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Should you hang out your shingle as an HR practitioner?

HR consulting is becoming a more popular option
HR consulting
In the HR profession, a great deal of “consulting” is actually more like contract work or HR outsourcing on a small scale. Shutterstock/Indypendenz

By Brian Kreissl

It seems to me that an increasing number of HR practitioners are becoming independent consultants. Whether that is because of downsizing and job loss, lack of opportunities in the corporate environment, an opportunity to earn more money, the rise of the “gig” economy or more employers willing to hire HR professionals on a short-term basis for specific projects, more of us seem to be doing our own thing.

I suspect all of these factors play a role to a certain extent. But what exactly is HR consulting?

Defining HR consulting

Technically, the term management consulting applies to situations where the individual in question is providing input, recommendations and advice on how work should be performed. A true consultant generally isn’t the person actually doing the work.

In the HR profession, a great deal of “consulting” is actually more like contract work or HR outsourcing on a small scale, usually for a particular project or a specific duration. Examples include contract recruitment, developing an employee handbook, designing, developing and delivering a training course or revising an organization’s competency framework.

Nevertheless, some HR consulting work is more like true management consulting such as conducting an audit on an organization’s HR policies, practices and programs or providing input on how to improve an organization’s talent management programs. I personally believe there is room for both types of work under the umbrella of HR consulting.

I also recognize there are large consulting companies with full-time consultants on the payroll. However, I am not necessarily talking about organizations like McKinsey, Bain & Co., Boston Consulting Group or Deloitte. Rather, the focus here is on truly independent HR consultants working for themselves.

Why work as an HR consultant?

As a profession, it is nice to know consulting is an option open to us if we suddenly find ourselves out of a job. I personally believe I would likely need to at least consider the option of doing consulting if I ever lost my job.

Paradoxically, while some people might have a difficult time finding a full-time job with an organization performing a certain type of role, companies are often more than willing to hire the same person as a consultant even if they didn’t feel the individual was the right fit for a permanent position with the organization. I suppose this is because there is less risk in hiring someone for a short project than bringing the person onboard permanently.

That could be because the person is deemed not to be a good fit with the organization’s culture, or because the individual’s qualifications render her a non-traditional candidate. I believe there are even times when people cannot land a permanent job because they are viewed as overqualified for the role and the hiring manager sees the person as a threat.

However, that is less of an issue in the case of consultants, who are generally respected for their high level of knowledge and expertise in the area in question. Sometimes it even seems like organizations will listen to a consultant even where the person is telling business leaders the same things their employees have been saying for years. That seems like a shame, but because consultants generally are viewed as experts, organizations are often more willing to listen to them than their own employees.

There are also people who prefer not to work in a corporate environment or who simply prefer to work as an independent consultant. Some like the variety, while others prefer to be their own boss and some people have specialized skills that are highly sought after.

I remember talking to one consultant who told me he preferred to work on contract because that meant he didn’t have to get involved in organizational politics and felt much freer to be honest and open in criticizing the organization. Consulting definitely does allow you to have a certain freedom, but consultants still need to be careful not to alienate their clients.

Next week I am going to provide some thoughts and recommendations for those looking to start their own independent HR consultancy businesses.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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