Career Development

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When HR Goes Job Hunting by Charlotte Garvey
H0901cover.jpguman resource managers often are intimately involved in screening, interviewing and hiring new employees. But this doesnt always mean they hit home runs when they sit on the other side of the interview table.

HR people apply for jobs, too, so heres some practical advice from experts on how HR job seekers can increase their chances of success.

Tailor your resume and cover letter, and resist including a laundry list of all youve ever done.

Despite the exposure that HR people have to job applications and resumes, they dont seem to learn what works, says Gary Cluff, a recruiting and outplacement expert and president of Cluff & Associates in Reston, Va.

He says successful candidates are those who resist the urge to present themselves as an I-can-do-anything HR generalist. The most important thing they need to do is tailor their resume to that job and not treat it as an autobiography.

A mistake many folks in the HR field commonly make is they list everything theyve ever done, even if they dont want to do it again, he notes. Cluff made that error himself one time, listing experience writing affirmative action plans on his resume. He received a call from a prospective employer seeking someone to do just that. Cluff then realized that he should drop that experience from his resume since he did not enjoy that type of work.

HR job applicants should treat their resumes and cover letters as sales documents that will make it easy for the reader to count them in instead of out, Cluff says.

But one expert notes that the laundry list approach to resume-writing is a natural outgrowth of the boom in electronic job-hunting and recruiting. Alan Jaramillo, SPHR, president of Jaramillo & Associates, a recruiting consulting firm in Littleton, Colo., notes many job databases use keywords to sort out candidates. The result is that job seekers tend to overuse keywords to be sure their resumes are not passed over when a data search is performed.

As far as other pieces of information to include, job candidates who have developed major policies or procedures as part of their current job should consider providing copies of those documents to prospective employers, but only after a successful personal interview. You want to get the body there first rather than the pounds of documents, Cluff says.

Experts advise candidates not to try to reshape the prospective job to fit their own qualifications. In a recent search, one hiring manager received multiple inquiries from vice-president-level candidates expressing an interest in what clearly was defined as a staff-level position. Donald Herrmann, SPHR, director of HR at LexisNexis in Miamisburg, Ohio, notes, None of these express a desire to return to the trenches, but rather express a desire to lend their talents and expertise to my company, presumably for the six-figure salaries they previously have received.

Forget the buzzwords and focus on business-related results.

While strategic is a hot word in the HR world, you better be able to back it up if it appears on your resume. Too often, HR job candidates will try to stretch their experience to include grandiose projects in an effort to appear more strategic when, in fact, they were just part of a team and did not play a leadership role, notes Herrmann.

If a former director of benefits claims to have saved the company money, Ill say, OK, tell me how you did that, says Jaramillo. If you are not ready in the interview process with specific, quantifiable details, it will soon become clear to the interviewer that you have stretched the truth.

Metrics are becoming key to HR, says Nick Burkholder, SPHR, of the Bernard Hodes Group in New York. The buzzwords arent enough anymore, especially in a slowing economy, he notes. I feel emphatically that this isnt about talent, its about performance.

But providing prospective employers with specific, quantifiable information about your successes seems to be uncomfortable or unfamiliar to some HR candidates, notes Burkholder, a staffing expert with Hodes who also has worked for Johnson & Johnson and CIGNA. The truth is a lot of HR people out there have made significant contributions to their organizations but just havent taken the time or understood how to quantify that.

Other experienced interviewers agree. Mark Felici, director of HR at Intracorp, a Philadelphia-based division of CIGNA Healthcare, says, I think in todays market, where HR truly is a business partner with the line, folks are very good at demonstrating what theyve done in HR, but they dont necessarily articulate what that means in terms of business results.

He has seen resumes from candidates who claim, for example, to have reduced the cost-per-hire by 20 percent. He would like to see more information relating HR accomplishments to business. I know you cant fit everything in a resume, says Felici, but I would prefer to see something like, Helped the business gain two points in market share by doing the following things. If I see that, those resumes rise to the top of the pile.

Use electronic communication to your advantage.

The advent of electronic communication has revolutionized the job search process, but there are some pitfalls. The ease and speed of electronic communication can prompt sloppy or careless mistakes. With word-processing and spelling software, you less frequently see typos or errors that have been conspicuously whited out, says Jaramillo. But the gaffes are still there, theyre just different, he adds.

For example, Herrmann notes he has received eight copies of the same resume and cover letter from a single candidate, who responded to a job listing posted on multiple web sites. The prospective employer was clearly identified, so the candidate should have realized the error.

While many regard e-mail as less personal than the more traditional means of communicating with a prospective employerthe old-fashioned hard-copy letterFelici disagrees.

What Im finding is that people are becoming more personal via e-mail submissions, which he contrasts with the more distanced and formal process of responding to an ad in the newspaper. I think people take more risks via e-mail submissions, which often go directly to the intended recipient and beg a response in a way that a piece of paper sitting on a desk does not. Its the beginning of a didactic conversation that you simply dont have with a fax, Felici said.

Experts agree that follow-up via e-mail, versus letter or phone call, has become widely accepted. I find an e-mail follow-up to be fine, as long as its brief, says Cluff. Candidates should try to make contact within four to seven days after an interview if they have not heard from the prospective employer. But a job candidate should resist any urge to pepper the prospective client with e-mails to show interest just because its quick and easy. Once is enough.

Be ready for behavioral-based questions.

