There is often a lot of nervousness around interviews, and the worry is entirely justified. Sure, some people can do a bad application, simply because they don’t know what a government application requires, but once you learn that, you should be able to get screened in for anything that you have sufficient experience for which to apply. For the written exams, it doesn’t look a whole lot different from a school test, so people know how to study. In other words, you can control your performance in a fairly predictable fashion and with some practice, get a good or at least passing mark. But interviews are often viewed as a different beast.

Some people think it is because the interviewer is trying to “trick” them, but that’s rarely the case in a government interview. There are no “tricks or traps” at the sub-EX level, and while they are more difficult to prepare for, you CAN indeed improve your preparation so that your outcome is also improved. But nervousness, and the artificial nature of government interviews, often means you can be perfectly prepared and yet still bomb the interview. It happens.

In my view, most of that nervousness comes from worrying beforehand about what questions they’ll be asking and what they’ll be looking for…yet both are entirely knowable.

Five types of interviews

There are five types of government interviews, ranging from the casual up to the very formal.

  1. Informational Interview – where you are asking for a meeting with someone, and you have no idea if they have any jobs available;
  2. Casual Deployment Interview – often when people move around in government, they do so because they have heard that manager x or y is looking for someone, or that manager already knows you and has reached out directly, and so you’re having a casual conversation about what they do and what your interests are, just seeing if there is mutual interest;
  3. Formal Deployment Interview – this is where the manager has announced a position at level, and you have formally applied, often without knowing the manager or other staff in the area;
  4. Formal Competition Interview – this is the “full” interview that most people fear the most, and will be the main focus of this chapter; and,
  5. The Best Fit Interview – this is after you have made a “pool” and you are meeting with a hiring manager to talk a bit informally about the exact position and your interests (looking very much like a hybrid of the second and third ones above).

A. The Informational Interview

For those not recognizing the term, an informational interview is where you basically want to talk to someone about their area of work to find out what life is like working in that area, if there are jobs available, or what openings might be coming up, etc. So you have cold-called (or cold-emailed) them and asked if they would be free for a meeting for coffee. Or got a friend to introduce you and then you asked if they have time for a chat.

Now, let`s be frank. Most people asking for informational interviews are really saying, “Hey, wanna hire me?”. But they have learned, or been advised by people like me, that if you ask to meet with someone to talk about openings in their area, the person will usually decline to meet with you. They’re not being rude, they’re being practical. If they had an opening, they would advertise it, and you would have to apply through the main system; if they don’t, they can easily say “no, we don’t have anything available” and avoid wasting their time and yours.

By contrast, if you contact them and ask for a chance to meet with them to get some advice from them, the person might find it hard to say no. Partly because THAT response is kind of rude, partly because they remember when they were in the same boat and someone gave them info they didn’t already have or met with them to give them some insights, and partly because people like talking about themselves and you’ve already flattered them by suggesting they are worthy of meeting with to pick their giant, knowledgeable brains!

Plus, if you are in government, there is a component of your job that is supposed to be about building the public service so there’s almost a values-and-ethics component that encourages you as a manager to say yes to these types of requests. No, that doesn’t mean the Deputy Minister or CEO of a crown corporation will meet with anyone who asks, i.e. they’ll almost always delegate if you waste your time even asking, but managers and middle managers often (almost to the level of “usually”, but not quite) will say yes to a request for an info interview.

Remember though that you are asking for an info interview…so what are you going to get out of that? Information and advice.

To make sure you get the most out of the interview, you should do some basic research into what their organization does, and if you can, what their own group does. Do NOT go into the interview knowing nothing about them. You need to show you invested some time in preparing (not to impress them, just so you look professional). Some people think, “Oh, if I can ask 500 Qs about the area, I’ll show how interested I am” but what you’ll really show is how unfocused you are. Figure out what areas you want to ask about in advance, particularly in case the person throws the ball back to you and says, “So, what do you want to know about?”.

Depending on how advanced your career is at this point, you have two choices for an opening gambit:

  1. If you’re already in government and have been for a little while, you can start with a very short “pitch” about yourself to say, “Well, I’ve been in government for x years now, and mostly doing [x]. I really enjoy [aspect y], and I think I’ve developed some degree of skill at [aspect z]. But I’m thinking ahead to the types of areas I might want to work in some day, and your area seems like one where I might be able to build on those experiences and skills. So I was mostly hoping you could tell me about the type of work that the units in your area do, and if I’m on the right track with my background so far.”

