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In my previous Tooling Up column, I focused on the mistake that some job applicants make in disregarding the importance of human resources (HR) staff in the hiring process. Yet I've also written in the past about why it is best to avoid HR contact during the job search, so some readers wrote to express their surprise at the advice in last month's article.

"Isn't there a way to avoid HR altogether?" one scientist wrote. The clear answer to this is "no," because every company needs someone whose job it is to deal with recruitment and retention. Professional HR people are like project managers, first ensuring that the firm's managers are educated about the hiring process and then managing the logistics of each open position. Therefore, while a networking-based job search strategy that focuses exclusively on industry insiders (and not the HR staff) might get your foot in the door, it will be the HR department that can throw the door open wide.

So, to succeed both in your current job search and in your career in general, you've got to know how these folks work and you must learn to give them the respect that they deserve. (For additional tips, see the sidebar.)

Do's and Don'ts for Success With HR Staff

  • Do treat them as professionally as you would any other senior-level industry contact. Don't assume that they are simply administrative staff, because in reality many of them will be decision-makers.

  • Do address your envelopes to a specific person in HR and avoid "Attention: Personnel Department."

  • Don't make "did you get my CV" follow-up calls with HR unless you directed your material to a specific person at their request.

  • Do stand out with an excellent cover letter and a clearly stated objective that helps HR direct you to the right hiring manager. Your cover letters will probably be read by HR staff, but your CV may only be skimmed for key words.

  • Don't take an HR phone interview completely off-the-cuff--it can be very risky. Do ask for a few minutes to get organized and then call that person back.

  • Do introduce yourself to the HR secretary when you enter the department. He or she may be a vital resource for your follow-up later in the hiring process.

  • Do remember that the interviewing style used by HR will be focused on your past experiences with people as opposed to technology. In this environment, personal reflections and feelings matter a great deal. So, do show the real you.

  • Do listen carefully to any advice that you get about your interviewing style from your HR contact. Because the HR interview is often scheduled before your meeting with the hiring manager, this advice may be very pertinent and timely.

The Goals of HR

At DIA this year, I worked closely with a senior staffing associate from Amgen, Ms. Sherry Dolkart. (DIA is a huge national convention for the biotech and pharmaceutical industry run by the Drug Information Association.) Our session focused on the biotechnology job market and how the independent recruiter (me) and the inside HR professional (Dolkart) view careers today and into the future. Dolkart's perspective is unique because she spent many years as a headhunter before moving into one of the world's largest biotech companies. I started things off with a talk on how to deal with HR staff during the hiring process, and then Dolkart provided immediate feedback to the audience on my points, as well as giving an outstanding talk of her own.

Dolkart used a number of personal stories to highlight the importance of the HR contact to the job seeker. In each one of her recollections, I got the impression that the HR department actually functions as an ally to the candidate. And although the gatekeeper analogy that I have used for HR holds true in the process of selecting applicants, once a candidate is scheduled to meet the company's managers, the HR department's goals change. It has to determine whether or not there is a personal chemistry fit between you--the interviewee--and the company. This is a benefit to both you and to the organization, because although you might prefer to have a job offer no matter what, it is not in your best interests to work for an outfit where your goals and expectations don't mesh with theirs. (The resulting clash and short stay could mar your CV for many years to come).

Dolkart elaborated on this point by using an example that also demonstrates how a good HR person can actually be of assistance to you in the interviewing process. "I remember one scientist who expressed himself in a way that didn't fit with the job--in fact, it didn't fit with our culture at all. It was the way in which he spoke about his past experiences. ... While I was certain that he could meet our technical needs for this position, I felt that he came off sounding too self-reliant and not as strong a team player as our manager would want. I suggested during his HR interview that he think about the viewpoint of the hiring manager--who he was scheduled to meet next--and possibly reconsider the way that he communicated his past experience." This valuable advice fell on deaf ears, for, as Dolkart found out later, the scientist did not change his approach, and--surprise, surprise--he was not offered a job as a result.

