Can inclusive recruitment mean no interviews?


In the NSW Public Sector, it is possible to recruit without interviews using Rule 26 of the GSE Act. However, nobody seems to use it. Why? Probably because it is not known, not actively promoted, and concern for inclusion during recruitment is not widespread.

In part I think it’s a simple matter of interviews being the major feature of recruitment for most people. It’s a habit hard to break. It can seem as though a recruitment process is not proper if there is no interview. Traditionally recruitment has been CV plus a written response to selection criteria. That got you the interview. Getting the job depended solely upon how you performed at the interview.

I have won appointments to the federal public service 5 times based on my performance on an entrance exam/test. Score well and you get offered one or more options. This no longer applies. I don’t know when things changed. There is apparently good evidence that such an entrance test may be as good a, if a not better, predictor of work performance in instances where specific skills/knowledge are not required. However, to be fair, these entrance tests were not inclusive. My point here is not to propose a return to them, but demonstrate an interview was not part of the recruitment process.

When I worked in the CES I used to get into trouble because my referral to placement ratio was close to 1:1, and not the 1:6 that was policy. Pre-screening struck me as a better way of assessing candidates than sending 6 applicants to an employer not skilled in recruitment. Was my approach effective? I had a regional reputation among businesses as a preferred contact for filling vacancies.

The public service isn’t a private business and must demonstrate its recruitment practices are transparent and fair. The GSE in NSW has changed recruitment practices up to a point. But, in practice, the old ways prevail. It’s still substantially – the application gets you the interview and the interview gets you the job.

My point here is that there are other, and far better, ways of selecting. I spent 6 years in recruitment. It’s mostly done badly. Don’t believe me? Look around your work team, business area, directorate, and division. How many people do you know who have been recruited to a role and performed at a sub-optimal standard? Were they the best person for the job? They were recruited via an effective system? No – just a habituated one.

Why is the interview so important?

It’s an illusion of competence and power courtesy of an array of psychological reflexes. It creates an impression that the hiring manager has made a rational assessment and picked the best candidate for the job, with the aid of the members of the panel. 

This can be true some of the time. In the past 2 years I was an independent on 2 impressively conducted panels. The interview did genuinely play a critical role in one instance where specialist knowledge was essential and the opportunity to talk with the candidates did reveal that an impressive looking CV and a good written response to questions concealed a poor understanding of key factors of the law. In the other instance the interview helped choose between several acceptable candidates who otherwise very closely matched.

We like to think interviews can play a decisive role in splitting a close group of candidates into a clear spectrum of comparative attraction. However, that often means virtual hair-splitting. This is no more than the performance of a seemingly rational act – a way of making a decision when any of the close group would be fine for the role. It gives the illusion of rational decision-making, but the reality may be that a good candidate is edged out because of a bias.

The problems with the interview panel

Panel members like to imagine they are competent to sit on a panel and make fair and rational merit-based decisions. This isn’t true in most instances. In fact, if interviews are the major factor in a recruitment decision two things are likely to be true. The first is that superior merit is unlikely to be the tipping factor in a decision. The second is that candidates who trigger any number of negative biases are unlikely to be successful, even if they are objectively the superior merit-based applicant.

In my view amateur recruitment efforts are unfair. Selecting the best person for a role requires skill. Having a panel convened by the business area manager/executive is not the best approach. In fact, it can be the worst if the convenor is not a high calibre performer who is aware of bias risks and has taken steps to mitigate them using a decision hygiene method. We have an innate preference for people like ourselves.

There is ample evidence that discrimination against candidates begins with the CV. A candidates name alone can trigger discrimination and lead to an applicant being culled on that factor alone. This is a well testified phenomenon.

In my view DIY panels are potentially the least inclusive methods of recruitment I know of. By DIY I mean panels set up by the business area where the vacancy exists, rather than by a recruitment professional.

What are the alternatives?

I am going to allow there is a place for an interview to make distinctions when candidates are close in comparative assessments, or specialist skills/insight are critical and there is no alternative effective way of assessing them. But let’s look at the options.

