What skills do I need to be an HR manager?

A job interview attended by an HR manager
When there's a crisis in an organisation, solutions tend to come from an unexpected place. In fact, the unsung heroes of a chaos situation tend to be the human resources department.

The global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008 brought some of the biggest companies to their knees after excessive risk-taking in the banking industry. In the fallout, it was human resources that became the moral and ethical compass, leading organisational culture change towards sustainability over the next decade.

In 2020, COVID-19 turned the work environment on its head once again. What was once a perk of recruitment — working from home — became the base level of employment. Overnight, human resources managers found themselves supporting a distributed workforce through employee welfare and risk management – all while adjusting to the at-home work experience themselves.

These seismic changes are escalating the importance of HR in organisations, even the point of becoming vital C-suite players. As the Harvard Business Review puts it:

We believe this is HR’s moment to lead organi[s]ations in navigating the future. They have a tremendous opportunity, and responsibility, to provide workers with guidance on the skills and capabilities they will need to be successful over the next decade as new roles continue to emerge.

But what makes a good HR manager in this shifting climate?

Let’s take a closer look at how you can become an HR manager, what are the essential skills of the role and how to excel in one of the most vital roles of any company.

What HR skills & competencies do I need to be a human resources manager?

Human resources management is a form of business administration that applies a range of practices to develop and leverage the capabilities and commitment of employees. 

In an increasingly competitive world, the skills of the human resources manager play an important role in the financial performance of a company.

According to job descriptions on Seek, employers are looking for human resource managers with skills in HR management and strategy, employment law and industrial relations as well as performance management, employee relations and communication skills.

Here’s how the skills of a human resources manager look in real life. 

Strategic decision-making

Businesses are increasingly looking to HR to give them a competitive edge and HR managers are finding it in data analytics and HR software. 

The use of people analytics by HR managers could well expand beyond acquisition and retention to apply people data for decision making more broadly.

It was people data that helped Australia Post to reorganise their staffing during the pandemic. In addition to retraining 2000 posties, they established 16,000 work-from-home stations with VPNs. In the weeks and months that followed human resources used people data to support and manage those employees.

Of course, human resources isn’t the only business department becoming increasingly digital. In many organisations, HR departments are also implementing digital change throughout the entire organisation - including upskilling staff and responding to the potential of AI

Problem-solving skills

HR manager positions require problem-solving skills for a wide variety of situations. This includes employee grievances and harassment, health and safety, and collective bargaining.

For example, as online shopping soared and demand for letters halved, Australia Post retrained 2000 motorbike posties to deliver parcels. Meanwhile NAB gave 40,000 staff access to thousands of online training programs and encouraged them to up their digital and data game.

Further afield, when a lockdown for COVID-19 hit the pause button on a chain of cinemas overnight, the Dubai-based company Majid Al Futtaim jumped into action. The team quickly retrained 1000 cinema ushers and ticket sellers to work in their online supermarket where sales were booming.

These high-profile examples show how some HR managers applied their problem-solving skills in response to the pandemic. 

That included the most basic problem thrown up by COVID-19 — enabling all employees to work from home. 

Conflict management

Understanding why interpersonal conflict occurs can help human resources professionals to tackle problems sooner and potentially prevent greater conflict.

This is no small matter. While it’s human nature to avoid conflict, one of the most significant drivers of employee stress is workplace conflict that isn’t resolved effectively, or at all. 

Furthermore, according to Joseph Grenny, unaddressed workplace conflict is an “enormous drain” on an organisation, consuming an estimated eight hours of company time in gossip and other unproductive activities.

HR managers will need effective communication and a range of soft skills to drive conflict resolution. Solutions will need to touch on a range of common areas of employee disagreement, such as:

  • Personality differences
  • Unclarified roles in the workplace
  • Perceived lack of resources
  • Workplace behaviours 
  • Mismanagement of organisational change
  • Differences over work methods
  • Poor communication

Global perspective

HR jobs are more likely to need a global perspective working in an organisation that’s a multinational based in Australia, has global stakeholders, or is located overseas.

Multinational companies use a number of organisational models which are more or less responsive to the local environment. Knowing your organisation and its company policies in regards to global organisational structure is critical.

For example, Coca Cola can be found in almost every country on the planet, but the flavours it offers and the ingredients it uses are often specific to the nation you’re in. On the other hand, while Apple is also available in every country, its stores, staff and stock all look and feel exactly the same. 

HR managers must understand the importance of organisational structure, employment laws, and culture to develop a true global perspective.

Knowledge of HR management principles and how to apply them

This is far from just a theoretical exercise. As the working world continues to change, the best HR managers will be those who have a solid knowledge of HR principles and practices, and who can apply them to a range of situations. 

That includes even unpredictable situations. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the workplace upside-down overnight, and HR managers had to act quickly and agilely to support a sudden change. This included quick considerations and judgement calls about staff wellbeing, occupational health and safety in home offices, communication and supporting staff morale.  

Knowing these basic principles of HR will also help you understand the effectiveness and ethics of HR practices, recommend better processes and critically evaluate the outcomes, even in high pressure situations. 

Do I need a master's degree to be a human resources manager?

In contrast to bachelor's degree qualifications, at master’s degree level, HR professionals have access to a broader range of jobs and higher salary ranges.

In fact, RMIT Online’s Master of Human Resource Management has been designed from the ground up to arm you with the current and emerging trends in HR. The coursework also empowers you to guide strategic cultural shifts with a local and global perspective on HR practice.

Cathy Brigden is a Professor in Labour History and Industrial Relations in the Department of Human Resource Management and Industrial Relations at RMIT’s School of Management. She believes that this master's degree is crucial to help HR professionals rise to management positions.

“RMIT Online’s Master of Human Resource Management is a career advancer because of the particular HRM and industrial relations ‘theory and practice blend’ we have created,” says Brigden.  

“We take our students from understanding the essentials of human resource practice to the role of employment law, to managing people in organisations both locally and globally and debating strategic directions."

Whether you’re keen to gain a management level qualification in your HR career, refresh your qualifications, or bring your professional experience from a related field like psychology, a master’s degree improves your job outlook by putting you out front of the competition.

“Our focus includes both professional and personal development, so our students develop an awareness, tools for action and a drive to advocate for, creating and sustaining culturally inclusive, diverse, safe and healthy workplaces,” says Brigden.

“Across your studies, developing and reflecting on your professional practice is a key part of becoming an HR practitioner or a manager with people management responsibilities who recognises the big picture as well as the internal dynamics of day-to-day working life.”

You can stand out as an HR leader with RMIT Online's Master of Human Resources Management.