5 Brutal Realities of Navigating Your Career in HR…

by Alan Collins

The pandemic has been challenging for everyone in HR.

However, as we return to a new normal, I’m reminded of the brutal realities I’ve discovered in navigating my long career in Human Resources.

Some I’ve learned during this crazy COVID-19 nightmare.

Others I stumbled upon before the pandemic, through my own personal screw-ups and successes.

And there are also many I’ve picked up over the years from HR colleagues, friends and role models I’ve admired from afar.

Here are five big ones you should be aware of:

Brutal Reality #1
Your HR credentials mean
nothing without ACTION.


Laurie Ruettimann is a former HR leader turned writer, speaker and entrepreneur.

She’s the author of Betting On You: How To Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career.

Years ago, when she was a corporate HR leader, she recalled some getting career coaching from her boss.

He advised her that if she wanted to be taken seriously as a HR pro, she needed to get SPHR certified.

So she did.

The whole process took her nine weeks.

The result…

Nobody on her job cared one hoot
that she passed the exam.

I can identify.

In my case, years ago, when I left Purdue with my masters in Industrial Relations and Human Resources, I felt on top of the world.  And, in my first real HR job, I didn’t hesitate to promote my business school credentials.

Like Laurie, I found out nobody gave a crap.

In fact, the more I talked about grad school, the more people ignored me.

I didn’t start getting any REAL respect on the job until I got my freakin’ head out of the clouds, hunkered down and started getting stuff done. Stuff that really mattered.

There’s an important point here.

It doesn’t make any difference if you have a genius IQ, plus an MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CCP and a PhD in Human Resources (if such a degree exists).

You won’t make meaningful career progress in the real-world without taking action and producing results.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a biggest advocate on the planet for beefing up your HR credentials and engaging in constant professional development until the day you die.

However, these things alone guarantee you nothing.

The reason you do them is that they will make you a more confident and capable HR professional.  That’s all.

There’s a huge difference between KNOWING HOW to do something and ACTUALLY DOING IT WELL.

Knowledge, capability, skill and intelligence aren’t that important without action and proven results to validate them.

It’s just that simple.

*   *   *

Brutal Reality #2
You are truly in business
for yourself.


No matter how you make your living in HR or who you think you work for, you really only work for one person: YOURSELF.

The big question is:  What are you selling and to whom?

Even if you have a full-time, salaried position in a Fortune 500 sweatshop, you are still running your own business.  You are the “product” and you’re selling:

So how can you become a more valuable product?

It’s simple.

Organizations love HR people who are proactive, flexible problem-solvers.

What kind of problems should you be solving?  Simple again.  Those that plague your organization or your clients the most.

You have a choice. You can push back and grouse about why these problems exist in the first place. Or you can jump in the mix, position yourself as a “solution  provider” and build your HR brand in the process.

I say choose the latter.

However, let’s get real.  Chances are no matter how much value you’re adding, if the business tanks, you can expect to get canned.

But just because you lose your job doesn’t mean that you lose all your experiences, talents, ideas, leadership and determination.

Again, you are a “business.”

You are NOT your job, so don’t lose your identity in it.

Your job is NOT your security blanket.

Your “business” is.

*   *   *

Brutal Reality #3
Happiness and success in HR
are two different things.


I have a great relationship with a brilliant HR SVP who makes a ton of money.

How do I know that?  Because I saw her total compensation package published in her company’s 10-k filing for shareholders.

Every person I know, including me, considers her to be wildly successful.

But guess what?

Recently over coffee, she disclosed to me that she’s been depressed for the last 10 months of this pandemic.


“I’m burnt out, tired of working from home, haven’t had a real date in a year and I’m lonely. I’m swamped at work, out of shape and just haven’t taken enough time for myself lately,” she said.

“Wow!” I thought. “One of the most successful HR executives I know isn’t happy.”

I also know an HR manager, who works roughly five levels below her in a different organization.

He jogs along the lakefront in Chicago twice a week. He collects antiques. And, he’s the most energetic and upbeat guys I’ve ever met – always wearing a bright, engaging smile.

He’s been in the exact same HR job for the past three years and loves it. He’s not worried about where his next promotion is coming from.

He’s working from home, has a huge network of contacts and is confident that if he ever needs to land another HR gig, it won’t be a problem.

