employers are dealing with more job applicants than ever. with thousands of submissions for a single vacancy, companies must be more diligent when sorting the wheat from the chaff. many rely on hr managers to screen out applicants who aren't qualified for the job or a good fit for the company. this step may feel like a roadblock to you as the applicant, but there are good reasons companies do it. instead of thinking, "ugh, i have to talk to hr," focus on how you can work with the department to pass this critical hurdle.
what the experts say
the majority of job applications die before the hiring manager ever sees them. as many as 95% of candidates who make it to the hr screen are then eliminated, according to john sullivan, a professor of management at san francisco state university and author of 1000 ways to recruit top talent. therefore, it behooves you to treat it seriously. "this is the first step in getting a job, so you have to persuade the initial screeners that you are a good candidate," says peter cappelli, a professor at the wharton school, the director of wharton's center for human resources, and author of "talent management for the twenty-first century." to pass this important stage, you need to learn to treat hr as your friend, not your foe, in getting through it.
what happens in an hr screen
not all companies treat hr screens in the same way. some use it to do a basic assessment of qualifications or to search for red flags such as misstated information. others perform a more thorough assessment to winnow applicants down to a final group of highly qualified candidates. some companies, such as google and zappos, use this step to test specifically for cultural fit. (see case study below). so find out what your target company wants from the screen. you can ask the person who schedules the interview, "what will you be looking for during our meeting?" some larger organizations are very transparent about the process and even include sample questions on their website.
challenge your assumptions
if you have a negative attitude toward the screening interviews and the people who perform them, you are unlikely to make a good impression. here are some of the most common assumptions you should rethink:
how to prepare
first, thoroughly research the company. cappelli says that one of the biggest mistakes candidates make is "not knowing enough about the organization, which signals to them that you haven't bothered to find out and therefore aren't very conscientious." don't just do a google search. sullivan advises: "candidates must thoroughly study the firm and its culture by using their social network connections." using linkedin or facebook, connect with people who work there and may be willing to give you an insider's perspective. if you can't make any contacts inside the company, look at sites that allow employees to rate their firms, such as vault.com or glassdoor.com. they often provide salary ranges, positive and negative aspects of the firm, and even sample interview questions. second, know what a qualified candidate looks like. request the full job description if you don't already have it. as cappelli notes, you have to know the requirements of the job to make the case that you can do it.
last, prepare answers to common interview questions, such as "what interests you about this job?" and "how would colleagues describe you?" sullivan says, "the candidate should be aware that the questions generally cover your work habits, your attitude, your understanding of the job and company and your expectations, especially your minimum salary and relocation needs." you also need to be ready when the hr representative asks if you have any questions for her. having a short list of questions that draw on their unique perspective shows preparedness and engagement with the process.
what to do when you're in the room (or on the phone)
beyond being courteous and respectful, make sure you help the recruiter do her job. "interviewers have a checklist to complete, so it is wise to cooperate and allow them to stay focused on that task," says sullivan. treat the recruiter as your partner in the process. how you interact with her may be considered an indication of your ability to collaborate.
also show empathy for your interviewer. he may have to do several dozen of these meetings each week and as a result may come across as unenthusiastic and rushed. don't take it personally. instead, demonstrate your own excitement and passion for the job. according to sullivan, such enthusiasm often "rubs off on the interviewer," improving your chances of making it to the next stage.
play the long game
of course you want the job you are being screened for but don't be shortsighted. partnering with hr could have longer-term benefits. even if you aren't a fit for the current role, many recruiters will consider you for future openings, especially if you show that you are a solid candidate and enthusiastic about the company. don't underestimate the power of making someone feel valued. if you acknowledge that hr is performing a necessary function, they are likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and keep you in mind for other opportunities.
principles to remember
case study: persistence pays off
brandis paden, the recruiting supervisor at zappos performs a critical function: to evaluate whether job applicants fit well with the company's unique culture. zappos has ten core values they want every employee, regardless of position, to exhibit such as "embrace and drive change" and "do more with less." therefore, brandis partners closely with each hiring manager to make sure candidates have the right skills and attitude. they trust her and her team to make tough calls. in fact, brandis has rejected candidates who their prospective bosses deemed qualified. on occasions when high-profile applicants have asked to bypass her and go straight to the hiring manager or to ceo tony hsieh, those executives have always said no. "if they're resistant to interacting with us, we're going to shut it down because that's not how we work," brandis says.
adam anderson applied for two financial analyst jobs at zappos and was rejected by the recruiting team both times. when adam received the second denial, from brandis, he responded, asking for feedback on why he wasn't interviewed. "whether it was at zappos or somewhere else, i wanted to know how to make myself a stronger candidate," he recalls. because he asked the question politely and seemed genuinely interested in self-improvement (as opposed to complaining about the decision), brandis called him and explained that his salary requirements were too high. adam said he could be flexible. "i stated a number based on competitive research but i understand some companies want you to go in and earn your stripes before you command a higher salary," he says. brandis could tell adam was sincere and shopped his resume around to a few other hiring managers. he soon applied for a third position and was given a test, which he did well on. he then came in for a day of interviews with the hiring manager and the recruiting team. by this point brandis was willing to advocate for him because "he had been so cordial to me", she explains. "any time i asked him to do something like tweak his resume, he didn't give me an attitude, he just did what i asked. he was very friendly and grateful for my help." in july 2010, zappos offered adam the job he originally applied for: senior financial analyst. "'be passionate and determined' is one of our core values," he explains. "i was persistent about getting a job at zappos. i think that resonated well with brandis and the other managers." brandis reports that adam has been a "rock star" at work and has since been promoted to finance supervisor.