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Public Sector Informant : PSI - September
how to avoid useless questions simply means ''important''. But in APS terms, this question is asking the candidate to comment on their agen- cy's role within the broader APS context, as a vehicle for implement- ing the policy agenda of the govern- ment of the day. Write your questions in standard, everyday language: Tell us a time when you have introduced or revised processes and procedures in a way that has benefited your employing organisation? Be fair: avoid incriminating questions Our criminal justice system includes strong protections against individuals incriminating themselves. Why then do some APS panels ask people to shoot themselves in the foot? The old favourite, ''Tell us your greatest strength and greatest weakness,'' sometimes appears in mild disguise (see example 3). A related question -- ''What aspect of your management style would you like to change?'' -- has echoes of the incriminatory, ''When did you stop beating your wife?'' Panels claim these questions ''explore the candidate's self- awareness''. Really? Interview can- didates have been known to -- how can I put it -- inflate the truth. A better approach is to ask a concrete question that probes the candidate's ability to learn from experience: Please give us an example of a situation you were in or a decision that you have made that in hindsight led to an outcome that was not as effective as you would have liked. What did you learn from that experience and what would you do differently? Be appropriate: match your question to the APS level All members of the panel should hold realistic expectations about candi- dates' background knowledge, ability to articulate their case and extent of their pre-interview preparation, given the level of the advertised position. For example, an APS3 or 4 is entitled to struggle with this: Why are Federal Government departments required to implement the principles of workplace diversity, workplace participation and occupational health and safety? Ah, because there are laws about them? Asking a concrete question would avoid the problem: As an OH&S officer, how would you explain to staff why they need to comply with the department's OH&S guidelines? For higher-level positions you are entitled to ask questions that presume pre-interview research and contextual awareness. For example: What do you see as the major challenges currently facing the department and how might these impact on the advertised role? If EL2 candidates haven't even read your agency's annual report and website, should they be in conten- tion? Be clear: write concise, everyday English Interviews are oral events and ques- tions should use standard spoken English structure and vocabulary. Compare: Having looked at the agency's website, and having considered the potential for upgrading the site's content and usability, what proposals would you make regarding a site audit and content redevelopment? Wordy and dense, with the syntax of formal written English, this will be difficult for candidates to absorb. It also prompts the candidates to com- ment on content and usability. Why not check that they can identify those two aspects themselves? We assume you've had a look at the agency's website. How would you go about evaluating and modifying it? The oral context demands that panel members ''read'' their questions with appropriate intonation and stress. For example: Describe to us a time when you have successfully delivered a service by anticipating the need of a customer, internal stakeholder or manager. A useful question, but the key phrase, ''by anticipating the need'', must be stressed or you'll simply get examp- les of times candidates delivered services. Word your questions carefully, making it clear what you're looking for. A casually misplaced word can misdirect applicants' attention: Tell me about the best team you have worked in and why. The elliptical ''why'' will lead most candidates astray; they will describe their best team experience and why it was so good. If the panel really wants candidates to identify the components of successful teams, they should ask: Please tell us what you believe makes a successful team, using as an example the most successful team you've worked in. Be answerable: know what counts as a good response Finally, all panel members should check before the interview that they can recognise an excellent, good and inadequate response to each question. Just what was the panel looking for when it asked an APS3 candidate about ''duties outside the job descrip- tion'' (example 3)? The best panels prepare for in- terviews by listing, for each question: Which selection criteria does this question target? What are we looking for what in an answer? Under-prepared panels are likely to ask baffling questions, like this one at an APS4 interview: As part of the daily duties of this position, you would be required to respond to emails, answer telephone enquiries and progress work that has been delegated to you, including the preparation of briefings and ministerial submissions. How do you consider your position will fit into the wider departmental context? Can you spot the problems? First, there is no clear connection between the two parts of the question; part one is description, but it does not create a scenario for the second part. Second, what exactly is part two asking? What would count as a good answer? Third, the question favours applicants al- ready acting in the position. Finally, this question demands contextual knowledge not needed at APS4 level. Put yourself in the candidate's place By far the most important skill for panel members is empathy. Test-run your questions on yourself. Feel the stress candidates are under. Recog- nise the time and effort applicants have expended just to get to inter- view. Understand that a private sector applicant is entering a foreign land. With strong, clear questions, your score-up should produce fair and consistent results. Candidates have the right to expect no less. Suzanne Eggins is a former academic who now works as a freelance writer, government scribe and careers counsellor. email@example.com See breakthrough ACT research help solve global problems Join leading researchers and students from Australia's ICT Research Centre of Excellence as they demonstrate real world ICT solutions including: When: Wednesday, 15 September 2010 Where: NICTA's Canberra Research Laboratory Ground Floor Tower A, 7 London Circuit, Canberra Time: Ms Katy Gallagher, MLA If you are interested in attending, please register Technology Showcase [SEPTEMBER 2010] THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT 27 Interview exercise Explain why you would or wouldn't use these questions at interview and how you would modify them, if necessary. My comments follow each question. 1. Please tell us what leadership means to you. This is definitional and abstract rather than concrete and specific. Likely to generate waffly generalisations. Prefer: ''Please tell us about a time when you have led a team through difficult change or challenges.'' 2. As a manager, you are usually fielding questions from your staff on how various tasks should be undertaken, and what processes must be followed. How would you handle such a question from one of your team if you did not know the answer? It's unclear what counts as an excellent/good/unsatisfactory answer. Everyone will respond: ''I'll find out the answer.'' Prefer: ''Please tell us about a time when you did not know how to handle an assigned task. What did you do? What was the outcome?'' 3. If you are successful, you would be reporting to me as your manager. What would you do to ensure that I did my job well? This could be a useful question at EL2 level. However, at lower levels, candidates will struggle to offer useful suggestions. 4. What do you consider your greatest achievement to be and why? Too vague. Candidates will inevitably be rated on the quality of their life experiences, rather than on skills relevant to the position. Prefer: ''Please tell us about a work-based achievement you are particularly proud of and why.'' 5. What do you consider to be the most important aspects of teamwork? Give us an example of a team that did not work and how you overcame this. Confusing: this is really two separate questions. This first part is abstract and will elicit platitudes. Instead, ask a reworded version of the second part: ''Can you give us an example of a team that did not work? Please explain why you think it did not work and how you managed the situation.''
PSI - October