What Is the Difference in an HR Generalist & an HR Manager?

by Tia Benjamin; Updated September 26, 2017

Many subdivisions make up the field of human resources, each backed by a comprehensive set of employment regulations, legislation, best practice and policy. Becoming an expert in any one of these functions takes time and significant training, and HR managers can -- and do -- specialize exclusively in a certain area for the duration of their careers. Other HR professionals are required to develop a generalist overview of all HR functions and work on a variety of projects in multiple areas of HR.

HR Generalist

HR generalists are characterized by their involvement in -- and knowledge of -- a wide variety of functions and divisions within HR. In any typical day, the HR generalist may re-negotiate with a health benefits broker, determine if positions should be classified as exempt or non-exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act, open a recruitment, answer questions about medical leave options and testify at an unemployment insurance hearing. The generalist is a jack-of-all-trades who can administer any aspect of HR.

HR Manager

Specialized HR managers have built a wealth of knowledge directly related to a specific HR function. In addition to supervisory duties, HR managers perform a more analytical role, using their detailed knowledge of employment laws and regulations, best practices and benchmarking. HR managers in medium and large organizations typically oversee a specific division or function in the HR department. Examples of these specialty functions include classification and compensation, labor relations, investigations and discipline, workers compensation, training, recruitment and employee benefits.

Organizational Hierarchy

In large organizations, HR generalists typically occupy the extremes of the HR department hierarchy. Some generalist positions perform entry level, administrative functions, whereas at the other end of the spectrum, generalist HR executives are responsible for all divisions in the HR department, with a layer of specialized HR managers sandwiched in between. In small organizations, the HR manager is the only employee responsible for all HR functions, and needs to be a generalist with skills and expertise to handle the employer's HR operations single-handed.

Generalist HR Manager

The HR generalist and the HR manager don't have to be mutually exclusive, and often aren't. High level HR managers need to be conversant -- at least on a basic level -- in all areas of HR to be able to effectively supervise staff. Being a generalist does not mean that the HR manager doesn't have somewhat of a specialization in a certain area -- but while she may prefer working in a certain specialty field, she has the breadth of knowledge to be comfortable overseeing any area.

2016 Salary Information for Human Resources Managers

Human resources managers earned a median annual salary of $106,910 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, human resources managers earned a 25th percentile salary of $80,800, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $145,220, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 136,100 people were employed in the U.S. as human resources managers.

About the Author

For more than a decade, Tia Benjamin has been writing organizational policies, procedures and management training programs. A C-level executive, she has more than 15 years experience in human resources and management. Benjamin obtained a Bachelor of Science in social psychology from the University of Kent, England, as well as a Master of Business Administration from San Diego State University.