In the May 21, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, an executive who’s about to be interviewed by another executive wants to know why HR is sticking its nose into the process:

You are going to love this. (NOT!)

I was contacted by an ex-colleague to ask if I’d be interested in the position of Regional Sales Manager at his company, which is actively recruiting. I said yes. The VP of Sales called me and we had a very positive discussion which progressed to setting a meeting in their corporate office. He was going to fly in from his office, and I was going to travel hundreds of miles from my home. But, the meeting has stalled because the HR person who was to attend was busy.

Two questions. What has HR got to do with an initial interview whose purpose is to (a) determine my suitability to do the job, and (b) the company’s ability to satisfy my needs? What sort of company insists on having HR present at an initial interview?

If ever there is a case of a “tail wagging the dog” — this is it. How can a VP of Sales operate like this? I now patiently await the availability of His Royal Highness — the HR Manager.

My Advice

HR can provide valuable input on executive-level positions. However, recruiting people like you is a sales task. It’s no surprise that you view such interference as a serious management error.

If sales people know one thing, it is the importance of striking when the iron is hot. Success in closing sales often depends on the sales person having the authority and the power to act quickly.

Get HR out of recruiting.

You have highlighted the main reason I advocate against HR being involved in recruiting. (See 7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.) HR is largely a bureaucratic function that is at least once-removed from the action. Depending on how you, the candidate, view this delay, you may decline further discussions because you could reasonably surmise that the company is not nimble. The Sales VP could lose an excellent candidate thanks to the bureaucracy. That’s not good. That’s very bad.

Take heed: Running a sales operation within this company could prove frustrating to an assertive sales manager. If HR can delay the Sales VP’s meeting when recruiting, who might hinder your sales team from closing a deal?

You are right to be concerned. This is bureaucratic meddling of the worst sort, and it leads me to repeat this caution to companies: It matters what image you project to the professional community from which you recruit, as much as what image you project to your customers. An HR manager who contributes only to overhead is controlling the agenda of an exec who produces revenue? Get HR out of your recruiting.

Now let’s discuss what to do. You could have some fun with this, but this approach can be risky. Decide how assertive a sales manager you are. I’d call the VP of Sales and politely tell him you’d be glad to meet the HR manager at some point, but your schedule is very tight for the entire month.

How to Say It

“I’ll be frank with you. I am available this day and that day only. When an opportunity arises to make a deal, I like to strike while the iron is hot. I have some ideas for your business that I’d like to discuss with you, and I’d like to suggest that you and I get together to talk shop as soon as possible.”

If you can support it, suggest a specific sales objective. For example:

Hot to Say It

“I think I can show you how to increase your regional sales by 20-30% without increasing your costs more than about 5%. But, I really do not want to let this wait. Opportunities come along every day — but great ones like this disappear over night. If I can’t convince you, then you shouldn’t hire me. But I think you will like what I have to share with you…”

Let him assume you may not be around to talk a month later.

Remember: You’re a salesman. This is a sale. Be respectful, but show the VP of Sales that you home in quickly and accurately and will not be deterred by underlings. See what he says. If he cowers at the idea of bypassing HR so he can talk business with you, well, why would you want to work with him? Imagine what it would be like trying to hire a top sales rep if you take this job. Get past the guard. Your mission is to meet with the VP now. Sell.

Patiently awaiting HR to find time to join the meeting is not a sign of a good sales ethic. This is how companies lose prospective customers to the nimble competition. It’s also how they miss the best hires.

HR can be part of the process. But HR should not lead or limit a recruiting effort.

Is this another stupid HR trick? Are great candidates slipping through the HR cracks? Has HR ever intruded into your interviews with a manager? Do you know how to parry the move? If you’re a manager, do you let HR control your interviews?

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  1. Hi

    You a
    You are absolutely right. I am HR professional for 8 years.Before that I worked as Engineer. I see that HR can contribute in training the functional people on selection criteria,evaluation,framing questions. HR can give input but not final say. The functional manager needs people whom he can trust. But he himself needs to keep selection objective without biases in decisionmaking.

  2. Nick,

    Did you just counsel a sales guy to be a … sales guy? WHAT A CONCEPT!

    Seriously, if ever there were an opening to show how you do the job, to get the job, this is it.

