Applying for Jobs – Alumna and HR Professional Sara Webb gives her view

Sara Webb graduated in 1979 with a BA (Hons) in Scandinavian Studies. After completing her studies she went into a Graduate Programme within HR in the nuclear industry and enjoyed a lifelong career which took her into telecommunications, manufacturing, the health service and, finally, the auction world at Sotheby’s where she was HR Director for 15 years. Her career in HR has taken her across the UK and she has traveled widely abroad on business.

Sara has signed up for, where she has generously offered to help fellow alumni by reviewing CVs and applications or providing interview advice. In this article she talks to us about the HR Industry, and offers her perspective on applying for jobs and attending interviews.

What would you say to someone looking for a career in HR?

Why did I work in HR for 35 years? I enjoyed the influence both at an individual and corporate level, the variety, the need to use my brain all the time, the constant juggling of priorities and the opportunities it provided to work in different types of companies, with different challenges and different types of people. I never stopped learning, it never got boring – it was never just a job. While it had its moments, for me, it was the most fun I could have had at work and still be paid to do it.

As an HR generalist, no two days are ever the same, and there are also many areas of specialism to get involved with – learning & development, employment law, pensions, HR systems and reward are some examples. An HR career may not develop in a linear way – you can move from generalist to specialist and back again. It’s a very mobile and flexible career.

While it obviously involves itself with a huge variety of “people” matters, not all roles in Human Resources have as much contact with employees as you might imagine. Be prepared for lots of fact-finding, conducting analysis, writing reports, developing and implementing policies and working practices.

If you need to feel each day’s work is accomplished, this might not be the right career for you. In my entire career, I’m not sure there was ever a day when I left the office with an empty inbox!

How can someone make their job application stand out from the crowd?

Your CV and covering letter are your marketing materials – make them easy to read with a clear and consistent (11+) font, use bold and bullet points to draw the recruiter’s attention, include white space, and do not bind hard copies.

Think about yourself in terms of your impact. Pay attention to showcasing your key employability skills – positive attitude, self-management, teamworking, business and customer awareness, problem-solving, communication skills, numeracy and IT skills (ref CBI).  Find opportunities in your CV and application forms to demonstrate these – from school, university, work experience, volunteering, interests.

Read all the materials you are sent carefully. If you don’t have a job description, ask for one. Use this to identify the most important job requirements, and provide brief examples in your covering letter that demonstrate your suitability. Use bullet points to keep it sharp, and keep to a page unless more detail is requested.

What should someone about to go for a job interview consider?

Above all, remember that the interviewer wants a successful candidate. They start out on your side – you just need to keep them there.

Prepare, prepare, prepare! The number of candidates that can successfully wing it are few and far between. Would you go into an exam without preparing? As a minimum you should:

  • Research the role and the business – think about what you can do for the company – not only about what the company can do for you.
  • Plan responses to the questions an interviewer might ask – this is not as difficult as it sounds. Because companies expect you to have a range of employability skills, the same types of questions come up regularly. Matching your skills and experience and developing the stories that demonstrate these is essential – don’t leave it until the interview to start thinking about it.
  • When you answer questions, it helps to follow a simple structure which will stop you getting lost in the interview, such as:
    • Situation – describe the situation or problem
    • Behaviour – describe what you did
    • Impact – describe the outcome, impact or what you learned
  • Develop a repertoire of questions to ask at interview – what does it say about your interest in the company and role if you have nothing to ask?

Finally, first impressions really do count – most interviewees would be shocked at how quickly an interviewer makes up their mind, so:

  • Be on-time (but not too early)
  • Develop a firm, confident handshake
  • Maintain eye contact

Be well presented and control distracting habits!

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