Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Interview Competency

How ‘competent’ are your organisations interviews?
By Mark Leonard, CIPD, Recruitment Manager at Contract People Limited


When recruiting an organisation will use various styles when it comes to interviewing regardless of their size and industry as most employers recognise the right recruitment practises are vital to ensure continuous organisational success. Many people are involved in the interview and selection process within organisations however, the question is are all these persons aware of and skilled in the principles of best practice?

Commonly regarded as best practise in interviewing today is the ‘competency – based’ (also sometimes known as ‘behavioural’ or ‘situational’) interviewing which is simply geared towards separating the suitable candidates from the unsuitable who do not have the appropriate skills or experience. The theory behind competency interviewing is that past work behaviour is a good predictor of future job performance in similar situations. Competency interviewing is said to be to be 55% predictive of future on-the-job behaviour, whilst traditional interviewing is often only 10% predictive based. (Katherine Hannon, Ph.D., “Behavioural interviewing strategies for job seekers”, Quintcareers.com).
A CIPD 2008 survey of recruitment practices showed that interviews based on the contents of the curriculum vitae/application forms were found to be the most frequently used selection method (72%) followed then by competency based interviews (65%). Using competency techniques help provide information regarding predictive performance but also a well structured interview gives candidates a positive impression of the company and also projects positivity to those unsuccessful candidates with whom we still hope will be our future customers.
So what exactly are competency interviews? Competency questions focus on past events in a candidates working life and are designed to focus on critical incidents. As the interviewer you are hoping to hear of occasions when the candidate can demonstrate the ability or behaviour most relevant to the job for which they are applying. For example, ‘Tell me about a time when you had to show resilience to respond to decreasing sales?’ or ‘Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision that directly affected your department?’.

The interviewer can then ask more probing questions to establish circumstances, reaction and what action each individual personally took. In posing these types of questions the interviewer is looking for evidence that candidates can act decisively with the assumption then made that when put in a similar situation this person will display the same behaviour in the future. It is essential that when using these types of questions that they are based on person specifications as agreed with line managers and ideally through discussions with the current holder of the job.

Dangers of unprepared, unstructured or untrained interviewers:

The limitations of an unprepared interview are that it will offer a poor prediction of that candidate’s ability to perform in the job as information is gathered in an unsystematic manner. This can result in poor judgements being made on candidates for a variety of reasons as referred to by Anderson and Shackleton in their book ‘Successful selection interviewing’, which identified consequences such as:

  • - The self-fulfilling effect: Interviewers ask questions designed to confirm initial impressions of candidates gained either before the interview or in its early stages.
  • - The stereotyping effect: Interviewers sometimes assume that the particular characteristics are typical of members of a particular group. In the case of sex, race, disability, marital status or ex-offenders, whereby decisions made on this basis are often illegal.
  • - The halo and horns effect: Interviewers sometimes rate candidates as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ across the board and then reach unbalanced decisions.
  • - The contrast effect: Interviewers can allow the experience of interviewing one candidate affect the way they interview others.
  • - The similar to me effect: Interviewers can sometimes give preference to candidates they perceive as having similar backgrounds, career history, personality etc to themselves.
  • - The personal liking effect: Interviewers may make decisions on the basis of whether they like or dislike the candidate.

Hiring the wrong person can cost businesses thousands in wasted productivity and time however despite this some organisations do not invest the time to rectify and address the key step in the selection process - the interview!

Case study:
A research study by Steve Newhall, Vice President for Europe at global talent management consultants DDI in April 2009 of more than 1,900 interviewers and 3,500 jobseekers across the world found that whilst interviews are almost always part of the recruitment process many organisations are not using them effectively with almost half of these interviewers (47%) spending less than 30 minutes making hiring decisions.
These interviewers are in danger of exposing their companies to legal challenge with almost half unable to correctly identify illegal questions around ethnicity, sexuality, parental issues or marital status.
Staying on the correct side of the law scored lowest on the interviewer’s lists of concerns, with just 5% of global interviewers ranking it as a significant concern.So what did interviewers worry about? Two thirds said they fretted about missing candidates weaknesses, whilst half weren’t sure they had enough information to make a sound hiring decision.
The perceptions of the jobseekers were that the top turn offs for them during interviews were techniques that felt more like interrogations (43%) and taking too long to provide feedback (42%). However jobseekers felt interviewers were doing a good job in interpersonal areas such as courteousness, professionalism and openness to answering questions. An unenthusiastic and poor interviewer was seen as a negative sign of what it might be like to work in that organisation.
The key learning points from this research showed:
  • - Interviewers are making precarious hiring decisions,
  • - Unprofessional interview behaviour will jeopardise an organisations reputation
  • - Training for interviewers will increase perceived company professionalism
  • - Effective interviews help the best candidates get the job.

