HR specialist versus HR generalist: which is better for SA?


by Cheyanne Ho

Over the last couple of years, there’s been a debate in the industry about whether or not to employ an HR specialist or an HR generalist. HR, as a discipline, involves a number of different areas so being such a diverse discipline means that the opportunity for an HR professional either to master a particular area of interest (HR specialist) versus knowing a bit about all areas of HR (HR generalist) absolutely possible. This being said, which type of professional is a better fit for SA?

What is an ‘HR specialist’?

An ‘HR specialist’ is an HR professional who focuses on one area of HR in isolation. The most common specialist areas are:

  • Recruiting and staffing,
  • Benefits design and administration,
  • Compensation,
  • Training, and
  • Payroll and HR information systems (HRIS).

The actual job is usually more repetitive and ordinarily, you’ll find that only the bigger corporate companies hire such individuals as they have the capacity to do so. Strangely enough, they normally have to work alongside a generalist or greater HR department to give the specialist advice where it may be needed.

What is an ‘HR generalist’?

An ‘HR generalist’ is an HR professional who knows a bit about all facets of HR. Something to be noted is that HR generalists can have expertise in one or more area of HR but maintain a general proficiency in all areas so they’re able to provide sound advice and guidance to managers and employees on a daily basis.

What roles and responsibilities does each take on?

The HR specialist takes on the role of expert in a specific area and therefore all the responsibilities associated with this role will be highly dependent on the area they specialise in. As an example, a recruitment specialist’s responsibility won’t be simply to interview potential candidates and hand over those shortlisted to hiring managers but it will also cover, for example:

  • Being involved in creating recruitment strategies,
  • Revising or creating policies in line with staffing needs,
  • Coaching hiring line managers on how to interview, and
  • Facilitating and explaining psychometric assessments.

Conversely, HR generalists take on a role of general advisor to the business advising all levels of employees on an array of topics, which can range anywhere from employer/employee relations to company benefit explanations and leave queries. The responsibility of this role lies in the idea that the HR professional should be able to give an employee objective, sound advice and information relating to any work-related matter – and to be able to do so in an informed manner.

What is the ideal HR practitioner for SA?

The South African context for HR professionals is one of excitement, challenge and lots of changes, most of which are thanks to our current economic climate. The environment involves a lot of downsizing, restructuring, organisational change and ensuring that the legal framework is adhered to all times.

With that being noted, I personally feel that HR generalists (if I have to choose between the two) are more suited to our situation in that they’ll be able to keep abreast of all facets of HR and in turn organisations are able to keep their costs low. How so? By hiring HR generalists, they have individuals who’re able to perform the transactional day-to-day work as well as dip into the strategic aspects of HR on an ad hoc basis. When issues get more complicated there is always an option of calling in a specialist. The only downfall here is the daily fees that these individuals can charge!

In a perfect world, I believe a combination of both generalists and specialists is needed to see the true value that HR can bring to any organisation.

This article first appeared on HR Pulse.

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