Human Resources Generalist

Tammi Burnett

Table of Contents

You know those amazing Swiss army knives that have a tool for every situation? That’s an HR generalist. Generalists are the backbone of human resources. Read on to learn what skills you need, what duties you perform, and how to pursue becoming an HR generalist.

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What Is a Human Resources Generalist?

A human resources generalist is an HR professional with a broad range of responsibilities across the full scope of HR. Often this is the first/only position hired by a company, depending on staff size. Their work may include compensation, benefits, talent acquisition and management, performance management, employee training, HR technology, and more — sometimes even roles outside of HR functions, such as office manager, procurement, and so on. The role can be very dynamic (juggling many spinning plates, so to speak) and is rarely routine.

The Responsibilities of a Human Resources Generalist

All those spinning plates make for a great variety of responsibilities and duties that may be unique to every job. Here are three high-level responsibilities of the HR generalist.

  • Provide broad HR support to an organization. The HR generalist provides a broad spectrum of HR skills for an organization. They may work alone or as part of a larger HR team, and may work in a central HR unit or act as a “business partner” to specific teams, departments, etc. In either case, they should have a very well-rounded HR skill set, be able to provide guidance on a variety of HR topics and be well versed in their company’s policies, practices, and processes. They are the one-stop HR shop for folks outside of HR.
  • Act as the conduit between HR and the rest of the company. HR generalists should not only provide support externally to the rest of the company but should also report back to HR leadership on what’s happening across the organization. Issues with policies, confusion about certain HR practices, training needs, disgruntled workers or departments, etc., are all patterns the generalist should bring to their HR team (or their manager) to help inform how HR works and improve operations.
  • HR strategy and execution. Depending on the size and nature of the company, the generalist may be involved in every aspect of organizational HR, from strategy and higher-level planning to the day-to-day operations of HR. If you really want to be a true executive partner, you should be prepared to learn about more than just HR. Get to know your company’s business drivers, financials, and goals, and let that steer your HR work.

How to Become a Great Human Resources Generalist

There is no singular way to become an HR generalist, and people take many different paths to this role. Below are some ways you might explore how to land an HR generalist role.

Step 1: Start at the Bottom

HR generalists have very broad skill sets, and gaining experience in the different facets of HR takes time. Don’t be afraid to try out some entry-level or specialized roles to grow your HR knowledge. Even working as the front desk/reception worker for an HR team will help you start to learn the inner workings of HR. For example, you might start as a contract recruiter to learn the ins and outs of hiring, and then move into an HR coordinator role over a couple of years before landing your first generalist opportunity.

Step 2: Develop a Network and Seek Mentorship

This is the single best way to become a great generalist: learn from really smart generalists! It’s not so much about what you know as it is about knowing how to find the answer. This is especially critical if you are a department of one or on a smaller team. Having external peers to brainstorm, bounce ideas off, or even just ask, “I have XYZ going on, how would you handle this?” is very helpful. Try to shadow some HR folks you admire to get a sense of how they approach different situations. Your network will also come in handy once you start actively looking for a generalist position.

Step 3: Start Learning Now

If you have the financial resources (or your company will pay), join a local HR organization, go to HR networking events and conferences, and take webinars or classes in HR topics or in general business/finance. Read and learn as much as you can. There are also many excellent free blogs, podcasts, and more out there that can provide you with the info you need to understand the many facets of HR work. It will all come in handy when working as a generalist. Don’t wait until you land a role to start.

Step 4: Learn by Doing

Even if you’re not a generalist right now, you can start putting what you’ve learned into practice. Don’t be afraid to jump in and suggest new ideas and improvements—and to get them wrong. As long as you’re not doing anything illegal or unethical, it’s truly okay to make mistakes and learn from them. Solicit feedback, and don’t take it personally if you get it wrong. Just keep growing.

Necessary Skills for a Human Resources Generalist

There are many skills HR generalists will need in their careers, but to list them all would require pages and pages. The overarching skill groups that best serve the HR generalist are as follows.

Skill 1: Emotional Intelligence

Being a generalist means that much (maybe even most) of your work will involve dealing with interpersonal issues: performance problems, conflicts, frustrations, sensitive benefits questions, and lots of other tricky human interactions. Emotional intelligence is your best asset in navigating these situations skillfully and professionally. Some specific skills in this category include empathy, humility, self-awareness, and the ability to sit with discomfort and hold space.

Skill 2: Communication

Second, only to emotional intelligence, communication is one of the deepest skill sets HR professionals to need. It’s likely that you’ll be communicating with folks at all levels of your company in a wide variety of ways on a daily basis, so understanding how to tailor your messages to your audience, deliver content with an appropriate tone, and more are all necessary if you want employees, managers, and leaders to pay attention. Because you will also get pulled into all kinds of interpersonal situations, understanding the basics of active listening, reflecting, reframing, and more will serve you every day in your work.

Skill 3: Business Acumen

As mentioned above, in order to be a truly dynamic partner to the organization, HR generalists need to be business savvy. This means learning how your company works, what the employees do and how they do it, what your leadership’s goals are, and both the rules and the culture (the unspoken rules) of that company. Round out your HR knowledge and skills by learning the basics of finance and accounting as well as anything specific to your company. For example, if you work for a tech company, learn about the products; if you work for a sales company, understand sales targets, markets, etc.

Skill 4: Adaptability and Flexibility

These two qualities are invaluable for all HR professionals, but none more so than the generalist. The nature of generalist work means your scope is broad and priorities shift often. Further, unexpected situations come up regularly and require you to reevaluate what needs the most attention. In order to do this without getting overwhelmed or burned out, be sure to block “pivot” time into your calendar every week, even if it’s only an hour or two; if things come up that need to be addressed immediately, you’ll have a built-in buffer to shuffle other work.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Human Resources Generalists

There’s no easy answer for this; HR generalist salaries vary widely depending on the organization’s size, industry, location, job duties, and more. At smaller companies or nonprofits, generalists might earn in the realm of $45k, while at larger companies or in larger metros, up to $90k or beyond.
This is the tricky thing about HR: titles don’t mean much. There is often little to no difference between these two titles, especially at smaller companies or where the HR generalist is a “department of one.” At larger or more complex organizations, HR managers are more of a strategic role, while generalists are operational. To think about it another way, the HR manager sets strategy for a team or a department; the generalist executes it.
There really are no hard and fast rules in HR about job levels. Generally speaking, though, generalists are usually mid-level HR professionals. They need enough experience with each function in order to “do it all,” but they tend to be mostly operational versus strategic. If you’ve read through this article, you’ll see that generalists might work alone or under another HR professional; they might work as a generalist as a stepping stone before going into management, or they might stay a generalist for their entire career.
Tammi Burnett

Tammi has 8+ years of progressive HR experience in a variety of industries and settings, including nonprofit and higher education. She believes that doing HR well means being a true partner and collaborator with every part of an organization, and by saying “yes” to creative problem solving wherever and whenever possible (and legal). Her favorite work includes diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB); the how and why of hiring and retaining great people; helping to sustain an organizational culture of trust, empathy, and candor; and anything else that prompts employees to say they love where they work. In her free time, you can find her wandering outdoors, studying clinical herbalism, tinkering in the kitchen, dismantling the patriarchy and white supremacy, and hanging out with her cat, Emily Dickinson.

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