Why the Obsession With Sector Experience for HR Hires?

By Lindsey Newman

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When it comes to recruiting HR partners, what’s most important - sector experience or people skills?

Several years of recruiting in the HR space has furnished me with plenty of viewpoints on the need (or not) for HR candidates to demonstrate experience of certain sectors. The recessionary years saw multiple businesses (in a buyer’s market) able to demand experience in their sector when hiring. 

Despite those times being firmly behind us many clients still retain a preference for candidates with experience in their sector. Why is this? And does sector experience matter for your HR hires?

Less risk or just lazy hiring?

The main reasons seem to revolve around a view that it is less ‘risky’ to bring someone in with industry/sector experience or that they’ll make a quicker impact because they know the market already. There is something too around the attitudes of some hiring managers, a view that people can’t succeed in the business without sector experience.

I also think it is sometimes about lazy hiring. Shortlisting is a lot easier if you dismiss ¾ of the applicants based on lack of sector experience! Whilst that might have worked well during the recession with an abundance of candidates for certain roles, it’s no longer tenable.

A difference of opinion

The difference in opinions on this subject was brought into focus in the last week when I attended meetings with two different Financial Services businesses each looking to hire HR Business Partners. 

Client 1 is entitled to her opinion but I felt Client 2 had a more modern, flexible attitude especially in a market short on talent. My concern with the ‘hire for sector experience’ approach is that it is out-dated, willmiss real talent and sends out a very confusing message which implies that the business doesn’t want anything ‘new’.

Industry knowledge doesn’t always equal success

In my experience, industry knowledge whilst useful doesn’t necessarily equal success and can fail to enable innovation.  I’ve come across plenty of HR candidates who know their own business but don’t necessarily have a deep commercial understanding of their sector, the changes shaping it and therefore how their approach to people needs to adapt.

We’ve had some real successes moving candidates from  one sector into a very different one. Recently we placed a HR candidate (let’s call her Rachel), whose experience was solely within the manufacturing sector into a senior HR role in a niche professional services business. The client was impressed with Rachel’s engaging style, her influence, tenacity and achievements. Despite competing with candidates with experience in this sector it was Rachel’s behaviour and approach made the difference. 

So does sector matter?

So what can you take away from all this for your next HR hire?

Behaviours trump sector experience

Time and time again, at Purple House we’ve seen that behaviours trump sector experience when it comes to successful HR hires.

Drive and motivation, commercialism, influencing, stakeholder management skills, pace, project management, adept navigation of the matrix - whatever the behaviours needed to succeed in your business you’ll expand your pool of candidates if you focus on these rather than the sector they’ve been working in.

It pays to widen your horizons.

Written by Lindsey Newman, Director of Purple House HR, a niche recruitment consultancy specialising in the placement of Human Resources professionals. Whether you need to hire new HR talent or you're thinking about looking for a new HR position I'd be happy to discuss how I can help.  Please get in touch:



0117 957 4100


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