Disability and fair recruitment practice


In a couple of earlier posts, I explored what can go wrong and right in a job interview when the candidate experiences anxiety. I looked at the ridiculous ‘pressure test’ scenario of having 15-20 minutes to prepare responses to 4-6 questions.

I entirely get the heroic game-playing types who laugh at the sensitivity of candidates who don’t handle interview processes well. I am one of those folks who don’t do interviews at all well. The derisive observation “If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen” has been employed as a justification way too often. But job interviews are not a game or a competition testing for attributes not related to the role. 

This dismissive attitude has a fatal flaw as an argument. Most roles don’t rely upon this pressure scenario. In fact, they are more likely to rely upon well-researched, well though through, and calmly presented evidence. There are roles and situations when rapid responses under pressure are absolutely necessary. I am not denying that. But it is not the norm in the public sector that such capacities are preferred above calm, rational, well-researched and well thought through responses.

I have been an awful candidate many times. I have gone into interviews with several pages of incoherent scribbles that represented a needlessly frantic efforts to get down what I thought I wanted to say. I don’t know why I flip out. Ninety per cent of the time I knew the role inside out. I should have been the obvious candidate. But I failed.

A large part of the problem is recruitment practices are really bad. I spent 5 years in recruitment, and I believe that competent professional recruiters are way under-valued. The NSW public sector, along with many others, uses a localised DIY approach in the mistaken notion that it cheaper. That’s debatable. A single instance of recruitment costs no more than the time the panel members put into it. But the cost of the consequences of not getting the best candidate is not assessed. Some readers will instantly understand this.

I want this out of the way because what I want to argue here isn’t about making recruitment better, only fairer – and even then, to an uncertain degree. I spent 5 years in recruitment decades ago. It was awful then, and I have seen little improvement since. There are good reasons why this is so – and none of them give any hope things will get significantly better. We have incremental improvements, for which we must be grateful. Over time they will add up to a fairer system for people with disability.

The Interview from hell

A friend awakened me to the madness of the current practice. He went for a job that you’d have thought was written for him. To look at his CV you’d probably offered him the job on the spot. But the interview had several problems. The first was that the questions were very poorly crafted. All had two response demands, except one, which had three. Let’s figure this. There were 6 questions which had 13 response demands. 

My friend had 20 minutes to read the questions and prepare his responses. that’s a shade over 1.5 minutes to read, analyse and develop a response to each response element. Seriously? Yes. 

He has a diagnosed ‘high functioning’ anxiety. He can’t fairly be expected to deliver a measured response to the questions under that time stress. He isn’t stressed in his performance in his role. In fact, he is highly regarded. But he went to pieces in the interview.

He raised an interesting question when we reviewed his experience. Why was it necessary to create such a stressful environment at an interview? It was a perfectly rational question. I had no answer in defence of business as usual. It had been a long time since I had bothered to think about recruitment practices at a deep critical level. I had gone 2 decades and through at least 10 different roles without having to compete. I had competed for, and failed to get, three roles in that time, but none were critical to me.

A lot of people interview badly, including many highly talented folks. A big reason is the stress generated by the interview question preparation stage, and then being quizzed by panel members who plainly are not experienced in recruitment. In recent years I have been a ‘independent’ with disability on panels run in copybook professional ways by convenors of impressive skill.

A rational approach to recruitment – toward a fairer opportunity.

Recruitment is hard to do well. In my recruitment days I discovered just how challenging it is. Getting the right person for a job can be tricky. In the private sector you can take more flexible and innovative approaches. In the public sector there must be a uniform approach that gives everyone an equal chance. At least that’s the theory. The reality is often very different.

Having a standard recruitment method might work well if interview panel members were assuredly skilled at the job. This is rarely the case. Being on a recruitment panel should be a skilled role. But mostly it’s a DIY affair with a hit and miss outcome.

For a candidate with disability this means that are several potential pitfalls – the pressure test scenario of being given interview questions just before the interview, interview questions that may be poorly designed and a panel which may be biased as well as inept in assessing candidate suitability.

Ideally recruitment panels would be specialists with the required skills, but that’s not going to happen because of the cost. Consequently, we must think about what can be done at a realistic level.

I want to focus on the benefit of ensuring questions are provided at least 3 days ahead of the interview – but for everybody, not just the candidate with disability. Why?

Getting the questions ahead of time addresses issues for candidates with a range of disabilities – but it also confers an advantage. There’s time to research the response and to craft a well-organised response. But there is no good reason to address an issue and give an unfair and unintended advantage at the same time. If everyone gets the questions ahead of the interview the problem is solved. The issues have been addressed and no advantage has been given. 

Okay? Apparently not.

The rule of unreason

I think most people with disability will agree that seeking fair access to an opportunity to do their best should not include being given an advantage.

I though this idea was worth sharing, so I wrote to the NSW Premier about it. A week or so later I had a reply from the NSW Public Service Commission nixing the idea. The gist of the letter was that if everyone got interview questions 3 days in advance that would be a problem. But if candidates with disability did, that would be an ‘adjustment’. There are several problems with this.

The first is that an ‘adjustment’ is necessary only when a situation or practice is not inclusive. It’s a ‘fix’ while the non-inclusive matter is made inclusive. The goal is inclusivity, not the provision of work arounds. So often an adjustment turns out to have universal benefits. A ramp put in for a wheelchair user benefits anybody unable to use stairs.

If we see the interview question pressure test as stairs, we can see the getting the questions 3 days in advance is like a ramp. You can still cram your interview prep into 20 minutes if you wish. Not everyone can, but all can get to the same destination.

The reality is that many people who would not identify as having a disability are equally disadvantaged by the pressure test situation. This includes those who wish not to say they have a disability, those who experience anxiety reactions to interviews but think that’s just normal, and people experiencing stress for a variety of reasons [work related or personal causes].

The objection to this idea seems to hinge upon an assumption that the interview prep pressure test is a good thing. In fact, it confers no benefit at all and skews interview outcomes toward people who do well under such a pressure scenario – and these [as we all know] are not always the best fit for the role.

This objection is routinely raised by people who oppose making practices and environments more inclusive. This thinking includes assuming that being obliged to ask for an adjustment is an adequate response to a non-inclusive situation. 


There’s a lot of work to be done to make recruitment processes fair. The fact that a candidate can ask for an adjustment is a genuine advance. But it draws attention to disability, which can trigger biases and misconceptions. This is certainly the case with psycho-social disabilities which have no impact of job performance.

An inclusive practice is one which accommodates the needs and capacities of most people [I am allowing that none will be perfect]. The development of inclusive practices can and should trigger a rethink of previous business as usual practices. Resistance to changing how we think and act is normal, but it’s not defensible as a sustained response – it’s just hard to do.

I invite you to grasp two take-aways:

  1. Know that you can ask to have interview questions in advance to address any aspects of your disability that impede your ability to perform in an interview prep pressure test.
  2. Campaign to make it the standard practice for all candidates – so everyone benefits. This is the ‘solve for one, extend to many’ principle of inclusive design. 

There are other challenges to address before recruitment practices are as inclusive ss they can be. Specialist recruiters would be my ideal. But in the public sector that’s unlikely to ever be a reality. Hence, we need to look at one challenge at a time. The 3-day prep challenge is achievable and will make a critical part of the recruitment process inclusive for all.

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