Essential HR Skill #19 + #20: Skepticism + Getting People to Spill Their Guts

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My friend Toby is what I call a “Believer.” Toby has never met a person he did not trust or an idea he did not believe. He wants to believe in people, he’s not big on asking lots of questions or thinking badly about people and he just buys into whatever he is hearing. Toby’s typically a smart dude, but he’s the type of guy whose wife, every now and then, might have to stop him from sending all of their bank account info to a Nigerian banker.

You probably have some Believer friends. Your sorority sister who forwards you the email chain, because she wants the little girl in Idaho to get her dying wish? Believer. Got a buddy selling Amway water filtration systems to all of his friends? Total Believer. Your brother-in-law who was ready to marry each of his last 19 girlfriends? He’s got the Believer gene.

And sometimes, I wish I was a Believer. Believers are trusting. They’re open. They see the best in people. But look at yourself, and look at your colleagues – Believers don’t typically work in Human Resources or Recruiting, do they?

Don’t believe me? Think about how being a Believer would cause, um, risk issues:Conde Nast Portfolio

  • Oh, the university just lost your records, and that’s why they say you never attended or graduated? No problem, we’ll waive the background check. Welcome aboard.
  • Your client is going to sign the Purchase Order on the 3rd of next month? Sure, we can count the sale this month so you hit the bonus incentive. I mean, since you’re sure it’s a done deal.
  • You were just joking when you made that rude, sexist, hostile and Mad Men-esque comment to our intern? Okay, no worries, we’ll tell her dad, the lawyer, that the 27 comments about her cleavage on her first day were just jokes.
  • You left your last five jobs voluntarily, each time without a new job lined up, because you just weren’t challenged enough? Totally get it.

You’re a skeptic. I’m a skeptic. But is being a skeptic in and of itself enough for HR success? Could you question things and then just leave it be? Probably not. Getting people to talk is the key, and Marisa Keegan captured that perfectly in a recent post:

I’m not going to lie, my favorite moments at work come when I’ve gotten someone to say something they wouldn’t normally have said; something they were thinking but knew they should keep to them self. A co-worker recently complimented my ability to get people to ‘spill their guts without realizing what they’re doing’.

HR often has a role in the really big moments in candidates’ and employees’ lives, and I’ve been around the block long enough to know both will sometimes stretch the truth at those pivotal points to help themselves. And if we were to put Toby in those situations with candidates/employees? He’d get eaten alive. They’d eat him alive.

So, does HR need to be filled with jaded skeptics wielding Tom Cruise-beating-up-Jack Nicholson-type interrogation skills? Of course not, but successful HR requires more than just being a “people person,” and an HR pro with healthy skepticism and the ability to get people to talk will solve more HR business issues than a Believer any day.

RJ Morris

I have spent the last 20 years of my professional life advising leaders to make great talent decisions to drive business results. In my current gig, I lead talent acquisition and management for a multi-billion-dollar, 100% employee-owned construction company. I geek out on analytics, succession planning, etc. and love it when we position folks to do their best work. That’s fun stuff. I tease bad HR people, because I think we can all do better, myself included. That’s fun, too.