Why you need to take your HR interview seriously

A female professional in an interview with a HR Manager

Many candidates think of their prospective interviewer as falling squarely into the line manager category – full of tough questions about the job. But they may well also have to face an HR manager, who has a different perspective but needs to be taken just as seriously. Here’s why and how…  

Professional interviewers can be broadly divided into two categories: line managers and HR managers. 

Line managers tend to be experts in the role you’re interviewing for, and will ask questions of a technical or operational nature. HR managers, on the other hand, are more interested in the company’s values and culture, so will be looking at things like team chemistry and transferrable skills. 

Because candidates tend to see the HR interview as less obviously a test of their expertise, conducted by someone who doesn’t know the intricacies of the role, they can be tempted to dismiss it as a bit of a formality or a box-ticking exercise. But there are good reasons to take the HR element of selection just as seriously, and to make sure you are prepared for both types of questioning. 

Why HR interviewers need to be taken seriously

In some companies, the HR interview takes place before the line manager’s interview. This means that HR can act as a powerful influence on the next round, especially where the interviewer is a senior member of staff of long standing and influence. 

Line managers may well look to their HR colleague to help them decide between candidates with similar experience and expertise. In such a situation, other aspects of what you offer – such as your potential to integrate with a team, or how well you might fit in with the company’s culture and values – could suddenly become very significant.  

Also, of course, any formal conversation with a representative of an organisation that you’d like to work for should be treated with care and respect, as you simply don’t know how that conversation will be reported and made use of internally. 

Another point to bear in mind is that many line managers are now trained to ask HR-style questions, so even in the absence of a dedicated HR professional their perspective may well still be represented. 

the HR person is really embedded in the business and takes a very hands-on approach, they can actually have a power of veto on chemistry grounds over a candidate who is otherwise technically competent

“Some people don’t take the HR element as seriously as they should,” warns Harriet King, who helps investment risk professionals find their next move within financial institutions in the UK.

“But in some institutions where the HR person is really embedded in the business and takes a very hands-on approach, they can actually have a power of veto on chemistry grounds over a candidate who is otherwise technically competent.”

This is one area where your recruitment consultant can really add value, she says: “A good consultant will know the companies they’re working with, and understand the different approach and potential influence of the HR function in each.” 

Two different styles of questions to prepare for 

“HR interviews tend to be more driven by company values, while interviews with line managers are more operationally and skills focused,’” says Katie Drewitt, who places temporary secretarial and business support staff in the North of England. “So you need to take care to tailor your answers accordingly.” 

Think of the line manager as someone who used to do your job, and now manages his or her successors.

“When you meet with a line manager, they know the ins and outs of the actual role. They’re more about the nitty-gritty, more process-driven,” says Katie Drewitt.

The HR manager, on the other hand, is looking at your potential appointment in the wider context of the company as a whole:

  • Will you fit into the culture? Will you support and nurture its values?
  • Do you have the potential to develop yourself and eventually others too?
  • Are you likely to be happy with the sort of package on offer?

While the line manager wants to know if you can do the job, the HR manager wants to know what you’re like.

“The line manager will want to drill straight down into the detail of the work, but with an HR manager you can expect more of a focus on soft and transferrable skills,” advises Ken Okumura, who recruits lawyers for roles in London and offshore.

“So be prepared for a lot more questions like ‘Why are you interested in our firm?’, ‘How much do you know about us?’ and ‘What skills can you bring?’”

Candidates in HR interviews are also likely to be asked competency-based questions using the STAR technique, such as: “Tell us about a time when you experienced conflict at work and how you dealt with it”.

“These can sometimes trip people up because they can’t be answered in a simple formulaic way, but you can at least try and anticipate likely scenarios that you might be asked about,” adds Ken Okumura. For more support on this, see our article on dealing with competency-based questions.

Finally, Harriet King advises not to try and use the HR interview to negotiate your package.

“If you have any questions around compensation, bonus, job title, career progression, promotion and so on, you should always run these past your recruiter first so you’re both on the same page and the recruiter can serve your interests as best as possible. But do take the HR round seriously – it’s an opportunity to ask about culture and to show that you want to invest yourself in your future employer.”

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