These days an application can include:

  1. The CV
  2. The targeted questions
  3. The psychological profile
  4. Any specialist skills/qualifications
  5. Any other assessment tasks – like a presentation, work example.
  6. A rule 26 assessment task in lieu of an interview
  7. References

I would add a 360 survey for crucial roles, like management or sensitive people engagement roles – with sufficient refinement to ensure that the process can’t be manipulated.

If these elements are competently assessed, they should be sufficient. However, the question we need to ask is whether the first 4 elements are sufficient to allow a decision to be made and if not, why not?

These elements could be a full screening process if they are assessed professionally. By that I mean using a standardised assessment and scoring system by people trained to be aware of biases, and how to minimise risk. Here key considerations would be diversity of the assessment panel, the status of the ‘independent’, and an assurance that the decision hygiene assessment method is adhered to. 

Movement to elements 5 and 6 might be necessary for high scorers when no clearly evidently superior candidate is found.

Reasons for not having an interview

The best reason for not having an interview as part of the selection process is that they really are no good as a means for making a choice – if that choice is meant to determine who is objectively the superior candidate for a role. Of all the elements in a recruitment process the interview is most prone to bias and discrimination, as well as where a candidate may perform poorly because of an underlying psychological condition that otherwise has no impact on performance.

A business can make decisions based on the personal preferences and biases of the hiring manager if it wishes. Interviews increase the risk of bias, and a private business may feel it is entitled to recruit on the basis of biases. The point here is that while flagrant discrimination is unlawful, there are plenty of ways of circumventing the laws by rationalising a selection bias – and the interview is the most effective way of doing that.  In essence, the interview may be valued precisely because it is a way of ensuring that bias is applied.

For this reason, a public sector organisation really should avoid interviews if the intent is for impartial merit-based selection.

Allowing a business unit manager to convene a selection panel might seem like a fair thing to do. Managers do like to be in control of who is in their team. But this is an illusion for 2 reasons. The first is that they are not necessarily good at picking the best person for their team. And the second is that they are not permanently in that role. They do not necessarily represent the best interests of their organisation.  

DIY recruitment seems to be favoured because it is thought not practical to maintain a specialist recruitment/selection team in an agency. However, I did see that the NSW Public Service Commission did advertise a bulk recruitment for Grade 9/10 officers earlier in 2022. The intent was to create a talent pool from which agencies can draw staff. I was not impressed by the proposed selection method because the required capabilities were too modest in my estimation. 

However, the point is that recruitment can be done away from the business unit with a vacancy by creating a talent pool that agencies can draw from. All that must be addressed is how to develop a sensible selection process.

Should all interviews be eliminated? 

Certainly, DIY selection panels are not necessarily competent. Using the interview to assess a candidate against selected capabilities is simply not feasible. The NSW capability framework has typically 6 behavioural indicators per capability. If an interview has 5 questions, that’s 30 behavioural indicators to be assessed in around 30 minutes – 1 a minute.

Assessment of a candidate’s fit against selected capabilities should be an essential part of the selection process. In NSW the current practice of requiring a candidate to respond to 2 questions in writing, and around 300 words each is also inadequate. Unless a CV has been tuned to highlight the selected capabilities, and these can be assessed with ease, it is also inadequate to the task.

The whole recruitment process must be rethought. If there is a genuine focus on merit-based selection using the capability framework a better-structured assessment approach must be developed. 

Retention of the interview as any part of the recruitment process must be asserted on a clear and defensible rationale. I presently can’t think of one.


Interviews are poor selection methods because they are rarely conducted with the skill needed to ensure neither bias nor discrimination intrudes, and they are the setting for poor anxiety induced performances by people otherwise entirely competent.

For these reasons, interviews are a significant disadvantage for candidates with disability. In fact, the same is true for people across the diversity spectrum, especially for those for whom an interview may be a source of stress and a trigger for anxiety.

Interviews do not do what those who favour them say they do. They detract from, rather than enhance, merit-based selection. Eliminating them as part of the public sector recruitment process will go a long way to restoring equity.

