HR Guide – 09 – Interviews – D. Formal competition v 0.7 — 27 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for the guide! I have my first interview next week and your guide helped me to not freak out as I prepare for it. Hahaha.

  2. Had an interview today and was really hoping we were given 30 minutes to prep. Unfortunately we were not. They did however provide for each question the competency they were testing you on, it’s definition, and bullet points explaining what the competency could look like.

    • That’s just bad HR in my view. The only time that is useful is if you’re screening for a job that has a lot of comms opportunities, like with media, or even stakeholder outreach. THen, you don’t get prep in those situations, so if you want your interview to be similar, you don’t allow for the prep. Outside of that, it means HR is more concerned with timing and getting people through the process than they are with the right person. Sigh. Hope you were able to adapt!

  3. Is it possible to fail ONE question but still pass the interview over all? Or do you automatically fail the whole interview if you fail one question?

    • If I read your question literally, you don’t fail the whole interview if you fail one question, but the end result will likely be the same — failing one question means you likely fail one element, and every individual element has to pass, so you’ll be “out”. You’ll still pass on, say, the other three elements in the interview, but you’ll fail one, which means you’re out.

      In a more detailed answer, generally you don’t fail the interview if you fail a question, but it isn’t quite so simple to answer that. The old system was a global score — screw up in one place, ace another, and voila, you’re still in. You could compensate. Particularly as not all questions were weighted equally…so if you messed up a question worth 10 points but aced a written component worth 400, you would get a good score overall.

      Back in 2005, when they changed the process, it became necessary to PASS every *element*, but that doesn’t automatically mean every question. So, if for example, they were asking three questions in the interview marking Initiative, at the end they will combine all three scores to give you one score for Initiative. Or, alternatively, if they ask one question at the interview on initiative BUT they are also asking one in the reference check, then messing up the Q in the interview isn’t the end — it is only partially assessed at that point, so they would have to combine it with whatever you get on the reference check to see whether you pass the ELEMENT overall.

      But while most processes are encouraged to test some components more than once, most don’t as it is more complicated to explain when people “fail” as well as less of a winnowing process as you go. If you ask about initiative at every stage, then you can’t screen anyone out until the end even if they blow the question the first two times. It’s not done being assessed, even if you can’t even pass mathematically, so people have to stay in to the end. So, due to the complication and cost of interviewing everyone + ref checks for everyone, most processes will only repeat KEY components more than once, and even then, it’s often within the same part of the process (i.e. Question one of the interview tests oral + initiative, question two will do oral + personal suitability, question three will test initiative and personal suitability). But even doing that gets complicated for most referees to accurately score (and defend if they have to).

      So what do a lot of comps do? They ask one question for each element. Initiative is Question One. Personal Suitability is Question Two. Oral is a global score for the whole interview. Judgement is Question Three. And the questions they hand you will often tell you right up front what is being tested with that question.

      But this means that if you DO fail a single question, for most interviews they only are testing that element once, so you’ll fail that element, and you’ll be out of the competition. You can’t compensate somewhere else and “pass”.

      Last point, and it is a small nuance…even if you get to the reference check stage, it doesn’t mean you passed every element up until there. Lots of HR departments encourage managers to complete the reference checks for anyone who did the interview, just to complete the file. Part of the reason to do that is if someone missed a Q by one point in the Interview, and six months later decides to challenge it, then everything has to stop until that challenge is heard. On the other hand, if they know that the person failed Initiative in the Interview, but ALSO failed Judgement in the Reference Check, then they will keep going, knowing that even if the person challenges the score in the interview, it won’t make any difference in the long-run because they’re out for something else later too. Or they’ll keep going with the process if the person got 1 out of 10 on the element they missed, as the likelihood of overturning it is nil. It wasn’t part of what you asked, but lots of people think, “Hey, I made it to references, which means I must have “passed” the interview.” That’s not always true. It’s a good sign, but it’s not determinative.


      • Oh wow, they provide you with your ‘score’ for the interview after? Or do you have to ask for that?

        Thanks for all the great info.

