Can I be an HR manager without a degree?

Q. I’m an HR generalist. I’ve been with the same firm for five years, hired as an executive assistant to the president making $32k, one year later became administrative manager, then at the end of last year was promoted to HR manager, making $50k.

I was promoted with the expectation that our company would grow rapidly. That reality has not taken place and although I have plenty to do in my role, I’m getting back the office management responsibilities I previously owned.

I’ve handled five office lease expansions, telephones, benefits, new hires, orientations, terminations, etc. I have excellent communication skills, I’m organized, and am aggressive and a good negotiator.

Everything went sour at my last performance review when my new boss didn’t/couldn’t support the raise I felt was justified. Not only did she not give me what I felt I deserved, but she did not put me in the management position I felt made most sense. I thought I could save her money by not hiring an office manager, but she felt office management and HR management had to be split out, putting us on the same reporting level to her.

Because of my disappointment with the performance review, I registered with an HR Study Group through the Society of Human Resource Management to study for a Professional in Human Resources Certification. I passed, and can add that PHR after my name. Because I passed, the company will pay the $1,000 course fee.

Should I go out and look at what is out there? Since I don’t have a four-year degree, I guess I am afraid of rejection, even though the PHR Certification “certifies” the extent of my knowledge in the HR field. How can I sell myself without that degree? The money in HR is not worth me going back to school to earn my degree.

A. I’m afraid I must agree with your employer that your education and experience are not commensurate with what I would expect from an HR manager.

Human resources is a management profession, like accounting. The job description in the Salary Wizard calls for an HR manager to have at least seven years of experience in human resources, in addition to a bachelor’s degree. Some companies go far as to require their HR managers to have an advanced degree.

The reason most employers expect their HR managers to have considerable experience in human resources is that the HR professional must understand many areas of HR in order to make the appropriate decisions to support the overall objectives of a company. The position carries both legal and ethical responsibilities in addition to budgetary and other business considerations. HR managers are responsible for ensuring the health and safety of workers, for carrying out equitable hiring practices, for guarding against or responding in case of misconduct, and many other critical issues.

When a CEO or an executive promotes someone who lacks the experience and educational background in human resources, it tells me that they don’t really value the function a great deal. They are not looking for someone who will support the company’s overall business objectives by attracting, retaining, and motivating talented employees.

Think about it. Would your company hire a controller who had less than three years of experience in accounting and no degree? Even if the candidate had worked for the company for five years? Chances are, the candidate wouldn’t even be considered, much less offered the job, in part because the finances of a company are extremely important. A company wants to make sure that whoever they entrust in that role has the experience and knowledge to manage the company’s financial resources.

The same thing is true in human resources. So if you have a professional interest in becoming a human resources manager, go back to school and get a degree. If you want to earn about what you’re making now either in your current role or as an office manager, stay where you are. Your current salary is quite good.