I have to confess, I love this opening. Obviously, based on your research, you’re going to have chosen examples for [x], [y] and [z] that not only reflect your skills and experience but also link directly to their work. You did your research, you have some idea what they do and need, at least at a high-level, and you think you might be a fit. On top of it, you have said “SOME DAY” to take the pressure off that you’re looking for something NOW, which allows him or her to be more open if they wish. In addition, you have given them three openings [x, y, z] for them to talk about how they fit within their area. It gets them talking. Plus, you asked them to tell you if you’re on the right track.

  1. If you are new to government or outside government, you can start with a short pitch about yourself to say, “Well, I have a background in [x] and some work experience in [y]. I really enjoy [x2, y2] and they seemed like areas that I might be able to use in your area. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble breaking in, partly because I don’t know enough about the type of work that is done on a day to day basis, or where I could aim to start. So I was mostly hoping you could tell me about the type of work that the units in your area do, and if I’m on the right track with my background so far.”

This one is really challenging to nuance. Why? Because you’re being self-deprecating to get them to give you targeted info, but at the same time, you want to impress them enough that they think highly of you in the future. Most important, though, is that you are not saying “How can YOU help ME break in?”. You’re just asking for info and advice.

At this point, you have accomplished the trifecta for getting good info and advice from them — your personal profile + your skills/competencies/interests + their knowledge of their area.

Note that it’s good if you can make it a real conversation rather than an interrogation, and while you are often trying to fake your way into a job interview, you should try to keep your personal “pitch” about yourself relatively short. You’re there to listen, not talk about yourself or show off what YOU know about their job. If they want to know more about your experience, they’ll ask. One key take-away that you’re likely to get, if you focus correctly, is a better understanding of what other skills you might need to get into the industry. If the conversation stalls, you can even prompt to say, “What other skills, beyond the ones that I mentioned, do you think people entering your area should have?”

The other tip for the conversation is you want to be able to ask some intelligent questions…preferably one that shows some relatively straight-forward linkage. It’s good, for example, to ask how some of the research they might describe gets translated into recommendations — is it done by the same team, or is it handed off to someone else? Or if it was about Gs&Cs, does the same team do the review of proposals and the monitoring of projects (i.e. like CIDA) or is it separated (i.e. like most other departments who have separate delivery arms)? Do NOT try to come up with some brilliant question that you know nothing about just to use some big words…”So, I see you have a lot of technology supporting your delivery…how are you set up for block-chain conversion?” might be a great question in the right context, but just throwing it into your conversation willy-nilly will likely just make you look like an idiot. If in your research, you found out their program was recently in the news, and you both read and understood the articles, you can make a small leap to draw linkages to it, but I wouldn’t go much further.

So now you have covered “you”, “what the jobs require”, gaps you might need to fill, and ensuring it all ran like a normal conversation.

That only leaves one area remaining — asking advice on how to proceed. Now, obviously, if they just said “you need experiences [a,b,c]” you don’t want to say “So what should I do next?” as an open-ended question. But you can say, “So, I need to expand into experiences [a,b,c]. Are there areas where others on your team have gained those experiences where you think I could follow in their footsteps?”. It doesn’t have to be that precise, it depends on the conversation, but it should be somewhat pointed. You want specific advice, so you should try to be specific.

As a final tip, you also want to try to manage the duration of the meeting and respect their time. If they say they’ll give you 30 minutes, keep it to 30. You want to end smoothly, not like a timekeeper who blows the whistle and then rushes out the door, but do try to respect the duration and manage your time accordingly. You will also likely be able to tell if they’re feeling rushed to do something else or not. Take their cue. And I will readily confess that this is a “do as I say, not as I do” type tip. I regularly get involved in great conversations with future bosses, and what should have been 30 minutes is now an hour or more, just because we got into the issues. I like to think if they were hating the conversation they would shoo me out, and they didn’t. But they’ll also respect you more if you respect their time.

And when it’s over, if you want to follow-up, do so with gratitude, not a bunch of requests.

I know, I know, a lot of people told you to do the interviews to network, to build your contacts. And the secondary purposes of the interviews — gain exposure, build a contact network, or even leverage it towards a job — are all possible, but you need to manage your expectations. After all, you started the conversation by asking for information. Sometimes, that’s all it will turn out to be.

