Q&A: Future of HR and Digital Hiring with Dhiraj Ahuja

Q: Could you please describe your experience in a people management role, distinct from HR, and outline your current role in this domain?

In my 25+ years of experience, I've been deeply involved in business leadership and people management. Whether it's leading small teams of 3 or managing large ones with up to 1000 individuals, I've worked across all organizational levels, from front-line staff to senior management. My current role at Skillskonnect Global, a tech company specializing in background verifications and online training services, has allowed me to gain expertise in hiring, skill assessment, performance evaluation, and employee growth planning. Over the years, I've transitioned from being a participant in these processes to a designer and influencer, shaping how human resources are hired, trained, and evaluated.

Q: What specific lessons did you learn at each of the steps in your career progression that enabled you to advance to the next level?

Throughout my career, I've learned that the best way to progress is by embracing new challenges and constantly learning. I've always been curious and eager to explore new things, even if they seemed risky. The excitement of learning has consistently outweighed any initial apprehensions.

This desire to keep learning and expanding my knowledge has been a driving force in my various roles, whether as an individual contributor, a team leader, a manager, a senior manager, or a CXO. It has allowed me to accumulate a broad range of skills, enabling me to have a more significant impact in each role.

I've worked across different departments, like sales, operations, customer service, credit, risk, and HR. In recent years, I've focused more on the digital and technology aspects of business. One essential lesson I've learned is that employees are a company's most valuable asset. While shareholders and customers are important, a happy and motivated workforce is vital for overall success.

By prioritizing the well-being of employees, making smart hiring choices, and effectively managing them, a company can achieve its goals and provide excellent results for everyone involved.

Q: How do you recognize the qualities of a good HR professional, and what strategies do you employ to help them improve and enhance these qualities?

In my recent interactions with HR professionals from various companies, I've noticed a significant gap in the HR departments of most organizations. It's a concern I can confidently state. While a handful of companies have exceptional HR departments, the majority tend to treat HR as a neglected area. It's often perceived as necessary but not particularly important.

I believe it's crucial to recognize that a company's journey both begins and ends with HR. HR plays a central role, from the company's inception to its ongoing operations. Therefore, treating HR as a priority and ensuring its effectiveness should be a fundamental consideration when starting or operating a business.

Q: What outcomes should HR professionals prioritize to avoid unintended consequences, and what are effective short-term and long-term measures for HR success?

Certainly, when it comes to measuring success in HR:

  1. Assessing HR Success: In HR, success metrics may vary in clarity. While some areas provide precise measures, others rely on qualitative assessments but can still support quantifiable KPIs.

  2. Sharp Metrics in Recruitment: Recruitment serves as a prime example with well-defined metrics. HR can establish explicit hiring goals, encompassing timelines, criteria, and budget considerations. These metrics offer a straightforward, numbers-based approach for evaluating the recruitment team's performance.

  3. Comprehensive Recruitment Evaluation: A more thorough analysis is possible, covering aspects like in-house vs. external recruitment, cost-effectiveness, the influence of social media and job platforms, vendor performance, and the quality of hires. This approach allows for individual recruiting KPIs and KRAs.

  4. Efficiency Through Defined Evaluation Periods: Establishing specific timelines for evaluation, like a 12- to 13-month cycle, ensures a structured approach to performance assessment. Efficient HR processes not only save time and costs but also effectively attract and retain talent.

  5. The Importance of Compliance: HR should define metrics for every HR activity, including seemingly less complex tasks like compliance, to ensure legal adherence and prevent potential penalties.

Q: How do you identify HR professionals, including post-MBA candidates, with strong people skills, particularly those who exhibit first-principle thinking and effective communication?

Identifying skilled HR professionals can be a challenge. Often, individuals perceive HR as just another job focused on interviews and hiring. What's missing in such cases is a deep understanding of the business. Good HR professionals should possess:

  1. Business Acumen: They need a strong understanding of what types of people different departments require. This goes beyond just doing a job; it involves asking the right questions and applying critical thinking to make their roles easier.

  2. Analytical Skills: An enhanced ability to work with data and information, which aids in understanding the intricacies of the organization.

  3. Empathy: Dealing with people daily requires a high emotional quotient. Understanding the psychology and emotions of individuals and extracting the right information is crucial, given that human resources are the most valuable asset.

  4. Process Orientation: HR professionals must have a strong process orientation. Balancing empathy with process becomes vital when making tough decisions.

In hiring HR professionals, there are two categories to consider: fresh graduates and experienced candidates. In the case of experienced candidates, evaluating their past performance, skills, and references can be relatively straightforward. However, with fresh graduates, it's a fifty-fifty call. If you possess these skills yourself, you can often spot them during interviews. Ensuring you hire the right HR professionals is crucial, as mistakes in this area can be very costly.

Q: How can individuals develop the essential qualities of a successful HR professional, such as business acumen, analytical skills, empathy, and a strong process orientation, when transitioning into a career in HR?

To develop the qualities essential for success in HR, individuals can engage in training, gain exposure to various functional teams, and participate in best practice sharing within their industry. For instance, companies like, let’s say, "G” encourage their HR professionals to connect with a certain number of people on LinkedIn each month and engage in background research, documenting their interactions and learnings. This external exposure allows HR professionals to explore beyond their company's HR practices and gather valuable insights. Additionally, networking and peer discussions are critical for ongoing learning and development. While HR heads can provide guidance and support, there is a wealth of additional information in the world that can be accessed by actively seeking out experts and peers, enhancing one's knowledge and capabilities.

Ultimately, it's a continuous process of learning and discovery, which not only applies to HR but also to most leadership roles, as it's easy to get caught up in the daily routines and overlook opportunities for growth.

Q: How can HR distinguish genuine talent from those using digital tools to appear differently, and is HR catching up with technology or proactively implementing digital strategies?

Technology has advanced HR practices, but there's still a gap to bridge, with some companies lacking online training systems. In terms of hiring, technology can help identify genuine talent, and tools like psychometrics and AI can screen undesirable profiles effectively. While technology plays a significant role, face-to-face interviews still hold importance in the final decision-making process. Background verifications have also become more accessible, making it easier to confirm qualifications, check criminal backgrounds, and investigate professional history. To avoid false positives, thorough checks and verification processes are crucial.

Q: How do you deal with a highly competent candidate who may not align with the organization's culture?

Dealing with a bad hire can be challenging, and it often leads to separation. Very few bad hires manage to turn around and improve. One impactful scenario was when I had to leave a job due to the difficulties of changing a bad hire. On the other hand, there have been instances where good people, initially misaligned with the culture, realized their mistakes and changed for the better. Miraculous transformations can occur with the right support and nurturing. Every individual is unique, and with the appropriate guidance and effort, even seemingly bad hires can potentially become valuable contributors. However, such transformations are relatively rare and come with no guarantees.

Q: How should HR professionals adapt to the evolving landscape where continuous upskilling and interdisciplinary skills have become valuable, unlike the more specialized focus of the past?

HR professionals should adapt to the changing landscape by embracing digital interventions and exploring the use of digital technologies in HR. They should be open to adopting and adapting to these tools, as they can significantly enhance efficiency and have a broader impact on the company.

Additionally, HR professionals should keep pace with the evolving skills requirements, especially on the technical side. This involves upgrading their skills to better understand the skill sets that the company needs to succeed in the marketplace. They should be aware of what the business requires and ensure that they consider these requirements when hiring or nurturing talent.

Furthermore, HR teams should focus on improving processes and have a strong commitment to enhancing processes based on their curiosity and the drive to make continuous improvements. These three aspects—embracing digital technologies, upgrading technical skills, and improving processes—are essential for HR professionals to thrive in the changing landscape and meet the evolving demands of their organizations.

Q: In a very small integrated team of 5 to 9 people, is there a need for HR, and if so, what role does HR play in such a context?

In small integrated teams, HR is still necessary, but it doesn't have to be a full-time in-house employee. You can outsource HR functions, such as recruitment, to external companies. Having a dedicated person or service to manage simple redundancies and ensure bench strength for future needs is essential for the company's growth and sustainability.

Q: How can HR effectively identify candidates who possess both digital development skills and a sense of design, given that such individuals may present false positives in one of these skill sets?

The key to identifying candidates with multiple skill sets is to assess their skills thoroughly. For freshmen, it's important to focus on one skill and then nurture additional skills. For experienced candidates claiming to have multiple skills, conducting technical assessments and having experts evaluate their capabilities is crucial. While mistakes may occur, having a bench of potential candidates ready can help mitigate the impact of the wrong hire.

Q: Do you recommend having a contingency plan for hiring, especially when the need is urgent and the first competent person available needs to be hired?

A contingency plan for human resources should ensure that the minimum required skilled manpower is always maintained, typically with a buffer in hiring. The hiring plan should be designed to include redundancies to avoid any risk to the business. However, it's even more critical to prevent the need for contingencies by starting with clear business planning, where skill requirements are defined clearly. If the initial hiring process is well-targeted and aligned with business needs, the need for contingencies can be significantly reduced. The problem often arises when departmental heads and HR don't align on the required skill sets and experience, leading to misalignment in hiring and retention.

Q: Do you believe multi-skill hiring will become more prevalent, and do you foresee distinct domains eventually merging due to the rise of multi-skilled professionals in the future job market?

I believe that multi-skill hiring will likely become more prevalent, especially in roles where generic skills are required. However, in technical fields where specialized expertise is crucial, multi-skill hiring may not be as relevant. The trend toward multi-skill hiring will depend on the industry and the specific job requirements. It's also important to consider the quality of work and potential risks when relying on one person for multiple deliveries. Overall, it's an emerging field, and the impact of AI and technology on job roles remains to be seen.

Do you work in HR?

Email abhash.kumar@springworks.in and let’s talk :)

Note: All views expressed in this interview are personal and not linked to any organization.