        • If you “fail an element”, i.e. you get an email that says “You failed to receive a sufficient score on the following elements…A2 Initiative, PS4 Interpersonal Skills”, then you can ask for what they call the “informal discussion”. In the old days, they didn’t have that, and it was more formal. You basically had to appeal to have a conversation about why you got screened out. Instead, they introduced IDs after any screening element, and while it isn’t intended to give you your “score”, it often does. The real intent is to avoid silly administrative errors. For example, if you are screened out at the application stage, because you said “Quarterly Budget Reports” and it was asking you about forecasting, the ID conversation could be where you say, “I don’t understand…I said QBR, and they include this and this and forecasts, and blah blah blah”. But that organization doesn’t have the same terminology, so they didn’t know what QBR meant. At that point, they can still screen you out (you didn’t prove it in the application) or they can say, “Oh, well then, that’s an easy fix, and screen you in”.

          For me, the real uses of IDs are threefold:

          a. Correct admin issues — i.e. they reviewed your resume and didn’t see page 4 for some reason which was a simple screw up on their side, or it was coded / entered wrong somehow;

          b. Correct a potentially appealable issue — this is a bit hard to describe, but basically, if for example there was a fire alarm in the middle of your exam, and they didn’t give you more time, they should have and if you get all the way to the end for the appeal, it’s a virtual lock to be successful in a formal appeal, so they’ll correct the problem now — either give you more time, a chance to rewrite, pro-rate somehow, something to stop having to toss the whole comp at the end; or

          c. Get informal feedback on your performance.

          In this last element, they’ll usually have the conversation and say three things:

          i. Here’s what you said;
          ii. Here’s what we were looking for in an answer;
          iii. Here’s what we were looking for more of from you in the answer.

          Often, they will say, outright, we scored you as 4/10 on this one. They don’t have to tell you, but most managers will because if you ever appeal, you’ll find out anyway. And it gives you a scale of how far off the target you were. But they won’t give it to you in writing, only orally, usually.

          Now, there’s a piece missing in there…somewhere between ii and iii, some people use the informal to argue their way back into the competition on the basis that they weren’t scored properly. I generally think this is a complete waste of time, particularly if you’re screened out on more than one element. However, a colleague wrote for an EC-06 and got screened out at the application stage. Did informal, argued with them the details were actually there (you can’t “add anything” in the informal), and got screened back in. Wrote the written, screened out, another informal, another successful argument, screened back in. Did interview, screened out, did informal, screened back in. Made the pool and was pulled by someone else. Good for her, sure, but not the way the process is supposed to work and most managers wouldn’t have changed the screenings. HR actively encourages them not to, in fact. People used to be a bit looser with IDs, they’ve tightened up a bit.

          IMHO, though, the best use is to approach it simply as how to improve for next time. Even on applications. The screeners have information that you apparently didn’t have and thus you didn’t pass — asking for feedback is great. In fact, I blatantly say in my request, “I’m not looking to appeal or anything, I’d just like to improve my process for future processes” to dial down the stress for them. I have even suggested that if they want to wait until everything is all over, they can give it to me then, because then it is REALLY CLEAR I’m not looking for info to appeal. And they might be more open at that point, or they’ll have completely forgotten by then. Could go either way.

          One last point on scores, if you do get them. Remembering that you have to pass every element, it doesn’t matter whether it is out of 5, 10, 1000, it is virtually a binary world: 0 = less than the pass threshold, 1 = greater than the pass threshold. As such, most managers will rarely give you 6/10 if the pass mark is 10 — they’ll give you 4 instead. It shows “Well, you can argue a point or two but it won’t help you pass”. So you often see scores that look like 1,2,3,4,x,x,7,8,9,10 if 7 was the pass mark. No 5s or 6s (sometimes 5s but almost never 6s).

  4. Hi Paul, great comments. Have to prepare for internal interviews with CRA and don’t know how to prepare for the SJT.Any guides or pointers how to prepare? Appreciate an email response.Do you provide coaching assistance?

    • Hi Sathish, I really don’t have any guidance at the moment on the Situational Judgment Test (SJT). And I don’t provide any coaching assistance for other types of interviews either. I occasionally meet with some people around ESDC, but that’s about it. Maybe when I retire…Good luck!


