HR Careers

Careers Spotlight: What Is an HR Generalist?

August 2, 2021
April 25, 2024
Lyssa Test
Lattice Team

A Human Resources generalist is often one of the first HR hires a company makes — and for good reason. As the title suggests, an HR generalist has broad knowledge and experience across all areas of HR. This enables them to touch many areas of the employee experience and help drive an organization’s overall People strategy.

But, because this role’s responsibilities vary so widely by organization, it can be confusing to grasp exactly what an HR generalist does. Whether you’re looking to learn more about this essential HR role or wondering how you can land your next job as an HR generalist, we’ve put together this brief guide to help you understand all the ins and outs of this position. Below, we break down what an HR generalist is and does — and how to get your foot in the door and begin a career in this dynamic role. 

What Is an HR Generalist? 

An HR generalist is a position with a broad range of responsibilities. They often oversee many aspects of Human Resources, including recruitment, onboarding, employee benefits administration, employee relations, and employment law — and that only begins to scratch the surface!

Unlike a specialist who focuses on just one element of HR, a generalist must have broad, extensive knowledge of all facets of the discipline — or at least the ability to learn quickly. As a result, generalists are more versatile employees who can help with every aspect of the employee experience.

The ability to make an impact across so many different aspects of the business is what attracts many individuals to the role, like Magda Klimkiewicz, Senior HR Business Partner at career website Zety. “​​What I like the most about [being] an HR generalist is that I get to see the whole picture and make contributions that affect the whole company in multiple verticals,” she said. “It’s the perfect job if you’re a dynamic person.”

Generalist roles are more commonly found at smaller companies, where it’s more practical to have a small HR team that wears many hats. For example, it doesn’t make sense to have a learning and development or FMLA-leave specialist for a workforce of only 20 employees, but an HR generalist can assist with whatever the business’s HR needs are, from talent acquisition to internal communications. So in this instance, it makes more sense for the company to hire a generalist who has the knowledge and experience to juggle all these responsibilities, until the company grows to a size where hiring subject-matter experts is more practical. 

What Does an HR Generalist Do? 

A lot! Every generalist role is different and caters to whatever a particular company needs most, whether that’s hiring new talent or engaging existing employees. We’ve compiled this quick list to give you a more detailed understanding of the tasks and responsibilities that HR generalists typically handle. One thing’s for sure: As a generalist, you will never be bored thanks to the diversity and ever-changing nature of the role! 

Common Responsibilities of an HR Generalist

This is by no means an exhaustive list. HR generalists will need to work closely with their HR director or Human Resources department to establish an overarching People strategy as well as the responsibilities of their individual role.

Additionally, seasonality and shifting business priorities can also dictate what projects and responsibilities an HR generalist needs to own. Because of the diversity of the projects they must work on, generalists need to be able to easily shift gears and have no trouble prioritizing — and reprioritizing — tasks as they arise. 

“Because they are frequently juggling competing priorities, a generalist should have a strong ability to prioritize, ideally a well-rounded background with experience in at least a few of the key HR functions, and a strong business acumen to partner with other business leaders,” advised Paula Malone, Principal at California-based HR consultancy HR Priorities.

How to Become an HR Generalist

While there is no one-size-fits-all career path to landing an HR generalist role, there are three common ways individuals can make themselves a more compelling candidate for the role. Here’s how.

1. Education

One of the most straightforward ways to get any job is to go to school for it. Individuals determined to start a career in HR or make a career change into the field can get a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Human Resources Management or a related field, like Business Psychology, Business Administration, or Organizational Management, among others. This is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with many of the topics you’ll come across in a career in HR, like ​​business law and ethics, leadership, workforce planning, and employee relations.

2. Experience

On-the-job training is another great way to gain applicable experience and knowledge about the many disciplines of HR. Starting as an intern, HR coordinator, or similar entry-level position can help individuals better understand the line of work; learn the day-to-day responsibilities, necessary skills, and big-picture goals involved in the role; and see if a career in HR is right for them. 

It’s important to note that relevant workforce experience isn’t limited solely to HR jobs. Having any position on your resume with transferable skills and competencies can give you a leg up in the hiring process. Decision-making, interpersonal, problem-solving, and communication skills that you might acquire in a project manager or customer service supervisor role, for example, can all serve you immensely well in this role, even if you've never held a job in HR before.

3. Certifications

Lastly, you can boost your resume with HR certifications. There are a number of options you can choose from, but some of the most popular and well-known programs in the HR discipline are the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), HR Certification Institute's (HRCI) PHR certificate, Human Resources Management Institute (HRMI), and Human Capital Institute (HCI). You can, of course, also find relevant classes on LinkedIn Learning or another online learning platform.

Certifications are by no means required in order to become an HR generalist, but they can help your application stand out. For those looking to make a career switch into Human Resources, certifications can be a way to show that while you might not have the experience on paper, you have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in a generalist role. That external validation can help strengthen your application and make your candidacy stand out to a recruiter. 

Whether you’re already working in HR or looking to break into the industry, remember that you don’t have to have a textbook HR background to become an HR generalist. Generalists need broad experience and knowledge to gain a bigger-picture understanding of the whole organization and its needs. If you do have that traditional background, great, but if you don’t, don’t be deterred from going for a generalist role if that’s the path you want to pursue; nontraditional backgrounds and skills can help you approach workplace challenges with a unique mindset that can actually make you a more strategic and successful generalist in the long run.

Whatever your background may be, you’re sure to find that the HR generalist position is a fulfilling, dynamic role. From improving the day-to-day employee experience to setting a future-focused People strategy, you’ll have the opportunity to drive both short- and long-term impact across many facets of your organization.