by Alan Collins
Question: Alan, I’ve got an HR interview coming up next week. While I’ve interviewed lots of candidates as an HR Director, I haven’t interviewed myself for an HR job in five years.
I’m excited, but I’m nervous and apprehensive as hell now that I’m on the other side of the table.
What’s your take on what employers are really looking for these days?
Answer: Hi Sarah, before I answer your question, let’s first talk about your apprehension.
Everyone gets nervous before interviews. It doesn’t matter if you have twenty-years of experience in HR and have interviewed hundreds of job candidates yourself as a recruiter…when you flip over to that other side of the table as an interviewee, it can be stressful.
A certain amount of anxiety is healthy and natural. And a small bit of nervousness may actually make you sharper and help you perform better. The problem occurs when that little bit of anxiety becomes a extreme case of fear that forces you to stumble over your words, freeze up when facing tough questions and not come across at your best.
And there is only one way to combat this and that is through…
Preparation and Practice!
If you want to be perceived as a polished, sharp, ready-for-prime-time HR professional, these “2P’s” must be at the top of your to-do list. Preparation involves carving out time for reading, researching and doing your homework about the organization and the people you’ll be visiting. Practice involves rehearsing in advance how you’ll respond to the questions you anticipate being asked.
Your practice and preparation is not any different than what professional athletes like Maria Sharapova or LeBron James do to train to be in peak condition on the day of the big game. Or world-class singers like Taylor Swift or Tony Bennett do when they practice and rehearse for hours on end before their big performances. The more you prepare and practice, the more confident you’ll feel when your career aspirations are on the line in the job interview.
Obviously, this takes time. And if you’re a typical overworked HR pro, time is a precious commodity for for you. But the biggest sin you can commit is going into an interview trying to wing it. So make you need to make it priority.
Now let’s talk about your other question about what employers are looking for in HR candidates. You didn’t mention a specific position, but that’s okay. I’ll speak broadly. In general, there are 7 key attributes employers will be assessing you against in your upcoming interview…
1. Your HR Functional Excellence
Interviewers will first and foremost be looking to see if you know your stuff in your HR area of expertise. For example, if your specialty is compensation, they’ll be looking for you to demonstrate a strong command of hourly, salaried and executive pay approaches, incentive and bonus best practices and well as the emerging trends in the field.
Likewise, if you’re interviewing for an HR generalist role, you’ll need to wow them with your ability to be a jack-of-all-trades and juggle a wide variety of talent, employee and workplace issues and dilemmas with poise.
There’s always a trendy area that’s hot in HR. These days it’s big data and talent analytics. This involves using metrics, models and other sophisticated methods to analyze employee data to improve retention and productivity of the people in the organization. If you have some experience in this area (or any other hot area in your speciality), showcase it…as it can give you an edge over others they’re interviewing.
However, once you reach a certain level or position (the VP level), functional excellence in HR is assumed. And the emphasis then shifts to other areas such as your leadership capability or critical experiences.
Which leads us to…
2. Your Leadership Capability
Obviously, leadership increases in importance as you interview for more senior HR roles.
But frankly, no matter what level of an organization your HR role lies, employers want to know that you bring with you the ability to lead, influence, sell your ideas and effectively resolve conflict with your clients, colleagues and employees — whether they report directly to you or not.
HR folks with proven skills in taking charge and getting others to follow them are always in demand. It doesn’t matter if you were never formally appointed as the head of a department or given a leadership title.
So, if you’ve had success leading others on projects, task forces, teams, employers consider this one of your biggest assets.
That brings us to…
3. Your Business Acumen
Interviewers will want to know that you not only understand the tactical needs of HR, but that you also understand their business as well. The best companies expect HR people to be passionate about their products and services and not shy away from participating in business-related discussions.
In fact, the true superstars in HR are business people first and HR people second. They can hold their own talking about the business with just about any business leader on their team. In fact, if the general manager was out sick, many of them could step in and give a 15 minute monthly business update to the leadership team, if needed.
Doing your research on the company before the interview is crucial to enabling you to demonstrate your knowledge of their organization and your business acumen.
In fact, my favorite piece of HR advice along these lines is:
“It’s easy to impress your business leaders as an HR professional — when you’ve impressed them with your knowledge of their business first!”