  5. Hi Paul, thanks for this amazing guide. As others have said, its relaxed some of my nerves for an up-comming interview and provdied some great methods by which to prepare. I have an interview with ECCC coming up.

    I wanted to ask if you thought there were any questions that a candiate should avoid asking at the end of an interview. Would it be okay to inquire about the hiring process and what their expected timeline is? Also, are there any questions you think are important for candidates to ask?

    thank you!


    • Hi KP, glad the guide is helping.

      Your question is a common one, and there is no “one” answer. Asking about the timelines is fair game, going beyond that is a bit risky. So, for example, some people suggest how many are left in the process, blah blah blah, and most HR groups won’t reveal that openly. There is little reason not to answer, but almost none of them will (old school tendancies), and some may think it is inappropriate to even ask. So I would avoid it…in a sense, it doesn’t matter…you’re only “competing” against yourself most of the time anyway at the stage of an interview. While they might have had cutoff scores earlier to limit numbers, they rarely do by the interview stage. Sooooo, ask about timelines if you want to know. Be prepared for general answers though because they don’t know how long it will take to get all the interviews done, plus references, plus language testing, etc. It’ll be approximate.

      Other discussions out there suggest asking more experiential questions of the interviewers — what do you like the most about working in this area / dept / division / etc. Except sometimes the person in the interview isn’t even IN the group, they’re just part of the interview board. Others suggest asking what a “typical day” looks like or big priorities, but some people think you should already know that if you’re applying to work there. Except they forget it’s hard to find out if you’re not in the same dept. Others suggest asking about successes in the division / unit i.e., what is something the interviewer feels the organizational unit does really well already and what might they improve on? I confess that might be more for a senior manager to ask, as it gets to the heart of some management issues that a prospective manager might face or have to address if hired. But more junior officers could both look and feel uncomfortable asking such a question.

      Looping back for a moment, I would avoid asking about priorities or typical day myself (I feel you can find that out through other means or wait and ask if/when they offer you a job i.e. come for a “best fit” conversation), how many are in the process, or anything related to your specific HR file like leave, pay, etc. (the ones specific to you are details if and when hired). Equally, I would avoid ANY question about larger types of leave (parental leave, a big trip you have planned, some educational plan you have)…worry about that if they offer you the job and negotiate at that point. To be honest, a bunch of people feel they are being “open” telling the prospective manager that they plan on taking a month off at Xmas to go to Australia, and just wanting to “put it out there”, but the interview board doesn’t care about any of that. They’re marking you against the stuff on their list…

      And last but perhaps could be first, a good handy reminder is that trying to “impress” the board with your questions is a popular idea in some circles, but it’s kind of silly in a way for two reasons. First and foremost, they’ve already finished marking you for the interview. They had specific criteria, they asked you questions, you gave your answers, they wrote them down. It’s “done”. Asking an impressive question won’t get you any more marks. Second, they’ve already formed an opinion of you. You can’t undo that or overcome some deficit you already showed. Put harshly, if you gave dumb answers, and they don’t think you’re ready for the job, they aren’t suddenly going to think, “Oh wait, that was a good question, let’s hire them.” They’ve already come to a pretty good conclusion about your eligibility and performance, they just finished interviewing you.

      I confess I do have one small unvalidated approach that works for me, but I don’t know if it works for others much. Sometimes, if I am applying for a job at another dept, and I know that a unit is for example doing international work, I might ask them about how much interaction they do with Global Affairs vs. running their own shop. Or how one branch interacts with another branch. It’s a safe question, you wouldn’t be expected to know it, and you might get useful info or they might just think that’s a waste of their time and they want to get to the next candidate. Depends how much of your time you used up, but if you can get the level right for the question, as I have done a couple of times, the interviewer has opened up a bit. For example, one group that had a strong international file, I asked them about their international work, and whether they did much interaction with Global Affairs or were they mostly managing liaisons with international groups themselves. The one woman elaborated quite a bit about where they did interact and where they didn’t, and it gave me a really good overview of the type of international work they were doing. Another group was doing some work that seemed to overlap with another dept, and when I asked whether they had extensive collaboration networks in place or was it more ad hoc / one-off work, the DG said, “One-off” and that was it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t!

