A Full Guide to the HR Generalist

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The HR generalist is probably the most varied HR professional out there. In this article, we will answer what an HR generalist is, what he or she does, how to become one, how much you earn as a generalist, and all the other information that you’ll want to know! We also added an example job description all the way at the end so stay tuned.

Contents
What is an HR generalist?
What does an HR generalist do?
How to become an HR generalist?
HR generalist salary
HR generalist jargon
HR generalist vs. HR specialist
Conclusion
FAQ

What is an HR Generalist?

An HR generalist is usually the first HR hire any company makes. As the job title suggests, this is a person with a broad range of responsibilities instead of a specialized line of work. The HR generalist thus covers most of the HR functions, including hiring, compensation and benefits, HR administration, and other tasks.

As companies grow, HR departments divide HR Generalist duties into different jobs with subject matter experts taking over each of these areas. Some companies keep the title to describe a person that performs the core people-related functions in the organization.

In this 4-minute Learning Bite, we explain what an HR Generalist is,
what they do, and everything else you want to know.

What Does an HR Generalist Do?

Every company has slightly different responsibilities, and some of the information will change from country to country, depending on the laws. In the United States, for instance, HR Generalists usually handle health insurance for the company, but in other countries, that may not be necessary, as companies don’t provide health insurance. Here is a list of the responsibilities an HR Generalist could have.

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Recruiting

Every company needs someone to recruit and onboard new candidates. In some small companies, managers may handle this on their own, but it often falls to the HR Generalist. Recruiting duties include:

  • Sourcing candidates
  • Conducting screening interviews
  • Administrative work regarding scheduling interviews with the hiring team
  • Putting together an employment offer
  • Guiding the salary negotiations
  • Conducting a background check
  • Managing the employee onboarding process
  • Complying with all relevant laws regarding reporting and records retention
  • Serving as an advisor to hiring managers
  • Works with immigration for visas for foreign hires

Because recruiting is so visible, and every employee goes through this process, many people equate HR with recruiting. This is one of the reasons the entire recruiting process is critical — it’s not just who businesses hire but who does the hiring. Inept hiring practices mean an HR generalist won’t be trusted to conduct the rest of her responsibilities.

Benefits administration

In the United States, your job and your healthcare are tied together, and the HR department handles the negotiations with benefits providers. An HR person may help employees with their healthcare provider questions, or they may refer them to the carrier for all inquiries.

Other benefits such as pensions and retirement plans and vacation are run through HR as well. An HR Generalist will work with retirement plan providers and handle the administration side for the organization.

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Perks also fall under the purview of the HR Generalist. Things such as onsite daycare, free employee lunches, company cars, and any number of things that companies provide outside of salaries fall into the category of perks. An HR generalist often arranges these perks and administers them. As companies compete for talent, the list of perks can grow, and someone must know what the competitors do so that the business can compete.

Absence administration

Leaves of absence, whether for medical or personal reasons, fall under the HR generalist as well. This can mean administering leave programs, keeping on top of paperwork, and complying with all government regulations. Whether it be for cancer treatment, paternity leave, or mental health issues, the HR generalist needs a general idea of what is going on so he or she can properly classify and approve the leave.

Employee Relations

Next to recruiting, this is probably the most visible task of an HR Generalist. Employee relations encompasses all the day to day functions of overseeing the people side of businesses.

Employee relations includes the following activities:

