Whatever Happened To The HR Generalist?


Whatever happened to the HR Generalist, or put another way, does the HR community by way of emphasising as strongly as it does the importance of being strategic thinkers, undervalue HR generalists who aren’t empowered to make long term strategic decisions?

I believe there is a strong argument to say that the answer is ‘yes – partially’. I cannot help but feel that the HR community, or at least those that commentate on the HR profession, may have forgotten the importance of this type of HR generalist. Or if they have not forgotten their importance, they do not promote their support of it strongly enough in my view.

As we all know, the differing job titles that are utilised within this profession can often be convoluted or misleading to say the least, and so I think it’s important that I define what I mean by the term HR Generalist.

A HR Generalist to me is your all-rounder. A role which can utilise a broad range of HR skills operating in a fashion that adapts itself to the circumstances of any given situation. A HR Generalist will be someone who can support the HR interactions with an employee or employer through all stages of a working relationship. A HR generalist is typically not a specialist in any one particular area, but operates across lots of areas. My experience of generalists are that they are versatile, carry out as much strategic activities as they reasonably can, but generally support their organisations with the day to day activities that arise. These activities are typically not things that can be fully ‘strategised for’ and some actions are reactive. They can impressively adapt and plan a response to situations that have occurred unexpectedly. They have recruited, inducted, supported and possibly exited an employee throughout their entire career with their respective employer.

I would have thought that it is at this stage that the growing supporters of strategic thinking will shudder and potentially shriek in horror, but please don’t. We are not as far away from each other as my introduction might have suggested.

Thinking strategically is of course important. I fully accept and endorse that. Medium and long term activities that support the development, implementation and review of business improvement that enhances employee engagement and adds value to business is extremely important. Designing strategies which create positive change are, in my view, mind-blowingly sensational. OK there’s no such word/phrase as ‘mind-blowingly’ but let me have that one.

But here’s the crux of my point. So is the ability to be versatile, to be able to operate under pressure whilst maintaining clarity of thought. So is the ability to strategise the reactive situation that the generalist finds themselves in. HR generalists in local authorities who have to respond to unexpected political changes, HR generalists in small businesses who are supporting every day issues to help the business survive on a day to day basis. HR generalists in larger organisations who are perhaps sheltered from strategic activities due to the make-up of their HR departments and the employment of strategists do that type of work.

Surely we should all agree that you cannot strategise for everything. You simply can not. We, and I use the royal ‘we’ in terms of us in the HR community, can and have devised impressive strategies to attract and retain talent, but that hasn’t stopped some of our key talent leaving. We can and have implemented vitally important learning and development practices to try and support with the management of people, but that has not stopped some managers making a decision outside of the band of reasonable responses in a disciplinary case because generally what is reasonable to them, might not be reasonable to you. Whilst we can introduce impressive wellness strategies, staff will fall ill unexpectedly and might not wish to follow the carefully designed and thoughtful policy and process that has been put in place.

When I started writing this article I wondered whether the pedestal that HR strategists have been placed upon has been created by business or the profession itself and so I thought i’d do some research in current job adverts to see what type of HR roles are being advertised at the moment. I clearly identified that there is a want for HR professionals who are recruited to act strategically and operationally, and to help with strategic projects, with the knowledge and skills required often pointing in the direction that there is a dual focus to the role they seek.

I write this article as a cautionary reminder that strategic thinkers and generalists, whilst are not mutually exclusive, should work hand in hand and are as equally as vital to business success as each other. I raise this point as I feel there is likely a silent proportion of HR professionals out there wondering ‘what about the work that I do’ when they read how they must think more long term strategically, but simply can’t or are limited to do this in their current positions. Is their contribution being seen as less valuable? I certainly hope not.

So don’t forget the generalist, or else there might be some engagement we will have to do in our own field.