      Hope that helps…


  6. Hi Paul,

    This is so helpful! Thank you so much for preparing this.

    I am having a bit of trouble with the process related questions for the interview. I understand that we are supposed to prepare by outlining the steps that we are to follow based on what they are looking for. However, I’m still finding it difficult to know the steps to follow when you don’t know what the question will be exactly. Don’t different scenarios necessitate following different steps? Can you perhaps give an example of what the steps would be when they are assessing a given competency, lets say leadership or interpersonal skills?

    Thank you!


    • Hi Alessandra, happy to help. In the short version, you’re absolutely right. It’s hard to know what the process steps will be for a given situation without knowing the situation, but you can decide in advance that certain headings will help you organize. Taking interpersonal skills, and the page I have about interpersonal skills in the downloadable deck, I can identify in advance that in assessing interpersonal skills, the raters are likely to look for:

      a) Clear recognition of the importance of interpersonal relationships;
      b) Emphasis on creating and maintaining productive relationships;
      c) Able to achieve results through co-operative interactions;
      d) Shares information with interested parties, stakeholders;
      e) Tries to understand other’s perspective;
      f) Builds consensus
      g) Interacts with diplomacy, respect and consideration
      h) Is respected and influential
      i) Has ability to find appropriate ways to approach others about sensitive issues
      j) Makes decisions with a sensitivity for how these decisions may affect others
      k) Builds and maintains trust

      Now, obviously you can’t remember all 11 of those. But perhaps when you read them, you feel resonance with the following:

      A+B. Clear recognition of relationships
      D. Sharing information
      G/H. Respect
      K. Build and maintain trust

      Now, when you get to the scenario, suppose they say that you are new to a division, and you find out that there has been a lot of acrimony in the division before you arrive, and that one other person was a particular pain in the patootie to the predecessor. Not worded that way, but you get the idea. You could go in and say:

      “I think the first step in any interpersonal situation is recognizing the importance of the relationship (*A+B) right up front. While it is easy to think something is all about the file in front of you, relationships are ongoing past an individual transaction, and you have to work to establish and maintain that ongoing relationship. Equally, the most important element in any relationship is respect (*G/H). Both feeling the respect for the other person, and demonstrating it by listening to their views and really trying to understand their perspective, learn from them. And from that basis of respect, you can start to build trust (*K). One way to do that is to constantly share information (*D), not hoard it, and to make them see that you respect and trust them, and you want to work with them for the long-term, regardless of any one transaction.”

      So I had 11 headings, broke it into the four I thought were the most important, and used those to explain the situation. Equally, the question could have been a difficult boss. “Well, I think the first thing to start with is respect, and recognition that the relationship goes beyond any single transaction….etc.” Same four headings, maybe in a different order. But you’re using them to trigger in your mind, “what process step could I do to demonstrate respect? what process step would build trust”. Note that these headings may be the same four headings for your abstract version too…”Tell us what you think is the more important part of interpersonal skills? Well, first and foremost, it is the fact that relationships are important and transcend any single transaction. It’s more of a partnership….etc.” Or “tell us of a time when you had to rely on your interpersonal skills? Well, when I was at Dept X, we had a lot of file overlap with a sister division, and it created tension and some conflict on approaches. I felt it was important from the start that we recognize the importance of our ongoing relationship…”

      Same headings, all three types of questions. The content under each is a bit different, but not significantly for your prep.

      Does that help?


  7. Hi Paul,

    So glad you’ve published this, I was lost for a bit on how even to prepare for questions asking about the personal suitability criteria. My upcoming interview doesn’t seem AS intimidating anymore.

    I’ve got a question though: For questions asking about “experience”, does one particular kind of experience score higher than the others or are they counted the same in terms of marking?

    Put another way, when asked about a personal suitability criterion, should I opt to answer using an example from my professional experience or rather from my academic or volunteer experience? Or am I worrying too much?


    • Hi S! Thanks for the question…

      Generally, I would say that work experiences are usually better to use than academic or volunteer, but not because “work” is better than “personal”. Instead, the likely benefit is that a) they are more easily relatable (i.e. a work context likely similar to what they already know vs. being a coordinator of volunteers for a music festival) and more transferable (i.e., work tends to be more formal hierarchies than other organizations, more rules, less flexibility, etc.). The closer the example can be to a work situation they likely have for their area, the more likely you are to talk about the same factors in the same way they are expecting. Thus, you might score higher.