  • Management training. HR should be the expert in manager/employee relations and in training managers on how to give feedback, how to assign increases, and how to avoid conflicts of interest, such as romantic relationships with direct reports.
  • Discrimination/harassment investigations. If someone makes a sexual advance, you report that to the HR Generalist. She or he then conducts an investigation and decides regarding how the company should proceed. HR Generalists handle sexual harassment, gender discrimination, age discrimination, race discrimination, and national origin discrimination claims. In most western companies, these are not just immoral and against policy but against the law. This means that the HR Generalist must have a strong understanding of local law. Often, an HR Generalist will need to outsource these investigations. When the company is small, or the alleged victim or perpetrator is well known to the HR generalist, he or she will need to hire an outside firm to conduct the investigation. This outside investigator helps keep personal feelings out and protects the business and the employees.
  • Misconduct investigations. Not all misconduct falls under harassment. Everything from theft to violence to generalized legal rudeness falls under employee relations to investigate.  
  • Performance improvement plans. HR generalists work with managers to create these plans, and HR is responsible for making sure the plan is compliant with all relevant laws, including ones regarding race, gender, and age. An HR generalist should be aware of what happens across the organization and can help ensure that similarly situated employees are treated equally.
  • Firing employees. While the direct supervisor should be the person who says, “Your employment is terminated and today is your last day” (or whatever the appropriate statement is, depending on the contract and country), the HR generalist should be present as a support and a witness. Managers should never terminate an employee without first consulting with HR. 
  • Conducts exit interviews. When employees leave the organization, the employee relations person should sit down to discuss why they are leaving. This information should be used to help improve the organization not to punish the leaving employee.
  • Collective bargaining and unionized workforce negotiations. The HR generalist can also play a role in managing collective bargaining and being the liaison between the employer and the employee work council and trade unions. The importance of this specific role depends greatly on the country the generalist is operating in.

HR Business Partner

This is the strategic side of the HR Generalist. In this role, HR generalists serve as the expert on people. Just like you would go to finance to ask a money question, you should go to the HR Business Partner to ask a people question.

While the employee relations role is often reactionary (although it doesn’t have to be), the HRBP role is strategic. An HRBP helps plan for the future, focusing on the following things.

  • Succession planning. If the CEO quits, who will take her place? What about the marketing manager? Is the business training people to step into these roles as needed? Are there plans for training and development? 
  • Organizational structure. While many companies are a traditional hierarchical structure, the HRBP advises on how to make that look in real life. And can help define if a hierarchy is the best organizational structure for this company. Perhaps a flatter organization, such as a holacracy or a matrix organization, would be better for the company. Regardless of the structure of your business needs, the HRBP serves as the subject matter expert.
  • Communication expertise. While the public relations department or marketing group focuses on taking the company’s message to the clients, the HRBP takes the company message to the employees. 
  • Values and culture expert. Each company has a culture, and each has values, even if no one states them explicitly. The CEO and the executive team play the central role and set these standards by their behavior, but the HRBP helps coach them and then communicate. Remember that stated values and culture have zero impact if the leadership behaves differently.

Many companies use the term “HR Generalist” to describe a combination of Employee Relations/HR Business Partner role rather than a true generalist who takes care of all areas of Human Resources. Generally, it’s thought of as a soft-skills role, although the HR Business Partner side of things is well served by someone with technical, analytical, and financial skills. A strict HRBP role is often well served by an HR specialist with an MBA.

Technical/Analytics role

An HR generalist needs to know how to calculate turnover and a return on investments on programs and policies. A strong understanding of analytics is necessary to grow and develop the role. As many solo HR practitioners work for small businesses, it’s easy to say that they don’t need to delve into analytics–it’s not necessary to produce a turnover report when you can name everyone who quit.

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An HR analyst looks at the big picture rather than the individual employee. While the other aspects of a generalist role often focus on solving this problem or working with that employee, analytics spots trends.

For instance, it may seem logical that three people decide to quit and return to graduate school. But, an analyst can see that within the organization, the only people leaving to return to graduate school are in a certain department. That can indicate a need to either a. Look at the manager’s skills or b. Re-evaluate how you’re hiring for the job. It could be a coincidence, or it could be a result of something the company can change.

The technical side of HR becomes more and more important each year. Companies should have an HRIS (HR information system) to handle employee data and connect with payroll. Additionally, there are literally thousands of applications that can help with everything from documenting call-ins to sharing information across the organization. These fall under the role of HR as well, and while a generalist may work with IT on these things, the HR person would be the superuser and perhaps provide training for other departments.

Human resources functions
HR generalists have a wide range of responsibilities.

How Do You Become an HR Generalist?

There are many different paths to become an HR generalist. You can obtain a university degree in business with an emphasis in HR, study Industrial and Organizational psychology, or focus on organizational behavior or a similar field and supplement your academic training with on-the-job training.

There are certifying organizations such as the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), the Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI), the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the Human Resources Management Institute (HRMI). Other providers, like the Academy to Innovate HR offer specialized courses in HR analytics and Digital HR. 

