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Moving Into an HR Generalist Role: A Good Career Move?1

Scott L. Martin
Zayed University

Van M. Latham
PathPoint Consulting

1An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 24th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, New Orleans, LA.

Most organizations have human resource (HR) generalist roles. Although it may not be common for industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists to transition into such roles, the move can be beneficial for both the psychologist and the company. Generalist experience is likely to expand the I-O psychologist’s skill set and career options. In addition, HR generalists are increasingly being asked to assume strategic responsibilities and are held accountable for improving organizational performance. I-O psychologists should be well suited for this strategic aspect of the generalist position.

However, such moves are not without career risks, as specialists and generalists have quite different roles (Yeung, Woolcock, & Sullivan, 1996). A literature search yielded little information that might assist I-O psychologists or other HR specialists who may be considering moving into a generalist role. This article expands on two previous articles that appeared in The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist (Foster & Riddle, 2000; Harris, 2000) and is intended to help an I-O psychologist determine if the generalist role matches one’s interests and skills and, for those who move into a generalist position, offer suggestions to enhance one’s effectiveness in the role. The article is based on our personal experiences moving from I-O psychology to HR generalist positions in large U.S.-based organizations (brief biographies appear at the end of the article).

The HR Generalist Role

The HR generalist is typically assigned to one or more business units such as marketing, production, or supply chain and serves as the initial point of contact for all people issues. The generalist is responsible for securing and aligning all human capital to help the business unit achieve its strategic and operational objectives. The responsibilities of an HR generalist vary widely, ranging from strategic initiatives such as designing business processes or modifying organizational structures to more routine administrative tasks such as responding to employee inquiries regarding benefits or gathering information to correct payroll errors. The generalist usually works in a matrixed organizational structure and reports to the head(s) of the business unit(s) he/she is assigned to and to a senior HR manager. Although the generalist is expected to address many requests independently, he or she must rely on the HR specialist functions such as staffing, organization effectivevness or compensation for complicated technical issues or significant initiatives. A typical day for a generalist, as displayed in Table 1, has tremendous variety.

Table 1
Typical Day for HR Generalist
_________________________________________________________
7:30      Meet senior leader to review short-term business goals
8:00      Discuss employee termination issue with attorney
9:00      Review staffing activity with marketing department
10:00    Draft communication materials for structure changes
11:00    Review proposed promotion with compensation
12:00    Conduct lunch interview with job candidate
1:00      Attend HR meeting with other generalists
2:00      Attend HRIS meeting to review employee self-service features
3:00      Collect information to support arbitration hearings
4:00      Present changes in benefits package to logistics department
5:00      Facilitate a consensus meeting regarding a job candidate
_________________________________________________________
 

Career Implications

Traditionally, the primary reason for moving from a specialist to a generalist role is to prepare for the top HR job (Lovewell, 2006). In order to lead the HR function, it is important to have at least a general understanding of all areas of HR. In many respects, the generalist holds a “scaled-down” version of the top HR job. In addition, generalist work allows one to build stronger relationships with line management, and such relationships are critical for obtaining and being successful in senior HR positions (Foster & Riddle, 2000).

However, the generalist role provides a few other career options as well. First, the I-O psychologist can return to the organization effectiveness (OE) department with an improved skill set and perspective.2 Working as a generalist allows one to learn more about the business (Foster & Riddle, 2000). It also allows one to view I-O psychology work through the eyes of the customer. This experience is likely to improve the I-O psychologist’s design and implementation skills.

2 We use the term “organization effectiveness” or OE to refer to the department within the broader HR function in which the industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologist works. In practice, many other terms are also used for this unit such as organization development, management and leadership effectiveness, and learning and development.

Second, the generalist can move into a different specialist role such as staffing or compensation. Because generalist work provides exposure to all of the specialty areas, over time one could gain sufficient skill to enter another area of HR.

Finally, one could remain in the generalist role. There are many ways to build one’s career as a generalist, such as assuming responsibility for larger or more critical functions or managing other generalists.