How to structure your interview process?

Through structuring the interview interviewers can also help improve their ability to predict performance in the job, a structured interview will ensure that:

  • - Questions are planned carefully in advance relevant to the role
  • - All candidates are asked the same questions
  • - Answers are scored using a consistent rating system
  • - Questions are focused on the skills, attributes and behaviours needed in the job

This can make both the interviewer and interviewee feel at ill ease. So a less formal ‘semi structured’ approach should be used to follow up questions as the interview progresses.

Guidelines on how to structure interviews and question styles:

1. Structure your questions:

If questions don’t relate to each other then candidates will become confused and defensive so have a clear structure to help reach where you’re looking to go to. Adopt the same approach for all candidates to get a true assessment that can be compared with other candidates. If there are differences in questions some candidates may get asked more interesting and dynamic questions than others, therefore giving unfair advantage.

2. Learn to listen:

The key to your listening skills is self awareness, look at the verbal and non verbal signals you give off such as posture – are you facing the speaker squarely, maintaining eye contact, relaxed with an open posture?Show you’re listening by nodding or shaking your head, summarising what the candidate is saying and build on what has been said. Ask listening questions for example: ‘What happened next?’, ‘How did you feel about that?’ etc.

3. Open and closed questions:

Try not to use closed questions where possible, questions that provoke a yes or no response, give candidates the opportunity to expand on their answer, by using words such as - how, why, who, where and when?Avoid using counter productive questions that can detract or undermine the purpose of asking questions that suggest a ‘right’ answer as this can mislead or confuse the candidate also known as leading questions (A favourite of barristers) which prompt a desired answer such as ‘You’ve got to admit that…?’. Try to keep questions concise and to the point, avoid ambiguous questions that might lead to confusion and need further explanation in order for the candidate to fully understand.

4. Pressure questions:

These are not aimed to trip applicants up, rather to gauge their reaction to pressure and their ability to think on their feet, such as:

  • - What are your weaknesses?
  • - How would your colleagues and/or subordinates describe you?
  • - How long would it take you to make a realistic contribution to our business?
  • - What are the most important issues facing our industry at the moment?
  • - What are the worst aspects of your current job?

Common interviewer errors:

  • - Losing focus; stick to asking key job related questions? Are any of the questions unjustifiably intrusive?
  • - Ignoring the specification; avoid comparing the candidates against each other rather than the job specification, where no one meets the specification appointments shouldn’t be made.
  • - Snap judgements; judging the candidate far too quickly, often in the first few seconds.
  • - Organisational reliance; some interviewers may put too much reliance on where the candidate has been working and may attribute dynamism to person on the reputation of the organisation they work in when in fact they may have been swept along in a tide of organisational high performance rather than have created it themselves.
  • - Concentration lapses; concentration spans may follow patterns of sharp dips in the middle section, peaks of concentration occur in the first and last five minutes.
  • - Not checking up on facts; a surprising number of people lie on their CV’s about experience and qualifications which can have serious consequences if not picked up, not only performance related but may also expose the organisation to legal action from aggrieved parties if misconduct occurs.

So in summary, a structured, well-prepared interview by a trained member of your team helps ensure your organisation makes the best hiring decision possible in the most efficient manner whilst also protecting your business from potential legal issues. It is worth considering especially in these challenging economic times, the damage that can affect your business from the negativity associated with a poor and unprepared interview. Indeed, the larger your organisation, the larger the pool of people who may possibly endure a negative experience at the hands of an unskilled interviewer.


About Mark Leonard, Recruitment Manager, Contract People Limited:

Mark joined Contract People in 2008 as Recruitment Manager, previously he has worked in recruitment and HR roles within the hospitality, retail, recruitment and FMCG sectors. Mark holds a degree in HRM and Industrial Relations and has full membership of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).


