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HR Practitioner Vs. Consultant – What’s the Difference?

Posted on February 24, 2015
Kayla DineenWritten by Kayla Dineen | Email author

HR Practioner Vs. ConsultantTransitioning from an HR Practitioner to an HR Consultant sounds like a fairly simple move from a career perspective, right? You’ve been in the HR field for 10 years, you’ve worked your way up in an organization and are now a successful HR Director managing a team of HR Generalists and HR Administrators. Making the move to a consulting firm seems like a natural progression for you. Or perhaps you’re a rock solid generalist and instead of working your way up at one organization you want to support multiple clients and you’re seeking a consulting opportunity. How different could it be? Human Resources is Human Resources no matter what organization you are working for, right?

Well, not exactly. HR consultants quickly learn there is no one size fits all and you have to approach each engagement differently. Many HR professionals often assume that an HR practitioner and an HR consultant are one in the same and I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the major differences in the two very different career paths within the Human Resources line of work.

Knowing your Industry
When supporting one organization you are likely to become an expert in the compliance requirements of that particular industry and have a general understanding of “the norm” within your industry in terms of how businesses operate. As a consultant, you are likely to support multiple organizations of various industries, sizes, geographic locations, etc. and you must be able to understand and adapt to “the norm”, as well as the compliance requirements, of each specific industry.

“Specialist” Vs. “Generalist”
When you are working for a single organization, common HR titles include the words “Specialist” and “Generalist”. The first means you are deemed to have a strong knowledge in a specific functional area within HR and the latter means that you have a strong baseline understanding of the HR function. As a consultant, you are both a specialist and a generalist. What does that mean? You will touch every functional area within HR to include Recruiting, Onboarding, Training, Performance Management, Employee Relations, Compensation, Benefits, Compliance, Separations, and yes – even Records Management. As a consultant you can expect to support a variety engagements. One example is providing general HR support, functioning as the client’s HR Manager doing everything from benefits administration and filing to assisting the executive team with the planning and execution of their HR strategic plan. Another example could be a project that involves compensation benchmarking and analysis that leads to the development of an organization’s compensation structure and philosophy. Your roles and responsibilities will change regularly, and will run the gamut of the entire HR function.

You are the Expert
If you’re an HR Director in a large organization with a team of HR professionals supporting you, perhaps you’ve been deemed the “expert” at your current organization, so this thought may not be new to you. As a consultant, however, clients engage with you because you are truly an expert in the field of HR. If you’re lucky, you’re a consultant at a firm similar to Helios that recognizes that the true “expert” is the Helios team – and we all rely on each other to support our clients to the best of our ability. Your clients, however, will look to you to analyze their organization and bring your knowledge and experience from other organizations, within and outside their industry, to recommend the best solution.

Managing your Clients
Supporting an organization as an internal HR professional can look very different from one company to the next; however, generally speaking the executive team is going to consider your input and determine the best solution. As a consultant no two clients are the same, but for the most part they are looking to you as the expert to tell them what works best for their organization and why. Many times your client may just not see it the same way or may not see the value of your recommendation, but they often want you to push back and help them understand. Ultimately, you are going to deliver what the client wants, and as a consultant it is your job to educate an optimal solution for them.

Adjusting your Style
In a single organization you probably get to know the key players pretty well and adapt a style to fit the way that works with them. Although initially this may be a challenge, over time you find a groove with your executive team and learn to consistently apply a work ethic and style that works with them. As a consultant, you will work with a number of different executives and often manage several clients at any given time. With multiple clients comes a multitude of personalities and potential challenges. Each executive has a different work ethic, a different communication style, a different decision making approach and your job as a consultant is to get to know your client and adjust your approach to make the biggest impact.

Managing your Time
Time management may be one of the most challenging aspects of a consultant transitioning from the internal HR world. As an internal HR professional you are used to being pulled from one direction to the other; however, you are able to prioritize based off of your one organization and you’re paid a salary to get a job done – even if it means working extra hours. As a consultant, you could be juggling the priorities of three to six clients at a time and you are billing them for your time; there is no working extra without their approval to pay more money for your services. In addition, you may be in the middle of a compensation benchmarking project for Client A and plan to finish a deliverable for an HR Assessment for Client B that afternoon when your phone rings and there is an emergency at Client C that requires your immediate attention. While the life of a consultant is not always chaos, it can be at times and you are expected to deliver your projects in a timely manner and manage your client’s expectations.

Travel is another major difference between an internal HR professional and a consultant. As an HR professional, you likely work in one location and can time your morning and afternoon fairly well (depending on traffic which, as we all know, can ruin your plans 9 times out of 10). As a consultant, however, your commute changes day-to-day. Some days, you may have to visit three clients in one day. There is flexibility in consulting and generally speaking you can make your schedule work for you; however, if a client needs your support at a certain time you have to work with them. You’re going to spend more time in your car as a consultant, but scheduling phone calls during travel time is a great way to make the most of your time behind the wheel.

The switch from an HR Practitioner to an HR Consultant is an exciting career move and opens the door to learning opportunities and HR projects that you simply won’t get by supporting a single organization. If you’re considering making this transition then I encourage you to consider the above detailed differences in the two career fields. There is no way to prepare entirely to live the life of an HR Consultant, but it’s best to educate yourself on what to expect and to commit to the adventure ahead of you. Best of luck!

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