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Putting Humanity into HR Compliance: Use 'Star Profiles' for Hiring

A man standing on top of a rock looking at the milky way.

​Many years ago, as president of a nonprofit association, I hired an executive director. I thought I'd hit the jackpot! His resume, qualifications and responses to interview questions were outstanding.

Not long after his employment began, however, I couldn't wait for it to end.

What happened? I had conflated the ability of the candidate to get a job with his ability to do it.

Over the years, I learned that I'm not the only one susceptible to this mistake—far from it.

Unwittingly, HR sometimes encourages this error. The hiring process often starts with a left-brain, analytical focus on qualifications, years of experience, education attained and other box-checking steps. After that comes the right-brain analysis: Which candidate makes me feel best?

This is not the best way to hire the best people. Consider the "star profile" instead to guide your hiring decisions.

The Star Profile

A star profile lists the candidate behaviors that make you say, "What a great hire!" A star profile creates a "word picture" of actual behavior tied to what management considers the most-desired results. It's position-by-position specific and can even be manager-by-manager specific.

Having learned my lesson the hard way, I used a star profile when I became office managing shareholder at my former law firm. My predecessor had a very different management style from mine. When it came to office management, he pretty much did all of the thinking and oversaw all of the details. The office administrator (OA) simply followed the managing shareholder's orders.

I desired something close to the opposite: an OA to whom I could delegate office management responsibilities early, often and to the greatest degree possible. This meant a huge change for the incumbent OA.

I created the following star profile and sat down with her to discuss it:

  • Leads and models professional, productive and team-oriented office behavior.
  • Anticipates, troubleshoots, follows up and follows through with office, staff, attorney and home office needs.
  • Loops me in efficiently.

I explained that each sentence reflected the behaviors I most desired from her. I needed someone who would promote a healthy office culture; proactively prevent and solve problems arising with the office, staff, attorneys and our home office; and figure out when and how I needed to be informed and when I didn't.

A couple of months later, my OA came into my office and said, "This may not be a smart thing to say since I haven't started looking for another job, but I don't think I'm the right person for what you need."

I agreed. However, rather than embark on a progressive disciplinary path, which I abhor, we worked out a transition plan that worked for both of us. After she left, we remained on friendly terms.

Using the star profile, I subsequently hired her replacement. The new OA proved to be a fantastic hire. Everyone in the office soon knew who the real boss was. It wasn't the managing shareholder; it was the office administrator!

A Star Profile to Help Management

Here's an example of how a star profile is used in the hiring process. To ensure that his company made a good hiring decision for vice president of operations, an HR director decided to use a star profile. After reflecting on the various needs, priorities and challenges of this position, as well as the personality styles of the key stakeholders with whom the vice president would interact, he came up with the following:

  1. Shows a passion for our charitable mission.
  2. Owns responsibility for quality, quantity, efficiency, innovation and compliance.
  3. Listens and learns from others at all levels in the company.
  4. Coaches, mentors and empowers others to maximize their contributions.
  5. Helps our founder distinguish ideas worth pursuing from ones that aren't.


In his candidate interviews, the HR director prefaced the interview this way:

"I'm going to share with you what I call a star profile. It's a description of the actual behaviors that make the difference, in my view, between a successful and an unsuccessful fit between the candidate and the job. I'll share each characteristic and why I chose the words I did. We'll then discuss whether you see yourself in that role."


The HR director went through each profile characteristic. For the first characteristic, he said:

"Our company gives a substantial portion of its profits to charity, which has amounted to millions of dollars over the years. Our founder is passionate about this, as are the rest of the core leadership team, even though we know it results in less compensation for us. For such a key position as VP of operations, it's essential that this person share this passion. What are your thoughts?"


For the second profile characteristic, the HR director explained:

"Our business comes down to five essentials: maintaining high quality, producing proper quantities, being economically efficient, being innovative and ensuring regulatory compliance. We expect the VP of operations to own responsibility for making these things happen. What are your thoughts or questions?"


For the third characteristic, he said:

"We value humility and expect our leaders to be humble. This means no matter what your title, you can always listen to and learn from others. What do you think?"


For the fourth characteristic, the HR director said:

"We need a leader who fervently believes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a leader who gives credit and recognition to others, delegates effectively, and takes pride and satisfaction in helping others maximize their abilities. What are your thoughts on this topic?"


Finally, on the fifth characteristic, he said:

"Our founder is a wonderfully talented, caring and occasionally high-maintenance human being. He brims with ideas. Some of them have been fantastic and are why we're in the successful place we're in today. Some of them, well … Yet he's enthusiastic about all of his ideas. A successful VP of operations will develop a relationship in which our founder trusts the VP's judgment on which ideas to pursue and which not to pursue. What are your thoughts or questions?"

In order to further reduce the risk of conflating the ability to answer questions with the ability to do the job, the HR director had a follow-up question for each characteristic: "What current or past experience would suggest that we will see this with you?"

When the candidate shared a past experience, the HR director said:

"Because perceptions often vary, I may circle back to you for contact information of the people who would have personal knowledge of the experience you shared. Would that be acceptable?"

In my experience, using a star profile dramatically improves the odds of a successful hire. It eliminates candidates who are good at getting the job but not good at doing it. And it creates diamond-in-the-rough opportunities for candidates who are good at doing a job but not at getting it. This approach allows for more flexibility in the left-brain assessment. Would you prefer to hire a mediocre candidate who checks every box or an outstanding candidate who's short a box or two?

Finally, the star profile creates a foundation for shared expectations and timely and constructive feedback.

Let Me Know Your Experience

Should you start using star profiles for your hiring, I would love to hear of your experience and perhaps share it in a subsequent column.


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