Yes, you made a contact. But not every person you meet will create a “lasting relationship” or a lasting network contact. Nor are they automatically your BFF, so don’t start spamming them. You’ll know (or should know) if the person is open to further contact or not, or if you felt a connection or not. Sometimes you’re going to meet with someone where there’s no connection, no chemistry, and it’s just not a good fit. Maybe they’re busy, maybe they’re not very friendly, maybe they’re just plain jerks. Or maybe they just don’t like you. It happens.

But you didn’t ask them on a date looking for lifelong romance, you asked them for information and advice. And, hopefully, if you manage it right, that’s what you got.

B. Casual deployment

Once you are in government, people often move simply through deployment. Deployments are lateral moves exactly at level i.e. no promotion involved, and because of that, it is a lot less complex and formal than some of the other types of moves. You are already “appointed” at level, i.e. someone already ran a competition and appointed you at that level so the “proof” of you meriting that level has already been done…the only paperwork to do in a deployment is for the manager to say how you meet the criteria.

Of course, just to confuse things, you can find out about deployments either through a very formal process (such as it being advertised) or just generally through the grapevine. For example, you hear that a manager is looking for someone at your level. Or perhaps a former boss told you there was someone looking. Either way, you want the job.

Reaching out to them is a lot like the cold-call process, although you might use a bit of a hook if a friend or colleague or former boss is referring you to them. You’ll provide a copy of your resume, express your interest in the position or at least in having a conversation with them if they’re interested, and you’ll give them a short email to grab their interest. Preferably something like “I have 3 years working in a similar job and I’m looking for a change”, and then a few lines explaining the type of work you are doing that is similar to their opening.

Chances are that they are going to be interviewing several people, and I hesitate to even call them candidates because it is all informal. No rating guide prepared, no formal job description, no formal questions. Really, they’re just meeting people to see if there is a match of interest. If there is, they’ll check some references, maybe ask for a writing sample, etc., narrow it down a bit more. But they are only going to do that if there was a match, or to use the official parlance, a “right fit” between you and their opening.

The interview is going to be very informal, and will run one of two ways:

a. They’ll start by telling you what the job is, and then you’ll describe how some of your experience relates to it; or,

b. They’ll let you tell them something about yourself, and then they’ll tell you about the job.

I know, I know. You’re thinking the second option would be stupid. Except you are reaching out to them. They think you already know about the job, or you wouldn’t be interested. Ninety percent of the time, you’re going to start by asking them to tell you a bit about the job, and then you’ll be back in option (a). Which sounds normal, safe, logical. You may not want that option though, and I’ll explain later why.

First, let’s assume they describe the job. It’s going to look a lot like they’re writing Statement of Merit Criteria for a formal posting. They’re going to mention, for example, that you’ll have to do a lot of writing of different documents, maybe some briefings, lots of working as part of a team, etc. Which if they were writing a SOMC would be the essential experience requirement. But instead of writing a cover letter, you’re now going to tell them orally how you have experience that meets those requirements.

The position requires a lot of writing of different documents? You’ll outline the different types of writing that you have done and for whom. The position requires teamwork? Well, you’ll tell them about your experiences working as part of a team.

Seems straightforward, and on the surface it is. They ask you basic questions about your experience, and you answer them. No difficult questions or scenarios, it is all about your past experience. With a very open-ended question like, “Tell us about your experiences.” It will likely be that informal.

Under the surface, it is a bit more complicated. While you are talking, they are asking themselves three questions…first, of course they are seeing if you have the experiences they require. Second, they are asking themselves if you’re someone they want to work with in the future. Simple personality aspects. And third, are you a good fit for the team and the work?

Let me give you an example. I’ve been working in planning for awhile now, as well as lots of work in horizontal policy coordination. Lots of people with evaluation or research backgrounds often gravitate towards the area when they are looking for a change. Except the work environment is quite different. While an evaluator or a researcher might work on files with similar content, they often have one or two large projects and a six-month window (or longer) to deliver. The corporate policy and planning world is more dynamic. It has work schedules and file priorities changing rapidly and often. Which, to be honest, a lot of evaluators and researchers not only do not enjoy, but they also are often ill-suited to the work pace. It’s not their strength, experience or training. Some of them can do it, some of them can even do it well, but many are not happy doing it. Because it isn’t just a matter of “coping” with the high degree of uncertainty and change, as if it happens a couple of times a year, it is potentially several times a week.

