So you want to work in HR (Part Two)


In this post, I will be looking at interns and volunteering as these two subjects come up time and time again when people with no HR experience are looking for a foot in the door. This does mean getting to grips with some employment law, but hey you want to work in HR, right?


Internships are an idea that has come over from the United States and have spread around the world, where they are normally undertaken by university graduates who work unpaid, sometimes for a considerable amount of time, normally the intern has the support of rich parents who support them over this period. However, where their use in the United States is common place, they have only started to become known in the UK over the past few years and they haven’t made an easy transition across the pond because of British/EU employment legislation.

So let’s look at the what you can and can’t do!

There is actually no legal definition of an intern, alternative names could be a work placement or work experience and the status of the person is determined in several ways.

They could be classed as a worker if they receive any payment for the work they do or a benefit in kind (this can mean travel and expenses).

Employers can’t decide that an intern is not a worker by saying or stating that it doesn’t apply or making a written agreement saying someone isn’t a worker or that they’re a volunteer.

A really important point to remember is that if an intern is promised a contract of future work, they will be classed as a worker and the employer will be liable for back pay and employers NI and tax obligations.

The definition of a worker is:

A worker is defined in regulation 2 (1) of the Working Time Regulations 1998 as an individual who works under a contract of employment or “any other contract, whether express or implied…whereby the individual undertakes to do or perform personally any work or services for another party to the contract”, provided they are not a client or customer of the individual’s profession or business.

  • The individual will have a contract or other arrangement to do work or provide services personally for reward
  • This contract can be expressed or implied. This means it can either be written down or verbal
  • There is an element of reward, this can either be money or a benefit in kind, this includes the promise of a contract or future work
  • They have to turn up for work even when they don’t want to
  • The employer has to provide work for as long as the contract lasts
  • They are not operating as their own limited company where the employer would be deemed as a customer or client

This then moves into what an employee is and what they are entitled to, so let’s briefly look at the definition:

According to section 230(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, an employee is someone who works under a contract of employment. This, however, is not defined by statute so the courts have constructed a number of tests to help them decide whether someone is an employee.

Although each case is decided on its own merits, there are some essential elements that must be satisfied:

  • The individual has to have a contract with the employer
  • The individual has to carry out the work personally
  • There has to be “mutuality of obligation” between the two parties
  • The employer has to have “control” over the work that the employee does

So it would seem that if a company suddenly decided to advertise a vacancy for an intern then they will be paid, however, there are a few exceptions.

Students who are enrolled on a further or higher education course which is based in the UK, are not entitled to the National Minimum Wage/National Living Wage if they take part in an internship that is part of their course, this might mean they take a gap year between studies. Normally students wouldn’t be looking for an internship at the end of their course because many employers run graduate training schemes. The most common advice is to arrange these whilst you are in your second year, many students leave it too late.

Briefly work experience students of compulsory school age, ie under 16, aren’t entitled to the minimum wage.

We will now move onto Voluntary workers

Workers aren’t entitled to the minimum wage if both of the following apply:

  • they’re working for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund-raising body or a statutory body
  • they don’t get paid, except for limited benefits (eg reasonable travel or lunch expenses)

So you won’t be able to volunteer for a commercial company.

Finally, we can look at work shadowing

The employer doesn’t have to pay the minimum wage if an internship only involves shadowing an employee, ie no work is carried out by the intern and they are only observing. The moment they start undertaking work then the relationship changes.

A lot of the above came about after it emerged interns were being exploited, for example, companies suddenly stopped using temporary worker via a recruitment agency because they could get an intern to do the work for nothing. In these instances, the intern was never a student!

A lot of companies do operate intern schemes and make sure that they pay their interns correctly.

You can find a useful fact sheet and checklist from the CIPD at:

Internships that work – CIPD factsheet



So you want to work in HR?


Interested working in Human Resources? Well, let’s have a look at what that entails… 

HR has never been so popular but here is the problem, there is an oversupply of qualified people with experience who are getting interviews. Then you can add to that, people who fall into the following categories

  • Those with academic qualifications but no experience
  • Those without appropriate qualifications or experience

Sadly these last two groups are the ones who are struggling in finding a HR role.

With those working in HR, you will often find people who had no real plan to be there, they just fell into the role!

Academically qualified versus professionally qualified

What does that mean? Someone who is academically qualified will often have done a first degree (in any subject) then opted to undertake a Masters (whether an MA or MSc) in an HR subject. This means they will have studied the theory but won’t necessary be able to benefit from its application. The reason is a Masters is a Level 7 and that covers strategy and doesn’t cover operational HR. So anyone thinking that having one will be head and shoulders over the competition is likely to be disappointed. as it is a massive miscalculation and pretty much overkill if you are going to be applying for entry level roles.

So what is this Professionally qualified about then?

In the UK the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is the lead body for the profession, and they developed a professional qualification structure .

A professionally qualified person will have looked at where they were at the start of the process in determining what qualification was most suitable, it is about developing .

So if you are entry level you will probably have or be studying the Foundation Level, this is a Level 3 qualification  and covers HR support at an operational level. It is available as an Award, Certificate or Diploma depending on how credits/modules have been completed. It is advisable to do all the modules and gain the Diploma.

The same structure can be found at the Intermediate Level which is Level 5, make sure that you have enrolled for the full Diploma as this can open more doors/avenues in your career and qualifications. This level does not cover any of the subject matter covered at Level 3 and is intended for those with experience and who have completed Level 3. It is meant to be for those who are Middle Managers, for example, HR Advisors. It is not a suitable qualification for entry level roles.

The final level is the Advanced Level and this is set at Level 7, again available as Award, Advanced Certificate (equivalent to a Post Graduate Certificate) and Advanced Diploma (equivalent to a Post Graduate Diploma). The CIPD also recognises select University Masters degrees as meeting the same requirements. Realistically you should be in a Management role.

You should only be attempting each level when you are ready and it will benefit you careerwise.

Mike Morrison FCIPD of RapidBI makes a very good point about qualifications:

Please do not follow the “academic” attitude to qualifications and always seek the same or higher “levels”.
Think of the “levels”, not as levels but of packages of learning.
What you do at “level 5” is not more then level 3 or less than level 7 but different.

If you truly want to be a rounded and balanced professional in any topic.. start at the bottom – not the middle – for there will be a lot you miss.

Remember HR is a specialist area on its own, and whilst you will have adjunct information, you will not have ALL of the underpinning knowledge.

To clarify:

The levels are a little like house building.

There is no point having a roof, if you have not foundations (level 3) and walls (level 5).

The term “level” is IMHO a hinderance. Level 7 is not “better” than a level 3 – it’s different content.
Lower level and entry jobs need the content of a level 3 not level 7

Build a career.

Careers are pretty much like marathons, you will do a lot better if you prepare for the long haul instead of a manic race to where you think you should be.

One bit of exciting news is that the University of Staffordshire is now accepting CIPD Level  5 Diploma holders onto its BA (Hons) Business and Management top-up course which runs for a year. This means students will be studying business and management subjects with an HR overview, which will be very beneficial to someone building an HR career.