Answers to your HR questions

The TechRepublic audience responded overwhelmingly with questions for an HR recruiter. Here are some answers.

Last week I asked for questions that you would like to ask an HR recruiter if you had the chance. The response was simply overwhelming. So much so, that it was hard to narrow the questions down. In attempt to be fair, I chose general questions that would affect the most people. I will be doing this again soon, however, so I'll try my best to get to all questions eventually. (I will also be interviewing a former career marketing expert who has an insider's understanding of the business and who now investigates, writes, and makes presentations on scams. Hopefully, we'll get some gritty tips on how to get around the unscrupulous job scammers.) Many thanks to Soheila Ataei, who is currently SVP, HR at Scripps Networks.

Note: This blog post is also available as a PDF download.

Here's the first batch of Q&As:

1. What is the best method for an older job seeker (55+) with experience (at least 5 years) to present him/herself (on resume, letters, during the interview, etc.) to maximize their skills and minimize the reluctance of the potential employer regarding their age? I am older, keep my certifications current, attend local and national conventions, happily read technical and industry books and publications [daily and in digital form whenever possible], as well as relate well and socialize with my younger managers, peers, and supported users. How do I best communicate that physical age does not impede my ability to perform my job functions with a smile and eager attitude?

The application form does not necessarily reveal the age of the applicant unless you list the date you graduated college. If you believe you're being screened out due to your age, I'd recommend limiting the extent of prior experiences to those jobs that are directly related to the open position. Any applicant, regardless of age, aims for getting past the screening process and making it to the interview process. During an in-person interview, the hiring manager is looking for the "fit" and for connecting with the applicant. You will be far more successful if you focus the conversation on your skills and accomplishments and how your prior experiences make you a great fit for the position. If the interviewer senses your lack of confidence -- due to age or any other factor -- chances are you will not be invited to the next round. So, keep up your credentials and walk into the interview with a smile and project a confident and comfortable impression even if the hiring manger is half your age.

2. I have been getting the feeling lately that there are a lot of HR departments and "Jobbers" (you know, placement firms, headhunters, contract mills, etc.) that are putting out "phony" position postings for what reasons I do not know. Do they do this and why?

Internal staffing professionals as well as reputable external agencies and search firms are overwhelmed with the volume of applications. In many cases, by the time the posting becomes available to the general public, finalists have been identified through employee referrals, etc. This is the primary reason why career coaches always recommend using networking alternatives, such as LinkedIn, when responding to a job ad.

3. What are considered bad reasons for leaving a previous position? Are things like layoffs or a lack of challenges considered bad reasons for leaving a company?

Honesty is always the best way to respond to this question since your application will more than likely be scrutinized through a verification process. In the current economic climate, layoffs are impacting many first-rate employees and RIF and layoffs are not being held against an applicant in any way. Similarly, resignations do not reflect negatively on an applicant.

If you resigned from a job you did not find challenging in order to accept a better opportunity, it will demonstrate your ambition, as well as your marketability, so that would be a positive reflection on you. The only time employers question resignations is when it may suggest poor judgment in selecting positions and a lack of reliability, otherwise known as job-hopping. After all, if you were the hiring manager, would you hire someone you could count on, or someone whose past behavior predicts a short stay?

4. How do you get experience if no one is willing to hire you so you can obtain the experience they are looking for?

The reason why so many grads start work in entry-level positions is to gain the required experience that would qualify them for their desired position later on. Not much has changed in terms of employers' expectations and standards when it comes to hiring practices. The best way to gain experience is to start in an entry-level position and work your way up if you're looking for employment. You would not want an inexperienced mechanic rebuilding your motor in order to gain experience -- even for free -- would you?

5. Given that there seems to be an overabundance of talent, what is/are the most important factor/s to distinguish one candidate from another? (We've hashed through this as IT staffers and IT hiring managers, but to hear it from a HR rep may be helpful to those in the TR community looking for work.)

The single distinguishing factor, after all other criteria are met and recommendations are received, is the candidate's ability to connect with the decision maker. A smart hiring manager will ask herself, "is this someone I can trust with my XYZ assets, and is this someone I would enjoy managing/working with day in and day out?" If the answer is yes, the candidate will stand apart from the rest of finalists.

6. What should I put in online applications that REQUIRE a current salary and/or expected salary to be entered?

As a general rule, an application form -- hard copy or online -- must be filled completely and accurately; otherwise, it may not be considered by a busy recruiter. If the salary question is a required field, and you cannot bypass it, be sure to answer the question of salary history truthfully. Recruiters don't like to spend time on an applicant who may not fit their salary range. It is acceptable if you ask for a lower salary from what you were last making if the job you are applying for is smaller or in a different field. If your salary requirements are significantly lower than what you were earning in your last position, it would raise a red flag for the recruiter. It could be viewed as a sign of desperation, which is not a good place to negotiate from.

7. It stands to reason that the prime candidate doesn't always work out. In these rare instances, instead of putting out another general call, do they ever call back the remaining members of the top 5? top 3?

Employers may reach out to other finalists if the selected candidate does not work within the first few months on the job. If the lapse of time is more than a few months, in most cases, the employer may want to restart the process in order to identify other suitable candidates. Additionally, they may decide that the failed experience is the result of their poor choice or a selection criteria that is not meeting the needs of the position. My suggestion is to not hold out for a second opportunity and just move on. If you got that close to a job offer, chances are another offer is right around the corner.

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