Human Resources

About this sector

Human Resources (HR) is at the centre of business performance with HR professionals driving decisions that enable their organisations to perform at their best. HR professionals aim to make the most effective use of the people within an organisation. Given that anyone working in an HR department will deal with a wide range of people on a day-to-day basis, an approachable, calm and professional attitude is key.

Recruitment is a major function within HR and roles in this area may be based either in-house (managing the recruitment needs of an organisation) or in a consultancy (handling recruitment for a range of different clients). Executive recruitment consultancies (headhunters) typically operate in specialist areas sourcing candidates for senior appointments. They often approach individuals directly rather than advertising openly.

Organisations are increasingly aware of the value and importance of HR functions and almost every organisation now has HR staff in some capacity. The professional association for HR/Personnel specialists and generalists in the UK is the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and its current membership stands at over 135,000. Although most graduate opportunities lie within large commercial organisations with large HR teams or in the large public sector employers, opportunities exist in organisations of all sizes.

Types of job

HR jobs include:

  • Generalist HR assistants, officers, managers and directors
  • Training and development   officers, managers and directors
  • Compensation and benefits specialists
  • Employee relations specialists
  • Performance managers
  • Health and safety managers
  • Resource planners
  • HR Consultant

Recruitment jobs include:

  • Recruiters – including graduate recruiters
  • Recruitment consultants
  • Headhunters


Generalist HR officers will be involved in some, or all, of the following: strategic resource planning, recruitment and selection, training, pay and benefits and related administration, employment contracts, handling disciplinary and grievance cases, advising management and staff on policies and procedures, creating new performance management policies, reporting on HR issues, negotiating with trade unions/staff associations or councils and much more.

Generalist HR work involves a constant change in the type of interaction you have with employees. One minute you may be supporting the business to hire new talent and the next you may be supporting a member of staff who has raised a grievance against their manager. Some HR professionals will work across the whole range of areas and others may specialise. In small organisations, where there may be only one or two HR representatives, it is more likely that you will be required to cover all areas.


Recruitment is a specialist area of HR. You can work as a recruiter within an organisation, often either focusing on graduate or experienced hire recruitment or as recruitment consultant or headhunter. Large organisations, such as Law firms, Banks, Fast Moving Consumer Goods(FMCG) and retail companies, will often have dedicated internal recruitment teams responsible for managing the recruitment process from application through to managing the assessment process and making offers. The key skills for such roles are very strong interpersonal skills, (especially the ability to work with colleagues at all levels within the firm including people at a very senior level), a strong attention to detail and the ability to multi-task effectively.

Due to the high volume of recruitment in some organisations the recruitment teams may also engage the services of recruitment consultancies or headhunters to help find candidates, especially those at the senior level or with specific expertise. Recruitment consultants and headhunters work with their clients (companies/organisation of various sizes) seeking to match prospective employees to clients’ vacancies. Recruitment consultancies often specialise in particular employment sectors and, invariably, they aim to make as much commission as possible by successfully placing the individuals who register with them. Building good relationships with employers is key.

It is a fast moving environment, riding high or low depending on labour market conditions; the availability of entry-level positions for graduates will also depend on the labour market. In contrast, Headhunters, actively search and approach (“headhunt”) fewer specialist or senior staff and rely  more heavily on strong networks of contacts in the sectors concerned, approaching targeted individuals on behalf of prospective employers.


Salaries vary considerably depending upon location, specialism, sector and level of seniority. Basic salary levels in London range from an average of £23,000 for entry-level HR/recruitment positions  to upwards of £100,000 for HR directors in professional services firms (data taken from Recruiters working in agencies tend to earn a basic salary and then have an element of commission and/or bonuses on top.

Entry points

A large number and range of organisations recruit for HR vacancies. High Flyers data shows that 44% of leading UK employers are recruiting for positions in HR in 2014. Starting positions are often on formal graduate training schemes; a broad range of organisations from public sector (NHS, Bank of England and Civil Service Fast Stream) to large corporations (Sky, British Airways, Nestle, Centrica, Deutsche Bank, M&S, Jaguar and Land Rover) run specialised HR graduate programmes.