So, when I am hiring, I often tell people that about the work we do. And see how they react. If they are stressed by the description, they will not be a good fit. If they tell me they can “cope” with it, I probe harder. I need to see some examples of where they have done it before and thus not only know what it’s like, but are still seeking to do it again.

For me, that’s a key “fit” variable. I need to know too that they will fit into the team, flexible, willing to share files, willing to cover for people if priorities shift. For my type of work, ownership of a file is frequently an illusion. For someone who likes having a project all to themselves, my team isn’t the right fit for them, and they are not the right fit for my team.

That isn’t cut and dried by any imagination of course. It’s more a feeling of whether they fit. Combined with the way they interact on an interpersonal level. How they describe their former jobs. What animates them in their descriptions, what they shy away from in other descriptions.

I absolutely need to know they can handle the job, sure, but I also need to know if I want them in the team at all. I’ll be even a bit more blunt. There are people who would be aces for the work content, but are absolute jerks to work with on a day-to-day basis. They’re borderline toxic. Why would I risk putting one of them on my team? It’s a lateral unadvertised deployment. We’re just having a conversation. I won’t pursue it, because I will see who else is out there.

Equally though, if you prefer solo projects and your potential future boss tells you the jobs is highly variable for work loads and file priorities are constantly changing, then that team is probably not right for you either. You’re also evaluating them…would I like the work? Would I like to work with this boss? Would I like to work with this team?

Now, as I said, the questions are almost going to be entirely about your past experiences. Which is a giant danger, because it can be rather dry and formal if you let it. You want this to be as close to a conversation as it can be. You want some back and forth. You want it to stay informal, because that’s how they’re going to see if you would work as part of the team.

Which brings me back to the reverse situation where they ask you to tell them about yourself before they tell you about the job. I mentioned you can invert that, put them back in the lead, and that works if you are risk-adverse.

Why might you leave it inverted? Because it is a highly-effective sales strategy to tell them about yourself and your interests before they tell you about the job. I call it the “reverse sell”, and I found it by accident.

About ten years ago, I was looking around for a change. I wasn’t a planner by trade, but I had done it in previous jobs, and I heard about a manager with an opening in another branch. I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me. I sent him an email, said I heard he was looking for a manager on the corporate side, and gave him a brief hook or two of things I had done, plus my resume. He suggested we meet, and it was right away. I agreed to meet, but I was taking a huge tactical risk — I knew very little about their exact work, or even their branch. I had some idea, but normally I would have done more research before going in to see him. With little time, I went in cold.

And he started with an inverted opening for me to tell him about myself. So I did. I talked about some of my previous experiences, and anticipating some of the type of work the jobs in his area would do, I mentioned things that I had enjoyed in previous jobs that were similar, without pointing it out. For example, I noted that I really liked the link between policy and programs. I had been doing high-end policy work for awhile and was looking for a change, something with more ties to programs, but I wasn’t looking to move into the “weeds” of running programs. All of this was true, I wasn’t lying, but I was selecting it because I knew that corporate planning often intersects with both policy and programs. And so I said I was looking for that and enjoyed it.

As he responded, he said that he too liked that aspect, and it was exactly what his division dealt with every day. He went on to explain the work they did, and how it related to what I said, and part of me was thinking, “Well, duh. That’s why I said it.” It was almost like I was applying to work at a carnival selling peanuts and I had said I liked selling things, particularly food, and the boss was explaining to me how that would be a good fit for me. Of course it would be, that’s why I said it.

Except a funny thing seemed to happen. While he was “selling me” on the job and how it fit my needs/desires, he was also selling himself on me. By inverting the order so I went first, the “selling” job was all his by going second and making the linkages for what the job was that he had to fill. He sold me, and he sold himself on how I would fit. It was the easiest interview I have ever had. I barely had to tailor any of my experiences to the job, other than presenting it well up front.

I have used the same technique in other situations, and it actually has some validation by classic “sales” techniques that are taught in business schools. But I just found it by accident, I wasn’t trying to game the interview. It just worked out really well.

