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What Types of HR Specialism Are There?

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Specialising in a particular field has been shown to have a range of benefits when it comes to your overall career development: from higher average salaries and benefit packages, through to better employment prospects and progression opportunities. 

So what’s the difference between HR generalists and specialists? What types of HR specialisms are there? How can you choose a HR specialism? 

We explore everything you need to know about specialising in a particular field in human resources in this blog. 

What is a HR generalist?

A HR generalist is a professional who has skills, knowledge and expertise covering all of the major areas of human resources. Their overall skillset is one that is incredibly varied, allowing them to perform a range of roles within a human resources department. 

The key strength of a HR generalist is the adaptability of their skills. This can make them a formidable asset to a department, helping them to plug skills gaps where they exist, eliminating the need to hire a specialist member of staff. 

For example, this versatility could see HR generalists called upon to help with anything from recruitment and payroll through to learning and development and grievance/disciplinary procedures. 

In terms of their day-to-day role responsibilities, the intrinsic function of a HR generalist is to implement strategy, policy and key decisions. The fact that they have such a variety of skills means that this type of role is particularly useful in small organisations where the overall HR department is just one or two people and budgets are quite limited. 

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Pros of being a HR generalist

  • Transferable skills: HR generalists are renowned for the quality of their transferable skills – ie. skills that you can use in other contexts, besides just one role. Having transferable skills improves your attractiveness as a job candidate in both HR and non-HR roles, letting you compete for a greater range of positions. 
  • Bigger picture view: You are involved in practically every aspect of HR in an organisation, giving you a great overview of how the function works and is implemented in an organisation. 
  • Career prospects: The versatility of the skills, knowledge and abilities they possess mean that HR generalists often have great career prospects over the long-term. They can adapt to a changing labour market more easily than many other HR roles, improving their overall job security. 

Cons of being a HR generalist

  • Lack of specialisation: As a generalist, your strength is in your breadth of knowledge rather than in your knowledge of a specific area. Lacking a specialist skill can affect your overall employability 
  • Harder career progression: Not specialising in a particular area can make it harder to progress in some roles and in some larger organisations
  • Less productive: Not having specialist, complex skills and knowledge of a particular area can affect your productivity in some cases
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What types of HR specialisms are there?

So, if you’re interested in taking your career to the next level and specialising in a specific area, what HR specialisms can you choose from? Here are the most common HR areas that most professionals choose to develop a career in:

  • Recruitment
  • Retention
  • Employment law
  • Employee retention
  • Company culture
  • Organisational design and management
  • Payroll
  • Benefits and rewards
  • Talent Management 
  • Learning and development
  • Employee wellbeing
  • Analytics
  • Organisational design and development

How to choose a HR specialism

Now you know what specialisms there are to choose from, you’re probably eager to learn how you can go about specialise in a particular area. Whilst the rules for how to choose a HR specialism aren’t set in stone, there are a few pointers you can bear in mind to make the process easier. Here are three of the most essential things to think about when it comes to choosing a HR area to specialise in. 

1. Determine your professional interests

Your professional interests will probably be the most important thing that influences the exact specialism you decide to choose. They are the topics in your field that interest you the most: the things that get you really excited and that bring you the most fulfilment. 

The first step is to work out what your professional interests actually are. The best way to do this is to create a good old fashioned list. Write down all of the interests that you have and try ranking them, based on how interesting they are to you.

Whilst you’re doing this, ask yourself if you can see yourself working in a dedicated role related to this for the foreseeable future. After all, if you specialise in a field, it’s often for the duration of your entire career. Getting the choice right now will save you a lot of time, money and effort in the long-term. 

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2. Find your strengths

If you’re struggling to identify a particular area that you’re interested in, or you’re overwhelmed by having too many options, it can be useful to identify the things that you’re good at. In other words, find your strengths. 

Often, the things that we’re good at doing can end up becoming useful professional interests to pursue, increasing the chances of our careers being long and successful. After all, logic dictates that if we’re good at something, we’re more likely to succeed in it over the long-term. 

Ask yourself what you’re good at when it comes to human resources. Do you have a pretty exceptional knowledge of employee law, for instance, or can you process payroll faster and more accurately than everyone else? The little things that you excel in are often good indicators of where to specialise your career.  

3. Be grounded

When you’re thinking about the future, it’s often easy to get carried and caught up in the range of emotions you’ll be feeling: inspiration, hope, desire etc. In a situation like this, try not to let your heart rule your head. What seems like a good idea in your mind might turn out to be an unwise professional decision in reality.

Approaching ideas with a healthy dose of realism and scepticism can help you to better prepare for what you’re likely to be able to achieve easily. 

4. Develop your skills and knowledge

If you’ve done all of the above and still can’t really find something you’re interested in, that could be an indication that you just need to get a little bit more experience of the field. Studying a professional qualification like those offered by CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) can be a useful way to broaden your HR knowledge and help you find a specialism that’s perfect for you. There are a range of HR qualifications available to suit your career development from Level 3 through to Level 5 and Level 7.  

If you’re eager for some more advice about how to choose what area to specialise in, this blog article by UniCreds has some useful tips and tricks for finding a field that suits you. The CIPD has a range of detailed advice aimed at people working in HR to help you find a professional specialism that’s right for you. We hope this blog has given you a good understanding of the difference between HR generalists and HR specialists, and an idea of the many different HR areas that you could specialise it. 

Specialise your HR career by studying a human resources qualification. Download your free CIPD course guide today.