Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Stitches in Time - PART II

The Tests/Scenarios

Hours of question and answer sessions are tedious for the interviewers as well as the interviewees.

Questions are also not the best way to test whether or not someone has the character attributes you are looking for. Anyone can say that they are a ‘team player’ or ‘enthusiastic’ – not everyone can pull off their best behaviour 1.5 hours into a group exercise under time pressure with everyone else also vying for attention from the assessors.

Group sessions usually consist of 10-15 candidates being presented with a series of group and individual exercises, group presentations and – commonly – a hypothetical scenario within which they must develop a framework to team-based decision making on the fly – sort out differences of opinion and make decisions under a strict time pressure.

Group sessions require the right room set-up as well as a high personnel count in order to keep the system running smoothly and ensure that each person in the group session is being observed. These sessions are most effective in weeding out candidates for formal interview from large groups of people – essentially a relatively time-effective way of getting through many people.

I won’t elaborate on or describe the exercises that can be done in group sessions as there is quite a lot of literature out there that covers this topic in depth and with useable examples.

What I will do is insist on the importance of using high-quality assessors in this exercise, tempting though it will be to beef up the numbers with people who merely have the time to be there on the day such as admin staff.

Assessment in the group session is a tough and multitasking activity. It is at once important to understand the logic behind each person’s arguments as well as judging how the communication was phrased, body language and effectiveness of contribution to the group (i.e.: are we looking for leaders or team players in this group scenario? Different things will be valued).

Whilst this is happening it is important to see the group dynamic as a whole – how do others, in turn receive this person’s contribution? Occasionally groups splinter and 2 or more people talk at once, compounding the observational problem. You really do want your assessors to be on the ball and experienced in essentialising observations of human behaviour.

The Interview Team & Observation

Anyone can ask interview questions and write down the candidate’s responses. That’s not the point of good interview technique. By the time a candidate has come to an interview, you should already be fairly confident that their technical abilities are up-to-scratch.

What a professional interviewer should look for is the way in which questions are answered and the way in which a person speaks in general, i.e.
* Has the question been answered at all? – Sometimes interviewees don’t actually get what it is they are being asked and will go off on a tangent. This is a good indicator of their listening and comprehension skills. An excellent candidate will check with the interviewer whether or not they’ve given the interviewer the information they require – after every difficult or ambiguous question. It can be as simple as ‘Does that answer your question?’

* Is the answer or their speech structured well? – Sometimes people will give me all the information I need but do it in such a roundabout manner that I will strain to catch their point. Being able to organise information mentally before dissemination is an important skill in many organisations. Look for a beginning, a middle and an end to any answer (where appropriate).

* Do they know how to answer a question or make a point? – There is a class of interviewee I call ‘The Waffler’ – they will ramble on and on (and on) to answer a question. Occasionally I see wafflers that have also missed the point of the question and end up giving me a diatribe on the benefits of bonsai pruning when I’m simply asking them a question about time organisation skills. This isn’t someone you want to hire in a position requiring good communication skills.

* (Interview only) Does what you are being told add up? Contradictions are serious red flags. Ensure you have glanced – even briefly – at the candidate’s CV a few minutes before you speak to them at the interview.

* Does the person show any enthusiasm? Are they personable? Are they quiet and methodical? Do they come across as ebullient or subdued? – Match this to the template of the ideal candidate you’re looking for.

- In group sessions

Group sessions will shed light on different aspects of candidate’s interactions with others as well as problem solving skills. Assessing a group session should be a draining exercise, the primary role of the assessors is to see how the problem was solved (methods, language, leadership, group dynamics) rather than the answer to the problem given.

If you are looking for a leader, take note of who contributes to the group discussion, ensures consensus, listens to the contributions of others, draws information/opinions out of the quieter participants, organises the time of the group, structures a framework for solving the problem or volunteers to time-keep or scribe. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the loudest person in the group or even one person – you will likely find different people exhibiting a few of the traits each.

If you are looking for a team member, take note of interaction with the group, listening to the contributions of others, a clear understanding of the task given, effective and reasoned contribution to the group discussion and any leadership type behaviour exhibited.

It is imperative that you choose excellent people to assess the group, preferably people who have interviewed before. It is very easy when assessing to get caught up in what the group is discussing rather than how it is going about its task. Group sessions can be confusing – many people are talking at once, it is important to note body language and aside-interaction as well as formal contribution.

The assessors must then essentialise their opinion on each candidate at the decision briefing to reach a consensus decision themselves. Ensure that your assessors are mature individuals who are able to make tough decisions quickly under pressure and won’t be influenced by the opinions of other assessors.

- In Panels

I used to think that an interview panel was simply a beaurocratic solution to the problem of political correctness in hiring. In the public service, panels are gender and race balanced as a matter of course – a lot of diddling about to ensure that no-one can accuse them of anything ‘improper’.

Silly though a panel may seem, it actually does have a beneficial side-effect which I discovered first hand.

Good interview technique requires a phenomenal amount of concentration in order to be able to capture everything necessary and write down one’s impressions. It is almost impossible to be able to be always alert, especially when one is looking down and writing. Other interviewers in the room are able to observe at the same time and hopefully they have managed to observe what you have not – and vice-versa.

Individual experience and opinion will vary – you will have a wide swathe of thoughts about each applicant. I’ve been amazed a few times with other’s pithy observations of things that I have missed and have been very glad there was another trusted pair of eyes and ears there with me. It is for this last reason – trust – that it is important that it is the very best people that are present at interviews, not just whoever was available on the day.

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