Risks, rewards come with bypassing HR
By Alan R. Earls, Globe Correspondent, 6/8/03
HR professionals have an image problem. For job seekers, the root of that image problem is only too obvious. Charged with the task of finding the ''right'' person for each job, HR pros marshal a phalanx of cautions as they examine each résumé and each applicant - a process that often seems slow, daunting, and bureaucratic to job seekers.
Indeed, when they can, some job seekers do their best to circumvent HR entirely - a practice that offers risks along with rewards. Jack Mohan, a 35-year veteran of the recruitment industry and CEO of MRI Boston Management Recruiters said flatly, ''When we deal with job candidates we advise them to try to avoid the HR department like the plague.'' Ron Evans, author of ''Kiss Your résumé Goodbye'' and an advocate of radical job-hunting strategies, agreed. ''Yes, you can absolutely bypass HR departments if you are focused on solving a business problem for the prospective employer,'' he said
But Elena Garcia, assistant director of human resources at APCO Worldwide, a communications consulting firm in Washington, D.C., said, ''A candidate would serve themselves best by not bypassing the HR department but by enlisting their support in the recruiting process.'' She believes HR is crucial for things like checking to make sure applicants have the legal right to work in the United States, determining whether they are operating under a noncompete agreement, and figuring out what their compensation should be. And, she added, ''It is the HR person who will ensure that the company is casting a wide net to recruit applicants from all backgrounds and thus ensure diversity within the organization.''
Still, many job seekers, and more than a few managers inside businesses, appear ripe for revolt. Having been rejected by HR but then hired by a functional manager in a previous job search, Steve Caposia, who has since become general manager at Lewis PR in Boston, believes there is much to recommend an end run on human resources. ''In that particular case I got a letter from HR saying I wasn't qualified and the same day I got a call from a manager at the same company wanting to set up an interview with me,'' he said.
For those planning to wage guerrilla war on the HR establishment, Caposia recommends making a few exploratory phone calls to a potential employer to try to find out who, other than HR, might receive a formal job inquiry. Caposia noted that his field, public relations, is highly competitive. ''My experience is that people with extra initiative are welcomed as long as they aren't obnoxious or pushy,'' he said. Caposia also suggested ''covering the bases'' by making sure at some point to let HR know that you are talking to others within the organization.
Bill Coleman, senior vice president for compensation at Salary.com in Wellesley, admits the question of whether to bypass HR provokes strong feelings on both sides. But he, too, sees potential advantages in breaking the rules.
''It really depends on the specific situation and on the company culture,'' he added.
However, he warned, when you make a decision to bypass HR ''you don't want them to know it was done on purpose.'' That, said Coleman, is because in some organizations, HR can do things to hurt hiring managers who ignore protocol - even blocking raises and promotions. But Coleman also recommended rethinking stereotypes of rigid HR departments that may be based on realities of the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, he said, many organizations have HR departments that are flexible, imaginative, and work closely with hiring managers. Of course, he admitted, coming in the door an applicant won't know which kind of HR department he or she is facing. But clues may be present in the tone of employment ads and, he noted, smaller and younger companies tend to have less bureaucratic HR operations.
''I recommend that people figure out where they belong in an organization and then use networking skills to find a contact in that group,'' said Coleman. From there, getting an informal meeting or even an informational interview can start the ball rolling.
Furthermore, Coleman stressed, it is better to have contacted someone else in the organization before you begin the formal application process with HR, which can devolve into a bureaucratic mess. ''Any smart HR manager knows that an internal stamp of approval means an awful lot,'' he added. Finally, Coleman offered contrarian advice: ''When the ad says do not call - you should probably call anyway.''
But Constance Kolman, senior vice president of HR at New Boston Fund, a private real estate investment, development and management firm in Boston, while endorsing creative strategies in general, recommends a much more cautious approach regarding HR. ''When I place an ad that says no phone calls, I mean no phone calls,'' she warned. She also stressed that HR shouldn't be ignored because it often has the inside scoop on where openings are going to develop and which positions will get funded, something departmental managers sometimes lack.
Still, she noted, there are things that an applicant can do to gain internal endorsements. Contacting acquaintances or friends within an organization - or even cold calling individuals is OK but, she warned, ''have your EQ [emotional quotient] turned on and really listen to what people are saying to you and how they are saying it.'' That can provide clues about the best way to follow up. If you send a letter or résumé to someone in an organization, be sure to copy HR, too. ''That way you are covered and, in the long term, you are then part of the HR database in case future openings develop.''
Finally, she advised, ''Don't be a pest: you must be assertive but not aggressive.''
Other suggestions came from Wayne Mello, executive director of Robert Half's worldwide finance and accounting placement practice in Boston. He defended the importance of HR but said its greatest competence was in screening.
Managers in functional departments, with deeper domain knowledge - make the ultimate hiring decisions. Thus, he recommended bypassing HR, but only if you have really done your homework and know how the organization works.
Mello recommended going as high in the department or business unit you are targeting as possible. ''It is better to work down the chain of command rather than trying to work up,'' he said.
Mello also offered one caution. He noted that HR organizations in some industries - particularly traditional white collar enclaves like banking and insurance - wield enormous power and should not be trifled with.
Still, Mohan at Management Recruiters thinks the rewards of working around HR will almost always outweigh the risks. ''With the usual method of going through HR you are guaranteed to be one of dozens of job candidates and you will be under the microscope,'' he said. By contrast, a successful end run can ensure that a job is created around your skills. ''Ultimately that's what employers and employees both want - a job that is a perfect fit,'' he said.