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The Skills to Pay the Bills Hiring HR Pros Who Will Fight

March 28, 2008
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, The HR Profession, Featured Article
If you’re reading this Workforce Management article, it’s likely that you’re known as a progressive, upscale human capital professional who functions as a true partner/consultant to the business units you serve. (Wow! I just broke off some quality buzzword bingo with that statement. It felt good, but I could have worked in "synergy" or "alignment" as well. Label my performance as "meets" rather than "exceeds.")

The drive to be different is uncommon. Because it’s uncommon, you probably accept less than you should when hiring direct reports to be a part of your team. Because your team doesn’t have key competencies, you don’t delegate. That’s why you worked 67 hours last week.

The simple solution is to hire better. In an earlier column, I provided five behavioral questions to help you find HR rock stars and avoid hiring HR duds. It’s now time to give you the second five behavioral questions from the HR rock star interview. (I’m focused on hiring better HR managers and directors, but these questions also work well for any position that involves managing people.)

I have to warn you, the mood is going to change a bit. We’re moving from Tony Robbins to Jason Bourne, and from Driving Miss Daisy to 300.

We’re looking for fighters. For scrappers. For the kids who bounced up when they got pushed down on the playground, and the ones who took it personally when they lost in the spelling bee.

Were you one of those kids? Then this one goes out to you!

Getting to the table as an HR pro requires focus in areas that drive business results. That’s why we focused on competencies like performance management, talent acquisition and innovation in the first section of the interview.

Staying at the table requires sharp elbows and the willingness to compete. The best HR candidates have the ability to extract information, commonly referred to as the truth, with grace and professionalism when the focus of their efforts normally would be evasive and coy. Without some edge and aggressiveness, the best HR pros can get shuffled to the side in organizational life.

Sometimes you gotta get in someone’s grill a little bit. It’s business!

With that in mind, here are my five behavioral questions to determine if your candidate has the ability to mix it up and thrive (rather than simply survive):

Interview dimension: "The Investigator"

The question: "Tell me about a time when you were investigating a complex employee relations issue, and those involved were not being truthful. What did you do? How did you get to the truth?"

Why you ask this question: Whether your candidate is dealing with a complex employee relations situation or organizational politics, the ability to get to the truth is a required skill.

What to listen and probe for: How does the candidate interview those involved? Does she go in prepared or just wing it? Is she aware that each question is a building block to establish a fact/position? Is she skilled at taking responses for multiple parties, then re-interviewing in a firm way to challenge responses that seem incorrect?

Interview dimension: "The Negotiator"

The question: "Walk me through a time when a manager, at a level above yours in your company, wanted to terminate an underperforming employee, but it would have caused the company unnecessary risk. How did you bring that manager back to the middle and execute a more reasonable plan?"

Why you ask this question: There’s no bigger stereotype for an HR person in an organization than being a barrier for quick and efficient terminations. The ability to push back in this area speaks volumes about the organizational savvy of the candidate.

What to listen and probe for: You’re looking for a candidate who does more than simply point to the progressive discipline policy in the handbook. You want a candidate who will ask for what’s been done to document the issue. Once that’s been established, strong candidates in this area will partner with the manager in question by walking him through what’s necessary, provide acceptable time frames and—the thing that’s key to the negotiation—actually help the manager craft a plan for a termination if the performance doesn’t improve.

Interview dimension: "The Confronter"

The question: "Walk me through a time where you witnessed a manager, at your level or a level above you, exercise questionable judgment. What did you do?"

Why you ask this question: You’re looking for candidates who are comfortable with raw confrontation, a skill missing in much of the HR profession.

What to listen and probe for: Demonstrated ability to walk into someone’s office and, after a very brief intro, state what they observed, then stop talking.Raw coaching skills require confrontation, then a lot of listening as an HR partner.

Interview dimension: "The Behavioral Interviewer"

The question: "Tell me about a time when you asked a candidate a question, then had to follow up for more information after the candidate had provided the initial response. What do you concentrate on in your follow up?"

Why you ask this question: Progressive HR pros know when to challenge hypothetical answers. They look for what the candidate has actually done, rather than what they say they can do. Hard follow-up feels very confrontational to many HR pros.

What to listen and probe for: Solid behavioral interviewers spend 80 percent of their time challenging candidates for what they specifically did, challenging hypothetical and group-based answers, for more specific individual actions. If you don’t hear this, they probably don’t do it and don’t dig the confrontation required.

Interview dimension: "The Peacemaker"

The question: "Tell me about a time where you butted heads with a manager at your level or a level above you. Once the conflict occurred, how did you circle back to ensure they knew you were a part of their team?"

Why you ask this question: As important as confrontation is, the HR pro you want to hire has to be able to mend relationships with those they may have roughed up as part of the work process.

What to listen and probe for: Follow-up conversations that look like apologies aren’t required or desired. The savvy HR pro salvages working relationships after confrontation by looking for future opportunities to partner with the manager in question, or by looking for the opportunity to do her a favor that wasn’t required.

The perfect HR candidate is part organizational consultant, part Terry Tate (office linebacker). Find yours today by adding these questions to the first installment of this series.

As with any candidate, you’re looking for balance—high competency in key areas (performance management, recruiting, etc.) combined with the tenacity needed to execute the plan when things get uncomfortable.

A rare mix indeed.

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