Many Next Wave readers have had some contact with human resources staff. These "personnel" people are found in most businesses, and their role in evaluating candidates can be critical. The mistake that potential hires often make, however, is to blow off their HR interview, assuming that the "real" interviews will be with the hiring manager and other "important" people involved in the company's science.

"Sure, the HR interview went OK," one candidate told me recently as I debriefed him after his Big Day. "The HR woman was very nice and we got along fine, but I really didn't pay a lot of attention to her, because I was more concerned about my meeting with the director. ... Come to think of it, though, she DID ask me a lot of weird questions about my previous experiences with other people in the lab. I can't think of anything that I might have done wrong, though. Anyway, it wouldn't matter much, would it?"

Wow--that's a dangerous assumption! It is my belief that there is no part of an interview day in which you can let down your guard, and in particular I don't think you should approach HR interviews with the view that HR people are simply paper-shuffling bureaucrats. True, there are many varieties of HR staff, but most have far more to say about your hire than you'd expect. So, to help you ace the HR interview, I'd like to tell you more in this month's Tooling Up about the agendas and operating styles of HR staff.

Human Resources Staff Are Human, Too--They're Just Very Busy

No doubt you've read books and articles that state that HR contact is to be avoided at all costs. In fact, I've authored some of that advice (see A Protocol for Networking elsewhere on Next Wave). There is, however, a distinction in terms of the timing. Sure, it remains important to reach contacts in your area of interest whenever you can during the marketing and networking stages of your job search. But you need to recognize that the HR departments at the companies you actually decide to target vigorously will play a key role in your hire, even if it is behind the scenes. That's because once there is a position to fill, they often act as gatekeepers, providing the filtering process that the company requires in order to narrow down the field of candidates.

Generally, the advice to avoid HR stems from the fact that they often seem to be weeding people out as opposed to making hiring recommendations. In a sense, this is very true. One staffing associate--Stacie--told me that she has to review 1000 to 1500 resumes a month. Can you imagine what that means? Stacie must look at up to 75 CVs or resumes a day before she even gets started on her other scheduled activities (like interviewing applicants ...). Because most HR associates and recruiters try to spend no more than an hour or two looking at the incoming mail, this means that initial "yes"/"no" decisions are being made after a review of 2 minutes or less.

This rush to judgement is a fact of life, and it will not change in the near future. The lesson to take away is that HR people are very busy people. It is by respecting their time and understanding their motivations that you can best hope to advance yourself to the next step with their company.

Approaching Human Resources Staff

It is best to approach HR people as if they were just like any other contacts in your networking list. And, like Stacie, they do have names. That's why I marvel at the great numbers of envelopes that arrive daily in their offices addressed "Attention: Human Resources." Think about that for a moment. ... If you were a Ph.D. biochemist and you wanted to reach the hiring manager in that department at a company you're targeting, would you address the cover letter to "Attention: Biochemistry"? Of course not. You'd spend the time to identify the department head or the name of some likely source of help within that group.

This means that the first rule of business in approaching the HR department is to get a name. But how? Well, if during the course of your networking conversations one of your contacts recommends that you get in touch with HR, you have the perfect opening: Simply ask them for the name of the recruiter who works in your field of expertise. In larger companies, there will be a specialist for every given category of job, while in the smaller companies the HR staff may constitute a total of two overworked "managers." When you've identified the proper contact name, write that individual a customized letter of introduction as you would for any other important contact.

And although follow-up calls are often very difficult with HR, and generally not recommended for bulk (i.e., "Attn: HR") mailings, when you have an individual recruiter's name you are much more likely to actually reach that person in a follow-up call a week or two after mailing your CV. In addition, if you are able to e-mail your resume directly to an HR associate's e-mail box (rather than to careers@xyzcompany.com, for example), you are also more likely to get some kind of personal response.

Your First HR Interview

The first call that you should expect to receive from a prospective employer will come from an HR associate like Stacie. Most likely, she is trying to determine whether or not you make the cut for a current opening. Or, perhaps there may be some general interest in learning more about you for a speculative future hire. Regardless, this will probably be a phone interview, coming at an unexpected time and completely out-of-the-blue.

The telephone interview process is unique, and we'll focus on it in more depth in a future Tooling Up. One of the key things to remember is that you are not obligated to take such an important call if you are sitting at the dinner table with your family or standing there wringing wet and just out of the shower. An unexpected phone call of such import can really throw you off (frankly, that's part of the agenda), and so I usually recommend that you ask the caller if you can situate yourself in a quiet spot and call back when you have paper and pencil in front of you. Get the caller's name, company, and phone number and then request 5 or 10 minutes to complete your current task and call them back. No one will refuse you this if you make the request cordially, and I would even go so far as to venture that your HR stock will rise as a result of your professional demeanor. One tip, though: Never let a caller say that they will call you back without first getting their name and number. Taking 5 minutes to get yourself organized and make a return call is well worth the effort (and the price you'll pay, if it is long-distance).

The Agenda on Interview Day

So let's assume that you did well on the phone interview and have been invited to visit the company. What should you expect? Scientists often assume that HR's role must be diminished because they are not intimate with science. But their job isn't to quiz you on your science. ... It is to determine the "personal chemistry" fit within the organization. And the way that this is most often determined is by listening and learning about your previous experiences and personality traits.

In the next Tooling Up, then, we are going to dissect this part of the HR interview process and prepare you for the unique line of questioning that will take place during your visit with a professional HR interviewer. As those of you who've been through them know, there's nothing quite like the series of "What if ..." questions HR staff just love to ask. ...

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.