HR Interview Coming Up? Here are the 7 Top Attributes Your Next Employer Wants.

With company cutbacks and layoffs
announced daily, #1 and #2 are crucial.

by Alan Collins

Question: I’ve got an HR interview coming up next week.

With inflation raging and layoffs, I’ve been surprised at the number of opportunities I’ve had.

And while I’ve interviewed lots of candidates all the way up to the VP level, I haven’t had a formal interview myself for an HR job in a couple of years. 

But it’s time.

I’m excited and nervous as hell now that I’ll be on the other side of the table.

What’s your take on what employers are really looking for these days?



Answer:  Hi Rebecca, before I answer your question, let’s first talk about your nervousness.

Everyone feels a bit unsettled before interviews.

It doesn’t matter if you have twenty-years of experience in HR and have interviewed hundreds of job candidates yourself as an HR leader…when you flip over to that other side of the table as an interviewee, it can be stressful.

But 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 leader, these “2P’s” must be at the top of your to-do list.

This is even more crucial post-pandemic and with company cutbacks and layoff announcements occuring daily.

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 Serena Williams 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, Lady Gaga 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 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…

*   *   *

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 an area that’s hot in HR.  These days it’s dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic.  Specifically helping leaders and employees excel in today’s “hybrid” or “remote work environment.”  

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, less than 30% of companies had any type of remote work program. Except for the high tech firms, just about every other organization on the planet did NOT encourage remote working.

As you know, that’s completely changed!

With the proliferation of remote and hybrid work, every firm is now striving to overcome the challenges that this has created.

It has required that they provide their remote employees with the right communications, personal support, technology and tools for success.

And, providing their leaders with the right guidance for determining who should be returning to work and who shouldn’t be.

As an HR leader, if you have some experience with best practices in this area (or any other hot area within your HR specialty), 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), experience in this area or functional excellence in general is assumed.  And the emphasis then shifts to other areas such as your leadership capability or critical experiences.

Which leads us to…

*   *   *

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.

Also, since we’ll soon be operating in a post-pandemic era, if you’ve demonstrated excellence in leading hybrid or remote teams, that’s a plus.

That brings us to…

*   *   *

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…

*   *   *

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:

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…

*   *   *

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…

*   *   *

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…

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

Let’s summarize. 

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.

Rebecca, thanks for the question, good luck in your upcoming interview…and make sure you’ve carved out time to get ready.



Comment on this article or provide additional insights by clicking HERE.

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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22 Responses to “HR Interview Coming Up? Here are the 7 Top Attributes Your Next Employer Wants.”

  1. mono Says:

    Many thanks for this useful article. Mono

  2. Sandrine Cacalcy Says:

    This is a very good answer. I strongly believe that business acumen is a key attribute especially at Director level. Track record is also very important as any future employee should be able to deliver. An employee who does not achieve good results can’t be motivated.

  3. Gloriou Momodu Says:

    Marvelous tips for any interview. I have found this to be extremely useful. Going through these tips will definitely guide anyone on a successful interview irrespective of its nature.

  4. Gloriou Momodu Says:

    The facts contained in these write ups are incomparable to any. Its just too unique. It helps anyone to make education decisions on issues of destiny.

  5. JP DJOKPE Says:

    Dear Alan,
    You are a super star in providing best-in-class HR advice. Thanks a lot for sharing this very useful piece.

  6. Mulama Onyere Says:

    Thank you for giving me great insights which can be handy in edging out other competitors for hr position

  7. wayne Says:

    As always Alan is ‘on the money’. Clearly he is a wise and vastly experienced person in the HR space. I’ve go up and gone to work 8900 times – if you do the arithmetic that’s about 4 decades and given my own vast experience in HR, Alan is one of few who, in my view, is of guru status. GURU # 1 !
    If you are passionate about HR you will learn a lot from his writings.
    Best – Guru # 2

  8. Juliet Charm-Williams Says:

    Thank you Allan for sharing. This is quite insightful not only for interviews but also for documenting our progress as HR professionals

  9. Phyllis Chen Says:

    Thanks Alan as always.
    It’s very inspiring and useful tips when we are on the other side of the tables.

  10. Toyin Williams-Edem Says:

    Thanks Alan for the insightful writeup. Quite interesting for senior
    HR Pros , it’s a given assumption that the candidate already has strong core HR skills. The focus is more on business acumen and cultural fit and these are very critical factors that senior HR candidates must pay close attention as it’s a good predictor of length of stay on the role.

  11. Beejiantee Mala KALEECHURN Says:

    Thanks Alan,

    Very nice for sharing this with us.
    It always helps. I read all your articles.

    It keeps me updating and helps in my work.


  12. Kathleen Ferguson Says:

    I don’t usually respond to your posts Alan, (though I enjoy majority of them), but this one was very informative and worth commenting on. I can see where someone interviewing for a new job, and/or a promotion would find this information extremely helpful. Thank you for sharing your expertise and knowledge. You truly are an asset to the business and human resource field.

  13. Nyakato Says:

    Alan, this is powerful to say the least. Thank you for brushing our skills with your articles.

  14. Linda Peterson Says:


  15. Uttam. H Nagane Says:

    Alan these things you narrated here are simply Excellent & exceptional and will help many to upgrade themselves and their skills in Human Resources area. It simply great to have Allan to recharge their batteries who are looking for job.

  16. Sujith Says:

    valuable article.
    Thank You.

  17. Isioma Onyemenam Says:

    Thanks Alan for inspiring me always. I’m just starting a career in HR, coming from a field in sales and customer service. Your writeups are always very helpful. They make me believe i would really enjoy a fufulling career in HR. Thanks

  18. Mwanafuraha Senkoro Says:

    Thank you,
    The article is very useful

  19. Lorne Bailen Says:

    This guidance is excellent I am shared it on my LinkedIn page!

  20. Alan Says:

    Awesome, Lorne. Thanks for the share. Hope you are well. -Alan

  21. Philipo Mwambuga Says:

    The article really helpful

    Thanks So much

  22. Milton Norris Green Jr Says:

    A very helpful article to get you ready for an HR interview. HR has gone through so many shifts over the past few years that we sometimes forget to be current & take it for granted that we know how it’s done because we’ve been doing it so long. Thank you Alan!