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 felt strongly that FS sector experience was vital fortheir shortlist. It was about credibility with managers, fitting the team (many of whom had come from the FS sector) and hitting the ground running. 
  • Client 2 however expressed a totally different view: FS experience was unimportant; it was mostly learnable.  What he was after was the right behaviours and a deep knowledge of people and engagement to really help drive business growth.  “Afterall,” he said, “people are people whatever the sector.”

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?

  • Casting the net wide is the best way of finding great people – sectors are changing rapidly, with some converging, many assumptions about certain sectors are no longer accurate.  These are all good reasons to look at hiring people outside your sector.  
  • Hires from a different sector can add new value. HR should be driving its service offering to the business, adding value and getting increasingly better at partnering. Consider the ideas, insights and constructive challenge a new hire from a different sector can bring. 
  • Focus on the end result.  If you’re looking to turn engagement around in your business then look for someone who has achieved that even if they’ve not worked in your sector before.

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:


[email protected]

0117 957 4100


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