Is the HR “Specialist” Function Becoming Obsolete?

Jul 11, 2012
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

More and more there is talk of the HR business partner and HR generalist functions when it comes to all things HR. These functions are HR’s way of aligning with the C-suite or, as most say, getting a “seat at the table.” To have the HR business partner or HR generalist in your organization says you are being “strategic.” In any event, both of these roles are handling everything from succession planning to recruitment plans, depending on the organizations’ structure.

That said, one might ask what is the use in having a “specialist” in HR? More importantly, what are the implications for recruiters if indeed this is a trend? I’ll address both separately.

Traditionally, HR has been comprised of varying levels and types of specialists all well-versed in a specific area of HR (e.g. compensation analysts and benefits specialists). Since HR generalists and HR business partners are being embedded in the various departments and groups, conversations that were generally happening with specialists regarding their specialty are happening with HR business partners and/or HR generalists instead. The hope is that central HR has some allies out there in the field. This group’s primary function is to be in the trenches with the customer and also to champion the work that HR does. If the business partner and generalist are seeing the day-to-day and have the ability to mitigate and/or resolve issues at the department level, maybe there is no need for the “specialist.”

This fashionable push toward the business partner model may be seen as polarizing to the HR function on the whole, and perhaps it is.

For example, let’s look at the recruiter role — also called a talent acquisition specialist. Traditionally in this role you are responsible for the attraction, selection, and hiring of professionals for your company. Any recruiter worth their salary doesn’t just post jobs, route candidates, interview, and hire people. If you’re really good at what you do, you were already a business partner to your internal customers. You were contacted when vacancies were on the horizon. You set meetings to proactively develop job descriptions and recruitment plans. In addition, you help them come to realizations as they plan for future positions advising them of candidate availability and market conditions. You pre-screen, interview, and develop offers with the input of compensation and others to ensure internal equity.

Where does the talent acquisition specialist/recruiter fit in now, if there is suddenly someone else who is doing what they have always done? It leaves the recruiter confused and unsure of where to focus their energy. In other cases, the recruiter may wonder what their purpose is.

Some organizations — due to the lack of adequate staff and the economic downturn — have shifted more and more responsibility away from central HR to the HR business partner or HR generalist as a cost savings. In effect, the HR generalist and HR business partner are no longer just doing the “strategic” work but they are also acting in the capacity of central HR. This trend certainly makes it seem like HR is moving toward having a “Jack or Jane of all trades” function like the generalist and/or business partner who can do it all, rather than having different specialists for each facet of HR.

The overarching question is: can these practitioners do it all, and do it all effectively? The answer to that question depends on these three variables: the size of the organization, the amount of HR functions to be handled, and the amount of support the company is willing to supply to these decentralized practitioners. Without these three variables being properly considered and planned for, the role of the “partner in the trenches” is basically a joke. Deploying these practitioners without proper support, resources, and with a ridiculous workload will result in burnout, things left undone, or done in an untimely matter and a lack of focus. All of ths will cast HR in a light of being inefficient and not adding value, which is the opposite of our intention.

Less is not always more. We may think we are being more efficient and strategic by decreasing headcount and consolidating responsibilities — but it may be to our demise. There is something powerful in having specialists, business partners, and generalists working toward the goal of ensuring a happy and productive workforce. Depending on your companies’ needs you will ultimately decide what is right for your organization under the current economic climate. However, in deciding how to structure your HR department and best service both your internal and external customers, consider the risks and opportunities involved in using an HR generalist or business partner in lieu of or with the help of other HR specialists.

photo from imdb

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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