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How IT managers can get what they need from the HR department

To hire tech staff, you need to work with your company’s HR department. Experienced execs and HR professionals share advice for doing it with true success, finding the best possible candidates with minimum cussing.

The IT security firm where Paul worked decided to hire a new security analyst. “We had an elderly gentleman who’d been flown in to interview in our office near Washington, D.C.,” explains Paul, then the company’s director of risk assessment. It was a major hire; one employee drove in from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for the tech interviews. Everyone clambered into the conference room.

Paul started by asking the candidate about his experience. “He related that he was a mall security officer,” Paul says. “He’d read about Internet security in the Dallas Morning News and decided it sounded like a great career progression. Cue stunned silence!”

Yes, the company’s HR staff thought the candidate’s resume justified the trip. “Words were subsequently exchanged with HR that 'mall cop' didn’t qualify,” Paul explains. “And thereafter, adult technical supervision was required for flying people in.”

Thankfully, Paul’s experience is not typical; while IT security encourages nontraditional career paths, “mall cop” is exceptional.

The woes of misleading job ads

It’s far too common for a corporate human resources department to fail the IT managers who want to hire new workers. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a manager complain, “The HR department included ‘must have college degree’ in the job requisition even though I don’t care about that” or “They asked for five years of experience in a technology that’s been around for only three” or “I have no idea why they rejected this candidate without even contacting me.”

Still, in many cases, you don’t have a choice. Per corporate policy, if you want to hire someone, you need to deal with HR at least to a small degree—especially if you work in a big company.

It isn’t easy for HR professionals, either. Techies speak a different language, they appreciate nonconformity in job candidates and co-workers, and their needs change rapidly. That doesn’t make it easy for well-meaning HR staff to serve IT managers and the staff who work with them.

It behooves everyone to work together, both to minimize friction and ensure the company finds, interviews, and hires the right people. To save you from frustration, I collected real-world advice from IT workers, managers, and HR professionals (most with names obfuscated), each of whom learned their lessons the hard way.

Oh, the frustration!

“I’ve seen it multiple times,” says an experienced system administrator. “Job ads have been ‘improved’ by HR without asking the hiring manager.” For example, the hiring manager’s list of qualifications might include five years of Windows Server experience and a helpful recruiter looks up the most current OS version and asks for five years of experience with that version, even if it’s been out for only a year.

The problem is that HR people are not experts in any particular IT skill set, the sysadmin says, so they don't know how to pick the best resumes. It's not that easy to tell even when you do know the technology.

The extreme solution is to do it all yourself. “I haven't used an HR department to hire since 1995,” wrote one startup manager. “I've typically worked with outside parties to gather pools of resources, and my best method of hiring has been through self-directed job advertisements that I handled from first to last contact. When I can't handle it or I don't have really the right skill set to evaluate deeper understanding in the candidate, I delegate the hiring decision and help the hiring employee complete the process properly.”

The State of Hiring: Learn how 101 IT execs find staff for critical positions and cajole in-demand tech specialists to accept their job offers.

There is, of course, a middle ground. It’s relatively rare for HR to be in charge of the hiring process for full-time IT employees in large organizations, according to IDG research commissioned by Hewlett Packard Enterprise in 2018. Most commonly, HR collaborates equally with the hiring manager during the hiring process (51 percent). HR drives the process with input from the hiring manager only 17 percent of the time, according to the 101 IT execs polled. The hiring manager drives the hiring process with HR’s assistance (for example, HR only filters candidates or does reference checks) 30 percent of the time. 

Respect HR. They want to help

There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude in sharing "Tales from the (HR) Crypt," but ultimately it isn’t very useful. Sincere HR professionals advise IT managers to adopt a different attitude.

“Quit thinking of the HR department as the enemy,” says one of the professionals. “Go talk to those co-workers who probably don't look forward to ever having to talk to ‘the nerds that keep blocking my favorite websites and making me reboot to install patches.’” Instead of starting the relationship with an expectation that they should do something for you, think in terms of partnering with HR to get the company the best hire possible.

