Candidates seeking advice on HR careers often ask if it is better to pursue generalist careers or become specialists. My response is always the same: "It depends." Here are five important questions to ask yourself before mapping out your HR career path.
Are You the Type of Person Who Needs a Lot of Diversity in Your Job?
If you find that you get bored doing the same thing twice, then the generalist role might be more suited to you. As a generalist, you are required to wear many different hats. One minute you may find yourself negotiating the employee benefit package for your company, and the next you could be conducting a training program for your line managers. Generalists tend to get their hands into everything.
How Well Do You Respond to Unpredictability?
When you are a generalist, you often start your day doing one thing and wind up doing something totally different. For example, you might start to work on a compensation plan, only to find that you need to stop everything to deal with a line manager's emergency employee relations situation. Some people find the unpredictability a bit unsettling, because it seems as if you never get to fully complete tasks. Others find it exhilarating. Which type of person are you?
How Detail-Oriented Are You?
Most specialist positions require you to be very detail-oriented. For example, benefits specialists need to know the intimate details of the company's benefit plans. You are perceived as the company expert in a specific area, and people rely on you to give them informed answers to their questions. This means knowing things inside and out. Does this fit your personality?
What Do You Think the Future Economy Will Be?
When the economy is strong, specialists in certain areas -- recruiting, for example -- can make a bundle. But what happens when the economy turns in the other direction? Will you be marketable?
Generalists tend to be a bit more isolated from the effects of a downturn. In a downturn, generalists often pick up more of the responsibilities of downsized specialists. It is easier to teach a generalist the daily workings of a few HR specialties than it is to teach a specialist all the other facets of HR. Outside consulting firms can always be used to fill in the gaps.
What Are Your Long-Term Career Goals?
If your goal is to eventually open up your own human resources consulting practice, consider spending a few years in each of the specialties. This will provide you with a solid background in several different facets of HR. You will then be able to sell yourself as a specialist in several different areas of HR. When you are a specialist, clients tend to be more open to paying higher fees since they know they do not have the level of expertise that you can offer inside their own organization.
If your goal is to manage the HR department for a small company, then you might want to go the generalist route, because smaller companies often look for generalists. They tend to outsource to outside consulting firms when they need specialized information.
HR generalist or specialist? Seems like a complicated question, but the good news is that no matter what you decide today, you can always change paths tomorrow.