An illustration of how an inclusive interview process might work


I recently participated in a webinar for a recruitment exercise seeking people with disability for roles on a Commonwealth department.

There was a lot to like about the experience. The exercise was being undertaken by a professional recruitment agency, which is a huge plus as it gets away from the unconscious biases of unskilled recruiters. This may have been helped by the fact that what was being created was a merit pool from which candidates would be matched to roles – so a lot of the bias risks arising from local work unit control of the recruitment process are eliminated.

The webinar itself was sensitively run. Speakers gave audio descriptions of themselves for blind participants. A department’s representative gave a strong and very positive presentation on how inclusive the agency is. It sounded very good. But, as readers, well know the proof will always be in the experience. If the department walks it’s talk, that will be impressive – and refreshing.

I thought the recruitment process showed a lot of refinement and reflexibility. I took notes from the screen shots and what I want to do here is run through them.

Reasonable adjustments

There was a detailed discussion of the adjustments available. The ones I particularly liked were:

  • Interview in person or by phone or video
  • Additional time to complete interviews
  • Liberty to have a support person accompanying
  • Larger or smaller interview room with suitable lighting (however in this instance most interviews would be via MS Teams – but the thought is a good one)

Process and timelines

Perhaps because this is a bulk recruitment exercise this information was especially helpful as the whole exercise is spread over 2 months from the date the applications close.

It was good to see process and timeline clearly laid out.

Application review

A recruitment team member will contact an applicant to ensure the minimum requirements have been met and to confirm what adjustments will be needed, and preferred contact method.

This is a nice touch. It goes a long way to making the whole exercise more personalised.

Video Interview

This was a new idea for me. Candidates will get an email with a link to a pre-recorded video which will ask 3 questions based on the core capabilities of the role/s applied for.

Candidates have 5 days to respond and may do so by video, audio only or in writing. This is impressively flexible.

There is a later panel interview as well. For that there is a suggestion that the STAR method is used by candidates in crafting their response. Perhaps this same suggestion could have been made here as well?

Work sample

A sample of written work that might replicate a task in a selected role is required – if the candidate is progressing to the next stage – the interview.

The candidate has 3 days to complete this. This is a sensitive time frame because it takes time pressure off, and this avoids triggering anxieties. I should observe here that anxieties around recruitment experiences don’t flow into work performance.

The panel interview

This will be via MS Teams and is usually 30 minutes, but the time may be varied as part of a previously requested adjustment.

The panel consists of 3 members and a scribe. I like this, because it means panel members should be able to be fully attentive to the candidate and not hastily scribbling notes, or just looking at their notes. This can come across as disengagement, and it can also conceal actual bias in DIY panels. By DIY panels I mean interview panels formed and convened at the level of the work group where the vacancy is – and lacking any professional refinement.

The questions will be based on the APS capability framework and will be provided 48 hours in advance of the interview. That’s a good amount to time to prepare.

From the sample questions given they seem uncomplicated and clear – designed to elicit a useful response. There is an impression that the capabilities are being used as intended here. There is a hint about using the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) in forming responses.

Under the reasonable adjustment options, a candidate can elect to have the interview with the camera off, but this should be addressed before the interview.


In terms of being inclusive and accessible, this process is the best I have seen. As noted above, the webinar was a very well-presented, inclusive, and sensitive introduction.

I have assumed here that the interview panel will be well managed and professional (controlled by the recruitment agency I hope), however, I am not convinced that the panel interview is an indispensable part of the recruitment process. It is the part of the recruitment process that is most vulnerable to the two dire negatives in recruitment exercises for people with disability – bias from the panel and performance ruining anxiety from the candidate.

That said, this is a decent attempt to reduce those risks – and certainly the best I have come across.

What is a Disability Employee Network?


Back in July 2010, when I was a founding member of the Department of Ageing Disability and Home Care’s (ADHC) Disability Employee Network (DEN) it was little more than a consultative body. The department was fully in control of the agenda and the pace of change (slow, very slow). Back then we met with members of HR 4 times a year, raised concerns, and HR responded.