So while this guy is happy, I wouldn’t classify his HR career as the ultimate success story.

The point:  “What will make me happy?” and “What will make me successful?” are two of the most important questions you can ask yourself about your career in HR.

But they are two different questions.

And they may have two different answers.

You can be successful and unhappy.

You can be happy and not successful.

You can, of course, be both.

Which are you?

*   *   *

Brutal Reality #4
You will never feel 100%
ready when an opportunity
lands on your doorstep.


The number one thing I consistently see that holds savvy HR folks back is their hesitation to accept an opportunity simply because they don’t think they’re ready.

When could this happen to you?


It could happen if you’re offered a “once-in-a-lifetime” big promotion which requires that you relocate 600 miles away.

It could happen if you’re asked to lead the company-wide task force on improving  employee engagement.

It could happen if one of your clients, a powerful senior executive, taps you on the shoulder and asks you for some candid feedback on how she can work better with her team.

In cases like this, it’s natural to doubt yourself and question whether you have what it takes.

But the truth is nobody ever feels 100% ready when a big opportunity arises.


Because most great opportunities jerk us out of our comfort zone. And, they force us to stretch ourselves emotionally and intellectually, which means we aren’t totally comfortable at first.

And, when we don’t feel comfortable, we darn sure don’t feel ready.

Moments of opportunity will land at your doorstep throughout your career in HR.

And, if you want to make significant upward career movement you will need to embrace these moments…even though you don’t feel fully ready for them.

*   *   *

Brutal Reality #5
Your colleagues and
good friends will come and go.


It’s easy to succumb to career pressures and fail to set aside quality time for family and friends.

Not Facebook time.

Actual face time.

Sure, it’s true that many people you meet in your life will just fade away.

Most of your high school friends won’t be part of your college life.

Most of your college friends won’t be a part of your 20-something professional life.

Most of your 20-something friends won’t be there when…after many years of effort… you finally land that dream job in HR.

But some friends will stick.

And it is these friends – the ones who transcend time with you – who DO matter.

Cherish them.

And stay in touch.

Pandemic or not.

Just sayin’.

*   *   *

That’s it, five brutal HR career realities.

Experienced some of your own? Share them below in the comments by CLICKING HERE.


Want more brutal realities and success strategies for managing your career in HR?  Then check out:  UNWRITTEN HR RULES: 21 Strategies For Attaining Awesome Career Success in Human Resources.  Get more information about this ground-breaking book by going HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals  including UNWRITTEN HR RULES.   He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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95 Responses to “5 Brutal Realities of Navigating Your Career in HR…”

  1. Kris Liew Says:

    Absolutely true! Thanks for sharing the article.

  2. Zul Says:

    Dear Alan, great observation and sharing. I particularly like points #1, 2 & 4 coz I have gone thru it and cherish it. Thanks for your unselfishness as usual.

  3. Daria Says:

    Alan, thanks for sharing the great tips and your insight.

  4. Nwe Says:

    Dear Alan, thank you for all your encouragement and great tips. Agree with Kelly that me too, your encouragement to take my once in lifetime opportunity to take all challenges that I might face in my new job.

  5. Paul Says:

    All great points. Your first point has delayed me from doing an MBA for number of years now. I see many with MBAs who cant even talk to people properly and would rather sprook thier quals then actually get to know the business and the people in it.

  6. Chiedozie Says:

    Dear Alan,
    you are on point. Very beautiful piece that should be read at least once every week.

  7. QuynhMai Says:

    Dear Alan,
    I’m junior in HR. Reading your articles helping me have more and more motivation. Thanks so much.

  8. Gemma Toth Says:

    Thanks for this article. Having worked in HR since 1990 started as a HR Assistant and worked my way up to Director position, I have experienced all 5, especially #2 with mergers, dotcom bust, economic declines, etc.

    While working as HR administrator, I went back to get my degree in Business Management, then a Master’s in Organizational Management, then my PHR. They may not matter to your current employer, but they seem to get more weight when applying for a job.

    Although, I do wish that recruiters will put more weight on experience because as you said, despite the education, the certification, workshops, etc. we can only test our competence based on actual work experience.