Agency Contracting


- And FIVE do’s and don’ts when employing a contract agency

by Tom Davis, Director, Contract People Limited


In the current economic climate, many companies are considering ever more innovative ways to improve their bottom line, without reducing the quality of their products and/or services. The wage costs are an obvious target and many companies have been forced to consider pay cuts, recruitment freezes, role-sharing, shorter working hours and in many cases – redundancies!

A growing option is the outsourcing or “contracting in” of staff and services. The aim of this article is:

  • - to dispel some of the myths surrounding agency contracting
  • - to look at the pros and cons’s of this option and · to provide some insights into agency selection


Types of Contractors:

Essentially, there are two types of contracted staff - agency supplied and self-employed. Agency supplied staff are employed under a contract for service with the end user and the contract is governed by the commercial laws and statutes of the State. An agency supplied contractor is an employee of the agency and it is the agency that has the legal relationship with the user enterprise and must comply with all the relevant statutory obligations that apply to any employee. A self employed contractor is paid by the user enterprise directly. They invoice for their services and are treated like any other third party service provider.

Agency contracting can provide companies with experienced personnel without the cost of ownership. There are many advantages for companies in this type of operation. The user enterprise has the flexibility to take a prospective employee on a trial basis to assess their “fit” with their company. There is also the opportunity for a company looking to explore new and potential business opportunities to test the market before committing resources to it. If the test-marketing exercise is successful, the contractor may be employed internally. The company does not have to go outside the company to recruit for the position.

Misconceptions about contracting:

A commonly held belief is that contracted staff are not as loyal as directly employed staff and that contracted staff do not have the same enthusiasm or motivation for their products. This is a myth. Staff motivation and loyalty, as in any employer/employee relationship, are directly dependent on the level of interaction, communication and commitment that the agency and user enterprise invests in the contracted employee. As in any relationship, it is essential, that at the selection stage, the agency should have a clear recruitment policy and apply this policy to all potential candidates, prior to their being placed with the user enterprise. The agency should always seek to engender a strong relationship with their staff and they should be in constant communication with their contractors during their appointment to the user enterprise. The user enterprise must also communicate with its contractors and provide them with feedback, to ensure an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship.

Another common misconception is that contracting staff can be a means of removing existing “troublesome” staff or replacing existing “expensive” employees with cheaper staff. Under the Protection of Employment - (Exceptional Collective Redundancies and Related Matters Act 2007 – www.entemp.ie/publications/employment/2007/guidetolabourlaw07.pdf ) employers, who attempt to engage in this practice, face substantial fines and the loss of redundancy rebates. Some companies that engage contractors believe that contractually hired staff can be treated differently than directly employed staff. This is not the case. Agency workers must be afforded exactly the same protection as “directly employed” staff members. They cannot be summarily dismissed and companies need to follow the same principles, practices and procedures as if dealing with a direct employee. Contracted staff must enjoy exactly the same entitlements and rights as directly employed staff.

A commonly held belief is that, under Irish employment law, the person who pays the wages to the contractors is the employer, i.e. the agency. This is not the case. Employers cannot shirk their statutory responsibilities by trying to hide under the cloak of contracting. (It should be noted that, for the purpose of unfair dismissal, the user enterprise is seen to be the employer). Case law, both here and in the UK, would suggest, however, that the courts will look to the reality of the situation to see if an employer/employee relationship exists between the user enterprise company and the contractor, regardless of agency involvement or what may be stated in the contract. The more directly involved a company is with the contractor - the more likely an employer/employee relationship exists between them. Companies hiring contractors should regularly engage with their contractors and always ensure that a strong link exists between the agency and agency-employed staff. Disciplinary meetings and appraisals should always be conducted by the agency. Where possible a field manager employed by the agency should be appointed to act as a liaison between the agency and the user enterprise to ensure that the user enterprises’ objectives are attained. All correspondence and communication should be handled through the agency.

Companies using agencies should always ensure that the agency that they deal with maintain and apply up to date employment policies and procedures and that these policies and procedures are communicated to their staff on an ongoing and regular basis. It is essential that the agency should have a strong understanding of employment legislation and should be in a position to advise the user enterprise of prevailing and changing legislation. These regulations are changing on an almost daily basis. There have been eleven proposed or adopted pieces of employment legislation since January 2009 (www.businesshr.net/docs/legal/recent.html) Agencies must be aware of all pertinent legislation.

