How to make job interviews fairer for people with disability and a lot of other folks


Introverts like me loathe job interviews for a variety of reasons. The questions often aren’t clear. They can be ambiguous or overly complex. The rushed opportunity to review them ahead of the interview triggers anxiety and brain fog. 

I have been involved in recruitment (5 years as a fulltime job and as a panel member and an independent) for many years and I have applying for jobs long enough to remember when we didn’t get the questions ahead of time. And then we did. We were advised to arrive 15 minutes in advance of our interview time and suddenly that set a rule about how long we had to look at the questions. There was no thought-through rationale that said, ‘This long and no more’. It has been thus until we started asking questions.

Then we started to develop rules that said the questions were secret and you had to hand them in, and definitely not give them to anybody else. Though why you would wasn’t really thought through – and certainly not in the age of smart phones. We accepted the mythos as though it was gospel and not habit. Now change is hard to make happen, despite the flagrant advantage of doing so.

The advent of equity principles meant we had to adjust the recruitment process to accommodate accessibility needs of applicants. I had gone along with these developments without too much thought until a friend and former colleague started asking more questions – really sensible ones.

He experienced severe anxiety reactions when he got to an interview and read the questions. Even when it was patently evident that he knew his stuff he had no control over what happened – he made a mess of the interview and that reliably tanked his chances.

There is an intended rationale to having interview questions ahead of the interview, but that has nothing to do with the time allowed. The reality is that few recruitment panels think about this. Its just the way we have done things for ages.

But we can do far better.

Why not change?

My friend’s questions were penetrating. What were we assessing with our 15-20-minute review period? What work-related function matched being asked to respond to 4-6 questions which may or may not be clear after such a short preparation time? Why could the review time not be hours or even days? The reflexive responses to these questions made it clear that nobody had really thought about this, and now folks were scrambling to defend the status quo – but with unconvincing arguments.

There is a bunch of people who find the intense short period of review problematic. Here’s a short list: people (like me) who write very slowly because of motor impairments; various expressions of neurodiversity which may struggle with how questions are expressed; people with anxiety (like my friend); people with vision impairments; people recovering from illness; people who have recently experienced trauma; a new parent after a sleepless night. You get my point – almost anybody. You will note that not every instance of need would fit the description of a disability – and hence would not fit most people’s notion of being entitled to an adjustment.

When I first started arguing for a universal entitlement to access to interview questions days in advance of the interview, I was initially concerned that there might be a justly perceived advantage unintentionally conferred upon applicants with disability. The obvious solution was to offer this advantage to everybody. For reasons whose logic still eludes me this was firmly resisted by the NSW public sector.

I am an advocate of inclusive design which eliminates the need for adjustments and accommodations. Giving everyone access to interview questions days in advance of the interview eliminates actual disadvantages and actual unintended advantages conferred by allowing only a select minority to seek adjustments. This situation also addresses the accidental injustice visited upon those whose attributes should render them eligible for an adjustment but who don’t ask because they see their disadvantage as just a part of life – and not a disability.

I am unaware of any rationale other than habit that defends giving access to interview questions ahead of the interview. There was an original good idea defended by reasoned argument that triggered the change. But that was maybe 30 years ago, and we need to revisit. A lot of things have changed since then, including our values and expectations.

Breaking habits isn’t easy

In the NSW public sector interviews should no longer be determining factor of a recruitment process. But old habits die hard. Regardless of how suitable a candidate is based on their CV and other criteria their prospects will live or die on the interview often enough to still make it a rule.

The object of any recruitment exercise should be to get the best person for the role, but this can’t happen if we unintentionally make it difficult for candidates to demonstrate their best attributes. Interview questions seek responses that demonstrate an applicant’s suitability via capabilities or knowledge, so the applicant’s ability to give their best answer would, you’d think, enhanced by time to read the questions, reflect on what is being sought, and time to prepare a considered response.

In the NSW public sector there may be 4-6 focus capabilities as well as other desired capabilities for a given role. Applicants may be new to the sector and unfamiliar with the capability framework. An interview may have 4 questions which may or may not have multiple elements which may or may not clearly relate to a focus capability, or two.

An applicant has no way of knowing whether the recruiters are disciplined in their adherence to assessing against the specified focus capabilities – which they are often not. Consequently, the challenge of interpreting 4 questions in relation to 4-6 focus capabilities and preparing thoughtful responses in 15 to 20 minutes is an impossible task. And nobody attempts it, not really. They scramble to write down thoughts as they randomly arise, sometimes in legible handwriting {something I was never good at). Who would be great at this? Probably only people with psychopathic inclinations.

