Generalist vs Specialist: Which Kind of Recruiter Should You Hire for Your Team?

November 12, 2019

There’s a saying in certain circles that Java is to JavaScript as car is to carpet. It’s a phrase developers often use to explain their frustration with talent professionals who don’t know as much and, as a result, make some embarrassing missteps in their outreach and interviews — like mixing up the similar-sounding programming languages. There are even entire Reddit threads dedicated to detailing and chuckling at these recruiter faux pas

It’s unfortunate that mistakes like this happen. But unless you hire a specialist recruiter, they do happen occasionally. After all, no one can know everything about every role they have to hire for, especially if those roles span multiple departments and areas of expertise. 

At the same time, though, there are plenty of good reasons to hire a generalist recruiter — like their ability to be agile when the business needs it. 

There’s no clear-cut solution for which you should hire, so we turned to three recruiting experts to get their thoughts: Anastacia Flores, senior director of talent acquisition at CBS Interactive, Dr. Martin Beischl, global director of talent and culture at riskmethods, and Ross Baron, head of recruiting for Western Europe at TikTok. 

The Future of Recruiting report predicts that over the next five years, more recruiting teams will create dedicated roles in areas like talent analytics — but will this trend toward specialization also affect the recruiters themselves? Here’s what the experts had to say, along with their tips for choosing the right kind of recruiter for both your company and your team. 

The argument for specialization: Specialist recruiters know where to look for niche talent and can talk to them on their level

One of the most compelling reasons to hire a specialist recruiter is that they’re more likely to know where to find niche communities of talent. If they’re immersed in a specific community, they’ll have a good idea of where those candidates hang out — and how to approach them. 

“Two lifetimes ago, I was sourcing for front-end engineers before there were even front-end engineers,” Anastacia recalls. “I remember I would go to meetups and sit in with engineers on conferences, because I wanted to learn what was happening so that I could then better find and hire the [right] people.”

This networking can also help specialist recruiters create a network of trusted contacts that they can tap into for referrals

“Sometimes it's an email to four people,” Anastacia says. “And they send it on to four of their friends and four of their friends, and you get back 57 emails of resumes.”

Once they’ve identified some prospects, specialized recruiters understand how to speak to them in a confident, knowledgeable way. This can not only help the recruiter avoid awkward Java/JavaScript-style mix-ups — which can be highly off-putting for candidates — but can give them a better sense of what those candidates really care about. If you know sales in and out, for example, then you’ll know exactly which aspects of the job to emphasize to catch a salesperson’s attention. 

Having this knowledge also makes it easier for recruiters to assess a candidate’s potential, whether they’re glancing at a resume or conducting a phone screening.

“They know what to look at,” says Anastacia. “They can check a resume super quick. They can talk to the candidate — they know if they’ve got it.”

With that said, there is such a thing as being too specialized. Keep in mind that a specialist doesn’t necessarily need to be an expert.

“I don't think that it's necessarily required to go and take extra college coursework or whatever else,” says Anastacia. “You need to know enough to be dangerous, so to speak — not necessarily enough to do the work.”

The argument against specialization: Generalist recruiters can help a team be more agile and responsive to changing business needs

While there are many benefits to knowing one talent pool inside and out, this approach is not without its flaws. For one thing, it may not appeal to some recruiters, since being highly specialized can limit a person’s career opportunities. It may also limit the recruiter’s ability to pitch in when the rest of the team is overloaded. 

“Since they're so specialized, they can't work on other business areas where there is a peak or a sudden demand in hiring,” argues Ross. “Recruiters then are less productive.” 

These limitations can cause the recruiting team as a whole to become less flexible and adaptive to change. This is a problem if the needs of the business change frequently or dramatically. And if the company suddenly has less demand for the type of role the recruiter specializes in, they may find themselves in the lurch. 

“There needs to be greater flexibility in how we structure our recruitment teams in order to keep up with the changing hiring needs,” Ross says. “And that means having recruiters and recruitment teams that all set up to develop multiple business areas, not just one.”

Having a broader skillset, even if they lack the in-depth knowledge of a specialist, can make it easier for generalist recruiters to pivot according to the needs of the business. They may not know everything about a role, but that’s not a huge problem since they might not be hiring for it a week from now. 

“The future is agile businesses,” Ross says. “And it needs agile employees and agile recruiters.”


Related: The 5 Steps of Agile Recruiting That Will Help You Reach Hiring Utopia


For Martin, hiring a generalist is the obvious choice. He even develops all of his team at riskmethods into generalists to ensure they have a more holistic view of the company’s recruitment cycle. But he also believes there’s no reason why a generalist can’t become a specialist over time, especially if they’ve got the right aptitude for learning

“In my team generally, I look for people who have a good general knowledge and acquire new skills,” he says. “Somebody who can acquire new skills and new knowledge very quickly can come from a good general knowledge to a good specialist knowledge.”

Being a generalist isn’t necessarily synonymous with having a surface-level understanding. The best generalists are chameleons who know how to gain specialist-style knowledge quickly when a req requires it. Their expertise in any given field might not be as deep as their specialist peers’, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn to speak a candidate’s language. 

Ultimately, the right option will depend on the needs of your company

Every company’s hiring needs are different, so there’s no definitive answer to whether a generalist or a specialist recruiter is right for you. The answer may depend on a variety of factors, like how niche your target talent pool is and how likely it is that your company’s hiring needs will change rapidly. Weigh your options and consider whether there will be enough consistent work to justify hiring a specialist, or whether a generalist will struggle with the technical details. 

Whichever choice you make, think about ways to help all your recruiters further their skills. If they’re a generalist, this might involve helping them gain more in-depth knowledge around specific roles they hire for regularly. And if they’re a specialist, helping them become more agile can better equip the team to handle whatever the future holds

“There's a balance to it,” says Anastacia. “I don't think that one is right or wrong. It's just dependent on the company and the people.”

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