Death of the HR Generalist: A Reponse

by Michael Haberman on January 24, 2012 · 4 comments


On January 9th my friend and fellow consultant, Cathy Missildine, wrote a blog post entitled Is the HR Generalist Dead?  Her post was based upon a discussion that I participated in along with another two consultants. The basis of the discussion was a general a comment made about the state of business for consultants. One member of the group made the observation that many consultants who provided “generalist” services were not doing as well as “specialist” consultants.  One example was a compensation specialist whose business was doing quite well, while we knew several “generalist”consultants not doing so well. Thus came the comment about the death of the HR generalist. Here is my response.

In my opinion I think the world of the generalist is tied not so much to function but tied to the size of the company utilizing the consultant. Bigger businesses generally have a staff of generalists and when they seek the help of a consultant they are looking for a specialist to solve a particular problem. When smaller companies, who may have either a small HR staff, or no HR staff at all, need HR help it is usually on a broader scope, thus a generalist consultant may be more appropriate. The problem that generalist consultants have had during this economic downturn has been with the nature of small business versus that of big business.

Small businesses during the past several years have been reticent, with all the uncertainity, to spend money. If you are unsure about where your next dollar is coming from, or when, you are not going to spend it on consultants, regardless of how much you may need their help. Larger companies on the other hand often use consultants to solve problems that internal staff cannot solve. In some cases the companies may have even cut staff, thus freeing some money to pay for the consultant.

In the non-consultant world of HR I think we are beginning to see the same dichotomy. Larger companies are starting to use specialist even more than they have in the past, at least that is my perception. As I teach the PHR classes more and more students that work for larger companies hold specialist positions. However, smaller companies to do not have the staff or revenue to have anything but generalists. When you only have limited opportunities to have staff you need someone who can do as much as possible, thus the need for a generalist.

So my answer to the question Is the HR Generalist dead is “no”, but the nature of the field has changed. The HR generalist is now transitioning to be a small company position, whether it is in the consulting field or the in-company position. That is my view, what is yours?

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Barbara Hughes January 25, 2012 at 9:06 am

Mike,
Interesting response. I’ve been reading a great deal, in this election year, about persistent unemployment, disappearing jobs, technology replacing people, etc., etc. While a small company may NEED the generalist skills, we all now have a responsibility to ourselves to manage and nurture our own skills for the future. With that it mind, it doesn’t hurt a generalist to pick a specialty area that is “marketable” and develop a capability that is valued. Otherwise, what happened to manufacturing jobs can and will happen to the HR generalist at a small business. Even small companies grow, expand overseas and, sometimes, get sold or fail. We just can’t rely on our current employment to guarantee our futures any longer.

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