We should note that it is likely that an I-O psychologist would only be able to transition into a generalist role within one’s current organization. In our experience, the skill sets of the I-O psychologist and career generalist are sufficiently different that most organizations would not hire an I-O psychologist from outside the organization to fill a generalist position. When the transition is considered within an organization, there are additional factors that may support the move such as the psychologist’s knowledge of the organization and the organization’s commitment to the psychologist’s long-term career development.

Enjoyable Aspects

There are aspects of the generalist role that are likely to be viewed as interesting by I-O psychologists. We used a few of the job characteristics identified by Hackman and Oldham (1980) to organize our thoughts.

The generalist job has tremendous variety (Harris, 2000). One is exposed to all aspects of human resources. We were amazed at the number of HR activities we were unaware of despite having spent a large portion of our careers working in OE. In addition, one is exposed to many strategic and tactical business challenges.

The job also provides a significant amount of “identity.” A generalist works closely with the business and is involved in all aspects of HR from end-to-end. This allows the generalist to identify with the business.

Finally, a generalist has a direct and significant impact on the lives of other employees and the business. Those in I-O psychology positions tend to focus on the conceptual design and development of systems and solutions. Generalists, on the other hand, have a strong voice in tangible decisions such as who is hired, how much an employee should be paid, or whether someone who engaged in inappropriate behavior should be terminated. Generalists also address strategic HR issues that have a direct impact on the business.

Not-So-Enjoyable Aspects

Naturally, there are aspects of the job that are less attractive. One challenge is the flip side of the tremendous amount of variety in the job. The job can be extremely stressful during the first few months. Initially, an I-O psychologist is not likely to have the knowledge required to respond to most inquiries or issues. For instance, during the first week as generalists, one of us had a manager die and the other faced a major labor strike. The necessary knowledge is generally available in the organization, but it requires a significant amount of time to become familiar with one’s resources and gather the appropriate information.

Another challenge related to the amount of variety is that one may spend a fair amount of time doing things that are not interesting or enjoyable. This might involve tasks that are inherently unpleasant such as managing individual terminations and large-scale layoffs. Generalists often spend a significant amount of time exiting employees for poor performance. It can also involve work that is basic and repetitive. For example, tasks such as tracking down benefits information, managing reporting relationships in the HR information system, or collecting signed ethics statements are often assigned to generalists.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is having significant responsibility for delivering HR solutions to a business unit with little formal power or resources. Virtually all HR requests are directed to the generalist, but the generalist does not have the time, expertise, or budget to handle these requests. Support can generally be obtained from the specialists, but the generalist has limited control over how and when such support is provided. In our view, this lack of control can be particularly stressful for I-O psychologists who are accustomed to being the expert in an area and having a fair amount of control over technical issues within this area.

Requirements

What characteristics should the I-O psychologist have to be successful in the generalist role? The first is flexibility, and this applies to one’s schedule and the work. Compared to the practicing I-O psychologist, the generalist has less control over his or her own schedule (Harris, 2000). Business leaders may request a meeting at a moment’s notice, and organizational crises can appear out of nowhere. I-O positions certainly have some of these demands, but they tend to offer more autonomy in how and when projects are completed. In terms of type of work, a generalist must be willing to do things that may be unpleasant or boring and that are not always aligned with one’s interests, education, or skills.

One must be willing to “let go” of I-O psychology (Foster & Riddle, 2000). This can be extremely difficult as we can identify with our field in many ways. Arguably, a generalist can apply I-O psychology on a daily basis such as when interviewing, coaching leaders, or managing change (Harris, 2000). However, a generalist is not involved in the technical aspects of I-O psychology and must be willing to defer to others in the OE function on technical matters.

Moving into a generalist role may involve a slight reduction in status or prestige. The two previous TIP articles (Foster & Riddle, 2000; Harris, 2000) suggest that HR generalist roles may involve higher levels of compensation and status. This is true if the move involves a promotion to a higher level such as from “director, organization effectiveness” to “vice president, field human resources.” However, assuming a lateral move, our view is that the generalist position may have less status than the I-O psychology position. The difference is not dramatic as both roles have strategic responsibilities, but the generalist role, at least historically, has involved more administrative and less strategic work than the I-O psychology role, so business partners may hold the I-O position in slightly higher regard than the generalist role.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the generalist role involves an extensive amount of interaction with other people. Thus, one must enjoy and be effective in building relationships, communicating, negotiating, influencing others, being empathetic, and managing conflict.

Tips for Success

This transition can be extremely rewarding but is not risk free, particularly in a down economy. Before making a decision, one might trial test the generalist role to get a realistic preview. Shadowing a generalist for a few days should provide insight into the role. In addition, a few generalists can be interviewed to better understand the responsibilities and challenges. We should note that the generalist role can vary dramatically depending on the type of function one is supporting (e.g., corporate office, field operations, manufacturing with union presence).

Assuming one wishes to make the transition into a generalist role, our view is that it is probably better to make this move earlier rather than later in one’s career. The expectations and compensation are lower earlier in one’s career, so there is less pressure to get up to speed quickly. In addition, one is able to benefit more from the experience if it’s done earlier.

It is probably useful to have multiple exit strategies before making the transition. What if one doesn’t like the role or is viewed as ineffective after 3 months? Is the plan to return to OE after a couple of years? How does this move fit into one’s long-term career goals? One’s plans are likely to change over time, but it’s useful to discuss these issues from the very outset and communicate on a regular basis with one’s management team in HR.

Once one has moved into a generalist role it is important to make a concerted effort to avoid having one’s technical background interfere with the new role. There will be times when one’s I-O background will be useful such as in helping to write goals, coaching leaders, or explaining survey results (Harris, 2000). However, the generalist role is nontechnical, so it is best to avoid scientific jargon, complicated explanations, and references to one’s technical background.

At the same time, one should probably stay connected to I-O psychology to keep one’s career options open, particularly if one plans to return to the OE function. But these efforts should be viewed as developmental work outside one’s day job. For instance, one may offer to review or pilot new initiatives from the OE function. One might continue to read the literature, write articles, or attend conferences.

We believe one should have two major goals during the first 60 days as a generalist. First, become an expert on the most critical customer or operations jobs in the business, such as product engineer or sales representative. Not only are these jobs important to the success of the business, but they occupy most of the generalist’s time and will be the key to one’s success. What are the major responsibilities of these roles? What is the typical day like? What are the most important knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for success? This is an opportunity to use one’s job analysis skills without ever using the term “job analysis” with one’s business partners.

Second, work with the leaders in one’s business unit(s) and HR to develop an HR strategy that will help one’s business achieve its objectives. One should identify the two or three main HR initiatives that will contribute to the success of the business and stay focused on driving these initiatives every week. At the end of the year, the goal is to be able to point to specific business results, such as reduced labor costs or increased revenue, that were produced through improved HR solutions.

About the Authors

Scott Martin received his PhD at Ohio State in I-O psychology in 1987. He began his career working with various human resource consulting firms, including London House and DDI. From 2000–2003, Scott led an organization effectiveness function for Payless ShoeSource, and from 2003–2007 he served as a generalist at Payless for the following functions: buying, distribution, marketing, and law. Scott now teaches in the business school at Zayed University in the UAE.

Van Latham received his PhD from Wayne State in I-O psychology in 1985. He initially taught in the business school at Creighton University before holding organization effectiveness and generalist roles over a 10-year period at PepsiCo’s Pizza Hut and Pepsi-Cola divisions. Van then assumed the top HR job for Iron Mountain from 1997–1999. Van now manages his own consulting practice, PathPoint Consulting, and teaches in Harvard’s graduate program in management.

References

     Foster, L. L., & Riddle, D. L. (2000). Early careers: In dogged pursuit of success. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 38(1), 129–138.
     Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1980). Work redesign. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing.
     Harris, M. M. (2000). I-O, I-OOh, no!! It’s off to HR I go! The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 37(4), 59–63.
     Lovewell, D. (2006, August). Getting to the top. Employee Benefits, 34–38.
     Yeung, A., Woolcock, P., & Sullivan, J. (1996). Identifying and developing HR competencies for the future: Keys to sustaining the transformation of HR functions. Human Resource Planning, 19(4), 48–58.