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Be Open to Hiring Imperfect HR Candidates—And Allowing Them to Learn

Nearly half of California respondents say HR applicants lack HR knowledge

A man is giving a presentation to a group of people.

Expertise in human resources was cited as the competency most lacking among job seekers for HR roles, according to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2017 HR Jobs Pulse Survey in California. The survey found that 45 percent of recruiters hiring HR talent in California said applicants needed to develop HR know-how, as well as business acumen (43 percent) and leadership (35 percent), among other skills.

Nearly 1,000 SHRM members responded to the survey in November 2017.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they experienced some level of difficulty recruiting for HR positions in 2017. California employers filled on average 2.9 HR positions over the year, and the average time-to-fill for HR roles was 38.6 days, higher than the national 28.4 days across industry sectors.

Laura Mazzullo, owner of East Side Staffing, a New York City-based recruitment firm focused on HR roles, said the findings may indicate not so much a dearth of talent as employers taking the wrong approach to hiring.

"HR pros at all levels will require some training," she said. "With agile organizations evolving fast, today's HR employees need continuous development. The clearer you are about what is truly necessary in a candidate and not solely ideal, the easier it will be to identify a great candidate when they come along."

It's unrealistic to expect to hire perfection into your organization, agreed Meghan M. Biro, a leading talent management and HR technology analyst and the founder of TalentCulture based in Cambridge, Mass. 

"When employers are hiring for HR roles, they're going to need to take responsibly for at least a certain amount of training and development—and that's regardless of skills," she said.

New HR hires need to learn "the particular, unique workplace culture of a given company and …[be] aligned with that culture."

Kelly Blokdijk, SHRM-SCP, an HR business partner and recruiting professional in Orange County, Calif., believes much of the qualifications gap exists because of a mismatch between employers' expectations and aligning those presumptions with the hiring process. She has witnessed many recruiters aggressively go after a prospect before figuring out they need a different person with different qualifications.  

"Job posts tend to be all over the place," she said. "Employers don't really know what they want or how to describe it in job ads. There's no consistency, and each company describes things differently. Sometimes, job posts will contain elements they don't even really require, putting people off. Someone may have 12 of the 14 qualifications listed, but won't even bother applying if their experience doesn't fit all of the buckets."

Mazzullo advised recruiters and hiring managers to practice empathy. "If you were a candidate, would you want someone to hire you even if you lacked a few things on their 'wish list'? Would you want someone to stretch you, train you and set you up for future success? Remind yourself of a specific time in your HR career when someone gave you a chance, even when you didn't have every single item required on their wish list."

She recommended that those in charge of hiring write down the top three soft skills required for the role, the top three technical skills, and the top three priorities you want the new employee to focus on in the first year. "Once you have articulated your specifics, discuss them with your recruitment partners and share with all interviewers involved. This will help you make data-based hiring decisions and will help ensure all candidates are evaluated fairly for the specific need."

The leading causes for recruiting difficulty were candidates' lack of soft skills (39 percent) and work experience (29 percent), according to the survey.

"The most in-demand soft skills I hear about from hiring managers are empathy, agility, flexibility, the ability to customize solutions, and relationship building," Mazzullo said. "The skills required are getting much more high-level in nature and less operational and administrative. Humility is another soft skill that is often requested—leaders want HR pros who are willing to roll up their sleeves and help out where needed. The mindset of 'that's beneath me' or 'that isn't in my job description' is not an attractive trait to today's employer."

Companies are missing out on great hires when they reject someone for not having worked in a specific industry, according to Mazzullo. "I have found that most HR professionals are completely capable of transferring between industries, and yet too many employers remain incredibly particular about this," she said.

One of HR's biggest flaws is focusing on experience, according to Blokdijk. "There's plenty of incompetent people with lots of experience. Instead of requiring so much experience, assess a person's ability to learn new skills on the job, to be adaptable and flexible."

"This is not a one-size-fits-all era of people management," Biro added. "From software to apps to even the relative formality or informality of feedback and performance evaluation, it's highly likely that a great HR pro from one company won't actually know all the tools another company is using. For all those reasons, I think it should be a given that HR professionals be brought in not just for the skills they have, but for the potential for how much they can learn and execute new skills."

The ability to learn is the key, agreed Blokdijk. "Certainly, I've found that candidates lack skills. But I'm not sure training is the remedy—at least not formal training. I think candidates just need exposure to new projects or activities on the job."

Leaving HR vacancies open for the length of time that survey respondents cited—waiting for the perfect candidate—creates more problems, Mazzullo said.

"There are tactical, negative effects to waiting for perceived perfection," she said. "HR teams become disengaged and burnt out, as they are doing more work than they are compensated for or can handle. They wait for months for help that doesn't arrive. Additionally, your employer brand is negatively impacted. It's very easy for an employer to be known as the one with slow and unreasonable selection and hiring processes."

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