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Two Important HR traits

I’m Cathy Bird, for those of you who don’t know me, I run our retained HR search, and also Right Recruiting’s Contingency Division.


Jeff usually writes these White Papers, but he is giving me a shot at it this month.


In both of my capacities, I interface with lots of human resource people, probably hundreds per year. Some are clients, some are candidates. Some become both over time. In an earlier White Paper, Jeff wrote that HR has changed dramatically over the last few years and urged employers to upgrade their HR functions quickly to take advantage of such changes. In this White Paper, I will address my fellow HR professionals and talk about how I think you can separate yourselves from others as you advance in your career.


Human Resources is about people. The word “human” is a good clue. The biggest change over the last 20 years has been the change from a labor relations/personnel focus to the current business partner/ human resources focus. That change parallels the change in business structure from a top-down centralized approach, to a more matrixed decentralized approach. Unfortunately, too many HR people have not kept up with that change, especially from a personal attitude standpoint. As someone who has conducted dozens of HR searches here at RR, from VPs to Generalists, I have seen two common traits appear in successful candidates. I have also seen the same two traits in clients – who I have found to be the most effective in their roles.


The first trait exemplifies a personal outlook. I have found the best HR people to be optimists. The have a high energy level and a positive outlook. I think that’s important because HR is an influential function. Often an HR professional does not have direct authority over a staff, unless it is people in the HR department themselves. HR is a “guiding” discipline and is more of a leadership function than a management function. If you have ever been led, it is more pleasant and effective to be led by someone with an uplifting message than a deflating message, almost all of us can agree. The best HR people are almost inspirational in their approach; they know how to deliver a message, even unpleasant ones. The HR optimist tries to figure out a way to allow you to do what you want. “There must be a way to accomplish that, I will figure it out” The pessimist HR person simply says “No, you can’t do that.”


HR, as it is practiced now is HARD. Very few things in HR are black and white. HR is about people, specifically IN the workplace.  It is a balancing act that helps a wide variety of people interact and perform in a constantly changing environment. It’s the perfect job for an optimist.


Here’s a story specific to the world of recruitment:


We had a candidate for a senior finance job who was qualified for two positions. Since they were both contingency, there was not an issue with showing the candidate to both clients. She was a good and talented person. Both companies liked her, and here was their feedback:


  • Pessimist HR “Our people love her and thought she would be a good addition to the team. But she lives an hour away and I’m worried that is too far to commute. She will quit”
  • Optimist HR “Our people love her and think she will be a good candidate. It’s an hour commute and that worries me. I talked to her about it and she reassured me the commute doesn’t bother her, she is used to doing it.  We like her and I can help her get acclimated and make it work”


Optimist HR hired her and three years later she is still there. I think Pessimist HR hired someone with a better commute and left a year later for a position that offered more money.


Optimists take chances based on their judgement and work for people who appreciate that trait. Pessimists work for people who like to assign blame. If you are mismatched, your life is probably miserable. Think about changing employers, for your sake.


The second trait I find valuable in HR professionals and it’s often overlooked is humor. A sense of humor is a good asset. It breaks down barriers between people and can often diffuse arguments. It is a valuable tool in an HR person’s tool kit.


A sense of humor shows an understanding of the many different nuances in people. It denotes empathy. Humor is a shared experience among people and it breaks down barriers. Think about it – what is lonelier in a conversation than the other person not getting the joke? Communication stops. Humor is genuine. Effective HR people are definitely not phonies. People with a sense of humor, especially a sense of humor about their own foibles are not phonies either – I love to laugh at myself!


When I prep HR people before an interview, I pay attention to their sense of humor. In a first conversation, people can be more formal, but in a second conversation I expect people to be more relaxed and natural. If I don’t get that, I get nervous. This was demonstrated in a recent project. I was searching for an HR Manager for a 200 person company and I made a mistake by not paying attention to their sense of humor.


One of the candidates submitted had a good resume for the job. She checked off all the boxes.
My first conversation with her was very wooden, but her background was good and I sent her resume to my client. She was 1 of 3 candidates they wanted to interview. In my prep call she was very monosyllabic. If I asked a question, she gave a curt response and she didn’t ask any questions. She had responded to an ad, so I knew she was looking for a job.  I thought maybe she was just not comfortable with recruiters (yes, that can actually be true?!). I was hoping she would blossom in front of my client. Boy was I wrong!


She did horribly. My client said it was a very uncomfortable meeting. Jeff and I had our client debrief with the client’s COO and he said the candidate seemed almost angry. Please trust me when I say this feedback was coming from one of the nicest, even-tempered people we deal with. I felt very tiny as he described how almost rude she was.


The next day the candidate left me a message demanding to learn of the company’s benefits package prior to making a decision. I gently disengaged. And did I learn my lesson! I should have addressed her unresponsiveness at the first conversations. And, looked for a sense of humor!


As was mentioned earlier, the HR function has changed in recent years, hopefully for the better. Along with that, HR professional personalities should roll with the changes, increasing optimism and humor.


As Jeff says, thanks for getting to the end of this White Paper and please consider Right Recruiting for all your recruitment needs.

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