into one section here, but the point is that especially in smaller companies you could essentially end up as a one-person department. And, even if you are part of a larger team, you’ll still be expected to work independently and keep track of your own projects and deadlines.

This means you’ll have to be able to prioritise what’s important, motivate yourself to meet your own targets, and make sure you’re keeping on top of things. In general, there’s a lot to juggle in an HR role, so it’s about knowing what’s important and being able to psych yourself up to get it all done, even if no one is telling you too.  

If you’re looking for ways to show hiring managers what you can do, think of examples of where you’ve already been setting your own goals and deadlines. Even if you’ve not yet snagged any paid work, pretty much every degree requires a level of self-motivation and self-management, so make sure you’ve got a few examples to hand

Equally, your time spent on universities societies, or in part-time jobs can be a great pick n mix bag of examples. Especially if you’ve held some kind of leadership position, or run shifts on the bar alone, there’s a lot to be said for how you managed and motivated yourself.

Team Work & Seeing The Bigger Picture

Yes, we know. We just told you about how you need to be able to work on your lonesome, but even Mr Incredible ended up reluctantly teaming up with the family in the end. Even if you don’t have people in your immediate team, you’ll need to be able to work productively with people across the whole business.

It’s a pretty unique department in the way it works across pretty much everywhere else, so it’s also vital that you’re really able to understand the ethos of the business, it’s culture and values, and what the grand vision is. The decisions you’re making will be adding to this, so it’s important you’re looped in.

Think about times you’ve not just successfully collaborated with others, but any time you’ve worked with external teams or departments. Similarly, if you’re able to talk about the overarching purpose of the initiatives you’ve been in and how this translated down into the decisions you made, that’s also likely to score you shineys.

A Keenness To Keep Learning

More so than almost any other profession we write about at Debut, human resources is an industry that wants you to keep learning. The Chartered Institute of Personal Development (CIPD) is the recognised industry body and offers a range of courses from foundation to postgraduate level.

It’s a standard practice within the industry for you to be continuing your learning across the CIPD levels as you go, which can take you all the way to a strategic level qualification and a much higher salary. So, in short, it’s probably not the role for you if you’re done with learning in the traditional sense.

Equally, as a human resources professional, you’ll also be responsible for the learning and development of others. You’ll need to be able to understand the different ways that people learn best, and what kinds of skills they want to develop. Basically, you need to be the kind of person who is passionate about learning full stop.

Writing & Comms Skills

We’ve ticked off numbers, we’ve ticked off speaking, and finally here’s the GCSE exam hat trick –  writing skills. While it’s easy to get your message across in person, a large part of HR also lies in getting your message across effectively in the written word too, as well as being able to put together and understand the finer details of formal documents.

For example, you’ll be the person in charge of sorting contracts, job offers, and other formal records. At the same time, you’re probably also the people writing the friendly blog posts on the company’s internal blog, so it’s all about knowing the best tone and style for the occasion. It’s much more than just knowing what’s appropriate – it’s also about knowing how to get your message across and acted on.

You’ll also be expected to have a solid eye for detail too – especially with things like contracts you’ll need to be able to spot mistakes that could cause problems before they do. And any comms that come out of the HR department need to be tight, concise, and professional. 

As well as having some writing samples or examples to point to, the main thing you can do here is just to make sure your CV and cover letter are sparkling. Your CV should be a tightly written document where every word earns its place, and your cover letter should match the tone and the feel of the company you’re applying for.

We say this often, but it really is about applying to fewer graduate jobs and doing it better, so focus on your CV and cover letter as the chance to really sell your writing skills and show what you can do.

Problem Solving

Human resources is rarely a straight forward job – you’ll be faced with tricky situations week on week, whether that’s to do with efficiency, strategy, or personal circumstances. While you’ll normally be given lots of on the job training, there’s rarely a textbook answer you can go too – it’s a case of having to think creatively about problems.

Hiring managers will be looking for people who aren’t floored by tricky situations, and instead, take a positive and proactive approach to solve them. This is most likely to come up at interview or during online assessments for the job, where you’re asked about what you would do in hypothetical scenarios.

The main thing here is not to feel you have to jump in with a decisive response straight away – often the point of these questions is to see how you’d fare when things aren’t clear cut. Treat it a bit like you would an exam question and start by setting out the problems, before going on to say how you would tackle it and why, as well as flagging up any potential issues you might need to look out for.


Finally, we end on something that’s probably a bit more of a mindset than a skill, but a vital part of a successful HR career nonetheless. There’s a big difference between proactive and reactive HR, and just like in comms, the second one is not where you want to be.

While human resources is at its heart about keeping everyone happy, motivated and on the same page, there will always be problems. It might sound like a downer to have to accept it, but your job as an HR professional is to spot them before they come to blows and come with solutions.

For example, it’s about spotting frictions between teams before they become problematic and crucially suggesting better ways of working. Or on another level, it’s things like running staff audits to spot potential areas they feel the company isn’t working for them and working to develop ways around it.

All in all, HR is about a whole range of skills. It covers a spectacularly broad area within a company, so really it’s no surprise you’re expected to have a lot of skills to be able to deal with it all. In reality, you’ll probably have a lot of this covered off already, but it’s about making sure you actually show it off in your CV and application. 

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