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Dancing with Human Resources

September 27, 2011

“Voice from the Trenches” is written by Karen Euler, director of marketing at TRO Jung | Brannen. She has been active in SMPS for many years, most recently serving a two-year term on SMPS Boston’s Board of Directors. She can be reached through Twitter @karen_e or LinkedIn.

If someone acts like she waltzed into a new job, she is probably exaggerating. It takes a lot of dancing to get a job— more than one evening on the dance floor, that’s for sure. Some firms do take a slow waltz tempo while making a hire, for good reason. In other cases, the process might more resemble the quickstep.

For a senior management hire at a large firm, it could take four months from opening to closing the deal. Introductory calls to a prospective candidate by the human resources (HR) staff are very polite, and intentions only slightly spelled out. “Do you know anyone who might be interested in this position?” is mixed delicately with “We are interested in you.” In a milieu as interdependent as Boston’s architecture/engineering/construction (AEC) community, one firm does not want to be seen as poaching employees from another. Interviews are not called interviews, but meetings. Even an initial interview with a top firm leader could be prefaced by HR with, “This will be a good first meeting, and we can take it from there.”

Once seated in the so-called meeting, the candidate angling for a plum position might expect some challenging interview questions. Presumably the hour would begin with resume and self-appraisal questions, then move into situational questions, like “How would you deal with a difficult team member?” A thoroughly prepared candidate would be ready for all of the above as well as for the frightening so-called “stress questions.” (“If you were to compare yourself to a world leader, who would it be?”)

So it would be quite a surprise if senior principals and other key decision makers were instead to ask, as happened in a recent series of interviews, “What can we tell you about the firm?” and “What else would you like to know about the firm?” It just seems so… friendly. One explanation for this unthreatening line of approach is that although there is a high rate of unemployment in the U.S. right now, there is also a limited amount of well-trained talent for jobs in our highly specialized industry. Candidates with good qualifications and strong SMPS connections are very desirable; no interviewer wants to scare away a good candidate with overly off-putting questions.

There might also be a lull in the process while the decision makers huddle about who to choose for the job. As one top firm leader recently noted, a marketing director hire is a key hire and not one to make quickly. In the meantime, rumors or leaks might circulate about favored candidates. Word can travel especially quickly among community members such as consultants and vendors; people in this role can be good sources of information, but sometimes they may unwittingly spread rumors.

In contrast to a carefully considered four-month hire, a firm might have a lot of urgency. In this case, early bird candidates will get the worm. Those who inquire a week after the job is posted are going to appear very late compared to those who respond immediately. Truly “hungry” candidates monitor job boards or make use of automated feeds and aggregator services. A mere few days after posting a notice, as happened recently in a Boston firm, the person in charge of screening had identified the top candidates, set up interviews, and prepared to call references.

From the perspective of a person making a marketing hire, active participation in SMPS provides strong differentiation. CPSM? Tip-top of the pile. As a Boston design firm president said, “The CPSM designation shows commitment.” Of course, the opposite is true, too. One candidate for a recent marketing manager opening was known for having neglected a series of SMPS commitments. The marketing department member consulted by HR stated simply, “This person is not reliable.”

In a well-run organization, many members of the firm may take recommender roles, reporting findings and impressions to HR. Candidates who speak frankly to members of a firm should therefore realize that anything and everything the say or ask could travel directly to HR and other decision makers. Candidates who ask seemingly innocent questions to a junior staff member about time off, flexible hours, and working from home could be telegraphing to all parties at the hiring firm that they are most interested in themselves, not the firm. It is usually considered wisest to save those questions until the offer stage.

Whether slow-moving or fast, the process can be like an extended foxtrot, with its long walking movements involving a subtle rise and fall action. Walk, walk, rise and fall. Slow, slow, quick, quick. When next you venture forth for a new job, and interact with HR for the first time, you might say, “Shall we dance?”

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