There is a perception that Contracted staff are cheaper. The author accepts that certain industries such as shipping, construction and clothing have had negative press reports in recent years, due to underpaid staff, etc. Legislation and proposed legislation exists to tackle these problems but the key problem is that of policing and enforcement. There are not the resources to investigate the many complaints. End user enterprises must also shoulder some of the responsibility in an endless pursuit for cost efficiencies, often at the expense of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The recent additional resources allocated to the inspectorate through NERA should go a long way to challenging these unacceptable practices.

To attract quality staff, companies must pay market rates for the role being contracted. The experience of Contract People has been that poorly paid staff are de-motivated, will not perform their duties willingly and will be constantly looking for other job opportunities. Companies should also avoid any agency offering staff at below minimum wage rates. It invariably follows that these agency companies also flaunt the law in other areas of employment legislation and take short-cuts. In some cases it has been noted that some agency companies do not deduct PAYE/PRSI or apply other statutory entitlements. The companies using these agencies are ultimately responsible for these costs and they will be censured and may be fined. As a result, agency workers may be more cost effective because of reduced benefits.

The forthcoming Agency Workers directive* - which has been passed by the EU and which the Irish government must enact by 2012, is looking to improve the rights of agency workers. What shape this proposed legislation will take, when it is ratified here, remains to be seen. A view of the current thinking of the government and the social partners in developing a framework for its introduction may be seen in the following extract. It is their intention to: “encompass terms and conditions appropriate to the Irish economy that strike the right balance between the need to maintain temporary agency work as an instrument of business competitiveness and labour market flexibility, and fairness in the protection to be afforded to temporary agency workers under the Directive”. There are unscrupulous agencies, as afore-mentioned, that take advantage of the employees and deliver less than satisfactory results to the client. Contract People welcomes the call for a definitive regulation of the industry and would like to see the tightening of legislation pertinent to agency workers and the enforcement of their rights. It is unfair that companies that apply the law are expected to compete with companies that do not and still maintain their competitiveness.



It is accepted that agency workers have an important role to play in Irish commercial society. Companies who engage with reputable and competent agencies will benefit from what they have to offer. The benefits of using a legitimate contract agency are as follows: · Greater flexibility in the employment of additional staff· Key personnel roles can be covered, at short notice, with experienced staff · Seasonal absences of personnel and maternity leave can be managed with the availability of additional temporary staff· Staff availability can be managed through the reduction or extension of the contract, in accordance with a company’s requirements· Specialised skilled staff can be recruited quickly to supplement a project team. (It is a common misconception that contract companies cannot supply highly qualified and experienced staff)· Potential market opportunities can be test-marketed using contract staff· One invoice covers all relative costs. The agency will manage payrolls, vehicles, insurance, phones, and all other overheads while observing and applying all statutory regulations· It provides greater flexibility in corporate budgeting and all relevant expenses can be seen, at a glance.

If your company has decided to outsource a particular service, then choosing the right agency is a critical step. The agency you select will employ staff who will be representing your business or manufacturing your products. As they will be an extension to your service/product offering, you should practice as much care in their selection as you would the recruitment of a key employee.
FIVE do’s and don’ts that apply to employing a contract agency:

  • - DO hire an agency with experience in your industry?Their experience and expertise will ensure the reputation of yours
  • - DO ask what added value will they bring?Apart from personnel, what additional benefits will the agency bring to your organisation? Do they have a unique technological advantage and/or skill? Are there additional services that you can avail of?
  • - DON'T take their word - check their references! Talk to people in the trade and test the reputation of the agency you intend to hire. Also, talk to people who work for them. This will give you a measure of the abilities and work practices of both and the caliber and loyalty of their staff and ultimately, your staff
  • - DO ask who are the key people who will handle your business?If successful in securing your business, who will be appointed, within the agency, to manage your business? What knowledge and expertise do they possess and what levels of service can you expect from them
  • - DON'T - If in any doubt A workable relationship must exist between the agency and the user enterprise. If you cannot get a sense of this from potential agencies - then you should not consider them. You need an agency that is committed to a real partnership with your company. They must be competent in their approach and be able to demonstrate a proven track record in delivering quantifiable results


About Tom Davis, Director, Contract People Limited:

Tom joined Contract People in 1997 as a Key Account Manager and was promoted to General Manager in 2004. He has previously worked as a Sales Representative in the Grocery industry. Tom is a Marketing Graduate and a member of the Marketing Institute. He also holds HR Legislation Qualifications has certification with the Industrial Society of Northern Ireland on NI Legislation.