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Companies are always on the lookout for talented people. In this interview series, we talk to seasoned HR professionals to pick their brains for ideas and insights on finding the right talent for our organizations.

Marni Helfand

Marni Helfand

As the Chief Human Resources Officer and General Counsel for The Planet Group, Marni Helfand oversees all legal and HR functions for the company and has been instrumental to its growth. Prior to working in the staffing and consulting industry, Marni worked as a lawyer at a private practice. She was recently recognized by Staffing Industry Analysts as one of their Global Power 150 – Women in Staffing.

Hi Marni, welcome to the series! Before diving in, our readers would love to get to know you. Can you tell us the backstory about what brought you to this specific career path? 

I knew I wanted to be a litigation attorney since I was in elementary school. My father is a litigator, and even when I was quite young he would practice his opening and closing arguments to me and ask for my opinion as if I were a juror.

I knew I didn’t want to practice the same type of law as him (personal injury), but I was hooked. I started my career as an Employment Law Attorney at a firm and moved to an in-house role because I realized I liked business as much as law. 

About halfway through my first in-house counsel role, I started managing the employee relations function within HR. In a subsequent in-house counsel role, I began advising larger HR teams on a greater variety of topics until it dawned on me that I was interested in a career in HR as much as I was interested in continuing to practice law. 

I have always loved the people and strategic side of law, and I was able to develop that at The Planet Group when I was given the chance to lead an HR team that started as a team of five and has grown to 35 in four quick years. 

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you first started?

Unfortunately, my mistakes have been more harrowing than funny, but I have learned from all of them. One big mistake I made was trying to be funny, and it fell flat, and I learned from that.

I was speaking at a conference with a co-worker whom I had a very congenial relationship with, and we liked to joke around. During my comments, I made a joke at his expense, which he and most of the audience found funny, but a couple of people commented that it was inappropriate to use him to get a laugh.

I think an important skill as a leader, manager, or co-worker is to be able to adapt your style to the audience you are working with or speaking to. Clearly, in a room of 100+ people, there wasn’t going to be a commonality of thought and experience, and I wasn’t sensitive to that. It has made me much more aware going forward. 

Can you please give us your favorite "Life Lesson Quote" and how that was relevant to you in your life?  

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” 

Words and actions matter. You can’t do or say something and then later say “I didn’t mean it” as if it never happened. What you do impacts others. Once it’s done or said, it matters. This is true for leadership and organizations. We only get one chance to get it right. I want to make a positive difference—both with the people in our company and the company itself. I don’t want to look back with regret or wish that I had done things differently.  

At the end of the day, I am an employee who has great days and frustrating days at work like anyone else. We each have different reasons for being at our jobs, and we each chose our company for different reasons.

My reason for coming to The Planet Group was the type of work and the excitement of a rapidly growing company. But I stay because of the people. I truly care about the people that I work with, and I share in their personal hardships and triumphs as much as their professional ones. 

One week, I cried in the office kitchen with a colleague who lost a friend to cancer, and on the same day had my afternoon brightened by being introduced to a teammate’s new baby girl.    

In the end, it’s important to remember that the people are what makes a company special, and every one of us can make every other employee’s experience better.  

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people? 

As the executive sponsor for The Planet Group’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, I am particularly excited about the initiatives coming out of this group, especially since it was founded in the fairly recent past—we've been making big strides. 

For this year, we are starting two new Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). One of them is focused on supporting the LGBTQIA+ community and the other group will address Mental Health. These are in addition to our existing ERG called the Women’s Initiative Network.  

Wonderful. Now let's jump into the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time-consuming and challenging. Can you share with our readers a bit about your experience with identifying and hiring talent? What's been your most successful recruitment-related initiative so far? 

Since Covid began, and because of how decentralized our operations generally are, we’ve shifted the way in which we identify and hire talent.

It stems from the realization that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to hiring, and to find the right people for the right position, you must think holistically or else risk missing the mark. 

For example, there are some positions that can be done 100% remotely with no problem. On the flip side, the nature of other positions requires people to be near an office and work in-person multiple days per week. 

With this in mind, it’s important to remember during the hiring process that having someone check all the boxes for the job description is only one part of a comprehensive hiring strategy. 

It’s also important to think about whether that person would be successful and happy in the type of environment that the job necessitates. Having an honest discussion and asking the right questions during the interview process should help to shed light on this.

We've seen this in action, with our HR team growing from five members at the end of 2018 to 35 members by the end of 2022. I am very proud of how successfully The Planet Group has navigated this complex issue. 

Once talent is engaged, what's your advice for creating a great candidate experience and ensuring the right people go through the process? 

One element of a successful candidate experience depends on both parties being equally excited about the opportunity. All too often, people are running from a job and candidates may be too quick to accept the first position offered.

Similarly, especially with continued talent shortages in some areas, employers may be too quick to accept the first person who seems willing to take the job. Recruitment is like dating in the sense that you can have two really great parties (candidate and company in this case), but it doesn’t always mean they will be great together. 

Both sides need to look at whether it’s a compatible match in terms of the job responsibilities, the culture, and the dynamics within the team. 

When it comes to ensuring the right people go through the process, I suggest standardizing some elements of the interview process.