While HR hiring managers have used behavioral-based interviewing for some time, this type of questioning seems to throw many HR job candidates for a loop.

Behavioral-based interviewing focuses on how applicants reacted to certain work situations in the past to help provide interviewers with insight into how they would respond in the future. Examples of behavioral-based questions are: Describe a difficult work situation that you would handle differently if given the chance again and Describe an assignment you successfully completed despite feeling the odds were stacked against you.

Mike Wood, SPHR, a Houston-based HR manager with the energy company Tractebel North America, says by now most HR people should expect behavioral-based questions, if only because they have used this interviewing method themselves. But sometimes HR people just get frustrated, he notes, and people just dont come prepared. Wood conducted one interview where he pressed a candidate closely using behavioral-based questions, prompting her to get frustrated and then angry. Once she lost her temper with me I basically shut down the interview, Wood says.

Herrmann says his experience interviewing and being interviewed has taught him to script several answers prior to the interview process, with behavioral-based questioning in mind. The best advice I can ever give to an HR person preparing for an interview is to script it and review the script frequently while preparing for interviews. Keep those thoughts fresh, he says.

Understand the business of your current employer and your prospective employer.

In interviewing candidates, Jaramillo says, The biggest problem I see with HR people is they havent researched the company. That comes through very quickly. He adds that candidates also should be able to demonstrate they understand their current employers business as well. Im going to ask them some basic financial questions like, What was the ratio of your HR budget to the overall budget?

Wood agrees. I like to see people who know more than just their piece of the puzzle. He adds, We in HR strive to be strategic business partners, so he advises HR job candidates: Be sure you know your business. If you cant answer questions about your current employer, thats a big turn-off, says Wood.

Be prepared to ask tough, smart questions of your interviewer.

Job candidates should use the interview as an opportunity to question the questioner, asking big-picture questions to show they are broad, strategic thinkers paying attention to the world outside of HR. Jaramillo says, There are still too many HR people who think of HR as an island.

I want them to really ask me about where the companys going and a little bit about where its been, says Felici. He advises candidates to ask questions about the companys plans for growth, bottom-line revenues, opportunities for building stronger relationships between HR and the larger business, and what new products or services are on the horizon.

It doesnt have to be all business, Felici says. But if theyre not asking questions about the business, they should be asking questions about HR generalist ratios, work-life balance, telling me about specific needs they have from the employer.

Wood says that most HR people try to turn the tables and try to interview me. For those interviewing for senior HR positions, he suggests asking, What do you see as your top three HR problems that need to be taken care of now? The answer then gives candidates an opening to discuss how they could solve those problems.

Dont hesitate to describe relevant non-HR experience.

The fact that your experience is not 100 percent in HR can be a plus. Burkholder says, The best HR people are those who have spent time in line units. He compared this to his experience in the U.S. Army, where officers were required to spend some time in combat or combat-support positions, even if their ultimate jobs were not going to be combat-related. You really increase your marketability, your ability to contribute and your credibility if you spent time in a non-HR role, Burkholder says.

I like to see what I call real-life experience, such as someone who worked his way through school or attempted to start a company, Wood says. I think they just have a better people orientation about them.

Herrmann likes to see that a candidate has made efforts to get involved in the community and in organizational activities outside of HR. He also regards experience in marketing or sales as a plus because we have to do so much selling. Wood notes, What I look for in HR people is someone with very good customer-service skills sets, and sometimes this experience can be attained outside of HR.

But this does not mean those doing the hiring will consider the door wide open to candidates with little or no HR experience. Herrmann received a resume from a career changer who actually said anyone can do HR in the accompanying cover letter. Jaramillo says, Ive encountered people who think, Hey, Im great with people and I can learn all that other stuff. But its very rare that these candidates are hired, he noted, in part because HR increasingly has become a technical area that demands specialized training and experience.

Consider pursuing certification.

Having a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) or Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) certification rarely is a requirement for most HR jobs. But to those doing the hiring, it sometimes can be an influential factor. Intracorps Felici, despite not holding a certification, rates certification very high on his list of considerations when screening job candidates. He says this fits into parent company CIGNAs overhiring philosophy, which focuses on hiring highly qualified people likely to succeed and be promoted. I would prefer to hire people who are smarter than I am and know more than I do, says Felici.

Jaramillo, who was active in developing the first tests for the PHR and SPHR certification tests, says some companies ask for candidates with certification because it is perceived as good validation that the person knows what he or she is doing. But he notes that HR certifications have yet to achieve the stature of the CPA credential, for example.

Wood describes certification as very important, especially at the management level. Not only does it show me that someone has the general body of HR knowledge, but that theyre motivated and ready to improve. He and other recruiting experts suggest that certification can be a tie-breaker between closely matched candidates competing for a job. If he is working his way through a pile of resumes, Wood will stop and read the resume a little more slowly if candidates have the credential initials after their name. Herrmann said pursuit of certification sends the signal that a candidate considers HR a career, rather than just a job.

But Cluff views certification simply as a nice-to-have, adding, I really believe its more important for most employers to look for results and relationships through real-life accomplishments.

Be careful to be accurate when stating your credentials, experts advise. Herrmann has received several resumes where applicants describe themselves as PHR candidates, which in his view shows a lack of judgment. Taking a test does not make one a PHR candidate and I am aware of no professional distinction as such, he says.

Charlotte Garvey is a freelance writer, based in the Washington, D.C., area, who reports on business and environmental issues.


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