Recruitment panels often aren’t as disciplined as they might be and base their selection on whoever they most liked at the interview. This creates bias toward extroverts and may explain the frequent disastrous selection decisions. I am not asserting that getting interview questions well in advance will put a stop to disastrous recruitment decisions. Other mechanisms must be in place to further reduce that risk. But allowing introverts and people with other diverse attributes to perform at their best will give a better array of credible choices.

I have heard arguments against providing interview questions in advance, but none are plausible. A popular one is that the applicant might research their response – as if this was a form of cheating. I can’t tell you how many times I would have been grateful if a team member had researched their response to a task, instead of relying on hearsay, or their less than well-informed opinion. You can frame questions to assess for insight and values as well as knowledge. If you can’t pick when you are being manipulated and lied to, maybe recruitment isn’t something you should be doing.

A recent example of how getting questions in advance works to improve equal access to opportunity 

I asked my former colleague several questions about their experience. Their responses are below.

Q 1 – Describe how your anxiety affects you and what happens when you go to an interview under normal circumstances.

I have been diagnosed with high functioning anxiety. This condition is activated only under fairly rare circumstances and does not influence my normal work experience. Job interviews are one of the rare instances when my anxiety is activated. Interviews generate extreme anxiety responses that disable my ability to comprehend interview questions. This triggers a complete panic attack which manifests in severe emotional disturbance and cognitive incapacity – I simply shut down and become a bumbling, nervous mess. 

Q 2 – How does having the questions in advance help you? Can you describe your initial reaction and how that changes as you prepare?

Getting questions in advance creates a feeling of distance from the sense of threat the interview environment creates. My panic responses are greatly reduced and are progressively eliminated. This gives me time to process my emotions and create an opportunity to provide coherent responses to the questions, almost as effectively as I do in my day-to-day work environment. I still feel a residual anxiety, but it isn’t disabling.

Q 3 – Describe how you have performed in the last 2 interviews? What feedback did you get?

In both interviews I presented as composed and was able to articulate my responses in a coherent and professional manner. I received positive acknowledgment from both interview panels. After the first interview I was offered a substantive role. I was unsuccessful at the second interview, despite an equally competent presentation. I should note that at the second interview I was also told I had to provide the reason for my workplace adjustment request, so I was honest and told of my anxiety condition. I wasn’t aware that this was something a panel might demand. On reflection I fear that this may have placed me at a disadvantage in being considered for the role as I did not feel it appropriate to go into detail, and neither did I think the panel was qualified to interpret what I told them.

Q 4 – Why do you think having interview questions in advance helps? Would you recommend this for everybody?

Having questions well in advance of the interview allows one time to prepare responses as one would in a day-to-day work environment. Interview questions can often be complex or unclear at first glance. This is pressure enough for most people, but it makes developing responses harder for those that are more complex thinkers who feel the need to take the time to consider their responses. This is more about types of neurodiversity than anything else. Being neurodiverse isn’t necessarily a disability. Its just being different. It isn’t fair that an interview format should be a one-size-fits-all approach with such a limited response time.

In over 35 years working in the service sector, I have never been in a position where I have been allocated 3-5 maybe complex questions, with a demand that I develop answers to all those questions within 15 to 20 minutes. 

Would I recommend this to everybody? Absolutely! My question is “Why are we still using such an exclusionary, intimidating and impractical recruitment method? What is it we are testing for?”


There are other fundamental issues with recruitment practices I can’t explore here because they are universal and not related to inclusion. I am concerned with equity of opportunity for people with disability, and the best solution to ensure such equity, without also causing unintended unfair advantages is to ensure all applicants have interview questions well in advance. There are no downsides to this. It may mean that key decision makers will have to think more deeply about recruitment practices and be less resistant to adaptive change.

This should be a no-brainer. We can improve the overall quality of responses to interview questions and create a level playing field for almost all applicants. We will get better and fairer outcomes.

Recruitment is complex. It concerns judgement about whether others are best suited to a role using contrived methods that may or may not be the best way of illuminating decision-making. Many on recruitment panels lack the experience to develop a high level of competence. Most applicants aren’t expert at showing their suitability in the best light. 

There’s a lot we can do to improve how recruitment decisions are made.