Effective interview questions to ask when hiring for HR manager roles

Focused team leader working on laptop

7 mins, 46 secs read time

Looking to hire an HR manager? Depending on the size and stage of your company, you might be looking for someone to fill a general role like Head of People or Head of HR. Or you may be seeking a more specialized role like People Operations Manager, Payroll and Benefits Manager or Employee Experience Manager. No matter what type of HR leader you’re looking for, you’ll want to spend some time designing an interview that will help you best assess candidates’ likelihood of succeeding in the role.

Structured hiring: A quick overview

We couldn’t talk about interview questions without mentioning the importance of structured hiring. This means that you define the attributes you’re looking for ahead of time and you design the interview to assess candidates on these qualities.

In a structured interview setting, there’s no such thing as sitting down with a candidate and using vague and open-ended prompts like “Tell me about yourself.” Instead, every interviewer has a specific list of questions they ask and a rubric to help them evaluate candidates’ answers.

There are so many benefits to structured hiring: interviewers know exactly what to ask and how to assess candidates. There’s less chance for bias to influence hiring decisions since candidates are all scored consistently. Candidates leave the process feeling like they had the opportunity to showcase their various qualities and talents – not like they had to answer the same question with five different people. And remember that when you’re hiring HR people, they’re going to be especially savvy about your talent acquisition practices (or at least you hope they will be!).

When hiring for an HR manager, you’ll probably want to include some general qualities you look for in all managers as well as some HR-specific skills. Let’s look at both in more detail.

Qualities to look for in all managers

Companies that hire managers based on their management skills – as opposed to not explicitly testing for management skills – saw a 48% increase in profitability and a 19% decrease in turnover.

Google has spent a lot of time investigating what makes a good manager and ended up with a list of eight behaviors of highly effective managers. We decided to use Google’s list as the basis of our management philosophy at Greenhouse:

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Be productive and results oriented
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  6. Help your employees with career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team

Here are interview questions that relate to these values. Feel free to use them as-is or adapt them to your own management philosophy:

  • Tell me about a time when someone on your team was working on a project and they got stuck. What did you do to help them move forward? (Addresses Be a good coach and Empower your team and don’t micromanage)
  • Tell me about a time when you were managing someone who had more experience in a specific skill set (or was more technically proficient) than you and they came to you for help. What did you do? How were you able to help them? (Addresses Be a good coach)
  • Tell me about a time when someone on your team had a personal struggle that impacted their work habits/schedule/routine. We don’t need a lot of detail on the personal part, but how did you handle it? (Addresses Express interest in employees’ success and well-being as well as Be a good communicator and listen to your team)
  • Can you tell me about two or three people whose careers you fundamentally improved? What did you do? (Addresses Be a good coach, Empower your team and don’t micromanage, Express interest in employees’ success and well-being and Help your employees with career development)
  • When you think about leading and growing this team, what is your vision for what this team will look like long term? How would you convey that message and direction to the team? (Addresses Be productive and results-oriented and Have a clear vision and strategy for the team)
  • Tell me about a time when you were teaching someone and they struggled to understand. How did you adjust? What was the result? (Addresses Be a good coach and Be a good communicator and listen to your team)
  • How do you help facilitate the relationships between members of your team and members of other teams within your organization? (Addresses Empower your team and don’t micromanage and Help your employees with career development)
  • How do you measure the success of your team? Knowing what you do about our company, the [department] team and this role at this point, is there anything you would measure differently if you were to manage the team here? (Addresses Be productive and results-oriented and Have a clear vision and strategy for the team)

Our VP of Engineering, Michael Boufford, outlined this list of what he calls “core competencies” for managers. Depending on what you decide are the most important qualities for managers at your organization, you can choose which questions to ask HR manager candidates during their interviews.

  • How well do you do your job without having complete visibility? (This is especially telling for someone who is in a VP role and doesn’t see every single thing that happens on their team.)
  • How do you handle skip-level one-on-ones, data and reporting, check-ins with managers and other tools that help to provide visibility?
  • How do you think about your relationship to the people on your own team? (How would you describe it? Can you give examples from past teams you’ve managed?)
  • How do you view your responsibilities, and how do you weigh them toward the company vs. those on your team? (Tell me about a time when your responsibilities to the company were in conflict with your responsibilities to one of your direct reports. How did you handle the situation? What was the outcome?)
  • How do you manage and achieve buy-in for change? Do you tend to do things all at once or do you have a hypothesis and then test something out to see if it works before rolling it out?
  • How do you handle failures or mistakes (both your own and those of your team members)?
  • What processes do you plan to put in place to help the team get better at doing their jobs?
  • What core values do you plan to bring to your team?

HR-specific skills

HR is a broad category that can include disciplines like talent acquisition, people operations, talent management and learning and development. Here are some questions to help you evaluate candidates’ HR-specific skills. They will give you a starting point, but you’ll probably want to tweak them to fit your organization and the specific role you’re hiring for:

  • Tell me about your hiring/management/learning & development philosophy. How is it reflected in your processes and practices?
  • HR managers have traditionally operated as cost centers and struggled to be seen as strategic. How do you communicate the value of your role and your team?
  • HR management involves cross-functional collaboration and influencing others. How have you worked with other leaders or gotten others on board with new initiatives in the past?
  • Tell me about a time when you led a complex HR project from inception to execution. Describe the project and your role at each stage. What did you learn from this experience?
  • How do you see your role in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I)? What are some of the steps you’ve taken (or plan to take) to promote these values both on your team and throughtout your organization on the whole?
  • Tell me about your experience with HR/talent acquisition/talent management/learning and development software. Have you been responsible for selecting and rolling out a particular solution? If so, walk me through that process. If not, how would you go about doing it?
  • Tell me about your past experience as a hiring manager. Who did you work with and how would you describe the process? What would you do differently the next time?
  • How are you planning to build out your team? Can you give an overview of the next few roles you’d like to hire for and why?
  • How do you use data to inform your work? What decisions have you made as a result of what you’ve learned?
  • How do you handle difficult situations such as job eliminations, cost reductions and performance improvement plans? Share a few specific examples from your past roles.
  • What is your experience in managing/working with distributed teams? What have been some of your challenges and successes?
  • What are your future goals for working in HR?
  • Where do you go to develop professionally or learn more about what’s going on in HR?
  • What are some of the biggest trends you see shaping HR in the next few years? How do you plan to adapt your role and your work to these trends?
  • Do you have any feedback for us on our HR practices based on what you’ve learned through the interview process so far?

When planning out your approach to interviewing for HR managers, be sure to spend some time defining the attributes you’re looking for in your HR managers and how you’ll evaluate their answers.

Need a little help with this process? These structured hiring 101 worksheets will guide you through each step.

Michelle Yoshihara

Michelle Yoshihara

is a Team Manager of Talent Acquisition Operations and has been with Greenhouse since 2017. When she’s not finding new ways to use data to tell a story about recruiting, she’s trying new recipes, crafts or online workout classes.

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