By late 2016 the membership was despondent and dwindling, Very little change was evident. The workplace adjustment policy requested in July 2010 was still not fully formed. This wasn’t resistance. It was just how things were done. In 2016 ADHC was morphing into FACS (Family and Community Services). The DEN’s original membership had crashed, and the DEN wasn’t known across the newly formed department. These were dark days.

I became DEN Chair in November 2016. I had a big job ahead of me. I stuck to the old way through 2017, slowly rebuilding the membership numbers. I had become DEN Chair by default when the incumbent suddenly quit to take up a new role with the NDIA. My goal had been to spend 12 months or so rebuilding member numbers to the point where a meaningful vote could be held. This meant raising the DEN’s profile and putting disability on the agenda in as many areas as I could.

In early 2018 I had been elected as Chair. Things were about to change in unexpected ways. At the Australian Network on Disability (AND) Annual National Conference the CEO and founder of PurpleSpace, Kate Nash, was the keynote speaker. PurpleSpace is a UK based organisation dedicated to the support of staff with disability. Kate spoke of Networkology, the discipline of creating change in favour of employees with disability.

That transformed the way I thought about the DEN and how I imagined it could work.

What is Networkology?

It is, in essence, a rational and disciplined approach to generating change. Kate laid out some critical conditions for success. It is not my aim here to recite the details of what Networkology is. I encourage the reader to visit the PurpleSpace website and explore. But I will come back to those critical conditions through this essay because they remain fundamental.

I translated Networkology into Professionalism. By that I meant that a DEN was not an amateur body engaged in good intent. It was using departmental resources, time, and relationships, so it had to take the same responsible approach. In addition, it had a brief from the department and its members to achieve positive changes for staff with disability.

This effectively placed an onus upon the DEN to conduct itself in a professional and strategic manner with a clear duty to achieve outcomes, like any other business unit. The DEN was, in effect, a networking activist change unit. That meant it operated slightly outside the normal hierarchical structure. That also meant that there was an even greater need to be professional in that uncertain space.

Stop wasting opportunity and time

My immediate lesson from Kate was that we were wasting opportunity. Her three critical elements were:

  1. Build a strong relationship with the organisation’s executive leadership. We had that, especially in the personal support of the Secretary, Michael Coutts-Trotter.
  2. Work with a strong and effective Executive Champion. We had that in Anne Skewes, Deputy Secretary, LAHC.
  3. Build a strong alliance with the Inclusion and Diversity team. We had that in the enthusiastic support of the manager, Kerry Lowe.

Over my time in the public sector, I have come to recognise that every now and then the stars come into perfect alignment – but only for a short time. Here was the perfect Networkology foundation. And I was wasting it!

We were still doing our 4 meetings a year. True, I was putting in a massive amount of effort in between. But it wasn’t enough. In September 2018 I put out a call to the DEN Membership for volunteers to put in extra time to bring about much needed change.

I got 15 responses, and I created the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team, the GAT

How the GAT changed the DEN

The GAT wasn’t intended to be management committee, or a committee. In fact, the word ‘committee’ is a sedative to me. I wanted guidance from the lived experience of an array of disabilities, and I wanted to stimulate action.

Well, I got 15 passionate, impatient, and sometimes hurting and angry individuals. Crafting them into the dynamic professional change dynamo that the GAT became is a story, but it won’t be told here.

The GAT was made up of close on 50:50 metro and regional members. We were on the phone and emailing daily. The conversation were intense, energetic, impatient, and hopeful.

I was able to get agreement that the GAT would meet for a full day in advance of the DEN meetings, in those days in person in Ashfield. We had internal and external guests to brief us and consult with us on matters of concern.

The GAT became the vehicle for approaching business areas directly to discuss how positive changes could happen. 

In July 2019 the GAT was funded to run a professionally facilitated 2-day development workshop to clarify its sense of its role and articulate the priorities it wanted to follow. This led to a strategic plan being developed.

The development of the GAT turned the DEN into an active and professional change organisation that operated as an effective quasi business unit.

