When an interview goes right


Late last year I wrote of a former colleague’s experience of a job interview that went terribly wrong. In the essay I reflected on just how inaccessible and non-inclusive the interview process can be for people who live with anxiety, or who may have a cognitive disability that means they process information at a slower rate than most. Under severe stress conditions their ability to process data can become radically impaired.

I noted that giving an applicant a scant 10 minutes to review questions that can be complex seemed to be an unnecessary thing at the best of times – and catastrophic for some. As my former colleague observed, no equivalent workplace scenario would ever arise – so what was being tested? Worse, questions may be poorly crafted, so that the information sought is neither clear nor straightforward. 

The way things are and why they are nuts

The usual NSW public sector job interview has around 5 questions intended to expose insight and understanding – capability rather than experience, though experience may be used to demonstrate capability. This is neither understood widely, nor adhered to in many cases because the interview panel members are not necessarily competent in using the Capability Index.

Each question is supposed to assess a specific capability. Sometimes one question is made to assess two capabilities, in which case the question can be complex. However, in any case, the questions can be convoluted, elaborate, vague, or merely hard to interpret. There is an art to crafting interview questions.

Let us be kind and suppose a question is clear and concerns only one capability. The standard practice is to allow an applicant around 10 minutes to review the questions – around 2 minutes per question. Is that a reasonable time to review a question concerning at least 6 behavioural indicators? That’s assuming that the candidate has remembered them. 

In most instances it doesn’t matter because the panel hasn’t bothered either. It has been told what the capabilities to be assessed are, but it hasn’t acquainted itself with capability framework. It has, as a result, no method to assess by behavioural indicators. It’s hardly worth noting the capabilities to be assessed if they are not to be applied down to the behavioural level.

At present it usually seems that neither candidate nor panel are using the capability framework in the manner intended. At best this creates inconsistency since either may apply the framework to a greater or lesser degree. A worst-case scenario might be the panel employing the capability framework as intended, but the candidate has no idea that level of rigor is being employed. However, this is unlikely to ever arise.

Even so, what benefit is derived from asking a candidate to engage in a time trial in preparation for an interview? Why not give them 24 hours, or longer? There appears to be an assumption that there is an opportunity to cheat. This is apparent in the requirement for a candidate to surrender their notes made while previewing the questions. Obviously, nobody has thought that through with any care. Most notes are particular to the individual and may also be illegible. 

One would think that at a job interview you’d want a candidate to be at their best, not coming into an interview after a frantic ten minutes of scrawling notes on a page or more. Two minutes per question is ridiculous.

There does appear to be an untested assumption that having 24 hours to review questions will give opportunity to cheat. I am not exactly clear on why this may be the case. It would be a rare instance of an individual seamlessly delivering smooth newly researched responses with only 24 hours’ notice. That’s a lot of work. And maybe a candidate capable of such a feat might be the best person for the job.

Between the CV, the psych assessment, the usual 2 questions and any other requirement for a role there’s plenty of opportunity to detect liars. In sum, I can see no sensible reason why having questions 24 hours or longer in advance of an interview should not be the standard practice in any agency.

This has been the way candidates have been treated for decades. It hasn’t been challenged until inclusion sensitivity has become a focus, and until an adverse experience has been reported.

My previous essay does seem to have been a trigger for some sensitive rethinking about how un-inclusive the usual interview process can be.

Why does this matter?

People with psychological and cognitive disabilities don’t do the 10- or 15-minutes interview question preview session well. In fact, a lot of people don’t, and most would not identify as having a disability. Many people who experience unwanted anxiety do not see what they experience is a disability. To them it’s just part of who they are.

So that means that people who acknowledge a psychological or cognitive disability can ask for a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to get the question 24 hours ahead of the interview. That’s fair and reasonable for them. In my view it’s not fair on others who have an impaired reaction to the speed test but don’t identify as having a disability and so don’t seek a ‘reasonable adjustment’.

A truly inclusive recruitment process would remove the need for a ‘reasonable adjustment’ by making interview questions available 24 hours in advance for everyone.  

