The Dreaded ‘HR Questions’

February 8, 2021

It’s very common practice for prospective employers to conduct at least one stage of an interview process with two interviewers present: one being the Line Manager (or another senior member of staff in the team/department in which the role sits), and the other being a HR representative.

The majority of candidates are pretty comfortable with the idea of talking to someone who operates directly in their line of work, even in an interview scenario. Fielding questions about what you do Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm sounds pretty straightforward, and there is a level of comfort that this person ‘speaks your language’. You’re confident you have the ability to do the job, and you’re pretty sure that if you can do a decent job of demonstrating your skills and experience, the interview will realise this as well.

However, then you find out that the HR Manager will be sitting in on the interview and all of a sudden cold beads of sweat immediately start to form on your brow…

  • What are they going to ask me?
  • Are they going to try and catch me out?
  • What if I say the wrong thing?
  • What are they even getting at with these questions?!?!?!?

If this sounds familiar, don’t worry, you are not the only one. Read on and hopefully the below can help…

Understand that this is an important part of the process

Most companies now know that the good old ‘informal chat’ is not a sufficient barometer of a candidate’s suitability. This is where the involvement of HR within the interview process becomes important.

Firstly, we know that unconscious bias plays a far greater part in hiring decisions than we would like to believe. People have a natural tendency to ‘hire in their own image’, i.e. err towards candidates who are similar to themselves and others already in the team. Obviously team harmony is important, but not at the expense of a diverse, complementary team. Therefore, a pre-determined set of HR questions is an important way of standardizing the process across all the interviews. This prevents an interviewer subconsciously being more lenient towards certain candidates, allowing them greater bandwidth with their answers or subtly prompting them, and also enables the business to make direct comparisons between different candidates.

On a related point, it’s important that businesses focus not purely on someone’s professional skills and experience, but take into consideration other factors when hiring. Yes, of course it’s important that someone has the capabilities to do the job, but actually there is a lot more to it than that. A new employee needs to contribute to the culture of the firm and the professional environment in a positive way. On the flip side, as a business you need to be confident that you will be having a positive impact on this individual. Again, this is where HR questions are useful.

So, hopefully you now understand that this is a critical part of the interview process and one you need to prepare for just as thoroughly.

This is another opportunity to sell yourself, not just something to try and get through unscathed!

As I touched upon earlier, it’s easy to see these HR questions as a company’s desperate attempt to catch you out:

“Oh, you want to know what my weaknesses are do you… how about *this one* about being a perfectionist which I have oh-so-cunningly flipped into being a strength!”

Yes… very good… no one has ever thought of doing that before.

In all seriousness, this isn’t a flimsy attempt by the business to get you to show your true colours, then seize upon it as a reason to reject you. You should regard this as a genuine way of your prospective new employer getting to know you, so be relatively open and honest with them.

However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t prepare…

Common HR questions

It’s a good idea to have rough answers prepared in your mind, to avoid getting tongue-twisted or suddenly suffering from that horrible mental block mid-interview. Here are a few typical questions you might get, and my advice on how to answer them.

Tell us a bit about yourself?

This is a tough one as it’s very vague. The biggest trap you can fall into is giving an extremely lengthy answer. I would keep this answer concise and relatively professionally-focussed, but also show a bit of personality. Bear in mind that they haven’t asked you to talk through your CV, so keep this very high level in terms of your experience. For example:

“My name is Jack Watters, I’m an economics graduate from the UK and I’ve been working in finance recruitment since 2013, including 6 years with an international firm. I moved to Cayman in 2019 to join a start-up firm called The Agency and I now head up permanent financial services recruitment for them, focussing on senior and executive level roles. I play a lot of sport in my spare time (mostly badly) and I’m actually just getting involved in some personal investing, although I don’t think Warren Buffett needs to be looking over his shoulder just yet.”

If the interviewer wants to find out more about you as a person I would expect there to be some follow-up questions here e.g. “tell us more about  your hobbies/interests” – I wouldn’t assume straight away that they are looking for that level of detail. You could ask “is there anything specifically that you would like to know?”

Why are you leaving your current role?

My colleague Chelsea did a great video on this recently which you can see HERE. keep this short and sweet, and positive – don’t complain about your current employer. An answer along the lines of “my current role has equipped me with a lot of skills such as A, B and C, but I’m now looking to take the next step in my career and get more exposure to D and E, which isn’t available to me where I am at the moment”.

Why are you interested in working for X business specifically?

Go deeper than just the first page of the ‘About Us’ section on the website. They already know they have 350 staff in 15 offices across 8 different countries, they don’t need you to tell them that. Instead, talk to people in the industry, go online, find out about their reputation and what makes them unique.

I also find that talking about their Purpose or Company Values and how they resonate with you goes down well.

What interests you about this role specifically?

You could tie this in with the answer above. If it’s a separate question, similar principles apply in that you should make this very specific and show that you have thought deeply about the role as it relates to you. For example, instead of “I am a Fund Accountant and this is a fund accounting job”, try explaining how the role in question plays to your strengths of X, Y, Z but also enables you to learn new skills in A and B.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

One mistake people often make when responding to these questions is giving extremely broad, general answers. For example, “I am very organised”. Instead, give an example of an area in which your organisational skills are beneficial and allow you to do a better job, ensuring this is really relevant to the role you are interviewing for. For example “I do think my diary management is a real strength as I plan every day in advance. In doing this I make sure I build in some spare blocks of time as in our line of work we always have to deal with a lot of ad-hoc requests, so it ensures I can be flexible enough to respond to these urgently without disrupting all my other deliverables for that day.”

Re. weaknesses, I touched upon this already and as you may have guessed then, I’m not a fan of the “give a weakness that is really a strength” answer. I think it comes across a lot more credibly to give a genuine, self-aware answer to this one, especially if you deliver it in quite an earnest manner. For example “I know that at the moment a potential weakness for me is my lack of experience in *X area*; unfortunately I’ve just not had the opportunity to gain this exposure in my current role as it’s not something my team does. However, to try and overcome this I have been doing a lot of extra research online during my own time and also sat an online course recently, so I’m confident my theoretical understanding will enable me to get up to speed quickly”.

There are numerous other examples of these types of questions which you might get asked, but hopefully the above has shown:

  • Why these types of questions need to be taken seriously
  • How these types of questions could actually benefit you
  • Some of the things you should consider when trying to formulate answers to these types of questions.

At The Agency we try to ensure every candidate we represent is as prepared as possible for any interview we arrange on your behalf, including an in-depth preparation call/meeting prior to your interview. If you could benefit from this kind of advice, please do reach out to us.