HR Generalist or Specialist?

While the profession itself comprises of many career options, HR often demands practitioners choose between becoming either a generalist or a function-specific specialist. Should HR professionals be deeply immersed in one niche function, or should they become a jack of all trades? HRM looks deeper.

After starting out in sales and then moving into marketing, Michelle Phipps, HR Director, Asia-Pacific, Brown-Forman, later moved into HR projects which she says gave her a “business dialect” that would eventually help her throughout her HR career.

“I moved into HR projects where I could watch HR generalists and specialists work together to deliver business results and growth,” Phipps explains.

She then made the switch to a role that was heavily specialised in education, training and development before finally settling down to build a longer-term career as a generalist.

“As a generalist, I’ve worked with some brilliant specialists including organisational psychologists who have built transformational leadership programmes and astute diversity experts who have been right on point,” says Phipps.

“My studies are varied, from a Master of Arts in HR, to a PhD in Communications and a keen interest in psychology and economics. I prefer the ‘helicopter view’ of the generalist, but also greatly value the expertise and focus of the specialist.”

Meanwhile, Ravi Bhogaraju, Head of HR in Asia for Archroma, says he began his career as a management trainee before moving onto specialist roles and then shuttling back to a generalist position.

“This movement between generalist and specialist roles in my career has developed my knowledge and perspective from a number of different viewpoints. A holistic viewpoint is critical to creating sustainable impact and ultimately gaining credibility with your stakeholders,” he shares.

Tarun Gulrajani, Head of HR – Asia-Pacific at Rehau Corporation, says his HR journey has “definitely evolved”.

“I consider myself now to be a businessman first and a HR leader second. If I don’t understand the business or if I’m not able to grasp the challenges or pain points that a business is experiencing, I’m not going to be truly effective as a HR leader,” he explains.

Gulrajani reveals he commenced his career as an HR specialist in talent acquisition and mobility, then took on roles in learning and development. Later, he moved on to become a HR specialist in compensation and benefits.

He is now on the move again, this time to an HR generalist role.

“However, it’s a full circle now as I consider myself to be a HR specialist focusing on being a strategic HR Leader influencing organisational development and organisational transformation,” says Gulrajani.

Where is the value?

So while both HR generalist and specialist roles are required in today’s HR scene, which HR function adds more value, or is more significant?

Phipps says this is a difficult question, as both generalists and specialists add value in their own ways using the knowledge they possess.

“In my experience, smaller companies will start with a generalist who will get to know the business, build the organisation strategy, and then contract or hire the specialists as necessary to help the business deliver on its people plan,” she cites.

Phipps stresses that in today’s HR field, both generalists and specialists must have business partnership skills, influencing expertise, and commercial acumen in order to challenges and build productive relationships within the business.

“I believe it is competency, and building productive relationships that will differentiate between a good generalist or specialist and a not-so-good generalist or specialist,” she says.

Gulrajani feels that adding value to any business and providing true business partnering is a “mindset” and not merely a “function”.

“It’s like asking a sales team whether business development personnel or customer service personnel are more important,” he says.

“To truly wow the customer, both have a role to play and are equally important.”

On the other hand, Bhogaraju believes the value of a generalist or specialist comes from how they are deployed within the context of the organisation and its own HR function.

“In a large organisation that has a number of resources that can be organised and deployed, a specialist function can be designed to add value as an expertise centre. In a relatively smaller or medium-sized organisation, generalists are more common as they need to assist the business on a number of different topics,” he explains.

Which is in demand?

According to Morgan McKinley, 2015 saw a shortage of experienced HR specialists, with many positions left unoccupied in Singapore.

Nevertheless, Gulrajani says whether an HR generalist or specialist is more appealing for hire, depends entirely on an organisation’s size and needs.

“There is no cookie-cutter solution,” he says.

“For some organisations with a large employee base, complex matrix structure and personnel in multiple geographies, a hybrid solution of having HR generalists in every location and HR specialists in a centralised location may work well.”

Phipps says businesses usually start with a generalist who has the capacity and experience to know the HR tools and practices externally, and who can then build the people strategy from the business strategy.

However, she believes it is imperative that specialists are available either in a contract, consultancy or centralised capacity to then be able to advance specific areas.

“It’s difficult to say which one is more appealing unless the strategy and business direction is clear,” says Phipps.

