Verve, ownership and team-work wanted!

Published: April 22, 2022

Interview with HR manager

We interviewed an HR manager at a chemical company in the Netherlands.

What does the standard interview process look like?

Firstly, I phone people up. Just to get a first impression and find out more about their motivation to apply. Usually, I have a few things I want to clarify about their CV before making any decision. For example, it can be that they possess the technical skill we need but pursued a completely different career path thus far. Then this is their chance to tell me their story and why they want to change paths and join our team.

It can also be that I am not sure if the applicant will be a good fit with us and the call will help to get a first impression.

During this call I always ask them for their salary expectations. Sometimes the salary expectations are unrealistic and then it doesn’t make sense to continue. After the calls we make a selection of people we will invite.

Then we usually have three in person interview rounds. The first with HR, the second with the manager you will be working with and a team member, and the last interview is with the manager of the manager.

Usually, we don’t send people through assessment centres as it is a very costly thing to do. Of course, for some very specific functions we might use the assessment centre on top.

Do you, as the HR manager, have as much influence on the decision to hire or not as the technical manager?

Yes. We make the decision together. If I say we don’t hire this person, we won’t hire and the other way around. Having said that, it hardly happens that the technical manager has a completely different opinion than I have.

What do you look for during the application process?

Obviously, the technical manager will check the technical skills of a person and the fit in the team, and I am mostly looking for soft- and interpersonal skills. Of course, the exact skills I am looking for greatly dependents on the position. But there are three things I look for in every candidate:

  1. Teamwork and interdisciplinary & intercultural communication

Can you work in a team? You must be good at project-based work. And, most of our projects involve teamwork. We are working in a matrix. This means that for every project you work in teams composed of people from different departments. Hence, you must be able to communicate with people from very diverse backgrounds.

I ask for past team work experiences, both positive and negative, to find out if a candidate is a team player or not. If you give me an example from past experiences, I am interested to hear what you have learned.

  1. Ownership

As mentioned you work in teams. Within the team, it is important that you claim ownership. This means you feel responsible for your part of the work and you can take lead in accomplishing the work.

  1. Verve

We are an American company and we do look for a certain amount of flair. Not much different from anywhere else, we want people to irradiate positive energy. Plus, we would like to see that the person really wants this specific position in our organisation (although it happens quite often that we end up hiring the person for a different position as they applied for, because it is a better fit).

What about the career change? Age? Specialisation? Would you still consider hiring someone who stayed in academia as a postdoc for, let’s say 5 years, after the PhD?

Yes.  We don’t see it as a problem that people change paths. As long as they tell an engaging and convincing story explaining why they decide to change paths. Especially in R&D it can be very hard to find people with the fitting skills set, so even if we want to, -we don’t-,  we couldn’t be too picky.

How do you prefer to receive applications?

Via referral. We even implemented a special software for this. If we have a vacant position, our employees can refer someone they know and get some financial benefit if we hire the person they recommended. Now, we hire about 15% of our staff via this software, but this is greatly increasing. It is a win-win. People don’t recommend people they don’t trust or aren’t competent. At the end of the day, they must work with the people they recommend. And the applicant has already a reference covered.

Many companies started using the same software. Recruitment is just very expensive. Think about what a headhunter charges! And it is still not cheap if you do not use a headhunter but go via a job ad. Referral is a cost-effective way to hire.

I, as the HR manager, use my premium LinkedIn account to actively search for candidates on LinkedIn.  

Many countries have their own peculiarities as to how to write a CV. Is this difficult for you?

Not really. Diversity is a key value of our organisation, and we are a highly international. Of course, I do not know if certain Asian universities are good or if the Spanish grades mentioned are outstanding. But I just ask someone within the organisation from that country what they think of it.

Also, the diversity in as to ‘how to write a CV’ is decreasing. We see that CVs from different countries start to look more like each other. Some people add a photo to their CV, others don’t. In the Netherlands, you can add it if you wish, in some other countries this might not be the case.

Can you make big mistakes with your application documents?

