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Six skills that will help you excel at HR and how to develop them

Emmanuel Payne

Start your HR career on the right foot by learning essential skills for human resource graduates, and we give you tools to help you on your way.

It’s easy enough to guess the basic requirements of a career in human resources: you must be human, and you must also be resourceful. Beyond this, however, there are several other skills that distinguish outstanding HR professionals from the rest. You’ll already find many such lists on the web, but here we aim to go further, by not only describing how the skill applies to one’s HR career, but also by directing you to resources that will help you independently develop those skills.

Interpersonal skills

Also known as people skills, interpersonal skills are a cluster of abilities that help you to communicate and interact effectively with other people. Some examples include active listening, empathy, verbal communication skills, and teamwork skills. It’s easy to see how these come in handy for HR professionals, who often counsel staff members, or advise them, on sensitive topics such as pay, hiring and firing, and workplace behavior. If you’d like to brush up on your interpersonal skills, the free ‘Skills You Need’ page is a great place to start. Based in rural Wales, ‘Skills You Need’ has produced a series of excellent e-books covering all the basic interpersonal competencies.

Legal knowledge

It’s not necessary to be a lawyer if you’d like to work in human resources, however your role processing contracts, negotiating work arrangements, and so forth will require you to be familiar with the basics of Australian industrial relations law. This is a complex, and oft-revised, legal area, so the best place to start is the federal government’s own frequently updated guide to best practice.


Discretion refers to both “the quality of behaving or speaking in such a way as to avoid causing offence or revealing confidential information” and “the freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation”. Both meanings of the word come into play as a HR professional: not only will you be trusted with private information, but, because of that information, you’ll also often be in a position of privilege, with only your own sensibilities to guide you on whether or not to act. For example, which of five shortlisted candidates do you advance to the final round of interviews? Answering such a question requires discretion of both kinds, which, together, are often known as ‘tact’. You can read some tips on how to develop tact here.


Assertiveness has, unfortunately, developed an unfair (and inaccurate) reputation for being something like ‘goal-oriented aggression’. As such, it’s important to recognise that the person who claims “to say what’s on their mind” or “tell it like it is” isn’t necessarily being assertive; in fact, there’s a good chance they’re just being rude. Assertiveness, understood properly, is a way of “communicating with others in a direct and honest manner without intentionally hurting anyone’s feelings.”

Deciding to be assertive, therefore, isn’t the same as deciding not to compromise or hear other people’s viewpoints. Instead, it means ensuring that your needs, feelings, and wants are made clear to the listening party in a way that strengthens your relationship with them.

Assertiveness is a learned skill that HR professionals need on an almost daily basis, whether they’re negotiating with staff members, advising colleagues, interacting with job applicants, or something else entirely. You can brush up on your assertiveness skills using this guide, which was produced by the Victorian state government.

Ability to multitask

This one goes without saying—HR professionals receive requests from staff across all levels of an organisation, so it’s rare for them to have a day when there isn’t a host of new responsibilities to be added to their to-do list. How does one go about developing the ability to multitask? There’s no one-size-fits-all response to this question—it’s important that you develop an approach to task management that works for you in the context of your work environment. If you’re looking for assistance in the form of an app, we suggest that you start by reviewing some of the more popular productivity and project management tools, such as Trello, Asana, Todoist, Any.do, or Wunderlist.

Negotiation skills

Whether you’re discussing salary packages for new recruits, promotions for current employees, workplace conditions, or any of the myriad of other things that require compromise in the workplace, negotiation skills are paramount for HR professionals. Negotiation is the process whereby one resolves differences in a bid to reach agreement or compromise without starting an argument or dispute. Successful negotiation requires you to use various interpersonal skills, such as active listening, collaborative problem solving, assertiveness, and conflict resolution. You can learn more about how to develop negotiation skills here.