So that’s it. You find out about a job opening at level, you see if they’ll meet with you, and you tell them about your experiences in as conversational a tone as possible. Maybe there’s a good fit, maybe there’s not. Or maybe someone else is a better fit.

If the fit happens, they can deploy you relatively quickly. Far faster than formal processes, which is why the option is so popular.

C. Formal deployment

The formal deployment interview is where the manager has advertised a position at level, and you have formally applied, often without knowing the manager or other staff in the area. The easiest example of this is where a manager at another department, say Environment Canada, has announced an AS-04 position as a deployment and it is open to those at level who work across the National Capital Region, and you work at perhaps Foreign Affairs and want to apply.

Maybe you have always wanted to work at Environment Canada; maybe you live on the Quebec side and would rather not commute across the river any more; maybe the AS-04 has some supervisory functions that you want to add to your resume. For whatever reason, you have applied because you are already an AS-04 and would like the job.

You will do the full cover letter approach described earlier — you will explain how you have the experience they are looking for, you meet the eligibility criteria, you have the education required, etc. But this is where it gets weird for the manager.

It isn’t a competition — you are already at level, so there is no “proof” required to show you merit the level, that’s already done. And, to be honest, it would put the government potentially in a weird position to have people go through a reassessment of their abilities again anyway … what would happen if you fail? Does that mean the competition was flawed, or that you really aren’t at level, or was it just you having an off-day? None of those are good outcomes. So you are already at the same level, full stop. The manager moves to the “best fit” criteria, right?

Which would mean they would call you in, ask you some informal questions (like the previous post), decide if you’re the right fit or not, and select someone. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Which is also why deployments are popular with managers. They’re supposed to be easy.

Except I just ran an EC-06 full deployment process. I was fortunate enough that there were only a handful of viable candidates, and I interviewed all of them. No “screening” process — if they were initially eligible, as they were, I gave them a shot at the interview. Think of it as a very low bar on the experience criteria. I did have a fairly straightforward set of questions, three of them, and I asked each of them the same ones. Not formally written-out like a full rating guide, but they all got the same three questions. While all of the candidates were possible, i.e. they could all have done the job, one of the candidates was by far the most qualified for what I was looking for in this specific instance. I still had all three give me writing samples and names of references. I reviewed the writing samples, and the “strong” candidate was still in the lead, so I moved on to reference checks — which I only did for him. Because it is not a competition, I didn’t need to fully assess all the candidates.

In fact, I technically wasn’t assessing them at all. Not their knowledge, abilities, or personal suitability. They are already at level. So as a manager, I’m not supposed to “re-evaluate” them and asign scores.

Yet when I was done everything, and went to select the strong candidate, HR started asking me for copies of my rating guide, my score results, all the things I would do if it was a competition, but it wasn’t. I pushed back, and they said, “Oh right, you don’t need that, but it’s a good idea anyway, so give it to us anyway.”

And that is the weird part for the manager. I am legally barred by regulation and tribunal decisions from re-evaluating candidates, yet I also am supposed to provide some sort of formal “non-evaluation evaluation process” to select the candidates. Most HR people have no idea what that actually means so they default to asking for all the things in a competition. Equally, many managers get their advice from those same HR people and end up doing what they’re supposed to avoid — formally evaluating the candidates.

A friend of mine just went for what I thought was a competition, and I was advising her on all the steps (see next section) for a formal competition. Then, she said it was deployment at level. So I told her the steps from the previous section (informal). She did a hybrid of both, and it was a good thing because one of the first things they asked her was a very formal knowledge question. Something they are NOT supposed to do. If it even hints at a process that is re-evaluating candidates at level, it’s grounds to have the whole process tossed.

Yet many managers do it anyway.

Here’s what you SHOULD prepare for if it is a formal deployment interview:

  1. Review the knowledge elements and do some basic prep (sort of a lite version of the next section);
  2. Review the abilities and personal suitability elements, and have an example to use in conversation if they ask you about your past experiences (again, sort of a lite version of the next section); and,
  3. Prepare a couple of speech modules of your background — perhaps a 5 minute version and a 2 minute version of your “elevator pitch”.

Will that cover all scenarios? Not completely. If it is a job that you REALLY REALLY REALLY want, do the full prep of the next section, just in case. But most often, this should cover you in case the managers don’t know what they’re doing and “test” you on elements anyway.

