How to Become an HR Generalist [A Practical Guide]

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How to Become an HR Generalist [A Practical Guide]

An HR Generalist is usually the first HR hire of an organization and a crucial one at that. To work as an HR Generalist, you need to be able to handle a mix of administrative and strategic HR tasks. The question is: How do you become an HR Generalist?

In this article, we’ll briefly walk you through the roles and responsibilities of an HR Generalist. We will outline several things you need to do to become a successful HR Generalist. Let’s find out. 

What does an HR Generalist do?  

The Human Resource Generalist is someone with a broad range of responsibilities instead of a specialized line of work. They are usually in charge of the day-to-day management of HR activities in an organization, including hiring, compensation and benefits, HR administration, and other tasks. 

You would most likely see this role in, for example, growing companies with the HR Generalist being their first HR hire. This is typically not an entry-level position but rather a mid-level position equal to that of an individual contributor. Some companies might call the HR Generalist with a different name — HR Associate.

How to Become an HR Generalist
We will dive into the details of how to become an HR Generalist below.

HR Generalist responsibilities

The specific responsibilities of an HR Generalist will vary between different companies and countries. However, there are several common responsibilities that could be a part of an HR Generalist’s job description, such as:

  • Recruitment: The task of hiring and onboarding new employees often falls to the HR Generalist. Their recruiting duties can include sourcing candidates, creating an employment offer, conducting a background check, or taking care of administrative tasks such as visa application. 
  • Compensation and benefits: The HR Generalist will often negotiate with benefits providers, and take care of pension and retirement plans, vacation policies, and other benefits. If the company offers additional perks such as childcare, free lunches, or company cars, it also falls to the HR Generalist to arrange and manage these perks. They are in charge of benefits administration.
  • Employee relations: The HR Generalist is responsible for managing the people side of the business. This might include management training, discrimination/harassment investigations, performance improvement plans, termination, union negotiations, etc.
  • Performance management and employee training: The HR generalist assists with employee performance reviews and helps plan employee training programs to equip the workforce with the right skills to carry out their jobs effectively.
  • HR business partner: This responsibility pertains to the strategic side of the HR Generalist. They will act as the liaison between the business and its people in this role. They help the organization plan for the future. The planning focuses on succession planning, organizational design, internal communication, and values and culture maintenance.
  • Data analytics: A strong understanding of data analytics is crucial for any successful HR Generalist. While many of their responsibilities focus on solving individual employee problems, they also need to look at the big picture. Being able to collect, measure, and analyze data will allow them to spot overall trends and act on them. 

For a more detailed description of these responsibilities, check out our full guide to the HR Generalist

How to become an HR Generalist

While there is no one specific path that you need to take, we do have several tips that can help you become a well-rounded and successful HR Generalist. 

Develop the necessary HR Generalist skills

HR Generalists need a wide array of skills to do their work well. These skills can be divided into four groups: HR-specific skills, soft skills, business acumen, and digital & data literacy. 

HR Generalist Skills

HR-specific skills 

An essential HR skill that every HR Generalist needs is HRM knowledge and expertise. You can acquire them through previous work experience or education in Human Resources Management or related studies. 

Another skill that you should develop is administrative expertise. Administration involving employee leave, absence, or payroll is a major part of the responsibilities of an HR Generalist and is almost always included in any job posting for this position. 

As we mentioned in the previous part, employee relations are also an important HR Generalist’s responsibility. This means that you will need to possess skills like employee experience expertise. You will then be able to design a human-centric workplace, create exceptional employee experiences to help attract and retain the talent your organization needs to succeed. 

Soft skills 

9 out of 10 top skills in 2021 as ranked by L&D professionals are soft skills (LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report, 2021). It’s clear that soft skills are essential for any profession, and undoubtedly so for HR Generalists. 

Communication skills, for example, are often mentioned in HR job openings, and for a good reason. As the people advocate and the representative for the employer, you need to be able to connect well with all kinds of people and communicate both formally and informally in an effective manner.

This skill goes hand in hand with active listening. The HR Generalist needs to be able to listen to others without prejudice or judgment and create a safe space for others to share. This skill will make it easier for you to navigate sensitive issues and effectively coach employees and HR team members.

Business acumen 

Advising, or being a credible and trustworthy advisor to different stakeholders, is crucial for an HR Generalist. You’re the people expert that employees, line managers, and senior managers will come to for personnel issues. Thus, you’ll need to provide strategic advice that can help align HR practices with the business. 

Having business acumen and commercial awareness will add value to the advice that you give. This skill is all about understanding how your business makes money. Only then can you add value to the business by building tailored HR strategies and tactics.

Find out how to develop your business acumen in our article Business Acumen for HR Professionals: Everything You Need To Know.

Digital & Data literacy 

Most companies now require their HR Generalists to be analytical and data-driven. You need to understand key HR metrics like engagement and retention, eNPS, or employee performance. Having some knowledge of Excel is a bonus. 

Additionally, you should be able to create, read, and interpret HR reports using data from the Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS for short). Strong HR reporting skills will help you turn data into compelling messages that lead to concrete actions. You’ll be able to increase the credibility of your advice, improve your people and company policies, and become more data-driven in general.

