What’s Your Biggest HR Career Mistake? Here’s Mine.

by Alan Collins

Brutally honest question time.

In the spirit of total openness and candor, here’s mine.

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My biggest HR career mistake was accepting a COUNTER-OFFER.

Instead of taking a new position at another company, I stayed put in my first HR position.

The higher-ups bribed me with a few more dollars in base salary and promised “more opportunities.”

So, I reneged on a brand new, shiny HR job offer at a company I was excited about.

And I let my old company buy me off.

Here’s what happened afterward…

The impact of that money disappeared after six months.

And the additional opportunities never ever materialized to my satisfaction.

Nothing changed.

Not a damn thing.

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TWO YEARS HAD PASSED when I finally woke up and discovered my mistake.

Looking back now, I stayed in that HR job a couple of years too long.

I feel like I wasted all that time.

I could have spent it:
…gaining new experiences.
…growing my HR skills further.
…expanding my circle of new relationships.
…better positioning my career for the future.

Instead, I stayed in an HR job for the money with zero promotional opportunities.

So what did I do?

*   *   *

I decided to get off my duff and change jobs finally.

I left and joined Quaker Oats as an HR supervisor.

Once I joined Quaker, my work took off, and I had a blast for the rest of my HR career!

I moved through sixteen different HR generalist, specialist, and leadership positions.

And more importantly, I built valuable personal and professional relationships that have endured to this day.

Anyway, that’s my biggest HR career mistake — accepting that counter-offer.

Now decades later, it still pisses me off even thinking about it.

It really does.

Oh well, enough about me.

Let’s talk about you.

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What’s YOUR biggest HR career mistake?

Please share your story by CLICKING HERE to add it in the comments.

Let’s all learn priceless career lessons from each other.

You don’t have to include your name if you don’t want to.

And you can be as brief (or as lengthy) as you’d like.  A few concise sentences will do.

But tell us:

Again, let’s learn from each other.

Check out those of others in the comments.


*   *   *

Want to avoid the need to accept a counteroffer in the first place? 

Then check out:

STAY INSPIRED IN HR: 21 Positive Reminders To Keep You Motivated, Encouraged, Confident & Committed To Success in Human Resources.  Get more details here.

About the author: Alan Collins is the Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of various 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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17 Responses to “What’s Your Biggest HR Career Mistake? Here’s Mine.”

  1. Jacquie G Adorno Says:

    Alan, thanks for sharing!

    My biggest HR mistake was accepting the wrong offer simply because I believed in the organization’s mission. I knew this was a mistake when my first day with the organization my title was changed from Director of HR to HR Administrator. It was a bad fit all-around, we parted ways a year later. Lesson learned, interview prospective employers better to ensure we are a fit for success.

  2. Alan Says:

    Great lesson Jacquie.

    “Fit” is crucial. And goes both ways.

    Thank you for kicking us off with your share.

  3. Klint Kendrick, Phd, SPHR Says:

    My biggest mistake? Not reading the subtle signs that there was trouble in paradise.

    I thought I was on a promotion path — I was told I was on the top right corner of the 9-block.

    Then my sponsor left the group and a new “leader” came in who wanted to make a name for herself. She brought in extra layers, and I was quickly training people on the most important aspects of my job, left with the crap work nobody else wanted to do — the crap work that wasn’t strategic and didn’t let my talent and skills shine.

    What I should have caught was how that change moved me from top right to dead middle, a change that stayed with me until I left that company.

    The signs were there.

    Development plan reviews where my manager told me that I should look at salary growth instead of career growth. Sideline chats with HR for HR where I was told that my 360 evaluations didn’t really matter if I didn’t have a sponsor.

    Interview follow-up where the feedback didn’t match the conversation, but it was clear an offline conversation had tanked my chances at moving forward.

    I’ve become much more politically savvy, and far more jaded.

    You’re only a rising star if leadership agrees and politics matter more than skill.