Would this increase the risk of cheating? I can’t think of a compelling argument, and I can’t find one. I am open to evidence that such exists. In terms of risk assessment, at present there is no evidence I am aware of that suggests there is an increased risk. In short, I can see no downside to an action that will create a level playing field for candidates with and without declared disabilities

And then there’s the panel

One thing my earlier essay did not cover was the panel. The candidate’s experience might have helpfully included a reflection on encountering the panel. The candidate was not welcomed or helped to relax. Its bad enough that the interview triggered a strong anxiety reaction without the panel failing to attempt to establish rapport and thereby increasing ‘exclusion stress’. A panel’s failure to act inclusively in a warm or welcoming fashion is bad enough under normal circumstances, but it can ramp up anxiety to a catastrophic degree.

The problem here is multi-faceted. First, is the practice of the manager of the team with the vacancy convening the panel. This is problematic for several reasons, the chief one being a natural bias to select people like them (we all do this). The other members of the panel tend to be subservient to the convenor – even the independent. Being an ‘independent’ can simply mean you don’t work in the same team. Its not a role that is clear or delineated, and that can exacerbate pressures for candidates with disability.

The second part of the problem is a lack of expertise in recruitment. Anti-bias training does not work (there is abundant evidence this is the case), so any requirement to complete an online ‘course’ is likely to have zero benefit. And if the panel convenor lacks the interpersonal polish to put a candidate at ease and establish rapport with them, the experience for the candidate can be all downhill from the moment they sit down. So, if they come in stressed, it’s a case of going from bad to worse.

In short, while the focus here is on the interview question review, I must remind the reader that sorting this issue is no assurance that genuine inclusion and accessibility will be an imperative.

How do you seek an adjustment?

Most people dislike the interview process. Those with disabilities they may not want to ‘disclose’ will likely think that the near universal dislike of interviews invalidates their aversion as worthy of consideration.

For this reason, I have argued that interview questions should be provided to all candidates well in advance. This may, however, not solve the problem for people for whom an interview triggers deep anxiety, or for whom verbal communication in such an artificial setting is not a strong point. 

It is difficult to justify why a recruitment process should have pressure points that are artificially created, and which have no relationship to the role. As my former colleague observed, in what part of a role is a person expected to review 4-6 questions in 10 minutes and then deliver a detailed and thoughtful response to each?

In the ‘old days’ job applications got you the interview, and the interview got you the job. That was it. Now there are multiple measures – CV, cover letter, written task, referee reports, as well as the interview. However, the interview is still seen as the clincher – old, bad, habits die hard.

Unless you know you don’t do interviews well and you have the confidence to ask for an adjustment, most people are inclined to equate adjustments to sensory or physical needs. The issue of psychological or cognitive needs is delicate, and maybe worse for an outsider who has no established relationships or reputation – and no idea of the culture.

A structured approach that scores all elements of an application process by a sensible logic should be able to ensure that a poor interview performance is not a deal breaker. But this is rarely employed.

In short, a recruitment process that is inclusively designed should have no need of ‘adjustments’ concerning cognitive or behavioural needs. It will produce better results as well. This has been well argued in research on decision hygiene.

The good news

My former colleague recently applied for a role that would be an important promotion and a validation of their performance over the past 3 years on temporary assignment. They were successful.

The conversation with the panel convenor, their current line manager, was open and respectful around the reason an adjustment was sought for the interview. There was no sense of shame in asking.

The upshot was that an opportunity to review the questions without the artificial stress of a pointless time limit meant the triggering of anxiety didn’t happen to anywhere near the same extent. They confessed a self-generated anxiety triggered by past experiences. This made the initial review of the questions somewhat harrowing. But advantage of time gave them the opportunity to manage their response. By the time of the interview, they were relaxed and confident – something of a surprise to them.

Every candidate deserves the same opportunity to compose themselves.  

The candidate’s thoughts

In a professional setting the high anxiety I experience is actually an asset. It drives me to focus on details, on quality, looking at situations or tasks with a thorough 360-degree assessment. Anxiety pushes me to meet deadlines and heightens my perceptions toward others’ feelings and reactions. With this condition, however, there are a couple of trigger points where in the worst situations it results in overthinking, and loss of composure. 