      Let me give you a small example of this where universities “fail” when they try to market to employers. Often for business programs, or public admin programs, they suggest that they are teaching soft skills through all the group work that is required with other students, and that it is “similar to what you see in the working world”. Except it isn’t. In a course, you might get assigned to work on a team of four people for example, and you have to work together, but that is where the similarity ends. For work, it is usually pretty clear who is in charge, and if it isn’t, it can be established. So a conflict between people wanting to go in two totally different directions has a resolution mechanism. If necessary, you can escalate a level to managers or directors, get it resolved, and move on. Presented simply as we have multiple options, pros and cons, let’s choose one. Done and done. In a school setting, you can spin your wheels finding a way to resolve the differences between you (or not), and there is often way more complications and impact from personalities than would be “allowed” in a formal work setting. Soooo, by contrast, if you use an example from a school situation where you had a minor disagreement that took weeks to resolve, it’s not a great example for a work setting. Interpersonal is good, resolution is good, but the timelines are often quite different. And you’ll weight different factors accordingly in your description than otherwise. Both are group work (personal and work) but the descriptions and factors are likely different.

      However, the caveat is that while I’ll always say “if you have two equal examples, and one is personal and one is work, go with the work”, that doesn’t mean you can’t use personal. If your BEST example is clearly the personal one, go with it. For example, you might be asked about financial, and some people ONLY have that in personal (academic or volunteer), so you might have to use that. Just remember that you are trying to tie it into a work competition so it can be helpful to think of it as “If it was work, not volunteer or academic, which factors would be the same” and highlight those in the interview. You can mention the ones that are different, but I wouldn’t put as much weight on them.

      Hope that helps,


      • Thanks so much for this amazingly quick reply.

        Yeah, that makes sense to try and pull from “equivalent” sorts of experiences. I’ve got limited actual work experience so I’ll likely be having to pull from my academic and volunteer experiences a bit.

        Just one last question: for a lower level job (specifically Level 2), would it be wrong to assume they’ll relax the desire for how closely the experience “matches” the work? Or is that something that varies more on the interviewer themselves?


        • A little of both. For lower level jobs, the majority of candidates will not have a lot of “time in”, so they’re likely to use more of a mix, so generally more open. But some interviewers may be less open than others in what they’re expecting…but you can’t control that, nor worry about it. Just luck of the draw who is doing the interviewing…could just as easily go the other way too and you get someone who is completely open to any and all experience.


          • Awesome, that certainly broadens my options a bit. Again, thank you so much for these lightning-fast replies and this amazing HR guide (without which I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten so far into the process).

            I hope you’re enjoying the weekend!

  8. These posts are very helpful. Thank you for writing!

    I would like to know your perspective on interviews that are developed as mock up situations. For example, reviewing “Departmental documents” and preparing a presentation in response. I believe this would reflect the situational type of question, but I am wondering if there is more to consider?

    • Hi Jenna…good question. There could be some variation in any of them, but if we step back for a second, I would ask instead what they are trying to mark with that type of question. Most likely one of three things:

      a. Ability to synthesize a lot of info;
      b. Knowledge of the department (i.e. they expect you to know the stuff that is in them); or,
      c. Presentation and comms skills.

      For the first one (a), they are looking to see if you can pull out the relevant facts and put them in a coherent structure — all the stuff that’s important, with little irrelevancies. Good structure and appropriate judgement of what’s relevant.

      For the second one, that’s really just a simple brain dump. Regurgitation. It is, in my view, rarely relevant as a good indicator of someone’s performance UNLESS you need them to be able to talk about the dept (say for an outside comms job) and you need them to start doing so really fast. Most of the time it can be learned, and all you are really doing is saying “I want someone who already works here.”

      For the third one, it is a lot like the first — good structure, appropriate content, but with added elements for language, eye contact, flow, speed of speaking, etc.

