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The Comprehensive Guide to HR Career Paths

September 23, 2020
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Human Resources professionals can often be so busy helping their employees with their careers that they forget to take the time to prioritize their own career advancement. But whether you’re just starting out in HR or are an experienced veteran in the industry, career path planning is crucial to having a successful career that fulfills your personal and professional goals.

Career paths are especially helpful in this field because Human Resources has so many distinct disciplines you could pursue, like payroll, compliance, engagement, recruiting, benefits, diversity and inclusion (D&I), leave of absences, and more. Because there are so many different options, most professionals have to make a choice early on in their careers: Specialize in one core area of HR or remain a generalist.

When faced with a major career decision like this, it’s best to know all your options so you can make an informed choice and start working toward your long-term career goals. To break down the differences between generalists and specialists, we spoke to Jovanny Chonillo, MHRM, Senior Human Resources Consultant at Tandem HR, a Chicago-based professional employer organization (PEO), who has years of experience in both types of roles.

Here’s a closer look at the differences between generalist and specialist Human Resources career paths, examples of common HR job titles, and how to choose the best career option for you.

Generalist vs. Specialist

As the names suggest, a Human Resources specialist is someone who is highly skilled and experienced in one aspect of HR, like recruiting, payroll, or benefits. A generalist, on the other hand, is someone who has general knowledge and expertise across a variety of HR disciplines.

While neither option is better than the other, some organizations may benefit more from one type of role than the other. For example, smaller organizations may only need one or two generalists to handle all of their HR needs, while larger organizations might need an entire team of specialists for each HR discipline to deal with the volume and complexity of the business’s needs. 

Generalist roles are great for people who enjoy having lots of variety in what they do.

“As a generalist, you have a hand in any and everything related to HR, which means no day is ever the same and you get to work on a lot of different projects at once,” said Chonillo, who spent almost seven years in generalist roles at LabelMaster, a logistics and supply-chain company based out of Chicago. 

The downside to a generalist role, cautioned Chonillo, is that you can easily become stretched too thin.

“Oftentimes, there’s too much going on and you have to decide what you’re willing to let slip through the cracks,” Chonillo said. “When I was a generalist, I always felt like there were 50 things going on at once...I could never fully dedicate myself to a project I was working on and I never felt I was growing or making meaningful progress because my plate was always full.”

Still, even if you intend to specialize in one aspect of HR, a generalist role can lay a solid foundation for a strong career.

“It naturally creates an opportunity for you to figure out if there is one area that you do want to specialize in,” said Chonillo. “In my case, I used to want to be a teacher, so I love any role or project that lets me be involved with learning and development.”

Specialist roles allow you to play to your strengths and really invest in your skills in one particular area of HR. By gaining experience and a unique skill set, you can become a highly skilled and sought-after candidate in your space.

However, if you’re someone who needs variety in your day, you might get bored of doing similar work and projects day in and day out as a specialist. Or, should you decide to pursue a different career interest, you may feel pigeon-holed based on your specialized skill set.

When it comes to making a decision as to which route to pursue, it’s important to take into account your unique passions and interests and make sure the path you choose is suited for you. This will lead to a fulfilling career regardless of whether you decide to become a generalist or specialist, or alternate between the two.

Common HR Generalist Roles and Responsibilities

Interested in the generalist route? Using the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) resource center, we’ve compiled a brief list of popular generalist job titles and descriptions ranging from entry-level to executive-level positions.

Here’s an idea of what a career as a generalist could look like for you.

HR Assistant / Coordinator 

This is where most people begin their careers in Human Resources. An HR Assistant or Coordinator is an entry-level role that lets an individual roll up their sleeves and learn about all the day-to-day HR tasks. It’s usually a very generalized role that might help out with recruiting, benefits, payroll, employee relations, engagement, performance management, and whatever else needs to get done.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn and understand how the various disciplines of HR impact an organization,” noted Chonillo. “Plus, by gaining exposure to all the different facets of HR, employees can determine if they have a passion for one discipline and decide if that passion could develop into a more specialized role.”

This is an excellent place to start if you want to work in Human Resources, and it can be an important jumping-off point for people’s careers.

HR Manager

An HR Manager has more decision-making power and ownership of day-to-day HR processes, which, according to Chonillo, could include “ensuring you’re going to meet your 401(k) participation goals, deciding how to revamp communication during open enrollment, or brainstorming initiatives to increase employee engagement.”

“Managers still receive a certain level of oversight from their superiors, but they are more empowered to make decisions and be analytical than an HR coordinator,” he said.