    Incidentally, it doesn’t say much for the VP Sales, OR the organization, if they would allow HR to control the VP’s schedule. You really need to understand the dynamic of that organization better, before considering a position.

  3. Nick,

    How right you are to illustrate the fact (and you’ve done it well in numerous other posts) that the hiring process can tell a prospective employee a lot about the company. I’ve only heard one other HR manager, out of the dozens I’ve known over the years, mention the same concern – a company’s interactions during the hiring process will help or hurt its brand.

    Had a similar issue with HR at a prior company, where I needed to hire an analyst for our group. After three months of following company protocol and doing it HR’s way, which meant posting a position on the company’s external website (with predictable lackluster results), I took it upon myself to post the position on reputable sites (Linked In, for one) as well as tapping fellow employees who were alumni of local universities to post on their alumni job boards. Within a month we had several qualified candidates, and the only time I allowed HR to get involved with these candidates was to fulfill their bureaucratic duties with the background check and compensation negotiations.

  4. Nick,

    You have stated your case very well. I totally agree that HR cannot be the tail that wags the dog, if the company is to function well.

    Having been both an in house corporate recruiter and an independent contingency recruiter for over 20 years I have also experienced the frustration you write about.

    However, I also know of a situation where a sales manager was so convinced they found the sales rep. they needed that they actually hired someone who was driving on a suspended license.

    HR would have saved them from this embarrassing situation had they involved the HR department in the hiring process.

    Not disagreeing with you, but, there is a reasonable argument on the other side for issues like this.

  5. Nick,

    My experience in both recruiting and searching supports your viewpoint of HR.

    One great example is similar to this article where an executive found me, recommended me but the HR recruiter didn’t agree I was the best fit. One year later the position is still open waiting for that perfect fit.

    Being the consummate sales person, I called the executive and asked what the delay is costing in lost opportunities of which I again articulated the value I would bring. Unfortunately HR politics prevailed and nothing materialized.

    HR support is essential in vetting the candidates formal requirements but when it comes to persuasion skills – let the experts who recognize sales talent do the recruiting.

  6. @Volkswagen: HR can certainly contribute to the hiring process, but as WD40 illustrates, that’s usually best done by HR handling the “bureaucratic duties” — not the recruiting, interviewing, and seduction of the candidate. (Yah, I said seduction.)

    @WD40: There are some HR departments that do a pretty good job at recruiting, but they are very rare. As you’ve demonstrated, the people best positioned to recruit effectively are those doing the hiring — the managers. They know where their quarry hangs out. They are best positioned to go find them, and to deploy others in their department who know where and how to look.

    Recruiting is so simple it’s silly. The real challenge nowadays is knowing what NOT to do. What not to do is plaster the world with job postings and then incur the cost of “processing” all the drek while complaining it all takes too much time. Recruit properly, and there’s little drek to deal with. The trouble with HR is it uses a “one size fits all” recruiting approach. You don’t find great engineers, for example, by posting an ad on CareerBuilder.

  7. Nick,

    Appreciate your bias that HR is usually focused on the bureacratic aspects of corporate life. There is another possibility, the VP wants HR there-could be for any number of reasons, some positive-the HR person is a former protege who is being groomed for something or the person is a great recruiter. Also could be some negative reasons – pending litigation against the Sales VP for discriminatory hiring practices(it happens, believe me). Regardless, part of your advice should have been to have the candidate ask the VP why HR rep needs to attend at this stage. It’s quite possible there is a good explanation; if there is not an acceptable response, then the candidate can decide whether it is worth his or her time to continue.

  8. @Nick: you’re dead on, again, as usual. This is a prime example of HR mucking it up. It sounds like the inmates are running the asylum.

    But, I think that Phil makes an excellent point. It is possible that this company has a good reason for requiring someone from HR to be part of the interview, I also think that the hiring manager can do much to mitigate HR’s involvement at this stage. HR typically handles the “bureaucratic” aspects of a hire–but I think of it more along the lines of payroll and benefits and possibly background checks, maybe, just maybe, calling references. At some companies, the hiring manager or his sec’y would call references. If HR is worried about discrimnatory hiring practices, having an HR person at the interview won’t matter. An HR person can remind the hiring manager not to ask certain questions (are you married, do you have children/how many children, that kind of thing) but other than that, all HR can do is remind the hiring manager to document why he hired person A over person B. As long as the hiring manager doesn’t say he didn’t like person B because he’s black, or because she’s a woman, or because he’s Jewish (pick your favorite protected class), a good hiring manager (and with some help from HR) can always find another reason to justify the hire (he was better qualified; he was able to work odd hours; we just liked him better–he was a better “fit” for the company/team/culture here).