To start with, appreciate their knowledge and constraints. HR professionals’ expertise encompasses everything from state labor laws to diversity and onboarding practices. Just as IT professionals are irked when end users refuse to comply with reasonable security procedures, it can irritate recruiters when you try to work around what they see as "really required" requirements.  

For example, an HR pro I’ll call Sandy says, “Everyone who is considered a candidate has to be taken through the wringer in a legally defensible manner (that is, you aren't discriminating against your talent pool). This is extremely important for compliance with the Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs.” A company that contracts with the federal government has to comply with job requirements that are spelled out by the government, including specifications based on years of experience.

Plus, adds Sandy, HR professionals are familiar with the compensation in their geography and what competitors pay. “Nor do IT managers know what the labor market looks like, to give a decent offer that doesn't break the department's budget.”

In addition, HR departments are stretched, particularly as automation takes over. Many are understaffed, says Blake, a technical services manager in a healthcare company that employs 20,000 people. “It's getting worse, because HR personnel are laid off when the automation arrives, even if you need them to manage the gaps in the automated system or help with matters other than hiring. The remaining HR staff don't know what you need and don't have the time to ask.”

IT managers aren’t always the easiest “users” to serve, either. “When a position comes open, we send the job description over for a review and update so we know what to recruit for. We then post the job wherever is best,” says Debra, an HR professional with 25 years of experience. “Then comes the conflict. If I scan through the resumes and send you only those that meet the qualifications, you accuse me of ‘holding’ applications. If I let them all come to you, you tell me all you’re getting is crap and to not send those to you.”

According to these experienced HR professionals, the best solution is for managers to use HR as a business partner: HR offers guidance and help, and managers respect the advice. Together, everyone works to create an enjoyable and productive work environment.

Write the first draft of the job requisition yourself

When your end users request a new application feature, developers meet with them to find out what they need. But end users have an annoying habit of telling you the features they want rather than explaining the problem they aim to solve. Savvy software developers learn to guide them to a happy resolution.

The same practice applies when you’re the user.

“The job description is the most important thing,” says Debra. “If we recruit to that standard and you’re not getting what you want, it’s possible the job description isn’t accurate.”

If you don’t ask for what you want, you probably won’t get it. “You, as the manager, have to write down a list with the requirements and aspects needed from potential candidates—years of experience, degree or not, etc.,” advises one IT manager. “If you are letting HR come up with these, then that is part of the problem.”

Adds Blake, “Give HR a list of the real qualifications you desire. They'll usually at least append them to the canned listing for the title you're hiring for.” That’s especially so when the job is beyond routine. Add a dollop of understanding, too. In his company’s HR department’s all-in-one applicant tracking system, there’s no way to tailor canned job descriptions “without special pleading and sometimes C-suite-level intervention.”

If you’re really lucky, your HR department has a more formal process that begins with a meeting for the recruiter and hiring manager. “This is like the first appointment a psychologist has with a patient,” says Raj Dev, head of talent for Credit Sesame. “The goal is to truly understand what skills and characteristics are needed to succeed.”

That’s not a process of buzzword collecting—or it shouldn’t be. “If the hiring manager gives an answer like 'five years of experience,' then a recruiter should be quick to push back and say that isn't really a skill or characteristic needed for success,” says Dev. Maybe it's typical that qualified applicants have that experience, but it doesn't mean they need it. “The goal should be to understand what's needed to succeed in the role and why,” Dev adds.

The recruiter should also consult with the hiring manager for job leveling and compensation in order to attract the level and competency required. Both need to see if that figure is in the department's budget and there's parity with similarly competent teammates on the team, says Dev.

Ideally, that job req is not released into the wild without you signing off. You wouldn’t put code into production without a QA review, would you?