One of those trigger points is the traditional interview process, where one is placed in an unfamiliar setting with an uncommon level of pressure. The interview process involves a communication process that is not usual in the workspace. And it is run by a senior one barely knows, if at all. The first stage of the interview involves receiving the interview questions which the interviewee must decipher and make notes on in ten minutes. And then, after often a curt introduction, the interviewee is required to give a professional response to each question. This is where I come undone. I overthink the questions, the answers, and my delivery, while attempting to establish rapport, trying to read the panel’s responses, and struggling to maintain the composure I otherwise naturally demonstrate in the workplace.  

At my last interview I requested, and was granted, a reasonable adjustment, a relatively simple one. I was given the questions a day before. The result was extraordinary. It alleviated the pressure on me. It gave me the opportunity to dissect and reflect on the different layers of the questions, and it  enabled me to formulate quality responses. I was then able to present myself at my best, the same natural manner I express on a daily basis. This adjustment was a recognition of me. It was an acknowledgement that as an employee, as a human being, I mattered.


Last Thursday I enjoyed a webinar by the Neuroleadership Foundation on cognitive capacity. As stress/threat levels rise, our ability to process information and formulate effective actions decreases. Under such conditions information complexity and time constraints decrease cognitive capacity. 

In this context an artificial time limit to review interview questions is a condition of high threat. How is that useful when the objective is to assess a candidate’s capabilities? Cognitive control decreases as threat increases.

By putting a candidate under pressure to review questions, which may also be complex or unclear, in a very short time the impact can be cognitive overload. In fact, a more experienced candidate may have an extra struggle to select which of many instances should be used to illustrate their response to an interview question.

It is true that a candidate may have to work with competing priorities and under time pressure in a role. However, the best candidate is going to be the one who demonstrates that they meet the capability requirements, not those who do well in time trials. Capability and knowledge are the foundation of demonstrating the ability to work under pressure with competing priorities.

Interviews are still used as the final filter of a recruitment process. This unfortunate misguided reliance on only one element of a recruitment process means that the element most vulnerable to disruption by disability is also the most vital. There is no time limit to prepare a CV or respond to the focus questions. There are, of course, necessary time constraints on the psychological assessment and the interview – both more than 10-15 minutes. But they are not designed to create a time stress in response.

The review of interview questions is uniquely constrained by a very short time for which no apparent rational explanation has been crafted – beyond “That’s how we have always done it.”

Advanced opportunity to review the questions disadvantages nobody and puts candidates with psychological and cognitive disabilities on the same level as other candidates.

Selection is supposed to be based on merit. Unless a cogent argument affirming that 10 minutes to review interview questions contributes to demonstration of merit can be effectively asserted the practice must cease. Evidence that it impedes demonstration of merit is plain by the fact an adjustment can be sought and can be granted.

There’s a lot wrong with current recruitment methods in terms of assuring inclusivity, in my view. Here’s one thing that is an easy fix, and which can make recruitment considerably more inclusive for people with declared disabilities, and those who do not identity as having a disability, but who still struggle at the interview stage. 

Adjustments are necessary only when a setting is not inclusive. Recruitment methods must aim to be inclusive and accommodate adjustment requests only when inclusivity is not possible.

On a wider scope there is a great need to review the inclusivity of recruitment practices. This includes moving away from unsupervised DIY recruitment by team or unit managers and ensuring that there are genuine and skilled independents. I am aware of the counter arguments – which are resource based. Inclusivity is a learned skill, and you can’t use a resource-based argument to side-step or off-load responsibility for actual inclusivity.

Even providing (well thought through and effective) training to DEN members as a pool of skilled independents for panels when candidates with disability are participating would be a good first, but small, step.

Research into decision making hygiene suggests that a standard scoring and assessment method should be employed by all panels. This would include ranking all candidates by each element of the selection process separately. Such an approach would ensure that the interview is not the deal maker/breaker. It would require all panels to be accountable for their assessments and scoring and ensure that there is an accountable and transparent record of decision making.

There’s a lot of work to do.

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