    If HR is worried about the senior VP of sales not properly vetting a candidate (things may come up during a background check that might not get discussed at the initial interview, or even be able to be asked), then all the hiring manager has to do is make any offers conditional (I’d like to offer you the job, conditional upon your passing the background/drug/security/whatever check). This takes the company off the hook, doesn’t hold out promises to any candidate that the hiring manager may not be able to keep (and keeps the lawyers away), and lets the candidate know that there are additional steps in the process just in case they’ve been living under a rock and don’t know a thing about hiring processes these days.

    This would free up the hiring manager to meet with candidates, and only when it looks like an offer is on the table does HR have to be involved. Looks better for the company, yet still keeps HR in the loop for all of non-job related things HR and lawyers are concerned with, and doesn’t slow down the process, particularly for any job that needs to be filled.

    I just don’t get it. And yes, especially for sales, where you need to act quickly, this is not a good omen. I, too, would wonder if HR gets involved everytime a salesperson goes out, offers a deal, negotiates with customers/clients (may have to if they’re unhappy with the products/services) and just how good a salesperson can be in an environment where he’s got to run things by HR. If the senior VP of sales can’t meet a candidate for an interview without HR there, something is wrong. Who’s running the company–the president/ceo or HR?

  9. @marybeth

    “If HR is worried about the senior VP of sales not properly vetting a candidate…”

    This begs the question – why is he a senior VP and would you want to work for such a person?

    We aren’t exactly talking about a new low level manager or employee who has never interviewed anyone before. One would assume that a senior VP has built teams…

  10. While the concept is sound, I’m pretty sure the “how to say it” needs work.

    If an applicant said something to me anywhere close to what you suggested (I can increase sales by x with an investment no more than y), I’d ask what they think our current sales stats are – what we’re currently spending on regional sales, and the regional sales volume. I’d also ask for a description of our current sales strategies and tactics for the region.

    He/she almost certainly won’t know all of this (if (s)he does, I have an additional cause for concern); there’s quite a good chance (s)he won’t know any of it. This is very difficult information to obtain, after all.

    Assuming (s)he doesn’t know any of it, (s)he now has to explain how (s)he’s confident (s)he can increase sales by x without increasing spending more than y without knowing what we’re spending right now, selling right now, or how we’re selling it right now.

    That would lead me to conclude I’m talking to someone who makes unwarranted assertions, and someone who reaches conclusions before they have the information they need to make them.

    This isn’t a conclusion you want a hiring manager to reach.

  11. @Bob Lewis
    Agreed, I work in a deeply technical organization. Any outsider who would make such bold statements would have to be a genius and demonstrate it durng the interview. Otherwise, they would be branded as a windbag and politely shown the door.

  12. Nick,

    Great column this time! Here’s my favorite HR story.

    Several centuries ago (when I was young), I went to an interview for a Hardware Engineering position. The first stop was HR to get the scoop on benefits, etc. That concluded, and the HR person started asking me extremely technical questions.

    At first I was confused as to why. Then I realized I wasn’t going to meet the hiring manager; the technical interview was going to be done by HR. I immediately crossed the company off my list, but decided not to get up in the middle of the interview.

    At one point the HR person asked, “What to you think of your present company as a whole?” I said, “I couldn’t agree more.” She gave me a puzzled look and moved on. About a minute later she started laughing and said, “Oh, I get it!”

    But I guess she really didn’t, did she?

  13. If any firm’s so-called executive (and I use the phrase executive here lightly) told me that instead of meeting the person in charge some HR person(from my experience meaning som low level HR Moron) would be conducting a a so-called “technical interview” that would be all I would need to know. I would tell them right there, “You need someone else.” As “marybeth said “Who’s running the company–the president/ceo or HR?.”

  14. Nick,

    Well that VP didn’t make himself look too good, never mind HR or the company! Who in their right mind wants to work for a company who employees someone who disrespects their co-workers? The VP should have had coordinated a schedule prior to the call for a interview!

