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Public Sector Informant : PSI - October
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Free Skills Assessments with over 140 different tests...you choose! 8 THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT [OCTOBE [PERSONNEL:SU Choosing the 'best' candida Job interviews APS selection panels regularly flout the merit principle in favour of ''commonsense'' decisions First, jurors make their decis retrospect, they decide what their decision the correct one appear to operate in precisely The decision: Job selection panels have a m When the interview room doors click shut behind ap- plicants for an APS position, the selection panel scores up. In reaching consensus on each candidate, panels must apply the ''merit principle'', enshrined in section 10(2) of the Public Service Act. The principle calls on panels to assess candidates competitively in terms of ''work-related qualities genuinely re- quired'' to achieve results in the position. But what really goes on behind closed doors suggests panels apply a different principle: the ''personal fit'' principle. To explore this, I draw on my experience as a scribe and my PhD research as a linguist in spoken interaction. People first, panel members second Australian Public Service panels fol- low procedures designed to make the assessment process systematic, objec- tive and fair. Panels rate each candi- date's interview performance against each selection criteria using a five- point scale; for example: excellent (A/5); fully competent (B/4); com- petent (C/3); requires development (D/2); not assessable (E/1). Each candidate's score is totalled, producing (ideally) differential final scores and (ideally) a ranked list of suitable candidates. But this rigorous, rational assess- ment process fails to recognise the simple fact that APS panel members are people first and panel members second. Four behaviours by panel members regularly affect their assess- ments: They share and respect one another's ''first impressions'' and ''gut feel- ings'' about applicants. They frequently contribute outside information, hearsay and personal experience with candidates as ''evi- dence'' relevant to the assessment process. Such information is rarely available about all candidates. They accept as valid and decisive affective preferences in the form ''I/we could work with X, but I/we couldn't work with Y'', where ''evidence'' is attitudinal and impressionistic (''X seems friendly and pleasant''). They discuss a candidate's ''fit' to the manager's team and to the agency in primarily subjective terms. Common statements are ''X would/wouldn't fit into my/your team'' or ''I can't see X being happy here''. Supporting ''evi- dence'' is drawn from subjective descriptions of other members of the manager's team or other insider judge- ments about the workplace. These behaviours have little or nothing to do with work-based merit and almost everything to do with personal preference. They are subjec- tive evaluations made on attitudinal and affective grounds. One or more of these four behaviours have been displayed to different degrees at every interview I've scribed for. I have therefore concluded that panel deci- sions do not reflect the application of only the merit principle. Why not? APS panels as juries How can we explain the fact that although every panel member is fam- iliar with the merit principle, panel decisions are often based on subjective preferences informed by anecdotal and insider information? This question prompted me to revisit a landmark study by American sociol- ogist Professor Harold Garfinkel, first published in 1967, on how jurors reach decisions. Garfinkel compared our ''rational'' model of decision-making with what actually happens in transcri- pts of jury deliberations and interviews with jurors. In the rational model, people know beforehand what the set of alternative choices are and the conditions under which they will choose any one, and they modify their choice as new information turns up. In everyday situations, Garfinkel says, this is not how people decide. In fact, ''the person defines retrospective- ly the decisions that have been made. The outcome comes before the decision.'' This, Garfinkel says, is precisely what jurors do. First, they make their decision. Then, in retro- spect, they decide what they did that made their decision the correct one. APS panels appear to operate in precisely the same way. In fact, the parallels are striking. Parallel decision-making rules Garfinkel found that jurors operate with two sets of ''rules'' or practices simultaneously: the ''official juror line'' and the commonsense rules of everyday life. The official line -- articulated by jurors themselves -- says jurors make decisions without refer- ence to personal sympathy or antipathy towards the accused; that ''law'' and ''evidence'' are the only legitimate grounds for deciding; and that personal preferences are suspended to arrive a position that ''any reasonable person'' would take. Unsurprisingly, juror rules at times clash with the commonsense decision- making practices of everyday life, where people regularly make decisions that are based on personal sympathy, where hearsay and intuition count as ''evidence'' and where personal preferences are highly significant. Our commonsense rules are necess- ary and functional for us much of the time: they help us establish and maintain bonds with the people who are important to us. Social life depends on this ability to group and define ourselves with others with whom we share beliefs and values. When jurors are faced with a clash of rules, Garfinkel found they go with their everyday practices and then seek to ''integrate'' their decisions into the official line. In other words, they re- interpret or rationalise their decisions to fit the official rules. Of course, not every decision can be rationalised successfully. Jurors were happy to talk to Garfinkel about decisions they had incorporated to fit the official juror rules but they became anxious and would not comment on moments when they had made commonsense decisions they could not integrate. Garfinkel concluded that ''becoming a juror may involve placing a person in a position of being easily, if not actually, compro- mised''. Decide first, justify later APS panels also operate with two sets of rules simultaneously: the ''official merit line'' and the commonsense rules of everyday life. These two rule sets clash in significant ways, with one assessing ''work-related qualities'', such as how the candidate will produce work-based results, and the other assessing person-related qualities, such as how panel members ''feel'' about the candidate. Merit-based rules imply a rational decision-making process: assess each candidate against each selection criterion first, then decide. Everyday decision-making is about deciding which candidate we prefer, E U a sit ey o
PSI - September