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Public Sector Informant : PSI - October
Tel 02 6126 4500 firstname.lastname@example.org Unit 4, 19 Napier Close, Deakin, ACT 2600 www.gillianbeaumont.com.au We recruit exclusively for the legal profession. THE PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMANT 25 ER 2010] UZANNE EGGINS] ate: our struggle with merit ion. Then, in they did that made e. APS panels y the same way. oral duty, as well as a legal obligation, to apply merit rather than ''gut-feel'' when assessing candidates. then justifying our choice. The four panel behaviours described earlier suggest panel members fre- quently use commonsense practices to reach decisions. They then resolve the tensions between the two decision- making practices by re-interpreting their choice in merit-based terms. In my experience, this is often achieved by expanding the concept of ''fit''. 'Personal fit' v 'merit-based fit' A merit-based exploration of ''fit'' asks, ''Could this person do the key tasks the job requires?'' An everyday exploration asks, ''Could we get along with this person and would they get along with us?'' In some happy cases, merit-based fit and personal fit align: the person we want to give the job to is clearly the candidate with the best skills. However, when the two do not align, the dozens of panels I've witnessed have always given priority to personal fit. Faced with a conflict where the person has the work skills but we don't think we'd get along with them, panels may re-interpret the skills required. Since it is unacceptable to write, ''X seems a very rigid person who wouldn't be able to cope with Pete Bloggs, who's a total pain to work with,'' a panel decides that, ''We don't just need someone who has HR skills, like X; we need someone like Y, who can hit the ground running using our systems and who can build professional networks quickly to resolve prob- lems.'' The other common conflict (candi- date X is not rated first on skills but we'd like to work with them and not with candidate Y) can also be resolved by reprioritising in merit-based terms; for example, ''Well, candidate Y may have been an acting APS 6 for longer, but in the interview candidate X demonstrated a more consultative approach to management.'' When the two decision-making prac- tices don't align, some panels demon- strate discomfort. For example, a panel member may suggest that hearsay comments should not be considered or may remind others that ''on paper'' candidate X does have the best work- based skills. While panels usually agree on a decision that can be justified, I witnes- sed one case where the panel slid into dysfunction. The chairman was push- ing for the candidate ranked second on merit to be promoted to first position. Panel members felt this could only be on the basis of overt personal preferen- ce and would not agree to it. So the chairman convened a new panel and re- interviewed the top two candidates. Unsurprisingly, the same problem sur- faced. But this time, the chairman asserted his casting vote, the panel conceded and the chairman got the candidate he had wanted all along. Paraphrasing Garfinkel, I would suggest, then, that ''becoming an APS panel member may place a person in a position of being easily if not actually compromised''. Towards better panels Does it matter that panels give greater weight to personal preference than to merit? Clearly it does. Jobs can change people's lives. When panels decide on the basis of hearsay and gossip, they deny people natural justice: the right to know what is said or inferred about them and to respond. When the decision is based on instinct, gut feeling and first impressions, candi- dates may be victims of unexamined prejudice. And if a candidate is disqualified because of a paternalistic judgement that s/he would or would not ''fit'' the team, the candidate should have the right to hear about the team and respond. Examining panel discussions also helps shed light on why the APS is so difficult for outsiders to penetrate and for diversity to take root: panel members seek personal fit, which generally means they will choose people like themselves or at least compliant people who will be integrat- ed easily into the existing organisatio- nal order. What -- if anything -- can be done to improve selection panel decisions? The starting point must be to acknowledge openly that APS panel members will always operate with two ''rule sets'', and that the everyday rules will always tend to dominate. They are, after all, essential to successful social life, and the workplace constitutes a micro- society. But several strategies could be implemented to encourage more reflec- tive, careful and just decision-making on panels: Incorporate in panel training auth- entic recordings of interviews and panel discussions. Authentic materials -- not role-plays -- oblige panel members to confront and discuss the incongruities between everyday and merit-based decision-making. It is only by making the conflict overt and problematic that panel members will realise the significance of their deci- sions and learn to resist the tyranny of the personal and to respect natural justice for candidates. Redefine the role of scribe as one of ''keeping the panel on the merit track'' and train scribes to recognise and manage decision-making tensions. As the only disinterested person at the interview, the scribe could play a key role in ensuring panels acknowledge what they're doing and wherever possible give priority to merit, not personal fit. The importance of the everyday Garfinkel's juror study pioneered ''eth- nomethodology'', a sociological approach that asserts that we actively create and sustain social coherence through our ongoing interactions in everyday contexts. Garfinkel said we can only understand how people ''do'' social life if we pay close attention to the micro-interactions of everyday life. In fact, his preferred method was to stir up and problematise the social prac- tices we usually take for granted in order to expose and question how they work. Problematising decision-making in APS panels would seem well worth the attention. Suzanne Eggins is the author of An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (2004) and co-author, with Diana Slade, of Analysing Casual Conversation (1997). email@example.com
PSI - September