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:
- The CV
- The targeted questions
- The psychological profile
- Any specialist skills/qualifications
- Any other assessment tasks – like a presentation, work example.
- A rule 26 assessment task in lieu of an interview
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.