That said, let’s move on to…
4. Your Promotions and Career Movement
Interviewers assume that the strongest HR candidates get promoted more rapidly. They either get assigned to bigger roles or move progressively into heading up important projects or key initiatives. Because of this, they’ll focus on your last 5-10 years to see if the following have been trending upward:
- your job titles
- the number of employees you’ve supported
- your dollar budget accountability
- your number of direct reports
- and the overall scope and impact of your assignments.
They’ll be looking to see if there is a progressive pattern to your work history. The hiring manager, in particular, will be probing deeply to determine what you’ve done that enabled you to move to these new assignments. He or she will be trying to figure out was it because of luck, seniority, your strong HR functional skills…or better yet your dynamic team and leadership capabilities.
Self-initiated job changes can be revealing also. They’ll want to understand why and how you went from one organization to another — and the overall comparability of the companies and industries you’ve worked in. That will provide a rough idea if you’re progressing appropriately in your career.
Many people leave job for superficial reasons and accept offers without conducting the appropriate due diligence. Lack of progression is a clue this is the case. Most interviewers assume the best HR people primarily leave jobs for lack of career opportunities and then get better opportunities as a result.
With that in mind, another obvious attribute of yours that will be examined closely is…
5. Your Track Record of Results
Organizations prefer to hire HR pros with a proven track record of high achievement. These are folks who go beyond the call of duty to deliver better-than-expected results. Interviewers will be looking for cues that demonstrate this in your interview.
So, being able to quantify or dollarize your accomplishments is a winning formula as you pitch your qualifications — no matter how much or how little HR experience you’ve had.
For example, if you’ve “Helped cut Brand Manager talent acquisition costs by $175,000 through improvements in using social media to attract candidates” or “Improved the employee retention rate from 85% to 96% in the customer service group,” expect these kinds of contributions open eyes and grab attention, especially if the employer is facing similar issues.
Closely related to your track record is…
6. Your Critical or Unique Experiences
Not all HR assignments are created equal. The HR challenges can be dramatically different if you’re working in a rapid-growth environment (Apple)…versus a fix-it, business turnaround situation (General Motors, Ford)…versus a mature non-for-profit organization (United Way).
However, all of these challenges provide unique HR experiences that can be in high demand by a specific employer. It’s crucial that you define the types of experiences you’ve had so you can position them to your advantage in your discussions.
Also as more organizations globalize, any HR-related experience outside of the U.S. can be a differentiator. If you speak a foreign language, that’s a big plus too. Even if you’ve done none of these things, showing evidence that you studied abroad, completed a foreign exchange program or worked successful with businesses in other countries (e.g. Brazil, Russia, India, China, etc), can be a competitive edge for you with organizations with locations spread around the world.
And finally, there’s…
7. Your “Cultural Fit”
This is a catch-all, loosy-goosy term that means a lot of different things. However, this is crucial as many outstanding HR candidates get dropped from the interview process because they don’t “fit” the culture.
Cultural fit relates to your ability to mesh with the company’s environment, pace, intensity, personality and it’s values and mission. For example, if there’s a need to work with a team of people who are difficult to deal with, this becomes part of what’s being sought by the interviewer.
Likewise, if the pace of the company is very demanding, lacks adequate resources or has unclear expectations…your ability to thrive and not freak out in this type of culture will be weighed heavily in the mind of your interviewers.
Many organizations have hired talented HR people who got frustrated and failed because they couldn’t adapt to the organization’s pace (either too fast or too slow), their unstructured environment, or a vague or less defined HR role.
Hiring cultural misfits is a common and serious problem that employers want to avoid.
And so do you.
There are seven key attributes employers are looking for in today’s top HR candidate. Knowing what these are and how to demonstrate them, should be a key part of your preparation and practice.
But to be realistic…very few HR candidates max out at the 100%-level against all seven of these criteria. Anyone that can meet 60% of them is a strong candidate. And if you meet 80% or more, you’re absolutely golden.
That, you can take it to the bank.
Sarah, thanks for the question, good luck in your upcoming interview…and make sure you’ve carved out time to get ready.
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Want even more information that can help you prepare for and crush your next HR interview, then check out: HR INTERVIEW SECRETS: How to Ace Your Next Human Resources Interview, Dazzle Your Interviewers & LAND THE JOB YOU WANT! For more details go HERE.
About the Author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling HR books including HR INTERVIEW SECRETS. He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.
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