Choosing your HR career path

No easy answers when it comes to being an HR specialist or generalist
By Andrea Garson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/01/2014

It’s an issue every HR professional must consider: Do I want to be a specialist or generalist? And there are no easy answers.

As the name implies, an HR specialist possesses expertise in one or two specific functional disciplines, most commonly compensation, benefits, training and development, recruiting and staffing, health and safety or HRIS. Alternatively, a generalist possesses broad knowledge of many functional disciplines. 


Two factors are important to consider — the requirements of the organization and individual career objectives.


From an organization’s perspective, a team of HR specialists provides many benefits:


•They possess subject matter expertise in all functional areas of HR, ensuring that programs and policies remain current and competitive to attract and retain great talent.


•They have the ability to dive deep into key areas to solve relevant business challenges. For example, with a top-notch talent acquisition team, an organization can rely on their expertise to not only source and pre-screen candidates but also develop recruitment strategies, effectively use employer branding, develop standardized policies and procedures for sourcing, selecting and screening, as well as develop the skills in hiring managers to make the best hiring decision. They can bring science to the art of recruitment.


•The HR team can focus on their core areas of interest or expertise and avoid the “Jack of all trades” perception a generalist approach can bring.


•They can narrow the scope of problem-solving when presented with business challenges because the longer a person focuses on a specific area, the narrower his perspective becomes and he may have difficulty providing solutions for vague or ambiguous people and business issues.


On the other hand, HR generalists also provide benefits:

•They possess broader business knowledge as they are in the trenches with employees and managers, understanding day-to-day business challenges.


•They are able to mitigate issues earlier as they can identify and address problems before a specialist may be required.


•They have the skills to adapt quickly to a changing environment and multiple priorities.


However, generalists may lack expertise in specialized areas for complex HR-related issues and may need to incur additional costs to seek specialized expertise to solve issues. For example, if an organization’s sales force is failing to achieve its targets, it may need to consult a compensation specialist to determine if the design of the compensation program is motivating the wrong behaviours to effectively sell their products or services.


To be a truly effective generalist, it would be wise to spend a portion of your career development as a specialist. We typically know early in our careers what excites us and what we’re good at. However, to be a truly valuable HR practitioner, having some areas of expertise as a generalist makes you that much more valuable. 


In my 22-year career, I was a generalist for 17 years but I did spend five years specializing in various functions, including talent acquisition, compensation and training and development. I was fortunate to have mentors and bosses who saw the value of focusing my talent on specific business challenges that forced me to get to know the business in much greater depth than I would have in a generalist capacity. 


Coming out of those roles, I knew without a doubt I was a generalist at heart — but I was much better equipped with the knowledge and expertise to solve most business issues. 


Large organizations can offer HR employees a similar dual career path as they would have both specialized and generalist roles in the HR department. This allows a specialist to remain in his desired function and a generalist to partner with specialists when solving complex issues in the business. 


Many professions face the same question around specialization — law, medicine, engineering and finance, to name a few. These days, it’s not possible to know everything about a chosen field and the same applies to human resources. 


If you are an HR practitioner trying to decide which path to take, consider these questions:


•Do you require a predictable environment or do you thrive on uncertainty? As a generalist, you will do multiple things in the course of any day — you may set out to work on a benefits presentation but end up addressing a serious employee relations issue with a manager. 


•Do you get bored easily? Specialists spend most of their time working on similar projects. If you find doing the same thing over and over is mundane, then a generalist role may be the better option as you will be wearing many hats throughout your day.


•What is the current state of the economy? When businesses are thriving and talent is at a shortage, being a specialist in recruiting, for example, will almost guarantee you employment. If the economy is in a downturn, businesses will rely on generalists to do the work of specialists and outsource as required. 


•What is your passion? Where do you want to end up in your career? If your goal is to run an HR department, then the generalist path is the way to go. If you know one of the functions is what excites and interests you, then being a specialist is the answer.

In today’s environment, organizations are looking for HR practitioners who can see the forest for the trees, who can be big-picture thinkers who vary their perspective based on the challenges in front of them. Breadth of perspective will usually trump depth of knowledge when building and growing an HR team. 


Having a team of specialists could yield a less flexible department that cannot adjust to competing demands. HR practitioners with strong analytical, people and reasoning skills — developed through broad generalist experiences — will be more attractive than those focused on function-specific skill development throughout their career. 


Too often, senior-level hiring managers promote their most successful specialist to run a specific department, not realizing she lacks the leadership skills required to be effective at managing — strong leaders require multiple skills that generally are not developed in a specialist role. 


HR is no different. Today’s organizations are looking for an HR business partner, a generalist who has a seat at the table, who understands the business needs and develops and executes a people strategy to support that. This can only be found in a true generalist. 


That’s not to say there isn’t a place for the specialist, however, if an organization has to choose, in today’s world, it will choose the generalist.


Andrea Garson is vice-president of human resources at Cardinal Health Canada in Vaughan, Ont. She can be reached at (905) 417-2726 or andrea.garson@cardinalhealth.ca.

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