Telling the story

In February 2019 I took 6 GAT members to a Board meeting for our first Roundtable. I chose members with tough stories to tell. The impact of the Roundtable on the Board and the GAT members was transformative. The Board learned of the miseries experienced by staff with disability in business units they were responsible for. The GAT members discovered that Board members were caring humans who reacted strongly to their stories.

We were invited back to the Board in November the same year to provide and update and a report on ongoing problem areas. 

After the February presentation, Roundtables were established as a key strategy for the DEN in sharing the lived experiences of staff with disability at work. They have been instrumental in triggering important and significant positive changes.

We also participated in disability awareness presentations – one for staff on the Central Coast and another for Corporate Services executives. I also encouraged a few members to tell their personal stories in the departmental newsletter.

Sharing stories – the suffering caused by exclusion and discrimination and successful workplace adjustments – is a vital role of the DEN.

Layers of membership

I obsessed over membership numbers and data. When I commenced as Chair I had two imperatives – grow the membership and increase awareness of the DEN across the newly formed department. I had a spreadsheet showing numbers by division, business area and location and I provided monthly reports to the Secretary and Executive Champion as well as the GAT.

Taking a clue from Kate Nash I expanded the membership category to include Allies. This ostensibly allowed staff who had no disability to signal their support. But it also enabled staff unwilling to say they had a disability to stay connected to what the DEN was doing. The response was strong.

At the February Roundtable in 2019 I argued that looking out for staff with disability was the responsibility of every executive, and while the DEN’s Executive Champion was an invaluable role, they should not be the only Disability Champion in the department. I set a goal of recruiting 30 additional champions by the end of 2019. I thought I was being ambitious. As it turned out I was being way too timid. I got double that number.

These days allyship is recognised as an essential part of driving inclusive change. While a DEN represents the interests of staff with disability it speaks to the whole organisation and must foster support among all staff.

Having different types of membership is useful because metrics are always a good tool to measure response and impact. This is especially the case in any professional activity – if it can’t be measured it hasn’t happened. Quite simply numbers tell the DEN how well it is doing in the key area of attracting and maintaining interest and support.

Leadership and Profile

A DEN sits in a unique place within an organisation. It is not always a formal business unit (as it is in some companies), and where it is not it must behave like one. This requires some deft management of its profile, reputation, and leadership. And here things can go awry easily.

My persistent point to the GAT is that the DEN isn’t a union of “cranky cripples” (Yes, I am allowed to say that). It is a professional body of change activists engaged in networking outside the formal organisational hierarchy. This is a delicate and precarious place to be. It requires skill, sophistication, and courage.

I have observed in an earlier essay on leadership that the first Chair of the ADHC DEN was a regional manager who had a strong positive profile in the department. The 2 subsequent Chairs were relatively junior and far less effective. They lacked the experience and skills needed.

I rated myself a scant pass mark by my own standards. I did not have a strong profile in the department, and my exposure to the department’s leadership culture was limited, despite 4.5 years as a manager. But I was very well read in organisational psychology and management theory and a professional background of engaging with business and NGO leaders very successfully.

Going back to Kate Nash’s insights and the concept of Networkology, chairing any Employee Resource Group (ERG) is a complex, demanding, and challenging role, if the members want to see meaningful outcomes. It is a skilled and professional role. 

Managing the DEN’s profile is also a challenging role that demands highly effective communication skills, strong relationship building and managing skills, excellent conflict resolution skills, and the diplomatic sense to know when to speak up, and when to shut up.

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DEI) is a highly researched field these days, and it knits in with organisational psychology and management theory. We are well past the days when a DEN, or any other ERG for that matter, can be effective if it is not run as a professional standard body.

It is, finally, all about the individual

We flourish as individuals only in a community that nurtures its members. A DEN must be that community in the first instance to support its members. It must model the change it wants for the workplace culture in which it operates. 

The evolution of workplace culture is a DEN’s overarching goal. A healthy nourishing culture benefits all staff members, the organization, and the communities which benefit from its operation. 

