The 5 Paths of Falling Into HR

By Kris Dunn | Work in Progress


aise your hand if you grew up dreaming of a career in HR. No one? Of course not.

The dirty little secret of HR is that most of us didn’t have a master plan to end up managing people functions and maximizing human capital ROI inside the modern workplace. We grew up with bigger dreams, which is cool because no one grows up dreaming of being a director of account management, financial analyst or marketing manager, either.

Those dreams all stink when you’re 16.

Instead, our teenage selves dreamed of being movie stars, recording artists or professional athletes. The freaks among us were entrepreneurial from the time they were 5 and likely knew they’d own their own business. The rest of us float, usually until the time we pick a major in college, at which time our career paths and ambitions solidify.

But the choice of HR as a career path happens later than most on average. For all the undergraduate programs in HR, the ubiquitous nature of the Society for Human Resource Management and the increasing importance of the human capital function, many HR pros don’t solidify a path into HR until they’re in the workforce doing other things.

Translation: Many HR pros will tell you they “fell” in to HR.

Falling into things can be a blessing and a curse. It’s all relative to the outcome. From my experience talking to the talented high performers who make up the world of HR, here’s some common ways people “fall” into HR without a real plan to enter it.

Most of us didn’t have a master plan to end up managing people functions and maximizing human capital ROI inside the modern workplace.

1. I started at the bottom, now I’m here. You are a bootstrapper! Right out of college, these people took entry-level roles in our function, usually doing transactions as an HR coordinator, payroll specialist or similar role. They enjoyed the function and in many cases rose to run the whole thing.

2. I’m a people person. These HR pros were generally present in a company and were identified as someone who was “good with people,” subsequently flipping into HR from another department. When looking at this group, “good with people” is a broad designation that can mean they are extroverted, a good listener or willing to take large amounts of abuse without exploding. It can also mean skill in solving other people’s problems and maximizing their performance inside the organization.

3. I got dropped into HR on an interim basis and never left. Big companies have rotational programs for high potential employees as part of succession strategies, and HR is generally part of that rotation. From time to time, HIPOs are rotated into HR, love it, are highly effective and never leave or come back to HR after their rotations are complete. In other circumstances, high performers are parachuted into HR on an interim basis to put out a Dumpster fire, find their perfect match and stay for the good times.

4. I was good at a specialty related to HR and ended up running the whole HR show. Feeder groups for HR include some specialties that are considered a distant or related cousin to the HR function like training or recruiting. This close proximity to the HR function provides a natural exposure and transition point to HR for the professionals in those functions with the chops to handle the chaos that awaits them in the big show.

5. I failed in another job at our company and they moved me into HR so they didn’t have to fire me. I didn’t want to include this one, but no rundown of all the ways people fall into a HR career would be complete without it. HR has a reputation in some company cultures as a backwater, a way station for average people doing average things. This leads to the perception that good people struggling in other areas can be dumped in HR. This seems to be decreasing in frequency, but it’s a historic reality of our lives together in HR.

You can probably add to the list of ways that people fall into HR. If you’re an HR pro who has an HR degree and has always possessed the clarity that comes with knowing you’d be in HR since you were 12, Godspeed to you. Don’t mess up your dream.

The rest of us woke up one day in HR with the Talking Heads song “Once In A Lifetime” playing in the background. I’m glad I’m here; I bet you are as well.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor. To comment, email