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Human Resources Interviews

(Kelly Krause, AAAS)

This month I'd like to offer some advice on just one element of interview day: the Human Resources (HR) interview.

During graduate school and the postdoc, you learn plenty about what scientists expect at an academic job interview. It's not that different than the grilling you get whenever you express your opinions and talk about your favorite science subjects in the lab. You know how and why scientists act the way they do because you've been one of them for years. In industry, an interview with hiring managers and other scientists will be significantly different from an academic interview—more focused on "what can you do for us" than you are used to—but much of the interview will still be science-centered. Your comfort level is likely to remain high.

In general, those who see HR as what it is—a resource—will get maximum value from the relationship.

But what about that the HR interview? Will it, too, focus on how the CHO cell differs in culture from the HEK cell line? Not likely! HR is a different world entirely. In this month's column, I'll provide some background on how HR operates and why they ask the questions they do.

What do those people do all day?

Before I became a recruiter, I worked in a mid-sized Japanese corporation and then in a smaller, entrepreneurial business in the same field. Both of these organizations had HR departments. To me, HR was where you'd go to if you had a question about your medical benefits, or if you had to fire someone and wanted to make sure that you had all your bases covered.

Understanding HR and what they do is like the fable of the blind men and the elephant—each comes away with a different impression of what the animal is all about. Because HR does so many different jobs, they are hard to pin down.

An HR generalist in a small- to mid-sized company will be involved in medical and other benefits, worker disputes and employee relations, company policies, coaching and training, compensation, corporate communications, establishing the company culture, and—yes—recruitment.

If you want to understand the HR interview, consider how much they have on their plate. You'll soon start to see why this undervalued and overworked department has a completely different take on your interview day than the scientific team does.

Three types of HR interactions

The Screening Call: Regardless of whether you came in the "front door" with a CV submitted in response to an ad or the "back door" via an employee referral, the HR department's job is to take a big stack of CVs and make it smaller. One tool they use in winnowing the pile is a short, preliminary phone interview. A phone call like this can come at any time; don't be afraid to suggest a better time if you are dripping wet from the shower or out of breath after a run. In fact, I'd suggest taking control of your surroundings by asking them to call back at an agreed-upon time.

Before that return call, sit down with a pad of paper and a copy of your CV. Take a few deep breaths, and relax. This is not a high-stress interview. It's an introductory meeting, and your HR contact will have just half an hour or less to spend with you. The plan, usually, is to run their six "must-haves" past you, and see how well you communicate.

Before the screening call, review the firm's Web site, product mix, and the job description. Think about each of the major areas listed in the job description and jot down a few points that substantiate your knowledge and skill in those areas. Prepare to be succinct; this is the time for sound bites that you can back up with detail—on request. That HR staffer wants to know whether you seem like "our kind of people." Do you seem like an upbeat, energetic problem solver?

"Human Resources is responsible for the human capital of the organization," says my friend John Reasner, former vice-president of HR at Dial Corporation. "They are screeners for things like culture fit, management skills, and general business capabilities."

The Full HR Interview: Once you've passed the initial screen and made it onto the shorter list, you will have a longer phone interview, often with the hiring manager but sometimes with HR. Pass that one and you'll be invited for an on-site interview. Whoopee!

Whether your next encounter with HR is in person or on the phone, this interview will not be about your science. HR's job is to determine whether you fit the company's notion of success. Every employer is different, but they all have certain soft skills and abilities (along with the requisite technical abilities) that they consider essential for success within their company. They learn about how well you measure up by asking for examples of how you've behaved in previous situations.

For many scientists, this is challenging. Instead of asking how you planned and carried out an important experiment, HR will ask about a time when you had to deal with a difficult co-worker. Instead of asking about your thesis work, HR will ask you about a time when you felt frustrated on the job and ask which steps you took to move past those feelings. This is called "behavioral interviewing"; for some additional examples of HR questions, see this relic from the ancient history of Tooling Up: "First Encounters With Behavioral Interviewing." It's still relevant.

The "Let's Get Serious" HR Interview: One of the biggest shocks of interview day will come when, at the end of a stressful but successful day—just as you're starting to think about how good that beer is going to taste—you find yourself back in HR for a "let's get serious" discussion about what it would take to hire you.

Once you realize what's going on, it's a good feeling—even better, maybe, than that cold beer you were so looking forward to. But don't let your guard down and forget that you have expectations about salary and other employment issues. (Hopefully you have thought about these things.) And don't start acting like a tough guy playing high-stakes poker on ESPN. This is a time to express genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity and to be as close as possible to completely transparent about your expectations. But you must do so in a studied and confident manner, which is why I recommend that you not let this conversation come as a surprise.

You'll find some important recommendations about this element of the HR discussion in past Tooling Up columns. Read, for example, our two-part series about the job-offer negotiation process, "Salary Negotiation, Part 1" and "Salary Negotiation, Part 2."

HR is a resource

Your involvement with HR will depend on the respect that the department garners within the company. On interview day, you may find that your greatest ally is the HR staff member who takes you around to meet people and explains the company culture. In another organization, you may have a 10-minute introductory chat with HR first thing in the morning, fill out some forms while sitting in the office, and then never see them again.

In general, those who see HR as what it is—a resource—will get maximum value from the relationship. You have a shared interest with the HR person: She has a position to fill, and you'd like to be the one to fill that position. Your interests are aligned. If everything works out, you can both achieve your goals.

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