  9. Ron Branch Says:

    Alan –
    Love your candor and your insight. As a HR professional for many years, I concur with your insight. I will be getting your book for more insights and hope to cross paths soon.
    Thanks much

  10. javan Says:

    It is lovely article with great insights. Sometimes we miss opportunity because we feel we are not ready. We will never be ready then. Therefore we are ready,even when we feel are not ready We should not squander opportunities.

  11. bertha Says:

    Great Article. It has made me see things differently. I have enjoyed reading it and will sure share it with others

  12. Robert R Says:

    I agree to this statement. I am quite aware that need for qualification and education and I would like to get more but in the job situation the experience your compassion, your desire to assist ,getting the job done and add to it gaining the respect of the staff is what is important. To be impartial and to not to get emotionally involved in the incident is also to me a key aspect of HR. Senior management sometimes don’t like you and the need for this personal stuff but you do it because its right not because you have a piece of paper.

  13. Steve Oboh Says:

    All of these goes to support my long held view that after all is said and done about metrics and all the latest jargons, HR practice still boils down to people management. Making the human aspect of the factors of production effective. The HR practitioner should keep himself/herself reminded at all times that its all about people. How do I make the employee happy at getting the job done. This requires us to flow between the employee at the lowest rung of the ladder to the chap at the head of ladder. We have to think employee and think management at all times to be successful in our role.

  14. Sarah Says:

    Very true!

    No one Will ever be ready for the next opportunity!
    Every company has a different mission, vision and strategy.

    Grab every opportunity you can!

  15. Paula Says:

    I wish I had read this 25 years ago when I was recently out of grad school, and early in my HR career.

    All of these 5 truths ring true, but after 2 job eliminations and numerous job and company changes, rule #2 rings out resoundingly! Whereas the letters that follow your name can possibly get your foot in the door, in the end it is the skills and experience that you build into your business that will enable you to move on to an even better job after a setback.

  16. Barb Says:

    This article is fantastic. A real “hard look” at some of the struggles we face without mincing words. A million thanks for the honesty!

  17. Karen Blalock Says:

    This was a great reminder … especially as we get into the goals and objectives for 2016!

  18. Karen Blalock Says:

    Fantastic perspective for each reader to walk away with. I loved #2!

  19. Toni Says:

    Every point is accurate! I simply try to stay true to my beliefs and do the best I can with the tools and knowledge available to me. Continuing education is important in this field as the laws are always changing!

  20. Kristina Paule-Ocampo Says:

    Truth #1 rings especially true. My degree is not in HR but I have found that everyone comes to see me as the person who gets the work done. Having the ability to learn quickly and connect the dots is far more useful!

  21. Debbie Says:

    Truth #4 is especially true. Sometimes we are not sure and don’t see the opportunity when it comes.

  22. Nupur Pandey Says:

    Completely agree. HR is an underrated yet glamorised profile where I very soon realised the reason when someone says that they want to get into HR is because they are very friendly is the biggest lie youngsters tell themselves for lack of a better reason.

  23. Pam Dychtwald Says:

    Your friends and your colleagues will come and go. We realize this as we mature; not age. It is true. Although we don’t like to admit it.

  24. Samir bhiwapurkar Says:

    Excellent article eye opener for any HR professional

  25. heather metour Says:

    Gemma Toth – As a Talent Partner I couldn’t agree more, but it’s critical you have an organization that puts the budget in place that allows for more training. We were given Social Talent training – Sourcing Ninja and it was a game changer for the entire team. That kind of commitment and encouragement is key to the success of any Talent team. Unfortunately as a group, we are treated as the red-headed step child by HR and end up being overlooked when it comes to our needs. I’m honestly of the opinion that Talent should sit with the business where there tends to be more money and commitment to the success of the team, because in the end, they are ultimately who is held accountable to the success of their recruiting effort 🙂

  26. Mercedez Wallace Says:

    Your credentials mean nothing without action… As I begin to register for my HR credentials, I get the same feeling I had when I received my degree. We hear for so many years how important it is, yet when we get there, the consensus is typically.. who cares. I now see that certifications and degrees are no longer stand alones; it is going to take someone with experience to be impressive.