    I’ve been in HR for over 10 years and ALWAYS work with management. The best scenario is when a department head gives his schedule and top candidates and we (HR) set up the interview for him! The best practice is to have the candidate come into Human Resources prior to the interview, fill out any paperwork, and bring the candidate over to the manager, department head, supervisor, etc. Plus, HR can give valuable feedback after the interview.

  15. @Dave: bingo! That’s what I would be asking–the senior VP of sales kowtows to HR on an initial interview? Does HR even know the first thing about sales? The second question is a rhetorical question–maybe there are some HR folks who do know all of the ins and outs of sales and what a sales position requires, but I’d bet the majority of them don’t know the first thing about it. There’s something wrong if HR is involved at this stage. Unless the hiring manager is a loose cannon, there’s no reason to have HR involved at this stage. If the hiring manager likes the candidate and wants to offer him the job, then he makes a conditional offer (provided that you pass the background/credit/security/whatever check). Most likely HR isn’t qualified to determine if the candidate is a good prospect for the job. The hiring manager of the sales division or senior VP of sales is best able to make that determination. If HR finds something objectionable in the candidate’s background (he’s wanted for mass murder in three states; he embezzled $1.3 trillion dollars from his last employer; he’s had 16 DUIs and the job requires a great deal of local travelling–all by car), then the offer can be withdrawn.

    And, although I know it is common practice (it’s happened to me too many times to count) to have a candidate go to HR first, fill out “paperwork” (an application), then go to the interview, I don’t see the point. The hiring manager has your résumé already, and unless you’ve already been made an offer and you’ve accepted it, there’s no need to fill out an application before your interview. Suppose the interview doesn’t go well? Suppose you or the hiring manager don’t hit it off and you decide to withdraw your name from consideration?

    @Denise: yes, ideally, schedules should have been coordinated beforehand. However, things happen (unanticipated meeting, an illness, a kid’s snowday so a parent has to stay home, etc.) and often it is simply a lack of communication, which is another red flag for me. Good communication is important–lack of communication can be a deal-breaker, and can make or break a new employee (meaning you may not be able to do your job if there’s no communication or poor communication). Having worked for an employer were communication was done by mind-reading (no boss ever told you anything unless there was a complaint, provided no guidance or direction, and if you asked, you were told to figure it out for yourself if you were lucky enough to get an answer), I can attest that this is something I’m sensitive to. I can figure out a lot on my own, but communication is still important, especially if you get new bosses all the time (and who bring their own agendas and mandates but don’t bother to share them with staff). How you’re treated during courtship (application and interview stages) is the best it’s going to get. If it’s bad then, it will be no better and likely worse once you’re married (joined the company).

  16. @Bob & John Z: I guess the candidate would have to so some serious work beforehand, to be able to discuss costs and estimates of growth. But isn’t this what sales reps have to do all the time, when they present a “value proposition” to a prospective customer? The prospect’s “numbers” aren’t always public, but there’s usually something the salesperson can ferret out and use, without coming off as offensive. Of course, this takes some finesse, and a deft hand. But if the candidate hasn’t done some homework to be able do make a case, what’s she doing in the meeting? If she can’t sell the VP of Sales, how’s she going to sell to customers?

    You both make good points about confidential information, and about windbag candidates… But to stand out, a good candidate has to develop a basis for discussion. How to do that is the challenge. My “How to Say It” example could be better! Anyone care to suggest some alternative “How to Say Its?”

  17. @Nick: I thought you said it just fine in your example. My experience with salesmen is that there’s a good amount of puffery and swagger, charm, bravado, and confidence in buckets is part of being a salesman. I’d have taken all of that into account, discounted a certain amount of what he claimed to be able to do because there’s never any certainty. As for confidential info, well, what’s confidential? Salesmen often know eachother, particularly those who work in a particular industry. It is possible to get info any number of ways–through honest research, through knowing someone in the company, through swapping war stories over drinks, etc.

    Hmmmm….good question.

  18. Human Resources (remember when it was called Personnel?) is a department created to cover a company’s a** in all legal matters. The bigger the company, the bigger the HR department. I fear we won’t be rid of them any time soon.

