What Does an HR Officer Do?


Your phone is ringing off the hook (yes, some people do still use the phone, apparently!), people are banging down your door, and you haven’t even opened your email yet.

But it’s no big deal. It’s just another day on the job in HR.

Every day is a non-stop barrage of fires that need to be put out, and HR professionals love every (well, almost every) second of it.

We catch up with Katie Kerr, HR Officer at GRID Alternatives to find out how she ended up in her current role, and what advice she has for others who are thinking about working in HR.

Where did you go to school and what did you major in?

I went to Boston University and majored in Sociology.

What is your current company name and job title?

I work for GRID Alternatives and am currently the HR Officer (head of a two-person HR department). I started here as an AmeriCorps VISTA member and my title at that time was VISTA Leader. I was basically doing HR for our AmeriCorps members and then when my service year ended, they hired me on to create the HR department for the whole org.

What is a typical day on the job like for you?

I’m not sure that there is a typical day in HR. I spend most of my day on email and in meetings and try to squeeze in time for bigger picture visioning and projects. It’s probably easier for me to give an overview of the types of things that I work on as the priorities shift day to day.

Our department handles: all paperwork related to an employee lifecycle (hire, performance, term), medical and employee benefits, workers’ comp, organizational insurance, staying up to date on labor law (federal and state), internal policy development and management, management of AmeriCorps grants and one-year fellowships, conflict mediation, investigations of potential harassment or discrimination, being a resource for managers dealing with any employee issues, and probably a slew of other things that I’m forgetting.

What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the things you would change if you could?

I really like being a resource for the people who work at GRID. I like managing lots of little details and keeping things all together and helping people get what they need to succeed (whether that’s help mediating a conflict with a coworker, figuring out their benefits, or getting more training). I also love the people that I work with and for and I’m kind of a geek for employment law. It can be stressful at times though to balance the needs of the organization and the needs of employees at the same time—unfortunately they aren’t always the same thing and at the end of the day I work for the org (unless of course the org was doing the wrong thing).

What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position?

I studied both Sociology and Hospitality. The hospitality track gave me knowledge in both business and a focus on customer service and helping others, which comes in super handy in HR. Sociology has an obvious link, too, since I’m always dealing with people. But truthfully, I sort of fell into HR. I took an AmeriCorps job with this company that turned out to be sort of like HR (it was not advertised that way at all). And then the company needed someone to help them with HR at the same time that my service year ended. I always joke that if GRID and I had known more about HR at that time, they probably wouldn’t have offered me the job and I probably wouldn’t have taken it. But I’m so glad we both got to learn together. It turns out that I love this job and this field.

What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in HR?

You can do a lot to learn the technical side of HR—study business, follow employment law blogs, etc.—and those things definitely help, but I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in HR to really take time to work on their social interaction skills. Whether that’s conflict mediation classes, maybe counseling, or just generally customer service. Managing personalities is one of the hardest things about the job and I’ve found that the only way to be really successful here is to be someone that people feel that they can trust. And make sure you find a place where HR is valued by management. Otherwise you’re facing a big uphill battle.

What are the most important skills or qualities it takes to succeed in HR?

Attention to detail, flexibility, emotional intelligence, knowledge of local and federal labor law (or ability to learn and keep track of it proactively), strong verbal and written communication skills (especially being able to build rapport and trust), analytic and strategic thinking at the higher levels.

Homework time! Katie says that it’s important to find a place where HR is valued by management. Think of a few questions you can ask at job interviews to learn the answer to this question. Maybe things like “How long does it usually take for new policies to be enacted?” or “How do executives from other departments collaborate with the HR team?” would be good places to start.



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