D. Formal competition

When I started this chapter, I said there were five types of interviews. While that is true, it is also true that each of the five are variations on a theme — or, alternatively, across a spectrum. The formal competition interview is at the most extreme end of the spectrum, and requires the most preparation.

Normally, a “full” interview is when you are doing a full competition to get a job at a level higher than you currently are now or perhaps at the beginning of your career in order to get into the public service. Since you are not at level, the competition has to test you on all the elements in the poster to show you that you are capable of meeting each of the criteria.

As outlined previously, most of the “experience” and “eligibility” elements were tested during the upfront application process. Some of the knowledge was likely tested through a written exam, and some of the personal suitability elements will be tested through reference checks. This means that the interview is primarily about testing your abilities, as well as some personal suitability factors and potentially some knowledge.

But before you prepare for the content, you need to think about what you are about to do. They are going to ask you questions and then you’re going to answer, that’s obvious. And they’ll mark your answer, which is also obvious.

While the goal is always to make the interview seem like a comfortable conversation, remember that you are being marked for what you say. It is very formal. You can’t assume someone already knows something — if you don’t cover it, they don’t hear it to mark it. Take for example a situation where you have been giving briefings for some time. And you know that one of the most important things in briefings is to tailor your presentation to the audience. So you’re fully prepared to highlight that in your interview.

Then you get in there and realize one of the interviewers is an old boss from another division. One that trained you on how to do presentations, including to always tailor presentations. So you relax. They know you. They know your history. And so, if you are like most people having a conversation with someone you know, you may tend not to stay the obvious things that you both know to be true. You may even feel a little silly to say to an old boss, “Well, I believe the most important thing is to tailor a presentation to your audience.” Because he or she already knows that you know it. Which means, like many candidates in interviews with people they know, you may forget to mention something obvious. But if you don’t say it during the interview, you don’t get any marks for it. You are marked ONLY for what you say during that time.

And most important of all? It’s going to seem like a monologue. They ask you a question, and when you start talking, they shut up. They take notes on everything you say until you tell them (or it’s clear) that you’re done answering the question. It will NOT seem like a conversation, and the people doing the interview may not even make eye contact because they’ll be busy taking notes. It is very unnerving for some people. You need to know they aren’t being rude, they’re just taking notes. And they are NOT allowed to prompt you very much. If you miss a small element, they might prompt you to elaborate on something. But here’s the thing…if they prompt YOU, they have to ensure they prompt everyone. Or the process won’t be fair. So, rather than risk unfairness, they will NOT prompt you if you miss something, even if it’s obvious.

However, they do sometimes ask you if you have anything to add. That is NOT a prompt for you to actually keep talking or that you must have missed something..it’s more often than not just them making sure you are done with that answer and they can move to the next question.

So think about that…formal questions, formal answers, and you doing a lot of talking, likely with little interactions with the members of the board. Assuming a standard interview, your answer to an individual question will last somewhere between 5 and 8 minutes. Which means you are going to talk for on average 6 minutes without them saying anything. Can you do that without practice, in an organized fashion, without repeating yourself?

Most people cannot do it. They talk in circles. They get nervous. They repeat themselves. They start digressing. They repeat themselves again. And all the time the markers are listening to your answer and awarding points.

There are only three strategies to manage this challenge:

  1. Practice…you can practice talking about an area (see below) on your own or with a friend, you can participate in multiple competitions so you get experience in doing it, or you might even try joining something like ToastMasters;
  2. Prepare…you will see lots of explanation below on how to prepare your answers in advance so that you’re not trying to think on your feet; and,
  3. Structure your answer.

If structure is king for a written exam, it is queen for an interview.

You want to give an answer that is logical, easy to follow, detailed, well-developed, and answers all the elements that are needed for that question to get full marks. The markers need to take notes, and they’ll award your score based on the notes they take. If they have trouble following you, any trouble at all, you lose marks. It is that simple. So you need to always be clear with your answer — where you’re going, what you’re saying, when you’re done.

For example, if you start your answer by saying you have four parts, three phases, five elements, or even eight, they know that you are now going to tell them 3, 4, 5 or 8 things. And they are structuring their notes accordingly. They’re probably even organizing them already with numbers in order for 1, 2, and 3. You have already given them a logical, easy to follow structure. That’s half your marks right there. Now all you have to do is populate your answer. (To be frank, if you are going beyond 4 or 5 things in ANY answer, you’re likely too far into the weeds, but you get the picture.)