  19. @Donna “a department created to cover a company’s a** in all legal matters.” You are being ironic? No, I believe that is what the legal department is for not HR unless you are lumping legal into human resources. #

    What I have seen especially at large corporations is that everyone is a manager. There are far too many managers, too many VPs, and far too many so-called senior managers in HR and a hell of a lot of very young incompetent idiots who are more interested in social media and mobile phones than taking a job seriously. It is out of control and frankly the people I have seen in these various HR positions better hold their jobs because I honestly don’t see one I’ve encountered doing the same job title elsewhere.

  20. Many years ago, I was told if you want something sold, do not go to Purchasing…if you want a job (any), do NOT go to HR. Gut has to come from somewhere. Lag, lag, lag…Too much time getting freeking anal with every Tom, Dick, and Mary that must get involved. Essentially, we have lost the power of one person strong. A man cannot be a man, he must be androgenous. Frankly, with the very small amount of jobs (here in CT, there is a big crapper fo0r biz dev people. The 50-60 year olds are getting shoved aside and are losing the very cream of experience. Mentoring is going away to the power of women in the marketplace and the displacement of the finest group money WILL have to buy in a few years. Execs will come crawling back to boomers who will walk and continue to suck the system of SS benefits, cause that’s all thats left…or working WalMart. Our society knows the the 35-45 yeart old group coming up had little compettion because of a dip in the population…Yes, its all statistics. Service has no strength, young folk need role models. Even watchiong sports events…I got off topic there…get rid of EEO, Affirmative Action and get rid of not hiring folk with a felony…these choices will be seen in the very near future. Get real. Our society will be supported by a very weak small population holding up disabled, disinterested, and the millions on SS bennies. 30
    % holding up 70%…the debt is getting heavier…wake up America! If we cannot hire the best because Hr Gets their arses in the way, they choke on it! Honor our war dead!

  21. The Wall Street Journal: In an essay in this newspaper last fall, Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and human resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, challenged the oft-heard complaint from employers that they can’t find good workers with the right skills. “The real culprits are the employers themselves,” he asserted.

  22. @Eerik: Thanks for the link — that’s a great article. Why isn’t anyone else pointing at the emperor running around buck naked, crying about “Talent shortage!”?

  23. What are we to make of a VP of Sales putting off an interview to cater to HR ?

    This VP is (one or more of the following):

    1. Obeying the Peter Principle
    2. Allowing coworkers to “run the show”
    3. Errantly respecting this specific HR rep
    4. NOT a true salesperson
    5. Not “getting it”
    6. Waiting for the candidate to SELL himself

    If you think #6 is a “game” then congratulations and welcome to the wonderful world of sales !

    Like Nick says, show how you’d do the job in the interview.

    I did this at a car dealership when the hiring manager let me “sit” alone while he ran off to the back room during the interview. I only waited a limited time, then went out the front door to chat with the sales staff.

    Not more than several minutes later the hiring manager came out to get me to “…continue the interview…”

    He sent me right over to the NEW car sales department. As I found out, he primed the new car sales manager with “I’m sending over an interviewee…this guy’s got class!”

    Although I did not accept the position (they wanted me to start training within days) I certainly made a lasting impression.

    So, concerning the HR rep that is subject of this blog, I’d at most offer to screen the HR rep over the phone thereby throwing the ball back in the sales VP’s lap. If they appreciated this tactic for what it is (saving time, showing sales savvy all the while respecting HR for what their “real” role is, etc) then the in-person “interview” may go forward on a mutually acceptable date/time.

    Your time is as golden as their’s is. Be polite, don’t let anyone waste their (thats right, “their”) own time and they’ll respect YOURS.

    The KISS principle…very effective…try it, you’ll like it.

  24. One thing hasn’t been discussed completely in these terms — HR folks have sensitive egos. They, I think, believe they are in place (I think on some level) to “protect” the company and “screen” for folks who “fit in” the company “culture”. What most company’s may not be clear about is that the HR view of the company culture is very often not indicative of the actual company culture.

    I have never, ever had an HR person actually know or experience the same culture that I experience in R&D, Dev, Eng. or Product Mktg. It is truly a joke that these individuals are given the responsibility of “screening” candidates for “fits”.

    Speaking of “fits”. wouldn’t that make a great blog article? So much can be said about that illusive topic… “fits”….