It’s quite common these days that people start their CV with a short summary about themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I really dislike it if people praise themselves with a lot of empty words, such as “I am a great communicator with amazing interpersonal skills.”  Especially if their claims are not being backed up anywhere in the CV, I find it annoying.

Obviously if you have a lot of typos it looks messy and it would be a reason not to invite you. It really doesn’t matter if you have one typo, but having a cover letter full of them is a different story.

What about the cover letter? Can it be generic?

I believe it is okay if you use a very similar cover letter to apply for similar positions in different companies.  As long as it is written for a specific position within the company. So, it shouldn’t be so generic that the cover letter could be either for a sales position or an R&D job.

How about letters of recommendation? Do you read them?

I don’t. I never read them. I think they’re useless. They don’t mean anything as they should be positive anyway. If people leave our company on bad terms we still give them a good letter of recommendation. As an employer in the Netherlands, and in many other countries, you must do this. In my opinion you don’t have to send them with your application.

What I do before offering someone a contract is to phone at least two of the references they give in their CV. Also by telephone previous employers are not allowed to give a negative reference. But as an HR manager I have some tricks to ask questions in a way I find out if the person has been performing well in the previous job without forcing the reference to be negative about the applicant. I ask something like, “If you would open the very same position tomorrow again, would you hire the same candidate?”

Do you check the social media profiles of the applicants before inviting them?

Yes. 🙂 

Do you ask if people are applying for other positions too?

Yes.  I always do. Because I need to know how much time we have left to still have a chance hiring this person.    

Also, I ask what kind of positions they are applying for, just to find out in which direction applicant is searching. Of course, if they are applying for completely different job types, I will ask them why. I don’t want to say that it is necessarily bad, but I would like to hear their reasoning.

If people claim that they do not have any other applications running I will also ask why. If you are a graduate and are really looking for position it is a bit strange if you only apply for one job.  Of course, you can have a perfectly fine explanation for this.

You’re not only hiring scientists but people from many different fields. Do you see a difference between scientists and other fields?

I have the experience that scientists often need a bit more guidance in a job interview as they tend to tell you many details about irrelevant things. If I ask them the icebreaker question ‘tell me a bit about yourself’ I risk it that a scientists takes the full hour of the interview to answer this question. My advice is to shorten that answer.

Is there any good answer to ‘tell me about yourself’?

Yes. Please do not repeat exactly what is written in your CV if I ask you to tell a bit about yourself. I find it refreshing when people start with something like ‘You have seen my career path in my CV already, so let me point out the most interesting parts of my career’ and then tell something about these parts. Also, I do like it when people tell me something about how they spend their free time.

Salary negotiations.  Do we need to negotiate? Can we do it wrong?

For many positions, you don’t need to negotiate. We offer decent conditions and if you apply for an R&D position it is totally fine if you just accept what we offer you. On the contrary, if you are applying for a sales manager position, we will be really concerned if you do not negotiate for your salary. In this case, financial negotiations are a big part of your job and you need to possess good negotiation skills.

I like it if people negotiate with a well thought-through argumentation. Just saying that they would like to have a bit more money is not convincing me. You need to have good story and good arguments why you think you should be getting more than we offer you. Something like “This position is asking more from me than my previous position in XYZ. Therefore, I believe the salary should be higher than what I received in my previous position,” is a good way to start a negotiation. 

Can you do it wrong? Yes. I recently spoke with an applicant who changed his salary expectation through the application process. I asked for it in the first telephone call, and by the time we offered him a contract the salary expectations were much higher than he initially communicated. I would not recommend doing such a thing.

Do you tell people why they did not get the job?

If they have been here for an interview, I do. It is a matter of decency. Someone took the time to come here, well prepared. Then I try to give them an honest reason why we decided for someone else.

Thank you for your time!!  

If you´re interested to learn more about job applications, then you might be interested in our workshop Job application and interview strategies for scientists

Our blog article In the job interview: Braving the gaps gives another insight into the thought patterns of hiring managers. 

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