It is not possible to serve only staff with disability. A DEN has a specialist insight into the lived experience of disability – in the workplace and on a personal level. This insight must contribute to a shared objective of creating an inclusive workplace.


In 2022 a DEN operates in a complex environment – political, intellectual, moral, and organisational – that has evolved way beyond how things were in 2010 when I joined the DEN, in 2016 when I became Chair, and 2020 when I left the Chair role.

Globally there have been huge steps made in supporting staff with disability. But there are also persistent sticking points that, unless understood and skilfully addressed, will remain a blockage on the path to full Disability Inclusion. At best, a failure to handling these sticking points will result in achingly slow change. At worst, the still current awful stories of staff with disability being subject to discrimination, bullying and exclusion will continue.

Nobody can expect the DEN membership to get its collective head around these challenges. But its leadership must if it wants to retain a genuine character of professionalism. And without that professionalism it will not succeed.

The word Networkology is a clue. This is what triggered a period of highly effective and innovative work for the DEN in May 2018.

Ology – a subject of study; a branch of knowledge. Networkology is the discipline and skill of building the most effective network possible to bring about positive change for staff with disability. 

If a DEN isn’t doing this, what is it doing? What is its purpose?

Michael Patterson

DEN Member July 2010 to June 2021

DCJ DEN Chair Nov 2016 to Mar 2020.

10 August 2022

The want of empathy and the harm done


I can’t believe I have come back to this theme so soon. Last week, Dr David Rock, one of the co-founders of the Neuroleadership Institute (NLI), spoke at a webinar on Regenerative Leadership and observed that among the top leaders of the many major corporations the NLI works with there is a huge concern about the lack of empathy among their managers.

Why does this matter? COVID has complicated and intensified the situation that has been simmering in the background. Staff leave teams and organisations through aspiration and discontent. Others quit, preferring the hazard of an early retirement to enduring psychologically unhealthy work environments. Discontent with managers is a constant theme.

A friend exemplified this situation over the past few years. He was working for a NSW agency and resigned because he found his line manager’s conduct finally intolerable and the agency refused to do anything, even after acknowledging his discontent was well-founded. He took a 40% pay cut to accept a job in an NGO. He’s now back in the sector at the same grade, and in a much better position.

He is a highly skilled, very well-educated worker. I was his team leader for a time, and he is one of the few people I would fight for to have on any team I might lead. He also doesn’t have a disability. His mobility and attractiveness as an employee aren’t impaired. 

Over the past month I have been hearing horror stories of how staff with disability effectively find themselves trapped in situations with line managers (and above) who lack empathy toward, and understanding of, their needs as a person with disability. They are not able to quit and finding an alternative position is not feasible. They must endure.

A quick word on the idea of regenerative leadership

NLI has a simple but powerful concept. Leadership can be exploitative, sustainable, or regenerative. Exploitative leadership depletes the energy in a workplace and the employees, sustainable leadership keeps the energy at the least viable level, and regenerative leadership improves the energy.

If you have an ideal of continuous improvement, you must think regenerative. However, if you think that, you must also think in terms of empathy, psychological safety, and inclusion – ideas that convey a sense of caring for staff and helping them be the best they can be in the roles they are in.

This enables for profit organisations and service organisations to make the most cost-effective use of their staffs. It should be a win-win situation. The staffs are well treated and are highly productive. That’s the theory at least. It’s a good theory, but the practice is much more complicated.

There is a wealth of research in favour of this approach. It isn’t a case of whether this is a good idea – that is beyond dispute. The problem to be tackled is how to make it happen. Here we run into the challenge of taking a deliberate strategic approach and helping those in key responsible roles to initiate changes in behaviour. And you can’t get anywhere if the people in those key roles lack empathy.

Ideas of power 

I noted in any earlier essay, Power damages our capacity for compassion and empathy, that researchers show that power effects our brains and can switch off any reflex to empathy. There’s a certain logic to this under certain circumstances. A general cannot worry about individual troops if his imperative is to win a battle. This is why troops die and are injured, even in victory. It’s part of warfare. Strong empathy would be catastrophic if the only option is combat.

