Avoid Hiring an HR Dud Behavioral Interview Questions for Finding Stars

By Kris Dunn

Feb. 14, 2008

We’ve all been there. You’re coming off of one of the most chaotic years ever within your HR practice, with volume up, internal customers irritable and total FTEs down. You’ve been asked to do more with less, and tribute to you, the HR team has hung in there like Joe Torre at a Steinbrenner family barbecue.


    Then a key manager or director-level member of your team resigns.

    Crisis time!

    So the search begins, and you face the classic Catch-22 presented to all hiring managers. Do you conduct a quick search and hire the best available talent within a specific time frame, or do you keep the position open as long as needed to land a star? Like Judge Smails in Caddyshack, I’d be the first to tell most managers that the world needs ditch diggers too.

    But HR spots are different. With HR pros facing a barrage of articles touting why line managers "Hate HR", and industry consultants comparing the profession to prehistoric reptiles, you can’t afford the reputation hit that comes with hiring a "B" or "C" player. You need a star, a rainmaker who is capable of being a Tony Robbins one day, and Jason Bourne the next.

    The best way to find this rarest of talents is through behavioral interviewing, which makes the assumption that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. I won’t waste your time here regurgitating how behavioral interviewing works (for a full tutorial, check out a vendor that specializes in it or click here). Instead, I’m going to assume you are already a competent behavioral interviewer and focus on the questions you need to ask to find the star.

    Are you ready to find a star? Great! By the time you master these questions, you’ll be interviewing HR candidates with the style of Barbara Walters, the tenacity of Geraldo Rivera and the effectiveness of Mike Wallace.

    Here are my first five questions of the HR Rock Star Interview, focused on competencies that separate the players from the pretenders:

Interview Dimension: "The Innovator"
The Question: "Tell me about a time when you developed and executed a value-added project for your company by yourself. How did you come up with the idea? Walk me through the development and execution stages of the project."
Why You Ask This Question: It’s not enough for your next hire to simply execute your HR platform. You need someone capable and motivated to assess needs, then react accordingly with innovative solutions and the ability to execute the resulting projects. Without the innovation strand in their DNA, candidates are destined to be viewed as simple administrators.
What to Listen and Probe For: Does the candidate talk about what she did or is she talking about corporate initiatives she simply executed? Be on the lookout and probe for team projects, which require extensive drill-down to figure out if the candidate was the brainpower behind the initiative. Finally, ensure the candidate can deliver execution of resulting project work and isn’t simply a dreamer.

Interview Dimension: "The Talent Agent"
The Question: "Tell me about a time when you were the sole recruiter for a difficult-to-fill position. How did you develop candidate flow? What nontraditional means did you use to locate passive candidates? How did you communicate with these candidates to generate interest?"
Why You Ask This Question: It’s not enough to simply post a job to Monster or CareerBuilder and then screen résumés. In a labor market destined to get tighter as the baby boomers hit the beach, difference-makers in HR are going to secure talent through nontraditional means.
What to Listen and Probe For: Does the candidate have a proactive approach to talent that transcends simply posting a job? The real talent agents among HR types will be able to describe their networking efforts in detail, including social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Listen hard for tales of their "selling skills" as applied to passive candidates, because the best candidates aren’t looking, and have to be sold.

Interview Dimension: "The Performance Consultant"
The Question:
"Walk me through a situation in which you served as a consultant, assisting a line manager in the development of performance objectives for their team. What research did you do to prepare? How did you help the manager prioritize the objectives and link them to other roles within the company?"
Why You Ask This Question: Difference-makers in HR understand their business well enough to engage line managers in the development of customized performance management systems. You’re looking for people who can parachute into a department and drive the development of performance objectives from the top down or the bottom up.
What to Listen and Probe For: Has the candidate ever done more than send out reports about late appraisals? Be on the lookout for experience the candidate had with helping a manager understand the objective measurements that drive their department’s success. Also key is experience in pushing managers to set levels for "meets" and "exceeds" performance that rewards top talent while managing the expectations of the average performance.

Interview Dimension: "The Actor"
The Question: "Tell me about a time when you developed and executed training for managers at your company. Walk me through how you incorporated role-playing into the training, and how you displayed the skills on which you were training. Can you role-play with me now? I’ll be the manager and you’ll be the HR pro; let’s role-play so I can see how you followed up with that manager after the training was complete to ensure they were using the skill."
Why You Ask This Question: In order for HR pros to have a lasting impact on an organization, they have to be role models for the skills necessary for managers to thrive in today’s organization. If they can’t display the skill more effectively than the managers they serve, they’ll fall short in grooming first-time managers.
What to Listen and Probe For: Experience and presentation skills. Run the role-playing as a part of the interview, and you’ll have what you need.

Interview Dimension: "The MBA"
The Question: "Walk me through a situation in which you put together a ‘people metrics’ package for the organizations you served without being asked to do so."
Why You Ask This Question: HR pros have to be business professionals. If your candidate hasn’t grasped how to use metrics to enhance his position as a consultant to the organization, he’ll be viewed as the ultimate "soft side" of the business.
What to Listen and Probe For: Proactive efforts to look at human capital metrics for the organization without being asked to do so. You’ll also want to see proactive communication and distribution of metrics from the HR pro. Distribution mandated by the company is fine, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the analytical skills of the candidate.

    Master these questions and the follow-ups necessary to figure out what the candidate has actually done as an individual, and you’ll be on your way to identifying HR difference-makers. (Note: You have to attack generalities such as "we" and "usually" like a pit bull as a behavioral interviewer.)

    Keep in mind that these questions are designed to separate the stars from the also-rans. It’s assumed that all the candidates you put through this interview have the technical skills to do the job. We’re on the prowl for difference-makers, not administrators.

    Stay tuned for future columns, where we’ll move from competencies to traits that HR stars have in common.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with