HR Specialist vs. HR Generalist: What's the Difference? (With FAQs)

Updated June 24, 2022

Human resources professionals handle all employee-related functions for companies. They're ultimately responsible for making a company an enjoyable place to work and handling many administrative tasks. There are myriad job titles and career levels in the HR field, and learning about each of them can help you decide if it's a good field for you. In this article, we explain the difference between an HR specialist and an HR generalist and answer some frequently asked questions about the two jobs.

Related: The Hierarchy of HR Job Titles

What is an HR generalist?

An HR generalist is someone with a range of skills who can perform several human resources responsibilities. An HR generalist may complete all the HR tasks for a business or work with a team under a director. Their responsibilities may change from day to day to handle the varying needs of their business. For example, a generalist could spend one day onboarding new employees and the next day handling benefits questions from current employees. HR generalists also work with employees to solve workplace disputes and distribute policies. If you enjoy variety in your workdays, you may enjoy being an HR generalist.

Related: HR Generalist: Job Description and Requirements

What is an HR specialist?

An HR specialist is someone who's trained to work in a particular area of human resources, like benefits administration. These individuals usually have training as HR generalists before they decide to specialize in a particular area of human resources. Most HR specialists are part of a larger team of HR professionals, including other specialists, generalists and managers. HR specialists' responsibilities are generally less varied than those of HR generalists. If you enjoy a more focused set of responsibilities, you may find a career as an HR specialist satisfying.

FAQs about HR specialists vs. HR generalists

Below are a few frequently asked questions about the differences between HR generalists and HR specialists:

Which of the two jobs pays more?

According to Indeed Salaries where salary information is frequently updated, the average base salary for an HR generalist is $58,240 per year, while HR specialists make about $47,397 per year. It's important to note that HR pay varies across industries and company size. You may find that an HR specialist job at a large company in a growing industry could pay more than a job with the same title at a smaller company.

What education do you need to be an HR specialist or HR generalist?

A bachelor's degree in a relevant field (like human resources, business or human relations) is a requirement for most specialist and generalist jobs. Master's degrees in human resources are also available for people who want to continue to develop their human resources knowledge or learn more about a specific area of human resources. There are also some professional organizations that offer opportunities for continued career development.

Related: 14 Best Certification Courses for HR Professionals

How can you gain more HR experience?

Beyond education, there are a couple of ways you can gain experience to become an HR generalist or an HR specialist:

  • Internships: Many companies offer human resources internships that you can complete during college or as soon as you graduate. Internships are ideal opportunities to gain experience and learn more about human resources functions. You can also list internships on your resume to show you have some related knowledge.

  • Volunteering: Another way to gain more HR experience is to volunteer for roles that align with the skills needed for human resources. For example, nonprofits and community organizations often have human resources roles that can help you develop skills like problem-solving, conflict resolution and critical thinking. You can search for local volunteer opportunities on most job search websites.

What are some HR specialties?

Here is a list of popular HR specialties:

  • Benefits specialists: Employees who specialize in benefits help design health benefit packages for healthcare, vision and dental care. They also specialize in 401(k) plans and other employee benefits.

  • Human resources information systems (HRIS) specialists: People who specialize in HR information systems are proficient in maintaining and supporting HR technology resources like performance management systems, payroll software and record systems.

  • Payroll specialists: These HR specialists handle all things payroll, from the software to company budgeting and expenses.

  • Recruiting and staffing specialists: Recruiting specialists can assist managers with the hiring process. Their duties may include communicating with prospective employees and screening candidates.

  • Compensation specialists: These HR specialists design and implement different compensation packages for their business. Performance reviews are often part of the job duties of compensation specialists.

  • Training specialists: These HR employees may choose and implement employee training programs, guiding new employees through company practices and helping develop more experienced employees.

  • Risk management specialists: These specialists analyze and measure risks of business like employee safety and implement policies that manage the risk of certain business activities.

What are the duties of an HR generalist?

Here's a list of common duties for an HR generalist:

  • Hiring: Human resources handles the administrative components of the hiring process.

  • Onboarding: HR generalists create and facilitate the onboarding process for new hires at a company.

  • Training and development: Generalists can also assist with training new employees and developing seasoned employees.

  • Workplace policies: Dress code policies, anti-harassment policies, equipment policies and codes of conduct are examples of workplace policies that HR generalists develop, implementing and enforcing.

  • Benefits: Health care plans, 401(k)s and paid time off are all the responsibility of human resources generalists.

  • Pay: An HR generalist can ensure that employees get their paychecks on time and solve any problems with employee paychecks.

  • Employee relations: Human resources employees can help resolve disputes between employees. They're also responsible for documenting employee terminations.

  • Evaluations: A human resources department can conduct and track employee evaluations. They can determine the frequency and amount of employee raises during benchmark evaluations.

  • Workplace safety: HR generalists can receive and address employee safety concerns.

How do you decide whether to be an HR generalist or an HR specialist?

If you're unsure which human resources career path is right for you, you can take steps toward either path and change your mind based on your preferences. Many people start out as HR generalists and move into specialist roles later in their careers.

Starting as an HR generalist can also help you discover whether you're interested in any specialties. For example, if you particularly enjoy employee development tasks, you may consider an HR development specialist job. As you explore different human resources jobs, it can be helpful to make a list of the tasks you enjoy to better define your career path.


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