Many subdivisions make up the field of human resources, each backed by a comprehensive set of employment regulations, legislation, best practice and policy. Becoming an expert in any one of these functions takes time and significant training, and HR managers can -- and do -- specialize exclusively in a certain area for the duration of their careers. Other HR professionals are required to develop a generalist overview of all HR functions and work on a variety of projects in multiple areas of HR.
HR generalists are characterized by their involvement in -- and knowledge of -- a wide variety of functions and divisions within HR. In any typical day, the HR generalist may re-negotiate with a health benefits broker, determine if positions should be classified as exempt or non-exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act, open a recruitment, answer questions about medical leave options and testify at an unemployment insurance hearing. The generalist is a jack-of-all-trades who can administer any aspect of HR.
Specialized HR managers have built a wealth of knowledge directly related to a specific HR function. In addition to supervisory duties, HR managers perform a more analytical role, using their detailed knowledge of employment laws and regulations, best practices and benchmarking. HR managers in medium and large organizations typically oversee a specific division or function in the HR department. Examples of these specialty functions include classification and compensation, labor relations, investigations and discipline, workers compensation, training, recruitment and employee benefits.
In large organizations, HR generalists typically occupy the extremes of the HR department hierarchy. Some generalist positions perform entry level, administrative functions, whereas at the other end of the spectrum, generalist HR executives are responsible for all divisions in the HR department, with a layer of specialized HR managers sandwiched in between. In small organizations, the HR manager is the only employee responsible for all HR functions, and needs to be a generalist with skills and expertise to handle the employer's HR operations single-handed.
Generalist HR Manager
The HR generalist and the HR manager don't have to be mutually exclusive, and often aren't. High level HR managers need to be conversant -- at least on a basic level -- in all areas of HR to be able to effectively supervise staff. Being a generalist does not mean that the HR manager doesn't have somewhat of a specialization in a certain area -- but while she may prefer working in a certain specialty field, she has the breadth of knowledge to be comfortable overseeing any area.