  27. Trevor kwindingwi Says:

    Eye opener. Am motivated

  28. Gail Says:

    Hi, I just wanted to point out that, in regards to Truth #3, it all depends on what your definition of “success” is. I know for me and many of my friends and colleagues, success does equal happiness. I mean, what’s the point of making an incredible amount of money if you are too tired or too busy to ever enjoy it?! The point of life, is not to work all the time or get rich, it’s to LIVE!

  29. Sheri Melvin Says:

    Depending on where you are in your HR careers, these truths make sense. We need to listen to our own advice when we tell our staff that they are responsible for their careers. We need to be motivated and take ownership. Thanks for sharing.

  30. Lori Says:

    Alan, well said. It is nice to have reminders of how we can evaluate our process!

  31. Randi in Seattle Says:

    Thanks for sharing – all so true

  32. Liesel Says:

    “Because most great opportunities jerk us out of our comfort zone and force us to stretch ourselves emotionally and intellectually, which means we won’t feel totally comfortable at first.
    And when we don’t feel comfortable, we darn sure don’t feel ready.”

    Absolutely. We either step forward into growth, or backwards into safety. Maslow, I think

    Comfort zone is easy. Stepping out is not. The rewards of doing it is priceless, though. Awesome article!!

  33. Denise Says:

    Great read! Shared with a few others in HR.

  34. Kristina Says:

    Completely agree! An MBA may open a door, but it won’t keep you in a room. It’s about building credibility, executing results and gaining trust. Stop worrying about the corporate ladder and live your life!

  35. Tory Andrews Says:

    Great article. Something I needed to read and apply to my own situation.

  36. Kaosara Says:

    Points 1,2&4 are awesome.we need to reflect on these points regularly to always keep us on track in our HR career.
    @liesel: Love your comment so dearly: Leaving our comfort zone will either take us forward to growth or backward to safety and the reward of leaving our comfort zone is priceless.

  37. Sonia Jimenez Says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. It was a great reminder!

  38. Susan Says:

    I can totally relate to the credentials part. Many, many years ago, back in my much younger youth, you didn’t even need a degree in human resources to get into the field, just express an interest and desire to learn it basically on the job. Now, Personnel Officers may have had degrees in public administration or business administration but the rest of the folks not necessarily.
    Now the big thing is certification. I’m sorry, but BFD–if you ain’t got the real goods no amount of certification is going to help you in the real world. I’m so tired of looking for jobs that have a PHR requirement or desire with the as it knocks out a huge block of well qualified candidates.
    Great article, Alan, as always.

  39. Precious Says:

    Great article. Needed to hear this. Thanks.

  40. Natasha Says:

    Great article! I think all of us will experience each of these at some point in our careers.

  41. Jane Says:

    Good article, but I would not minimize the importance of credentials as a facilitator. As a relative newcomer to HR (I have worked with people with 10+ years in the field vs. my less than 10 years), the new HR body of knowledge that is encompassed in SPHR, PHR, CP, CMS, etc. really advances you in this HR brave new world. My mentors have much more experience than I do from paths tread, but the constant comment I get is that management won’t or doesn’t always listen, they “have their own agenda”. Career burn out is greatly expedited by having to swim upstream with your ideas/initiatives. I have never had an issue speaking with a CEO or CFO when I present my quant analysis and data-based information to put before management. Maybe it’s because I am in the software industry, but you can’t always “do” and get the respect you deserve without putting the numbers out first. Otherwise you will be a “doing machine” and really burn yourself out without the necessary management support that is the “heavy lifting” for any endeavor to go smoothly. IMHO

  42. Chickie Says:

    Alan, thank you for sharing this. This couldn’t come at a better time. As I am preparing to interview with another company tomorrow. And #4 hit the spot for me. After reading this I will be going in with more confidence then ever! I really enjoy all your reads. Thank you once again.

  43. Janis Says:

    You are spot on as usual. Unfortunately, not having HR certifications can be a deal breaker as it is used as a way to disqualify candidates. With both the HRCI and SHRM certifications by exam, I know that this has in some ways opened the door for me. Now being in California and NOT having the California certifications, it has kept me out. With that said, thanks for the article and the comments from like minded professionals.

  44. Emma Says:

    Thank you Alan! this is on point

  45. Gail G. Sanderson Says:

    BAM! You hit it out of the ballpark with this, Alan! The truth is not always a popular conversation/networking topic but it needs to be told!