Make sure to highlight the most important skills and competencies on your HR resume when applying for jobs.

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Head over to our article on 18 HR skills every HR Generalist needs for the full list. 

Work on your technological competence 

Once a slow-moving section of the economy, the HR tech market is now worth $148 billion. According to PwC, more and more companies are planning to increase spending on HR tech in the upcoming year, with a particular focus on talent acquisition tools, employee experience portals, and skill mapping and career pathing tools. 

This means that as an HR Generalist, you’ll work with a variety of systems and frequently switch between them. What’s more, you might need to train employees and HR team members on how to use some of these systems. So you need to be digitally and technologically competent to be effective in your job. 

Knowledge of the HRIS is a must. You probably also should know your way around recruitment technology like the Applicant Tracking System (or ATS) or pre-assessment tools. Beyond that, as hybrid and full-remote work models are here to stay, you should be comfortable with online communication and collaboration platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Asana, and Google Suite.

Getting a certification in digital HR is an excellent way to learn how to maximize your impact in HR with the help of technology and to improve you digital and technological competence.

Pursue adequate education

To know what educational background you need to qualify for an HR Generalist position, you can look at job postings in your area to see what companies need from candidates. They might require a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, or they might ask for advanced certifications like Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) or Global Professional in Human Resources (GPHR) from HR Certification Institute (HRCI).

You’ll also need to pay attention to the field of studies required. These might include Human Resources Management, Business Administration, Organizational Development, Organizational Psychology, or Workforce Development. In general, the education requirements will depend a lot on the industry and the company’s size.

While a high level of education might be a plus, it is often not a hard requirement. If this is the case, the company will ask you to compensate for the lack of a degree or certification with sufficient work experience. This is not limited to just HR experience. There are many fields and positions out there with transferable skills that you can highlight when applying for an HR Generalist role.

If you’ve been an operational manager at a manufacturing plant, for example, you have a deep understanding of how the production floor operates. This will give you an advantage as an HR Generalist when you want to advise leadership on the business’ organizational structure. Or, if you have previously worked in Marketing, you can easily apply marketing competencies to internal communications.

Gain knowledge and work experience in different HR areas

As we mentioned in the previous part, the HR Generalist is not an entry-level position. This means that you’ll usually need to have prior HR experience and knowledge to be considered for the job. If you’re just starting out, internships can be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the different HR functions and responsibilities. If you’re working in a particular area in HR and are therefore overqualified for internships, consider job shadowing or job rotation opportunities within and outside of your HR department.

Both of these options allow you to develop knowledge and experience in different areas of HR. This is crucial for an HR Generalist because this is an all-around role that is responsible for many things, from recruitment to benefits and administration. 

Keep up-to-date with employment and labor legislation

Compliance is important for any company that values its business and reputation. As an HR Generalist it’s up to you to advise business leaders on their people policies and practices to stay in line with employment and labor legislation and regulations. As such, you need to have a good overview of current employment laws and keep yourself up-to-date with any changes.

A good option is to subscribe to SHRM’s Workplace Compliance Newsletter or HR Dive Compliance Newsletter to stay on top of compliance news. 

Prepare for common interview questions

Coming to your HR Generalist interview prepared and ready to answer any questions you might get means you’re already halfway to success. Because the HR Generalist is such a broad function, the type of questions the interviewers might ask you can vary greatly. They can range from role-specific questions to situational questions. 

For example, you might come across questions such as: 

  • When drafting a new Human Resources policy, what factors are most important to you? 
  • How do you process a sexual harassment claim? 
  • What do you do when you experience a conflict of interest at work? 
  • What would you do if an employee requests confidential or otherwise sensitive information? 
  • Can you propose an employee wellness program that we can use to boost morale? 
  • What do you consider to be the biggest challenge as an HR Generalist, and how do you plan to overcome this challenge? 
  • How would your credentials and past experience help you excel in this position? 

When preparing for your interview, the general tip to ace these questions is to do adequate research about the company, be specific and back your answer up with your HR experience and knowledge, show empathy and sensitivity, and, most importantly, be yourself. 

Head over to our article on this topic for a full list of 28 HR Generalist interview questions, along with specific advice for each question category. 

HR Generalist salary 

How much an HR Generalist earns can depend a lot on factors like company size, location, industry, and level of experience. According to Payscale, the average salary of an HR Generalist in the United States is $54,000 a year for a professional with one to four years of experience. That amount increases to $60,000 for an HR Generalist with over ten years of experience. 

On average, an HR Generalist based in New York City can expect to earn $68,475 per year. A person with the same job in Dallas, Texas, will earn about $58,411 per year on average. 

Over to you

Becoming a successful HR Generalist is no easy feat. It is a position that requires you to put in a lot of time, effort, and patience. Its challenges are plenty. However, it is also a highly rewarding career to pursue, especially if you’re someone who enjoys building relationships with people. If that’s the case, then this article will serve as a good base for you to get started on your journey towards a successful and fulfilling career as an HR Generalist. 

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