What discipline has the most in common with HR?

Psychology, general management, law and marketing for starters

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl 

Human resources practitioners these days need to combine many diverse skills and competencies in order to  be successful, while maintaining a delicate balance with respect to the needs of employees, managers and the organization overall. 

In many ways, successful HR practitioners need to be part psychologist and part social worker, consultant, manager, marketer, lawyer, accountant, strategist, administrator, trainer, facilitator, public speaker, customer service representative, communications specialist, project manager, payroll practitioner, coach, career counsellor, mediator and compliance officer. 

While there are definitely many different functions and disciplines that intersect and overlap with HR, an interesting question is: “Which profession is most similar to HR and in what ways?” Similarly, it is helpful to examine what knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies are required to be successful as an HR practitioner and what career paths can help prepare someone for a future career in HR. 

It is also be useful to determine what types of careers are a good fit for someone transitioning out of the HR profession. HR is a highly competitive field these days, and some HR practitioners may need to leave the field at some point — either permanently due to a career change out of personal choice or necessity, or temporarily to obtain line management or other types of experience needed to further their careers. 

Psychology, general management and law 

Most of us are familiar with the history of the HR function dating back to the old days when it was called personnel management. The profession was much more transactional in nature back then and more focused on tasks such as hiring, firing, paying employees and simple recordkeeping. 

Personnel was simply an administrative function that was an offshoot of general management and the principles of business administration. However, personnel was based largely on ideas borrowed from psychology and business disciplines such as scientific management, although much of it was also focused on legal compliance. 

Even today, I would argue much of modern human resources management is based on ideas from disciplines such as psychology, general management and labour and employment law. Indeed, a fairly large number of HR practitioners have education or experience in psychology (or other social sciences), general management or law, and I would argue that having a background in any or all of those fields would still be beneficial for a career in human resources. 

HR as a separate profession 

Nevertheless, HR has evolved as a profession and an academic discipline in its own right, and it is possible to study human resources as an academic discipline on its own or as a major or concentration as part of a business degree. Many young people these days are now making a conscious decision to begin their careers in HR and are probably less likely to simply fall into a career in HR after doing something else for a few years. 

Because HR has evolved and matured as a profession and is now much more complex than it was in the past, I would recommend that anyone looking to make a career change and transition into the profession take some courses in HR through a certificate program and/or a professional designation such as the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP). Relevant coursework in HR combined with a previous background in psychology, general management or law should be good preparation for a career in human resources management (although I recognize that career change is extremely difficult these days and HR is a particularly tough field to break into). 

Marketing and the people side of the business 

Returning to my original question, I would actually say marketing is the business discipline that has the most in common with HR. As I mentioned in a previous post, both are focused on the people side of the business (although one is internally focused and the other is externally focused). 

Like HR, marketing has a lot to do with understanding how people think and what motivates them. It also frequently struggles to get the respect it deserves in organizations (although some of the most strategic decisions in business relate to one or more of the “Four Ps of Marketing” — product, place, price and promotion). 

I am going to return to this topic next week and discuss some other business functions and how they relate to and overlap with human resources.

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