      Hope that helps,


  9. This is one of the most helpful posts I have come across! Thank you so much for taking the time to write out such a helpful summary of what to expect and how to prepare for an interview.

    I have an interview in a few weeks and I feel a little under-qualified for the position (won’t go into why). However, my application was accepted, I wrote the written exam and I assume I passed it because I got an interview. My question is: at this point, you mentioned that I am “competing against myself” – does this mean that if things go favourably, I am likely to get the position? Or will the best score get the position and other candidates who scored well will be put into a pool? I’m sorry if my question seems ignorant – I’m not too sure how these things work as the job description in the application was quite sparse.

    Thank you so much! Have a wonderful day and good luck with all your future endeavours for 2020.

    • Hi AM, glad it was helpful…

      I say “competing against yourself” because the rules are different since 2005. Prior to that, you were competing for a ranked list…if you beat everyone else, and you were first on the list, you (in theory) would get the job. They might decide they didn’t want you for whatever reason (bad fit) and not hire anyone, but they couldn’t “bypass” you. They had to go in order.

      After 2005, the ranking between people doesn’t matter as much — after all the points are awarded for individual elements, it becomes a giant “pass / fail”. If you pass, then you are deemed qualified and you go into the pool; if you fail, you don’t. That “pool” can be a big formal pool that multiple people can pull from or it can be a small internal pool, they hire one, and the rest of the pool is essentially dead. You are competing to get into the pool, i.e. to pass every element, not necessarily to be the best in every element over everyone else.

      So to be clear, let’s say you had 10 people apply prior to 2005. Maybe 5 elements, all worth 20 points, and whoever got the highest combined score would win. So supposing someone got 20/20 on four elements and only 1 on the fifth for an overall of 81, but four others got 15 on all of them and five others got 15 on 3 and 9 on two. The resulting list would be:

      81, 75, 75, 75, 75, 63, 63, 63, 63, 63, 63.

      The manager would go in order down the list. Somewhere in there they would set a cutoff score, perhaps 50 or 60 (and all 10 would have made the list) or 70 (and only 5 would make the list).

      By contrast, same deal, but the year is after 2005. Person 1 who got 20, 20, 20, 20, 1 = pass, pass, pass, pass, fail = overall fail and therefore would have been eliminated. They passed four, failed one, they’re out. You have to pass every element. The next four got 15 / 20 on everything, they’re all in = 15, 15, 15, 15, 15 = pass, pass, pass, pass, pass = overall pass. The last five got pass, pass, pass, fail, fail = fail on two = overall fail and are out.

      The first list (old rules) could have all 10 make it even though the winner couldn’t do the job — a required element they only got 1/20 on! But they compensated with their other scores. Let’s hope they weren’t hiring a doctor. 🙂

      The second group has only 4 people make it but all of them proved they could do all 5 elements well. So they make the pool. Up until that point, they were just competing against themselves to pass. It didn’t matter how anyone else did, just how they did.

      Once the pool is established, there are two schools of thought:

      a. The scores are irrelevant, as everyone is equal in the pool;
      b. The scores are still important, as people often use them to justify who they are going to take.

      So, for example, if in the above scenario, four people made it, and they had identical scores on every element, the scores wouldn’t help me choose someone. On the other hand, if someone got 20/20 on oral communications while the others only got 15, and the new job has a lot of public speaking to do, I might take the one who got the highest score on that element.

      But, going back to my approach, I think each stage is a hurdle, and your job is to jump it as best you can. If 20 other people make it, so be it; if only 2 others make it, so be it. It doesn’t affect YOUR performance.

      Of course, there are always exceptions. Sometimes managers will use an arbitrary “best ranked” score to see who moves on…so they might say, “We’ll take the top 10 scores” on some element. Then you would still be competing against others, and it would look a lot like the old rules. It’s a sticky situation for HR as it kind of violates the original spirit of the legislation which is to see who is qualified, not see who is best qualified by an arbitrary score. On the other hand, it is not really indifferent than them saying, “Oh, by the way, the mark on communications is out of 20, but our “cutoff” / pass mark is 16, not 10″ i.e. 80%. I personally hate combined scores, but they do make sure everyone has passed every element before they combine them at least.

      Good luck!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *