A former colleague came out of a job interview yesterday very unhappy with his performance. On paper few would argue he was not the ideal candidate. There may be somebody with a better background, but the chances are low.
I spent around 5 years in recruitment quite some time ago, and since then I have been in a good number of selection exercises as a panel member. Most recently I have been the independent with disability.
My former colleague (let’s call him AB – nothing to do with his name) lives with a residual anxiety from an earlier significant event. When he stresses, he talks fast, and his otherwise calm communication goes nuts.
As a panel member, and a friend to many colleagues who have blown interviews (and quite apart from my own experience as a failed candidate), I know that some people just do not interview well. What AB has helped me see is that a job interview can be unintentionally discriminatory.
The Right People to Pick the Right People for the Job
I worked in the Commonwealth Employment Service. Our ‘motto’ was ‘The right person for the job’. It was one we did not live up to. Recruitment is actually a hard job that requires real skills. It is a professional level skill, and only some people who are not professionals can do a good job. Mind you, some alleged professionals are not so hot.
This is not to suggest that most recruitment decisions are disastrous. But some are. Most produce a serviceable, even good, selection. Some are inspired.
In most NSW public sector organisations recruitment is a DIY affair. The intent is good, but the execution is sometimes awful. There are many public servants who have been culled, or failed at interview, only to find the successful candidate is singularly unimpressive. They were the best person for the job? No way!
A Terrible Experience
Job interviews are stressful experiences for most of us. The worst is often the preview of the questions. Some, for a multiplicity of reasons I will discuss later, either freeze or go into overload mode and scribble frantically. I was a frantic scribbler, and worse, I had awful handwriting, so my scribbles were illegible.
Some candidates have told me that they didn’t understand some of the questions. It wasn’t because they lacked the intellectual wherewithal. In fact, it’s often the smarter ones who confess this. They see too much in the question, try to guess what the author intended, and struggle to craft a response to what seems like a really daft thing to ask.
AB asked me a vitally important question. Actually, he asked it in general and I just happened to be the person who heard it. It was “Why do they only give us 10 minutes to preview the questions just before the interview?” Yeah. Why?
He showed me the questions. There were 5. So that’s 2 minutes a question. AB then asked another really good question: “In what other part of our work are expected to read, analyse and develop a response to 5 questions in 10 minutes?”
The obvious question to ask here is: “What is being tested here?” The obvious answer is “Nothing.” Being on an interview panel is hard work. The usual practice is to schedule multiple interviews, one after the other – maybe 6 in a day. That means forcing a candidate to rush through a preview of questions is really for the convenience of the panel.
So, having an awful experience with a frantic rush through the question preview, and then a frazzled interview is not about the needs of the candidate. Sure, you can ask for an adjustment these days. But how many are bold enough to dare to ask to have the questions the day before. In any case, getting frazzled by the interview process is not considered a disability (even though it really is).
The Madness of Pointless Secrecy
There is a stern warning given with interview questions. You can’t copy them, and you can’t share them. The first is pointless in the age of Teams and Zoom where they must be emailed to a candidate. The practice of creating an entirely arbitrary time pressure has created a need for secrecy. Everybody has to be under the same pressure, regardless of how well they respond to an entirely artificial situation that will never be replicated outside a job interview.
Consider this. I have a manual dexterity disability that impedes my ability to hold a pen and write. In terms of writing speed equity, I would need twice the time others get. The same applies to keyboard use. If something has to be done flat out – as with a 10-minute time limit to make notes on 5 questions I simply cannot do it.
If I am given the fair 20 minutes time to make the same volume of notes, I still have an extra 10 minutes thinking time. My requested adjustment provides equity in one respect and gives me an advantage in another. Similar dilemmas will apply for a variety of disabilities.
The only fair scenario is to give everybody the questions the day before and have no time limit.
But what about the secrecy? Candidates will be able to research and craft their responses – so how will we know their answers are genuine?
In the NSW Public Sector, a key part of recruitment is the capabilities identified as required for a role. There is a capability framework every public sector employee should be aware of, but, of course, many are not.
The Capability Framework is a very good idea. It’s called The NSW Public Sector Capability Framework, and it can be downloaded from the NSW Public Service Commission website. There are identified capabilities for every role, and each capability have a level, of which there are 5, ranging from Foundational to Highly Advanced. It is my personal opinion that the levels assigned to most roles are far too low, and that some key capabilities are absent. The system is good, but not ideal. That’s a different conversation, to be had later.
Position Descriptions provided for every advertised NSW Public Sector vacancy helpfully provide the capabilities ascribed to the role, and the level required. They further provide a table that specifies the capability and the level and then lists Behavioural indicators.
For example, under the group of Personal Attribute capabilities there is the capability Act with integrity. At adept level (which is mid-range) there are 5 dot points describing the conduct required.
The point of having these generic capabilities is that they are base line requirements for the role, regardless of any knowledge of, or experience in, the field or role. This is further specified in the designation of Focus Capabilities. Here’s a quote from a Position Description about them: “The focus capabilities for the role are the capabilities in which occupants must demonstrate immediate competence.”
I have reviewed a selection of interview questions. They include some capabilities that are not focus capabilities and references to role specific activities. Non-focus capabilities are allowed, this is a bit like the old required and desired selection criteria – but with none of the clarity. The role-related elements in questions can be confusing because they tend to suggest that the answer must be framed accordingly – and that may not be the best opportunity to demonstrate that one meets the capability requirement.
One set of interview questions was an illustration of a cause for concern.
There were 5 questions with a focus on capabilities:
- Act with Integrity – adept – 5 behavioural indicators
- Communicate effectively – adept – 6 behavioural indicators – but not on the Position Description. I had to go to the PSC website.
- Commitment to customer service – adept – 6 behavioural indicators
- Work collaboratively – adept – 4 behavioural indicators
- Deliver results – advanced – 6 behavioural indicators
- Think and solve problems – adept – 4 behavioural indicators, not on the Position Description
- Project management – adept – 6 behavioural indicators
- Value diversity – adept – 3 behavioural indicators
In sum, 5 questions with 40 behavioural indicators, and 3 questions with 10 or 11 each. It is not clear how an assessment based on behavioural indicators could successfully evaluate a candidate’s performance at an interview. It might be argued that across all the assessment elements (CV, written response to the usual 2 questions, the interview questions, any at interview presentation, and the psychometric assessment) there is enough. But, how many panels use a template based on behavioural indicators, and how many candidates review all the elements of their application to ensure they cover all behavioural indicators. Recruitment is just not that clinical or disciplined.
Unless a Position Description specifies role specific requirements – an entirely legitimate thing for some roles – interview questions should be confined primarily to the focus capabilities.
A capability-based assessment must sensible, reasonable, and fair. There should be no need to go beyond focus capabilities, and certainly no justification for blending focus and non-focus capabilities into the one question.
There is virtually no reason to go beyond a standard generic question form:
Capability A at X level is a requirement for this role. Please discuss how you meet this capability at the required level; and give examples (which do not have to be work related).
Here’s an interview question from 2019. The capability being assessed was Act with Integrity:
In this role you will be working with a variety of stakeholders including colleagues, managers and business partners. Please describe an instance which demonstrates your personal skills in handling sensitive or challenging situations. What was your approach and what did you do to address the situation?
In my opinion this question shoehorns the response into a frame determined by the panel and does not give sufficient latitude for the candidate to provide their best response.
The Act with Integrity Behavioural Indicators for Adept level are:
- Represent the organisation in an honest, ethical and professional way and encourage others to do so
- Demonstrate professionalism to support a culture of integrity within the team/unit
- Set an example for others to follow and identify and explain ethical issues
- Ensure that others understand the legislation and policy framework within which they operate
- Act to prevent and report misconduct, illegal and inappropriate behaviour
It seems hardly necessary to overlay official behavioural indicators with additional context requirements. A diligent applicant might wish to match the behavioural indicators against the question in order to develop a response. That would be a right. It cannot be exercised at 5 questions in 10 minutes.
It is not uncommon to see questions that have multiple role specific parts to them. One element alone would be challenging to make notes on, let alone 2 or 3. One question I saw recently asked the candidate to give some background a project about a new or improved process, describe their role, discuss what they did to ensure the project’s success and then talk about what they had learned. They had about 2 minutes to make notes and probably between 4 and 5 minutes to talk about it the interview.
If you know not very much, this might be easy. But for an experienced officer with a nuanced insight into a project this could excite a flood of thoughts. The risk is famine or flood if the experience triggers anxiety.
The Impact of Disability
I do not interview well. That’s got nothing to do with my acquired and current disability. Paradoxically I would do better now; because my disabilities have given me greater confidence (I am officially seen to be ‘different’).
In the past I simply exhibited behaviour that might have been diagnosed as anxiety, among other things. A lot of people would have had a similar diagnosis, had they sought one out. But a lot of diagnosable conditions are considered normal. We all know people who are nervy or anxious when they get badly stressed. But otherwise, they are cool.
Anxiety and depression are the 2 most frequently diagnoses psychological conditions in Australia. Many more will experience both states at levels which may never necessitate a formal diagnosis, but which will screw up situations, including job interviews with monotonous regularity.
A truly inclusive recruitment process will accommodate the variety of impediments to allowing a person should what they are capable off – because the normal spectrum of being human includes psychic states that do not respond well to artificially contrived and stressful experiences – such as job interviews. As AB said, “When do you find yourself in this kind of situation in your work – never. So why make it part of a recruitment process?”
Off hand, I can make a short list of people who would be disadvantaged by this kind of interview process – previewing questions and then responding in an interview – those with diagnosed anxiety conditions; blind or visually impaired applicants; people who have difficulty making notes because of motor or nerve-related disabilities; the neuro-atypical; and people with dyslexia. Readers may know of other. This is a short list only.
What are Interviews for, Anyway?
AB submitted a CV (no more than 5 pages), and written responses to 2 questions (a page each). Then he undertook a psych profile assessment. He then had to prepare a presentation as well as respond to the 5 interview questions.
That’s a lot. He’s entitled to expect that all this is done professionally, and that fairness is assured.
There was a time when everything was about getting to the interview, and the interview is where you lived or died. That should not be the case now. In the past 12 months I have been the independent on 3 panels convened by very smart and skilled people. The interview was not the final definitive measure. Some candidates did not interview well, so other elements of their application were considered very carefully to ensure the best person for the job was selected.
In every case I do believe the best candidate was chosen, and in no case was the interview the telling element. In two interviews it was hard to pick the best of an outstanding line up. The interview was indicative, but not confirming.
Interviews are a great opportunity to make critical assessments that help distinguish between people evenly matched on paper. You need to select one person, and sometimes it comes down to hair splitting. It is important to meet the person who may be employed on a human level. We have natural instincts we need to satisfy.
Reliance on the interview as the key determining factor leads to poor and unjust decisions being made. The trouble is that far too few people on panels understand how to play by the new rules.
A Reflection on the PSC’s Guide to Interview Questions
The NSW PSC website provides a guide to how to develop interview questions. There are a lot of good points to reflect on in the context of this essay. Here are a few:
- Behavioural interview questions should…. be clear, brief and unambiguous.
- It is important to avoid making questions too specific; asking about situations they may not have encountered or that is unique to your work environment. Your questions should allow all candidates to demonstrate relevant experience that is transferable to the role you are filling.
- Use the interview to explore the main role requirements. These include the focus capabilities, and knowledge and experience where these requirements are in the role description. Each interview question can be designed to allow candidates to give examples of how their capabilities, knowledge and experience meet the role requirements. Complementary capabilities may also be assessed in the interview to help to distinguish between high performers, for example.
There is a section headed Motivation questions that seems to me to be rarely used; but would give a panel an opportunity to have a useful insight into a candidate’s character – and giving them a chance to open up and relax. It would be a logical first question. Below I have copied the 2 paragraphs:
You can also ask questions about motivation to decide if the candidate’s values, interests and preferences are suited to the role. For example, in asking candidates about their motivation to work in the public sector you are looking for people who want to create a better society more so than those who driven by money or status.
Asking candidates about their motivation can span topics such as having a passion to work in a particular field (e.g. social services), having an interest in supporting and developing team members as part of manager responsibilities, being inspired by using their creativity etc.
Another interesting theme was a quote from The Human Rights Commission:
Asking applicants certain questions in a job interview may disadvantage some people and could amount to discrimination. Employers are required by law to avoid discrimination when recruiting staff.
I should be clear that this refers to clearly discriminatory questions of a personal nature, but it could be fairly argued that a pressure test question preview, and the design of some questions would constitute discrimination – and thus a violation of law.
The issue of Disability Inclusion is not covered by the PSC’s advice on recruitment interviews, which is disappointing.
If you want a diverse workforce of talented people you must cater to the quirky, the nervy and the quiet. If an interview process is effectively a time trial followed up with a quiz, it will give you nothing useful. Indeed, the survivor might be nowhere as good as the candidates an insensitive ‘one heroic size fits all’ process discards.
I can’t hope that recruitment processes will be quickly professionalised, or that panels will have a skilled independent with the authority to prevent the convenor exerting their bias, ignorance, or insensitivity to inclusion needs.
It is not possible to rely on adjustment requests alone. This is because of the fact that (for example) for many people, living with anxiety that expresses only periodically, isn’t considered a disability. Some may not wish to seek an adjustment because they don’t want to be thought of as having a disability.
The best I can hope for is the adoption of a mandatory capability-based question model that has no role specific elements; and is given to candidates 24 hours in advance. That would just be a courtesy as the questions would be predictable. They could even be in the Position Description. Obviously, where role specific requirements are listed, interview questions related to them can, and should, be asked – and provided in advance also.
I believe a serious conversation on this is necessary to ensure universal equity and accessibility. Further, I do believe a more generic question model would enhance the purpose of asking questions. Some may seek more role related questions elsewhere – such as part of the written response. Where that is warranted, that may be a good solution.
The logic of the Capability Framework and its associated behavioural indicators merits the right to stand alone as a the genuinely inclusive tool it was meant to be.