As you gain experience or as the staff at your company grows, in this role you might lead a team of assistants or coordinators and be in charge of monitoring their performance and ensuring team goals are met.

HR Director / VP of HR

A Human Resources Director and Vice President are more senior members of the HR department, usually with 5-10 years of experience or more.

“Someone at this level is the owner of end-to-end process creation and the execution and oversight of every process and metric,” explained Chonillo. People in these roles help plan and develop HR strategy, create company policies, decide how to structure the department and teams, and supervise senior staff.

“They ensure what the department is doing and accomplishing is aligned with the company’s mission, values, and goals,” Chonillo said. In order to optimally perform their jobs, they must have a solid understanding of all areas of HR, including employment law, organizational planning, employee development, workplace safety, and compliance.

Chief HR Officer

Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) and Chief People Officer (CPO) are the most senior roles in HR. They typically report directly to the CEO and work closely with the rest of the C-suite and the company board to develop all company-wide HR initiatives, policies, and strategies.

CHROs usually have 15 years or more of Human Resources experience; they must be familiar with strategic planning and have proven leadership skills, extensive knowledge of the HR space and core disciplines, and the ability to inspire individuals at all levels of the organization. They oversee and coordinate the entire HR team to ensure that monthly, quarterly, and annual goals are met to advance company objectives.

Common HR Specialist Roles and Responsibilities

But not everyone sets out to be a CHRO; many people take interest in one specific aspect of Human Resources and decide to gain expertise and experience in that specific discipline. That might be areas such as payroll, recruiting, learning and development, employee engagement, or compliance, among others.

If you’re considering following a more specialized career path, here are just a few of the options available to you.

Benefits

Love building robust benefits packages and finding cutting-edge perks to keep your employees happy and healthy? Then maybe a career in benefits is right for you. A benefits specialist handles the planning and administering of benefits, including health, dental, vision, short-term, disability, life insurance, and retirement plans. They work with benefits brokers to secure the best plans at competitive pricing, and they are always on the lookout for new ways to improve existing programs and evolve offerings to suit employees’ changing needs.

Common benefits job titles include:

  • HR Benefits Coordinator
  • Global Benefits Manager
  • Benefits Analyst

Learning and Development

Learning and development (L&D) departments build and oversee employee development and training programs. They help identify skills gaps in an organization and create an internal learning curriculum to teach employees new skills and improve existing ones. They’re the ones who oversee new hire onboarding, new and existing manager training, and ongoing employee development.

People in these roles coordinate the entire professional growth program and help adapt learning materials for use across online, classroom, and blended learning options. They also track and analyze employee participation rates, engagement, and performance to evaluate and measure program effectiveness and identify opportunities for continued education.

Some examples of learning and development job titles are: 

  • L&D Lead
  • Learning Administrator
  • Instructional Designer
  • Head of Learning and Development

Payroll

If you love working with numbers and are known for your keen attention to detail, you might enjoy a career in payroll. As a payroll professional you have one task: making sure that every employee gets paid correctly and on time each pay cycle. But, guaranteeing the accuracy and timeliness of each paycheck is no small feat.

In addition to tracking and verifying employee hours, payroll professionals must process paycheck withholdings like state and federal taxes, and deductions for garnishments, 401(k) contributions, and benefits. They must also stay on top of all state and federal compliance requirements and ensure accurate record-keeping and reporting.

A few popular payroll job titles include:

  • Senior Payroll Specialist
  • Payroll Clerk
  • Payroll Manager

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I)

Many companies have renewed their commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce and culture. DE&I leads help set and achieve internal diversity goals, like hiring more diverse candidates and improving the internal mobility of minority employees. As well, they work to eradicate bias from internal processes, improve pay equity, and educate employees on diversity and inclusion.

Ultimately, their job is to demonstrate how important diversity and inclusion is to an organization’s overall success and strategy, identify and resolve barriers to change, and hold the business accountable for meeting DE&I goals. Crucial to their work is building a culture in which every employee feels seen, heard, and celebrated.

Here are a few examples of common D&I job titles:

  • Diversity Assistant
  • DE&I Lead
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager
  • Chief Equality Officer

It’s easy to get caught up striving for increasingly senior and impressive titles, but it’s important to be intentional about choosing roles that align with your particular interests and will help you achieve your specific career goals.

“Think more about the responsibilities and experience you can gain from a role,” Chonillo advised. “[For both specialists and generalists] job titles are usually influenced by the budget a company or hiring manager sets for a role and the responsibilities they think the role will have. The value of a role shouldn’t just be its title; it should be what you can learn from it and how it can get you closer to your career goals — whatever they may be.”