Expect HR to post job ads in the usual places—and probably not more

On average, each corporate job offer attracts 250 resumes, according to hiring site Glassdoor. You want to ensure your job ad is discovered by the exact right candidates, a pool from which you can (on average, per Glassdoor) interview four to six people before making a job offer.

Your needs may be straightforward, or they may be specialized and unique. “The recruiter should use the appropriate sourcing channels to find the right candidates,” says Dev.

But don’t count on your HR department to look on specialty sites, such as Python Jobs or Tech Ladies. They’re busy wading through the 250 resumes generated by submitting that highly polished job advertisement to the traditional job boards, such as DICE or Indeed, and coping with the applicant tracking systems’ advantages and disadvantages.

According to the aforementioned IDG-HPE research, the most effective ways IT execs find qualified job candidates are those traditional job boards (33 percent), converting temp or contract workers to full-time employment (33 percent), external recruiters (27 percent), and professional social media sites such as LinkedIn (25 percent)—all of which are where traditional HR departments shine.

Yet, if you want to get more creative in finding the exact right people for the job, you may be on your own. IT execs also report success in finding people through word of mouth (26 percent), deliberate outreach (e.g., looking on GitHub to find contributors to open source projects the company uses) (18 percent), and general social media sites such as Facebook (14 percent).

That isn’t a bad thing. Use HR for access to recruiters, paid job board postings, and so on. For everything else, use your own contacts. “Networking with colleagues will give you more reliable candidates than public job postings through HR,” Blake points out. Dev adds, “If the hiring manager really understands what she wants and has a wide network, her referrals should be the very first place to start.”

HR can guide you throughout the process

Your partnership with the recruiter doesn’t end after the job ad is placed.

For example, says Dev, after the first half-dozen applications arrive, the recruiter should discuss them with the hiring manager to better calibrate the hiring specs. If you aren’t getting the “right” people, what can you change to ensure you do a better job of attracting them?

Recruiters also have metrics to track progress. They’re analogous to marketing funnel metrics, says Dev: number of qualified candidates, number of technical screens, number of offers, conversion rates. Reviewing the metrics regularly can help you set expectations.

If you’re unsure whether HR’s screening matches your need, look at the results. Nic, a manager at a Fortune 500 tech company, reviews all applications to make sure HR is not missing a good applicant.

Several hiring managers expect HR to do the initial screening, including right to work and visa issues, without testing the candidates for technical eligibility. “When they finish the initial screening, then you can proceed to the second round, where you can go deeper and more technical on the subject,” one explains. Another manager adds, “HR determines the salary and creates the job offer; I work with the candidate to justify any extra pay they might request above what HR initially offers.”

Several people are insistent that the interview process should not be managed by the HR department in any regard other than scheduling.

“Given the limitations and unreliability of job descriptions and resumes, it's up to the manager to verify as much as possible and legally permissible,” says Blake. “Test the heck out of applicants in near-real-world scenarios, and bring the team in for anything you didn't think of. A good interview should take at least a couple of hours.”

Follow-up is part of the hiring manager’s job, not HR’s—not only because the automated systems send out generic responses such as, “If there's a potential match, we will contact you to discuss next steps.”

“It's not fair to applicants who've spent the time to go through the cumbersome application process only to be rejected at first pass for qualifications they had no way of knowing they needed,” says Blake. “I respond personally on each application that met the listed requirements and pass resumes that might fit needs to other managers.”

As with so many other things, working together makes life easier.

Working with HR: Lessons for leaders

  • Treat the relationship with HR as a partnership, rather than taking an adversarial approach. That includes an attitude wherein each brings its strengths to the table.
  • Begin by writing the job requisition yourself. You know what you want in the “perfect” job candidate. Then work with the recruiter to refine the job listing.
  • Your HR department should keep you apprised of the status of each job search and give you access to the resumes received in case you want to double-check that an unusual-but-perfect candidate isn’t missed.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.