When people ask me about HR interviews for government, my answer is pretty standard. As per the guide, all interview questions are tied to the statement of merit criteria. And, in almost all cases, that means they are focusing on Experiences, Knowledge, Abilities, or Personal Suitability. Seems relatively straightforward, right?
Now, if you add in the fact that your cover letter / initial screening deals with experience, and a written exam normally knocks off most knowledge if there was a knowledge component identified at all, then the interview becomes more about abilities or personal suitability. In those instances, the popular but dangerous approach is to use the STAR method to structure your answer — Situation, Task, Action, Results. I consider it dangerous because if the question was “What would you do in situation X?” i.e., a hypothetical situation, then talking too much about your past experience doesn’t actually help you answer the question. They don’t care what the situation was, or the tasks, and only the actions or results that are applicable to the question they ask. However, while that is true for hypothetical situations, it is EQUALLY true for “tell us of a time when…” that LOOKS like an experience question but isn’t.
Take for example the question of initiative. To mark initiative, I likely have on my rating guide four headings — weren’t expected to do it / came up with it on your own; it took effort and planning; you challenged the status quo; and you produced better results than if you didn’t do it at all. The STAR method doesn’t exactly match that, does it? You might not talk at all about challenging the status quo, and in fact, there’s a really good chance you’ll talk about how you “led” aspects of it, not the “initiative” part. Using the STAR approach ignores the actual question and imposes an artificial structure on your answer that may or may not line up with what they’re expecting.
By contrast, I tell people to think about what “initiative” means, come up with your 3-4 headings that you are going to talk about, and then slot your experiences or examples into THAT structure in order to answer the question directly. If you want to use STAR on 3 or 4 previous experiences to help identify the info and map it into the PolyWogg structure, go ahead. I think it’s faster to go straight to the answer directly and focus on what will get you points more than coming up with a good story to use that might or might not pass the threshold for the question.
And I normally talk about how there are three types of questions:
a. Tell us of a time when you … demonstrated initiative.
b. In this new job, a key component is initiative. How would you approach your files in the first 90d to help you demonstrate that?
c. A key component of our team’s mandate requires all of the team to demonstrate initiative in their work. What does that mean to you?
An individual question might word it better to adapt to the actual job, but those are three variations — past experience, apply to a situation, and a more abstract/principles-based question. The trick to the PolyWogg structure is ALL THREE ARE THE SAME HEADINGS. You just talk about it differently.
Standard alternate types of interviews
Now, I usually make it clear that this is NOT the same as an informational interview, a best-fit interview, a role-play interview or even a recorded interview. They may share some cross-fertilization amongst them, but they are NOT the same.
Informational interviews and best-first are very informal, for example. They often are more of a conversation than anything else, and you need to handle them as such.
Role-plays are often subsets of the standard interview, as are recorded interviews. Variations on a theme with specific issues that make them slightly different. But different enough to flag as “different”.
An unusual “Experience Screening” interview
Recently though, I’ve been hearing about another form of interview. For lack of a better term, it’s an “experience screening” interview mixed somewhat with the standard interview questions about Abilities or Personal Suitability (covered at the top).
While the regular interview may draw upon your past experience, it seems that these “experience” interviews are being done with NO prior screening at all. In other words, there was virtually NO cover letter requirement, no experience questions to answer in the application, nada. They put up a poster, listed the requirements, and had you throw your name in the hat. I suspect someone in HR is trying something different or someone threw money at an HR consultant who normally does private-sector interviews.
Regardless, these experience screening interviews seem to be replacing the initial paper screening and thus are asking you the same questions they would have in a written application. So, for example, they want you to tell them how you demonstrate “significant experience in briefing senior management”.
Does that make sense for an oral interview? Not really, to be honest. I can screen a written application in less than 5 minutes to see if I want to interview them. An interview? 30 minutes per person at least. That is NOT efficient for the manager at all. Plus, to be honest, the info they are seeking is ideally suited to a brain dump or memorization / regurgitation. It doesn’t “test” anything. It just says, “hey, so tell us what experience you have in briefing senior management?”.
The same rules apply to an oral interview to screen for experience as it would be for a written submission. And yet, maybe STAR works okay here.
To be clear, let’s say you have to demonstrate you have significant experience (3y+, perhaps) in briefing senior management (EX-02 and above, perhaps). You need to go to level 3 of details.
Level 1 would be to say: “Yes, I have 3 years of experience in briefing a Director General.” That would be way too simplistic and short to get you ANY points. Automatic fail.
