HR generalists could be comeback kids of the downturn

The great British workforce tends to under-use its HR departments. Most of us only go to them when we have a specific need – maybe to book some training, or with a query about our latest payslip.

Generally speaking, we simply put in a call to the HR department, have a quick chat with whoever answers the phone, and then get on with the rest of our day.

Human resources as a profession is, of course, a lot more complicated than that. It has developed from rather humble beginnings until now it sits at the centre of many organisations, driving initiatives that are vital if businesses are to thrive. The evolution of the profession has led to a great degree of specialisation among it practitioners: the wider its scope, the more difficult it has been to focus on all disciplines in HR.

However, if you scratch the surface, the picture beneath is changing slowly.

Specialist role, generalist duties

As the recession continues to bite, organisations are looking at every part of their business in the search for ways to make resources go further. HR hasn’t escaped.

The practical impact of this is that specialist HR professionals are increasingly being asked to include more generalist duties within their role. Job titles remain unaffected, but the day-to-day roles are being given a wider scope.

The proof can be found in the job specifications employers are using when they recruit HR specialists. For example, a specialist may previously have found a role entirely concerned with compensation and benefits relatively easily. Now, that role is much more likely to include more general duties as well as the specialist activity. In fact, the most popular mix now sees 70% of the remit being specialist and a sizable 30% being generalist.

What does this mean?

For a lot of HR professionals, this is probably a good thing. It has traditionally been quite difficult for a generalist to develop any really specialist skills without seeking out extra training themselves. This new landscape means we’re seeing employers look a lot more favourably on generalists. Organisations are much more likely to take them on board because of their wide-ranging strengths and spend time developing some specialist skill sets.

For those who are already specialists, it will likely mean a small change of focus. Professionals who have enjoyed being able to concentrate on their own corner of HR may well need to get their hands dirty with day-to-day HR work.

However, it doesn’t mean the end of specialisms – it is still in demand in pockets of the economy, with senior specialists earning £60,000-plus relatively unaffected. In-depth knowledge will always be needed in specific areas it may simply need to be blended with more general duties while the economy struggles and employers are under pressure.

If you’re looking for a new role, the most practical piece of advice emerging from this is to be 100% sure you read the job specification thoroughly. Also, learn as much as you can about the role from your recruitment consultant. It’s a piece of advice we should all be following anyway, but it will take on a new relevance as this trend begins to gather pace.

The danger is that you could apply for a recruitment role, prepare all the great examples of where you’ve framed and delivered outstanding recruitment programmes, arrive at the interview and spend half of it being asked about your wider HR experience.

The future

No trend lasts for ever, especially those motivated by the economy. As the country moves through the recession and towards recovery, we are likely to see the spotlight swung back on specialists again.

The problem is that no-one quite knows how long it will take for the economy to get back on its feet. The ‘glass-half-empty’ types have suggested that it may take up to five years, and even when it does recover it will look completely different.

The safest way forward is to start brushing up again on your broad HR skills and make sure you stay as flexible as possible. Specialist knowledge will always be needed, but the HR generalist could be set to make a big comeback if the recession continues to drag.

Guy Emmerson, associate director HR recruitment, Badenoch & Clark

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