Breaking into HR without IR experience

Are HR personnel with IR experience any different from the new-age HR fraternity that lacks it?


Most senior heads of HR across sectors, depending on when they started their careers, are likely to have some years of IR experience. After all, the economy was driven by manufacturing.

However, we also have the younger lot of HR heads, comprising those who probably started their careers post liberalisation, and may or may not have IR experience.

HRKatha tries to analyse, whether the two sets of HR bosses are any different. Do they have a different style of functioning?

For those who made a transition from IR to HR, there was certainly a learning curve.

If IR was all about solving union disputes and conflicts through labour legislation, HR is about workforce management, retention, talent acquisition, deployment and being part of the leadership team to sell capabilities of the service sectors to global majors.

Balachandar N, group director-HR, Coffee Day Group, who worked in IR at companies, such as ONGC and Asian paints for more than five years before transiting into HR, says, “It was more of a rules-driven and a factory style of working. Terms, such as diversity, paternity leave and customisation of HR policies according to the people then were innovative ideas of the new-age HR.”

Experience in the first few years of a career plays a crucial role in shaping a professional in the longer run.

Having worked in the services sector all along, Suruchi Maitra, CHRO, Lenskart, who has no IR experience, shares, “In people who moved from IR to HR, I see some unique qualities – they involve the family of workers and take care of them.”

Another new-age HR head, Kshitij Kashyap, VP & head-HR, Optum Global Solutions, opines, “People who come from an IR background have good experience in handling organisational behaviour.”

Rajendra Mehta, CPO, DHFL says, “If I were to characterise the two, I would say that the people with IR experience, have more of a maintenance and regulation kind of mind set and approach. Those with only HR experience are futuristic, but their ability to remain detailed out on strategy and compliance would be much lower.”

However, Mehta also adds that it’s hard to generalise it, but this is how he would slot the two differently.

However, there is one thing that the new-age HR professionals lack, as pointed out by Emmanuel David, director, TMTC, Tata Group Human Resources, “In many of the young HR personnel, I have observed a lack of empathy for people. In IR, we were like friends with the workers and tried to connect with them and understand them.”

So how do the new-age HR heads manage? Both Maitra and Kashyap admit, “We get to learn from people who have IR experience in dealing with certain situations. We consult and seek advice.”

Do you think there are any differences between the two? Please share your views in the comment box.


  1. The IR experience is critical even in today’s India, even in the service sector. Examples include
    1- 70 Jet engineers report ‘sick’ after colleague asked to resign
    2- Swiggy Delivery Persons’ Lightning Strike in Chennai
    3 – After Ola, Drivers at Foodpanda Strike Over Unkept Pay Promises
    4 – IT union calls strike against unjustified dismissal of employees

    An experience in IR exposes us to varied challenges which includes dealing with multiple stakeholders people with different perspectives, execute based on different challenges, etc. This equips us with the ability to connect with all sorts of people and understanding of ground realities, thereby becoming well-rounded HR professionals.

  2. IR experience helps develop sensitivity and sensibility while dealing with people. You deal with real people and real problems. Teaches you a lot about why people behave in certain way and group dynamics. How to separate individual problems from that of a group.
    However it is very critical that one must practice good HR while in IR Being open, transparent and authentic is the key to success in managing people. So while both are complimenting each other, it is always good to gather IR experience before transiting to HR.

  3. Experience in IR always play a very important role even today in the changed HR scenario. Ultimately it is dealing with people. As mentioned, the IR experience plays an important role in better understanding the human behaviour at work. Especially in the field of HR, human behaviour plays a very important role, irrespective of the organization one works for, may it be manufacturing, service, banking, or even academics.

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