Level 2 would be to say: “Yes, I have 3 years of experience in briefing a DG as a senior business analyst on procurement issues.” Again, not enough detail.
Level 3 would be to say: “Yes, I have more than three years of experience briefing senior management. As a senior business analyst, I regularly provided oral briefings to my DG on procurement issues, including Calls for Proposals, evaluation criteria, questions from stakeholders, financial issues and implementation timelines. I also provided regular written briefings to the ADM on procurement aspects of our overall approach to project implementation and how that linked to broader approaches to service delivery. This included not only memos and presentations, but also detailed financial reports submitted monthly with executive summaries, etc….” In this example, you are giving not only indication of your role but also the types of activities that constituted a briefing.
In this regard, you COULD use a STAR method to come up with several examples of HOW you met the experience requirement. If you can, you would want to likely focus 10% on the situation (quick reference only), 20% on the task, 60% on your actions, and 10% on the results. That’s a slightly different balance to a normal STAR approach, but it can work.
Personally, I still prefer my approach which is to think of, for example, EVERY opportunity you have had in EVERY job to provide briefings to senior management. Fill in a full grid for each experience and each job. Then, when the grid is complete, you can decide if for example, when talking about briefings, you might note that:
a. You have done it regularly for the last 10 years;
b. You use examples that are not only current but also really significant ones from previous jobs;
c. You choose the sub-examples and actions that fit the heading MORE so than the macro job / STAR example that you would gravitate towards.
For (c), take, for example, if your previous job was financial but normally you never went anywhere near senior management. But once a month, you had to do something really formal with them that was of high significance or responsibility (like briefing on budgets or something that required attestation, something REALLY responsible). You wouldn’t want that to be your only example — after all, they want to see that you do it REGULARLY, not just occasionally — but if it was a small subset of a larger job and REALLY formal / significant, you absolutely want to show them you did it. In effect, I’m talking about something where you showed high responsibility and strong reliability/trust by senior management. You could brief the DG every day on the state of office supplies, and it would be frequent but not significant. By contrast, you would definitely want to mention a quarterly briefing that required audits or financial people to sign off.
So how do you handle the interview version of screening?
I’m going to give you TWO methods of responding, the simple and the advanced. Let’s say you have three STAR examples to answer the first experience question, with the details noted in your prep as:
- S1, T1, A1, R1
- S2, T2, A2, R2
- S3, T3, A3, R3
For the simple, as I said above, it looks very similar to the written version. You might group those in exactly that order. Situation / example 1, a little bit on each of S, T, A and R. Then on to S2+. And S3+. Bip bop boo, that’s what you do. It’s safe, it’s boring, hard to go wrong. But equally hard to stand out either.
For the advanced technique, think back to the example I mentioned where I explained initiative and instead substitute briefing senior management. If you think of the headings of what makes a good briefing, you would likely note some headings like the right amount of detail, key facts they need to know, options for moving forward, recommended actions, and any considerations that affects the details. You might add things about giving them a chance to ask questions, providing the briefing materials in advance, etc. And maybe for the purpose of presenting this as a screening question, you decide to group it all as only 3 headings, working in your examples from above this way:
IDENTIFYING KEY FACTS — S1+A1, S2+A2
IDENTIFYING CLEAR OPTIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS – R1, S3+R3
KEY CONSIDERATIONS – A2+T2, A3+T3
What’s the difference?
In the simple example, you are answering the question “what experience do you have in blah”. In the advanced example, you are demonstrating that you have full command of your experience in “blah”, you know what is important, and you are able to explain to them in detail what “blah” means to you, fully demonstrating that you have done it and know it and lived it, and that you are completely comfortable with all aspects of it. You are not just regurgitating your resume.
And what do the markers have on their rating guide? The headings I mentioned above:
- Right amount of detail, key facts they need to know
- Presents options and recommendations
- Identifies other considerations
What do they NOT have in their rating guide? Experience briefing DG on procurement, experience briefing ADM on contracts, etc. as everyone would have different examples. They will take what you give them and translate it into the headings they have, as they always do. The closer you can get to THAT set of headings, the better off you are.
In the end
The ultimate question is what you feel comfortable doing in YOUR interview. If you want to play it safe, just regurgitate your resume, maybe using the STAR method. Or you can treat it like other interview questions and give them a REAL answer, not a checklist.
I’ll be interested to see how the use of this odd form of interview plays out as it seems ripe for lots of appeals and challenges.