If you are not joining on a graduate training programme, some organisations prefer to take entrants who have achieved the CIPD practitioner-level qualification. The core fields of study are: leadership and management, people management and development, generalist and specialist personnel and development and applied personnel and development.

Study can be undertaken on a full or part-time basis; more information can be found on the CIPD website. Many organisations who hire graduates onto HR graduate programmes will provide support to take this qualification whilst working.

Recruitment consultancies regularly recruit new graduates, sometimes onto their own training schemes such as, Reed and Hays Recruitment. Headhunters sometimes look for researchers to assist more senior staff – an increasing area of opportunity for graduates. Alternatively another good place to start is as an administrator in an HR department or in a Personnel Assistant post. The CIPD qualification is less commonly requested for entry level positions in recruitment.
Whichever route you take, you can expect to be given as much responsibility as you can handle fairly quickly.


Unless you have a relevant postgraduate qualification in HR Management that provides exemptions from all or part of the CIPD Practitioner-level qualification or have fully or partly achieved the CIPD Practitioner-level qualification, postgraduate qualifications are unlikely to set you apart from undergraduates who are applying. However, it will be worth examining closely how your postgraduate qualification helps you to provide evidence that you meet the job requirements, as this may give you leverage when it comes to agreeing a salary.

Skills and experience


A wide range of skills are required for these business-focused roles. No specific degree discipline is required, although psychology, law or business related studies are useful. The  competencies for HR programmes within large organisations are likely to reflect the general graduate competencies at that organisation, however some key skills that may be required include:

  • Resilience, with an ability to handle pressure
  • An analytical, often procedural, approach
  • An ability to form good working relationships and apply effective interpersonal skills when dealing with people of differing levels of seniority
  • A good level of business/commercial awareness
  • Well-organised, flexible and numerate
  • Ability to persuade and negotiate, influence, listen and question
  • Excellent oral communication skills and have the ability to switch from one type of situation to another rapidly, adapting communication style as necessary
  • Integrity and approachability, as managers and staff must feel able to discuss sensitive and confidential issues with you.


HR experience is not essential but is often a distinct advantage. Large multi-national organisations in a broad range of sectors offer HR internships such as Jaguar Land Rover, Nestle, Lloyds TSB, EDF Energy, J.P.Morgan, P&G and Goldman Sachs. Some work placement opportunities are also advertised on CareerConnect.

In the case of smaller organisations, you will need to adopt a ‘speculative’ approach, sending your CV and cover letter to potential employers. Don’t wait for advertisements to appear, think about your network of contacts and how they could help you. Any form of business experience is useful, so think laterally.

There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

Getting a job

Vacancies are advertised on the individual organisation websites, as well as in journals and newspapers. Larger organisations usually hire for their HR Graduate programmes during the “Milkround”, so check the websites of the firms you are interested in early, to confirm the dates and deadlines. Vacancies may appear under other sectors as well as HR, e.g. General Management, Administration, or the sector of the organisations main business, for example an HR vacancy at a bank may well come under the finance sector. Recruitment consultancies will advertise vacancies throughout the year; you could try Reed, Hays, Michael Page, Frazer Jones, Changeboard or Digby Morgan.
Speak to HR professionals at all kinds of recruitment fairs and employer presentations and build your network of useful contacts. Look for vacancies at lower levels within HR that will allow you to work your way up. Target HR consultancies that regularly advertise. Look also in the main professional journals Personnel Today and People Management.


A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.
The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

Our resources


The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • Contemporary Human Resource Management, Tom Redman & Adrian Wilkinson
  • Quick Look at Human Resources


Our Interview Feedback Database contains hundreds of accounts of interviews, submitted by Oxford students and graduates. The database can be searched by sector and by organisation.


The OCN on CareerConnect is a database of over 1000 Oxford alumni volunteer mentors who are willing to be contacted about their career.  Read their case studies for behind-the-scenes insights into an organisation or occupation, and contact them for more advice and information.

External resources





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