Jul 12, 2011

HR generalist versus specialist

Organizations should offer dual career paths

By Brian Kreissl 

What’s better — a career as an HR generalist or one as a specialist? When I started out in HR back in the late 1990s, the prevailing view was it was necessary to gain some solid experience as an HR generalist in order to move into the more senior, strategic type roles. 

Without that generalist experience, it seemed people found themselves typecast as being qualified only for the more transactional HR-related roles. That was especially true for those working in areas such as recruitment, payroll or compensation/benefits administration. 

Dual career paths 

Any of those specialties are challenging fields in their own right, and it’s possible to become a highly qualified expert in those areas. Enlightened organizations should realize this and offer dual career paths one for those who want to become generalists and one for those interested in developing an expertise in their specialties. 

Take recruitment, for example. At the more senior levels, recruitment specialists aren’t simply interviewing candidates and shortlisting them for hiring managers to make the actual selection decisions. 

Senior recruiters may actually get involved in developing recruitment strategies and employer branding, creating and revising policies and procedures around staffing, and coaching hiring managers. They may also manage a team of other recruiters. 

Therefore, it’s totally possible to continue to engage those who want to continue working as recruiters for the rest of their careers. 

When I was a recruiter at another organization, most of the people I worked with viewed recruitment as a stepping stone to that all-important first role as an HR generalist. When our vice-president at the time came to talk to us about engagement among our team, she was actually surprised to learn this. 

There were a few recruitment “lifers” on our team who would have been quite content to have their roles expanded through job enlargement by acquiring additional recruitment-related responsibilities. However, the rest of us were looking for job enrichment by being exposed to other areas of HR. The best approach would have been to accommodate both sets of needs. 

Acquiring more than one specialty 

Certainly when I started out, working as an HR generalist was viewed as the way to get exposed to some of the more strategic work in the HR profession. That still makes sense because being a generalist gives you a broader picture of the entire HR function, how it interacts with other functional areas and the operation of the business in general. 

Several years ago, after working as a recruiter for over four years and having no success in finding that elusive HR generalist role, I decided I might never work as a generalist (not that there’s anything wrong with that if recruitment is your passion). Instead, I decided it might be easier to acquire several specialties, so I transferred into a job in compensation administration (before moving again into HR program management). 

That role gave me exposure not only to compensation programs, but also areas such as human resources information systems, HR policies and procedures, payroll, performance management, HR communications, project management and IT development. My recruitment experience also gave me exposure to compensation, organizational development, employment law, technology and general business operations. 

To this day, I’ve never had the title HR generalist yet I’ve now worked with virtually all aspects of human resources management. That experience, along with my education in HR, law and general business management, prepared me well for my current role, which is quite non-traditional in that I’m not working in an actual HR department. Yet, I now feel more like I’m “doing HR” than ever before. 

Career advice for new HR professionals 

I sometimes get asked for advice by people trying to enter the field. Obviously, the advice I give depends on the person’s interests, but for most people I’d still say the best way to get ahead is to first get some generalist experience, even as an HR administrator or co-ordinator. 

If that isn’t possible, however, it might be time to consider doing what I did by trying out a few different areas of HR and possibly considering one or more non-traditional roles. 

These days, it isn’t possible to know everything about most fields. The legal profession recognized this long ago at least in the big firms. Perhaps we should have more recognition of this in the HR profession. But for the time being, I still think the generalist route is the best one for most people, at least to start out with. 

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit