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Ask the HR Capitalist - Is a Benefits Manager Worth More Than a HR Manager?

From the mailbag:

Dear Kris - I'm a HR Representative who has always loved being a generalist, to the extent I have not looked to take a tour of duty in the Compensation or Benefits section of our HR department.  In this month's HR Magazine, SHRM released their annual HR Salary Survey and it looks like Benefits and Comp professionals earn more than HR generalists.   What's up with that?  Should I get on the benefit track since I am still early in my career?

Janet from Chicago
Janet -

Fair question.  The SHRM Annual Salary Survey is always full of good info, but it's one data point of manyThe_doctor_is_in to consider as you try to map out your career.  The big data point for me out of the SHRM survey was the Total Compensation for Select HR Manager-level positions, which includes both Generalist (HR Manager) and Specialist (Benefits Manager, Compensation Manager, etc.) positions at the manager level.  Here's where the survey had some commonly found manager-level positions for 2007 Total Comp:

-Compensation Manager - $98,600 (up 6%)
-Benefits Manager - $89,200 (up 2%)
-Training Manager - $85,100 (no change)
-Employee Relations Manager - $85,300 (down 4%)
-HR Manager - $80,700 (down 4%)

Make your decision based on that info alone, and you'd probably jump off the generalist track and become a specialist.  Pay no attention to the fact that average comp went down for the HR Manager position - that's reflective of a new batch of respondents, and also the wide variability of what the title HR Manager actually means, which I'll talk about in a second.  Before you jump off the generalist track, however, there are a couple of other considerations you need to make.  Among the factors are:

-What are your long-term career goals?  Do you want to run an HR shop? Do you like being a generalist or are you prone to enjoy specialization?  While a stint as a specialist is helpful, most Directors and VPs of HR come from the generalist ranks.

-If you jump into the Comp, Benefits or Training arenas and stay, you'll effectively shrink your opportunity pool.  Almost every company of any size has HR Managers and up, but only the largest can afford to have a Comp or Benefits Manager.  Stay a generalist and you'll find it easier to move among companies and across industries.

-The tag "HR Manager" has a lot more variability in it regarding relative level of position.  The HR Manager title can mean a one person HR shop in a very small company earning 40K, or a Fortune 100 HR Manager earning 110K.  Based on the number of small companies having a HR Manager position, there's no doubt a downward drag on the total comp average for the title.  A similar drag doesn't exist for the Benefits or Compensation Manager title, because the definition is more consistent.

-The Generalist "HR Manager" title has other levels that aren't likely represented in the data above, like "HR Director".  With this and the previous point in mind, the size of your company and the relative size of your client group will drive your compensation when you become a HR Manager.

A quick look at your title of HR Representative suggests you're probably an individual contributor on your way to becoming a manager of some type.  With that in mind, now is the best time in your career to experiment with a tour of duty in the Benefits or Comp department as an analyst, especially if you can come back to being a generalist later.   If you think the content interests you, take a tour and find out more - but if you like being a generalist, only do it if you can come back later on.

The explosion of medical costs to be managed on the Benefits side of the house means benefit professionals will continue to see growth in their compensation moving forward, probably growth that consistently out-paces that of generalists.  However, go too deep into the benefits career, and you'll likely find it hard to get back to the generalist role.

Above and beyond all else, figure out what motivates you and follow it.  If you rock as a generalist, you'll make more than the average throughout your career! 




There are actually two types of forks in the road for a number of us in the HR arena. One is the "Generalist vs. Specialist" fork and the other is the "HR Generalist/Representative vs. Benefits Analyst/Specialist" fork. I've experienced both and have ended up as a Benefits and Compensation Manager (exactly where I wanted to be). There were some difficult choices I had to make along the way that may have slowed my career path a bit, but I was still indecisive as to which specific direction I wanted to take. Initially, it was a choice of supervising people or managing a specific process - I ended up choosing the Specialist role because I was driven towards the analytical side and did not have the patience at the time to manage a group of HR Clerks.

In all, I've held the position of Benefits Analyst, Pension Specialist, Benefits Administrator, HR Manager, HR Director and lastly as Benefits and Compensation Manager.

Things can get tricky between the Benefits and HR world. You really need to be in tune with your goals and career aspirations in order that you don't zig zag laterally between the two areas. The consequences of doing so can be slower career advancement along with unintentional labeling that makes your resume and career path confusing to hiring managers. You can also get caught up in being an HR Manager or Director in a small company doing no more than what an HR Representative does in a much larger company. Again, this affects you most down the road when you are applying for a management position where companies want to see more relevance and alignment to the position they are offering.

My suggestion is to experiment early between the two areas (since they are usually joined at the hip somewhat) and then decide on a path to take so that you can pursue future opportunities without getting labeled or sidetracked by what I mentioned above. If you do not travel this route, then expect future interviewers to question your work history or think twice about offering you the desired position because of the choices you have made in your career between the HR and Benefits areas.

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