Not all HR generalists come to the role through formal education and training. And, as you can tell by the extensive list of responsibilities that fall on an HR Generalist, many people in this role have different specialties and knowledge gaps. 

Some people move into this role from an operational or another non-related field. While this may sound inadvisable, one of the critical functions of an HR Generalist is understanding the business. How can you recruit plumbers if you have no idea what plumbers do? How can you advise on the organizational structure of a manufacturing plant if you’ve never set foot on the production floor?

Some companies assume that anyone can fill an HR function and bring in people without formal training and fail to provide the necessary tools. Because an HR generalist should be the expert on people and people functions, this is a recipe for disaster. At a minimum, every HR generalist needs training in legal compliance and management techniques to do her job.

How Much Money Does an HR Generalist Make?

Salaries for such a role can vary wildly depending on the size of the company, the location, and the experience of the HR Generalist. In the United States, you can expect to earn between $57,000 to $71,000 for a mid-level HR generalist in the midwestern United States, while someone doing the same job in New York City could expect to earn between $81,000 to $92,000 per year. 

These figures depend on the specific job description, amount of experience, and the level of responsibility. An HR generalist responsible for 25 people will likely earn less than one with 150 people who also supervises people in specialist roles.

HR Generalist Jargon

Every profession has its own language that can be difficult for outsiders to understand. The language of HR, however, affects all employees. Here are a few sample terms an HR generalist should know.

  • KPIs. This stands for Key Performance Indicators. These are measurable goals that each employee should have that can indicate success or need for improvement.
  • PIP. Short for Performance Improvement Plan. This is a document that guides an employee through what they need to change and improve to keep their job. They usually come in 30, 60, or 90-day timelines.
  • Gross Misconduct. This is a severe infraction, such as theft or violence. Gross misconduct can result in termination without going through a performance improvement plan or progressive discipline.
  • Onboarding. This is the process through which a company acclimates a new employee. Sometimes people use this to refer to the paperwork and administrative side of hiring. Still, it should also include the training (job-specific and cultural) that each employee needs to go through to adjust to life in a new job.
  • Talent Management. Talent management is the full arrange of HR processes to attract, develop, motivate, and retain high-performing employees. For more information on this, check our article What is Talent Management?
  • Talent Life Cycle. This means the process from recruiting new employees, to conducting their final exit interviews and everything in between.
  • Performance appraisal. This is a recurring event in which the manager sits with the employee to evaluate his or her performance. Although this meeting is usually run by the manager, the performance appraisal and the broader performance management process is a shared responsibility between HR and the business. Many important decisions regarding employees (hiring, promotions, bonus, firing) are based on this process. 

Of course, there are many more terms for an HR generalist to know, but these are a few that you will often see.

HR Generalist vs. HR Specialists

A specialist can fill each area that an HR Generalist must do. In larger organizations, it makes sense to have subject matter specialists handle each area. This allows for in-depth knowledge and specialized training. 

An HR Generalist knows a little about a tremendous number of subjects, while a specialist knows a lot about a few subjects. For small businesses, a generalist with access to training and outside resources is the best option, while large companies have the luxury of specialization.

Conclusion

An HR Generalist handles all things people. Because the responsibilities are so varied it’s a job that will never be boring. A good HR generalist can set the tone for the company, and ensure legal compliance. It’s a critical part of the foundation of HR in any company until the company grows to the point that it can support specialists.

One last thing: For those who are interested in creating a vacancy for the HR generalist, here is an HR Generalist Job Description that’s free to download!

FAQ

What is an HR Generalist?

An HR generalist is a person with a broad range of responsibilities instead of a specialized line of work. The HR generalist thus covers most of the HR functions, including hiring, compensation and benefits, HR administration, and other tasks.

What does an HR Generalist do?

Every company has slightly different responsibilities, and some of the information will change from country to country, depending on the laws. Responsibilities an HR Generalist could have include recruiting, benefits and absence administration, employee relations, HRBP, and a technical/analytics role.

How do you become an HR Generalist?

There are many different paths to become an HR generalist. You can obtain a university degree in business with an emphasis on HR, get certified via an organization such as SHRM or the CIPD or move into the HR generalist role from an operational or another non-related field.

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