The HR Interviewing Focus

So, how does an HR interview get at this personal chemistry thing? Well--and this can come as a shock to the unsuspecting--instead of the "usual" questions and emphasis on job requirements and your technical background, suddenly you'll be put under the gun about your past people experiences. This just doesn't jive with what most scientists expect when they consider a job interview for a bench research job. ... People and behaviors as opposed to projects and technologies ... What gives?

This is a crucial concept, because the job of HR is to make certain that you fit aspects of the position that are not written about in the job description. These details involve your past experiences and actions with people and circumstances--HR folks have learned that past behaviors predict future behaviors. In other words, they need to know how you've managed certain situations in the past, because in all likelihood you will rely on those same sorts of behaviors in the future.

How will they draw you out? They will do so by asking questions that are based on something called " behavioral interviewing." Instead of asking you how you would behave in a particular situation, the behavioral interviewer will ask you to describe how you did behave. The questions focus on the past, and an effective interviewer will not allow you to slip the noose by trying to sell them on your future behaviors.

Here is a short list of typical behavioral interview questions you might expect to be asked:

  • Describe a problem that you had with a colleague, and how you dealt with it.

  • Tell me about a situation where you were on a team and one of the team members was not doing his or her share of the work. How did you feel and what did you do to resolve the matter?

  • Describe a problem boss and your relationship with that person.

  • Describe the best boss you've ever worked for and what made that person special.

Notice that these questions are open-ended, and that you cannot answer them with a brief yes or no. They require a detailed response, and you can bet that each of your answers will prompt further probing in follow-up questions. (One HR manager friend of mine referred to this process as "peeling back the onion.") For example, you might get:

  • Tell me more about how you felt when that happened.

  • What exactly did you say to him?

  • How did you feel about being the brunt of that person's jokes?

The STAR Response to Probing Behavioral Questions

While it's very hard to prepare for an HR interview of this kind, you can frame your answers to the interviewer's questions in a way that will help you. This model is referred to by the acronym STAR, which stands for Situation, Task, Actions, and Results. If you remember to use this formula when recounting past experiences and behaviors, it will set you apart from your job market competitors and give the HR person more of what she is looking for.

Situation--where you describe a specific scenario that addresses the question.

Task--where you describe your tasks associated with the Situation.

Actions--describes the actions you took to address the Situation.

Results--describes the outcomes of your Actions.

As an example, here is a good response to the behavioral interview request, "Tell me about a problem that you had with a colleague, and how you dealt with it":

"I had been asked by my advisor to work with another laboratory to develop a new type of assay that utilized a very expensive piece of equipment that we wouldn't normally have access to. My responsibility in this relationship was to transfer the existing assay into that laboratory and work closely with another postdoc there to work up a mass spec protocol. Unfortunately, I began experiencing a great deal of difficulty with my colleague in the other lab. Although she was told by her P.I. to cooperate with me, I was never able to get her support. It seemed that her personal work always precluded any time for our department, and so the project began to lag behind. As I knew this couldn't continue, I decided to meet her in a social situation and find out what I could do to resolve it. It turned out that getting away from the lab was just what we needed. I bought her a latte after a seminar one day, and she told me that one of the graduate students she was working with was eminently qualified to assist us with this work. In fact, as a result of getting that junior person into the publication as well, this senior scientist spent more time and effort with us because her lab friend was involved. We got the assay done and it was a key part of our publication together."

In Conclusion

I hope that this pair of articles has opened your eyes to the value of developing a good relationship with any HR contact you are lucky enough to make. Keep in mind, though, that every HR department is a bit different. While at some companies you might get an hour of quality time with a Senior Director of HR, in other firms the HR person you meet will appear to be a low-level administrative person who is most concerned about getting you to fill out the appropriate paperwork.

But regardless of how HR is presented at the companies you interview with, you must treat the HR staff professionally and never, ever discount the value of their contribution to the decision that is made to hire you--or pass altogether.