For each role, identify in advance who should be on the interviewing team. Have a meeting with these people and get on the same page about the role and what qualities you are looking for. 

Create a spreadsheet with questions to ask during the interview that addresses these qualities. Immediately after the interview, they should take notes and record how they thought the candidate did in relation to the qualities you previously identified.

Once all interviews are finished, compare notes. This creates an even playing field where the candidates can be compared fairly across the board. It also means you’ll be able to more easily identify and eliminate anyone from the process who isn’t the right fit.  

Based on your experience, how can HR and culture professionals work with the broader organization to identify talent needs? 

HR and culture professionals can provide critical guidance to hiring managers, which has a trickle-down effect for the whole company. Never assume that other people think the way you do – sit down with each hiring manager and sync up regarding hiring best practices and how to interview to find the right fit.

This means helping them to see that, sometimes, looking beyond the resume is key. Someone might have the right skillset, but might not be the best overall fit for the role. Conversely, someone may not have done that job in particular, but is eager for the position, passionate, and willing to learn.

You just may end up hiring a new lifetime employee. It’s equally critical that HR stays connected to management during the whole process, including once the candidate is hired. It’s a true partnership relationship.

Is there anything you see that recruiters, internal or otherwise, do regularly that makes you think, "No, stop doing that!"? 

Recruiters are good at what they do often because of the repetition and experience, but that can lead to incorrect assumptions and a misunderstanding of a person’s priorities when choosing new employment. 

So the “stop doing that” lesson is to stop assuming you know what will attract the candidate and actually ask them. And then ask a different way so you know they aren’t saying what they think you want to hear.  

With so much noise and competition out there, what are your top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven't already reached out to you? 

1. Make use of the marketing materials that you might typically use for clients. For example, two of our divisions are rebranding to become one, and a high-energy video was made to showcase the merger. Showing that video to a candidate creates a “wow” factor and excitement to work for the company.  

2. Schedule conversations with the candidate and their peers or even subordinates within the department. It doesn’t have to be a regular “interview” but rather just a chance for the candidate to meet more people they will work with and get a feel for the company.  

3. Lay out a roadmap for the next several years of employment and not just what the job will look like at the time of hire. Explain where the company is going, where the department is going, and how you envision the job down the line. 

While this could be really intriguing to candidates, don’t presume that everyone wants growth and change. There are people who want a job to be predictable and in a steady state, so make sure you are understanding the candidate’s goals and priorities  

What are the three most effective strategies you use to retain employees? 

1. Be a human-centered leader.  

2. Be honest. 

3. Don’t make it all about work all the time. Allow yourself and the team to have fun together.  

Here is the main question of our interview. Can you share five techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill? Please share an example for each idea.  

1. Be very honest about the pros and cons of the position, the company etc. For example, consider if the company is going through a new technology implementation or other major changes. 

By giving that insight, you open the door to a variety of questions that will allow you to gauge whether the person is a good candidate for the role. If they like change and want to grow with the company, it could be a great fit. If they would rather hunker down at a company with a more predictable future, they might be happier elsewhere.  

2. Have the candidate talk to others in the department or those they will be supporting outside of the department. Why? Since Covid, work seems more transactional than it used to be, but for many (although admittedly not all), a successful job experience depends on relationships with co-workers. 

This is especially true for those working in a remote environment. It’s important for them to be able to get along and communicate well with their remote constituents. Feeling connected to your co-workers, regardless of distance, can be invaluable.  

3. Create a fair hiring process. For example, as I mentioned previously, identify a team of people who will be interviewing each candidate. Then, take time in advance of the interview to draft questions that each person will ask, which are relevant to that particular job. These should vary based on position and should also address what’s going on in the entire organization. 

I mentioned previously that someone might not be keen to join a company that is going through a lot of changes. Think about relevant aspects like that, which could impact how a candidate views the role and if they really do want to move forward or not. This up-front organization makes it easier to compare thoughts about who is the right fit, and it helps to eliminate any unconscious biases.  

4. When you’re recruiting for a position that will be a direct report, ask that person how they like to be managed. Effective management needs to have some variability based on how each team member is motivated, how much direction they want, how they like to communicate, etc.

If you’re hiring someone that is either much more independent than you are comfortable with or wants to be managed more than you have the bandwidth for, it might not be the best fit. I try to live by this: the golden rule is to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you; the platinum role is do unto others as they’d want done unto them. 

5. Don't confuse culture fit with attitude. They’re not the same thing. Most people want to buy into the culture and need that affinity with the culture to be happy, but that’s not true for all. 

There are plenty of people who want to work 9-5, have predictability in their job, and want to be respected, but don’t really care about the culture overall. These people can end up being some of your best hires.

Don’t assume that person won’t have the right attitude just because they can’t work around the clock or don’t want to go to after-work happy hours.  

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

I am a huge sports fan and, in particular, really admire women who have carved out successful careers for themselves in such a competitive field. If I were to have lunch with someone, I’d choose Jeanie Buss, the controlling owner and president of the Los Angeles Lakers. 

In 2020, she was the first female controlling owner to guide her team to an NBA championship. Jeanie, have your people call my people? 

Thank you so much for your insights, Marni! How can our readers continue to follow your work?

Please connect with me on LinkedIn

More insights from the series

Finn Bartram
By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.