But here’s the thing. Competitive power is not the only kind of power. There is collaborative power as well. A teacher in a classroom can take a competitive approach to learning by setting child against child so that only the ‘best’ shine and triumph in the contest for university places or well-paid jobs. Or they can take a collaborative approach to learning – one in which all pupils are supported to do their best.

I think we are in a transitional stage as we move from competitive to collaborative forms of power – with confusion about both. Our culture has been steeped in competition as the foundation for bringing forth merit – something epitomised by the ‘Darwinian’ notion of competition for survival. Contemporary research shows that collaboration is way more likely to be the stronger imperative in nature. That doesn’t mean that competition doesn’t have a place – just that it’s not the dominant form of interaction, It might be the most obvious and dramatic, however. So, it also appears to the dominant.

Collaborative power is different to competitive power. This what the research I cited in that earlier essay did not distinguish. That is because most expressions of power are framed in competitive terms. As a culture we have been schooled in thinking that competitive power is virtuous and necessary. Sometimes it’s the only form of power.

Collaborative power emphasises empathy. We see this in healthy families, in well-functioning teams and service organisations, and friendship networks. But we do not frame this idea of power of the parent, teacher, healer, service worker and so on in a deliberate way. We tend to think only in terms of responsibility and duty.

In both competitive and collaborative senses of power there is the idea of authority – which is a slightly different idea. This might be best thought of in terms of position versus merit. A person can be in a power role because they hold a formal position but lack the full array of personal attributes that give them authority based upon merit.

A person can have both positional power and authority in a competitive situation – such as a military commander or the captain of a sports team. Likewise, they can positional power and authority in a collaborative situation – such as the head of a family, an educator, a doctor and so on.

It is when we mix competitive and collaborative power that we get into trouble and cause confusion. If the method for selecting candidates for a power position in a collaborative setting is competitive the risk of ending up with a highly competitive person is high. 

Whether competition is the best means for the selecting the best person to hold a position of collaborative power is a topic worth exploring on its own. I want here only to highlight that we must clearly distinguish between competitive and collaborative power to avoid confusion.

If we want empathy, we must select for it

It is apparent, from recent stories I have been told, that people are winning power roles with no assessment of their capacity for empathy. This is having a devastating impact on staff who are vulnerable. It is no doubt adversely impacting other staff as well, but my informants are only staff with disability.

Over the past 12 months I have reviewed a lot of vacancy advertisements for the NSW public sector with a focus on what personal attributes from the Capability Framework are selected as focus capabilities. First, empathy is not listed as a capability. But there are capabilities that might obliquely point in that direction among the Personal Attributes – Display Courage and Resilience, Act with Integrity, Manage Self, Value Diversity and Inclusion.

However, this raises what I think is a major problem. Not only is it rare to see more than 2 Personal Attributes listed, but it is also unusual for these requirements to be specified beyond the mid-range of the 5 levels (Foundational, Intermediate, Adept, Advanced, Highly Advanced). The sector is placing a low level of expectation upon candidates at even quite senior levels (grade 9/10 and above).

Empathy is proving to be essential at the higher levels in organisations. If it is not being selected for, and the focus remains upon competitive power, this situation will prevail. It must be intentionally disrupted.


Empathy is hard to do. Some people are innately empathic to a high degree. But mostly we do not possess such a refined sense. Rather we operate in a fog between competition and collaboration. We must work at gaining clarity and giving ourselves permission to move toward collaboration as a primary mindset.

Human states of mind are usually expressed in binary and polar terms, rather than on a spectrum. Pure competition and collaboration may be thought of as poles between which there is a spectrum. Empathy is possible only toward the collaboration end of the spectrum. 

The goals of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity cannot be achieved without empathy. We cannot have psychologically safe workplaces without empathy. Staff with disability will not be able to realise their needs for safe inclusive workplaces without empathy.

My goal here has been to start a movement toward understanding that we need to lucidly think through why there is a lack of empathy, and what we can do to foster its expansion within the work culture.