“Some generalists are great strategists for instance, while I’ve also seen great specialists transform a business’ leadership and culture with the right tools and programmes.”

Bhogaraju says what’s increasingly important is that HR professionals understand the business they are working with and how it makes money. Only then, can they use that understanding to create effective initiatives and solutions that plug in well to create impact.

“It is becoming less important what label you have. What is more important is how you can add value to the business,” he says.

In that sense, Bhogaraju feels that a well-rounded generalist has a shorter learning curve.

He says Singapore has a rich talent pool and organisations can find candidates of different levels of expertise and skills.

“That’s very positive,” he says.

“In general, HR professionals at most levels struggle with business acumen, keeping pace with the needs of the business, and creating simpler and effective solutions that create impact here and now.”

While Gulrajani notes that Singapore is a regional hub for many organisations, he says this can foster an unconscious bias towards HR specialists that understand the Asia-Pacific region being based there, with HR generalists being based in remote or regional offices.

Phipps also feels that HR has evolved to the point where specialists richly complement the work of generalists.

“Instead of payroll, training or recruitment, generalists are now much more immersed in the business as a ‘commercial’ function. Specialists too have evolved so that they are required to know best practice externally and partner with generalists and the business to build growth,” she adds.

Personal observations

Although Bhogaraju stresses that it is important for HR professionals to amass as much knowledge as possible whether they are HR generalists or specialists, he says generalists can become lazier in knowledge acquisition as there are a number of different areas they need to cover. They also know that specialists are there to back them up.

“In that sense, they carry the risk of developing blind spots of knowledge and will eventually provide subpar advice to their businesses,” Bhogaraju warns.

Specialists on the other hand, he says, are great in their field but struggle with a broader view of the business and this impacts other aspects of the people agenda.

“They carry the risk of ‘tunnel vision’ and may also eventually provide subpar advice. Irrespective of where their starting point is – professionals have to make a constant effort to be well-versed in their thinking and advice,” Bhogaraju states.

Gulrajani says there are no limiting factors whether one chooses to be an HR generalist or specialist.

“It’s your attitude that can create the pros and cons,” he says.

Phipps meanwhile, says she loves being a generalist because she gets to drive the overall organisational capability strategy of the business.

“The ‘con’ about this is that the generalist can be ‘a jack of all trades and master of none’, particularly if there is no specialist around to provide in-depth analysis,” she shares.

However, she says a downside to being a specialist is that unless the company is big enough so that there is a full department of specialists, control over strategy is limited.

Is pay a factor?

Does salary play a key role as to whether an HR professional aspires to become an HR generalist or specialist?

Gulrajani says “that may definitely be the case”, especially in HR analytical positions, which he says are becoming more sought after as organisations see the value of analysis of HR data.

“However by the same token, I have seen certain HR business partners being paid equally well as they have both the depth and breadth of experience of various HR functions and can truly value-add to the departments they partner with,” he adds.

Bhogaraju feels that compensation is a factor that plays into decision-making more than it actually should.

Phipps says compensation is not a crucial consideration for her.

“Every generalist or specialist I’ve known does it to fuel their passion; not because of the money,” she says.

What are the chief differences between HR generalists and specialists?

While it is hard to ascertain which role is more important, there is no doubt there is a clear distinction when it comes to the job functions of an HR generalist or specialist.

According to Tarun Gulrajani, Head of HR, Asia-Pacific at Rehau Corporation, HR specialists generally have a greater depth of knowledge in their area of expertise, such as in compensation and benefits, or learning and development.

He says HR generalists, meanwhile, usually possess the depth and breadth of knowledge on some, but not all aspects of HR.

“A HR generalist could be doing payroll, while also assisting in hiring of certain talent, in addition to conducting employee orientation or certain training sessions,” states Gulrajani.

Based on the experience of Michelle Phipps, HR Director, Asia-Pacific, Brown-Forman, generalists have broader HR experience and are usually the first people that the business connects with for advice and consultation on people initiatives.

She says the specialists on the other hand have deeper and often rich data and external best practice expertise in specific areas.

“In the past, for me, specialists largely dealt with the business via the generalists. Now, I think it is more common for both generalists and specialists to blur the lines of each other’s areas and each represent the HR function to serve the purposes of the business,” adds Phipps.


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