    Hard lessons learned.

  4. Alan Says:

    Klint, this is an awesome share!

    Having sponsors and reading subtle signs are certainly absolute career essentials. Few, if any, make it in HR without them.

    Thanks again for sharing your story and this priceless lesson.

  5. Josephine Winfrey Says:

    My biggest HR career mistake was not getting my degree sooner.

    I worked for a fortune 500 company early in my career that regularly promoted from within. While I had an Associate’s degree, I knew that I would eventually have to go further. I became comfortable because I was being promoted and went through all of the “supportive” HR positions, HR Assistant, HR Coordinator, HR Recruiter.

    I was successful in each role. Fast forward to my next opportunity (and next company) where I took on HR Manager responsibilities (temporarily). At this point I was 8 years into my career. I worked in that job for 2 years.

    When the company decided it wanted to permanently fill the role, I was told to interview for it which I did. The final decision was made to hire an outside candidate because they had their Bachelor’s Degree and was working on their Master’s.

    Well you could have pushed me over with a feather!

    I was good enough and had enough experience to do the job but I didn’t have the educational credentials to get the job.

    Maybe I’m dating myself and things are a bit different today but I don’t think so.

    Anyway, it lit a fire under me. I not only completed my Bachelor’s but continued to get my Master’s and every HR certification I could get.

    Now What? I have since encouraged other friends and colleagues of mine to get that education. It is never too late. Experience counts for something but the Education will solidify it. Plus once you earn that piece of paper, it can’t be taken away.

  6. Alan Says:

    Awesome story, Josephine!

    Your experience just goes to show the importance of having the right educational credentials and HR certifications. They cannot replace experience and a track record of performance, but they will definitely help open doors that may be closed otherwise.

    Great lesson for us all.

    Terrific share.

  7. Chinwe Ugo-Onyegbula Says:

    My biggest HR mistake was constantly refusing to to attend interviews for a higher HR role just because it was in another location.

    I wasn’t willing to relocate and used my family as an excuse.

    This had made me remain in one position for a long time and having my other colleagues move ahead of me.

    Now I am ready to move and it looks like opportunities are absolutely unlimited.

  8. Alan Says:

    Thanks Chinwem! Sometimes there are good and valid reasons (family, etc) for being geographically limited. Life happens!

    However, you’re right, even if you can open up your mobility just a little bit, it’s amazing what kinds of HR opportunities will present themselves.

    Thanks for weighing in with your experience.

  9. Amber Says:

    My mistake – leaving a good job in hopes of finding a better HR position at another company.

    A few years ago, I changed HR jobs because I wanted more of a challenge and responsibilities. Within 2 weeks at the new job I knew that I had made a huge mistake. I was VERY unhappy and there was a large accounting aspect to the job, which wasn’t clearly explained to me during the interview process. It took my away from doing true HR work – about 24 hours every 2 week. (I know now to ask more questions about job duties).

    I was miserable, I wasn’t sleeping and I cried a lot. It was impacting my life at home as well. I was angry and frustrated and took it out on my family. My position had been filled from within at my previous job, so I couldn’t go back. I had stopped in to see my previous employer and she knew I wasn’t happy, but my job was filled.

    I stayed for about 8 months and finally quit my job. I was much happier. I got a call from my previous employer about 4 months later and she said my job was available (due to restructuring) and asked if I wanted to come back. I agreed and couldn’t be happier. No more stress in my life. My position has expanded and I am happy to say it is a good balance and fit for me. It is a family-owned business and I am not leaving this company. They treat me really well and I am respected here.

    The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

  10. Alan Says:

    Amber, glad everything worked out well and that you’re happier. That’s most important.

    Every “new and challenging opportunity” isn’t as it’s advertised — and may not even be worth it — and your story illustrates this well.

    Thanks so much for the awesome share!

  11. Laura Says:

    Accepting a counter offer is often a mistake in any type of job. I was offered a counter offer once but I felt like “Did I need to tell them I was leaving to receive a rise?”. I said no and left…I’m still proud of that choice!

  12. Sandeep Says:

    My biggest mistake was thinking that Knowledge is the main thing to become a a successful HR and i neglected the salary package. For 3 years of my initial work experience worked for less salary when my commitments towards my family started i was looking for more salary package but unfortunately no one gave the good package what i was worth for. All the interviewers said your good with HR knowledge but we can give hike only this much we are sorry. at last i have realised that salary and the knowledge both plays a imp role. Even i lost a good offer because of lower basic salary that made me feel very low mentally.

  13. Alan Says:

    Great point, Sandeep. While experience and knowledge are valuable, you can’t spend them. You’ve got to be comfortable with the “money thing” otherwise it’ll bug you. Thanks.

  14. Ijeoma Nkwonta Says:

    My biggest career mistake was not intentionally advocating for myself. I was doing the work, and the managers and business leaders saw it. However the Senior Leadership team did not see me, did not know me, I never opened my mouth at general team bonding meetings to make them see how smart I was and the impact of what I was doing. Even though my direct line manager knew and the line managers I worked with. However in 2020 layoff decisions were made by the senior leadership and the ax fell on me. 🙂

    I am sooo glad it happened now, and not later in my career, that experience has made me sooo comfortable talking about the impact of my work and I ensure to strategically let everyone that needs to know, know about it particularly the Senior leaders 🙂 Thanks Alan, I always read your emails for the past 7 years. Thank you for this powerful share as always.

  15. Alan Says:

    Ijeoma, great learning & thanks for sharing your story. Spot on. I’m with you 100%, personal advocacy is a major key to advancing one’s career, especially in HR. You’re so right, learning this early is a gift. Thanks again for sharing this important lesson.

  16. Tom M. Says:

    Hi Alan – Love your blog. Spot on advice and invaluable stories. My biggest career mistake was staying at my last company way too long and not leaving when I had the chance. My sponsor was very supportive and looked out for me. In fact, he convinced me to relocate out of an area of the country that both my family and I loved to go to the Corporate office. However, after a few HR jobs in the Corporate office to further my development for one of the HR leader jobs, the “Great Recession” happened and my sponsor elected to take a package since he was close to retirement. I certainly understood and likely would have done the same thing with his circumstances. But what I didn’t realize at the time was how much politics was a factor in the top jobs. I was no longer on the fast track because the other sponsors were looking after their proteges. I should have realized earlier that this was going to be a big hurdle and didn’t network enough with HR Headhunters that used to call me all the time. Anyway, I finally left that place, but lost a lot of time. And while I’m doing o.k. today, I’m sure I’d be a VP instead of a director if I had left earlier even though the signs were there. I just assumed my work “would speak for itself.” And while results are important, you can’t underestimate politics and having a sponsor to advocate for you. And besides the career implications, I feel like I missed out on some quality time with my family as well. Oh well, lesson learned. But today, I try to tell folks who are younger in their career to don’t discount all of the opportunities out there and assume everything will work out. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t! Just have a plan, take advantage of opportunities (even if it means leaving your company), look for sponsors, and move on if things aren’t happening the way you thought they would. I look at some of my peers who did leave that company when we were younger and they are all VPs and CHROs today! One last point, listen to your gut and don’t forget about your family!

  17. Alan Says:

    Wow! Tom, thank you for sharing your invaluable experience. Your last sentence really speaks to me personally — listen to your gut and don’t forget about your family. Your other points about leveraging sponsorship and not underestimating the political landscape of the organization are pure gold! Glad to hear you are sharing your lessons with others coming up in their careers. When I hear stories like yours I’m reminded of a Nelson Mandela quote: “I never lose. I either win or learn.” Kudos to you for all the lessons you’ve learned. Wish you much continued success!