But fear not, intrepid candidate. Candidates have been given a small advantage since about 2004/2005. Since then, candidates are usually invited to arrive about 30 minutes ahead of the interview. What happens in that thirty minutes? They’ll put you in a room, take away your notes and any cell phones, etc., and they’ll let you look at the questions for 30 minutes. And let you outline your answers a bit, take some basic notes to guide your answers. Everyone thinks this is all about helping the candidate, but it is mainly to help the markers.

Before the candidates were given this type of 30 minute preparation/review period, they would just get the questions cold in the interview room. Spontaneous, everyone said. Deadly, the markers said. Why? Because people would do the same three things when the question was asked.

  • Stall. Say things like, “That’s a very good question, thank you for asking. I think that is one of the most important questions you could have asked me. I’m really glad you asked me. In fact, I would have been surprised if you didn’t ask me that extremely interesting question. I think it is the core of the job, that question there.” Were they really that bad? Not all of them, but some were. They were just talking to fill space while they thought of what their answer would be.
  • Pause. Some would also punctuate their answers with “er” and “um” as they stopped talking to think about what they wanted to say next.
  • Repeat. This would be kind of like them saying, “Thank you for that question. I think the three most important things are A, B and C. So, yes indeed, A is important. B is important too. And so is C. Yes, C is very important. Linked of course to A, which is also important. But B is in the mix too. Yes indeed, C, B, and A are important. Did I mention B enough?” I exaggerate of course, but sometimes marking “spontaneous” answers seems a lot like that. They aren’t saying anything, they’re just repeating everything they already said. It still happens for another reason with the current process, but I’ll deal with that element later.

For now, rest assured, a good structure to each answer not only helps you as a candidate but also reduces the pain for interviewers of watching a candidate flounder simply because they didn’t have a good answer on the spot when they were in an artificial environment, under the spotlight, and nervous.

Let me digress to tell you about my interview with Foreign Affairs and how I found out about the importance of structure. It was under the old style, questions were not seen in advance, you just went in “cold” to the room.

I was given a scenario question where I was the Public Affairs Officer in Bonn, Germany, Rick Hansen was coming to town, I needed to organize an event, and I had no budget for it…what would I do? I started with the simple stall as I desperately tried to think of what to actually do. So I started with, “Well, I think the first thing I would do is check our files for similar events in the files to see if we had previous situations like this and how we handled them.” A nice conservative start, I thought. Except there was a woman on the board whose body language was EXTREMELY overt and easy to read. I actually saw her roll her eyes, so I knew it wasn’t the answer that they wanted.

I zigged sideways and started again. “Now let’s assume that I check the files, and I find nothing. No ideas at all, and I’m starting from scratch.” The woman almost dropped her pen. She smiled, looked up at me, clearly now interested. I had taken the question out of the comfort zone, and she was now ready to hear what I would really say.

Confession time. I might have zigged out of that first stalling hole, but I had NOTHING. No idea whatsoever. So I reached into my bag of magic tricks and said, “Let’s look at the question a little more closely. I have to have an event, and I can’t pay for it. But that can be nuanced three ways, and it gives me some ideas. First, one interpretation is that I can’t be the one to pay for the event, but perhaps I could find a sponsor. Perhaps there’s a disability association in Germany who would like to honour Rick’s work. Second, another interpretation is that I can’t pay for the event, but perhaps there’s an event we’ve already paid for where we could add Rick in some capacity. Perhaps there’s an event celebrating Canadian-German relations, and our special guest for the evening could be Rick Hansen! Third, if I go with the basic interpretation, i.e. that I can’t pay for it, and I can’t find a sponsor or another event, then it would have to be some sort of free event — which likely means something outside. Perhaps I could talk to the City of Bonn, try to recreate Man In Motion through the streets of Bonn, and get them to give Rick a key to the city.”

I confess, at the time, I thought that was the STUPIDEST answer I had ever given to a question. You might be thinking it’s actually not a bad answer, but I was already working for the department on contract and I knew lots of creative public affairs officers who would have laughed those options out of the room. So I knew the content was actually kind of weak, but I had nothing else to offer. Yet the woman with the expressive body language kind of nodded her head, and we moved on.

I didn’t make the pool, and when I went for an informal afterwards to get feedback on my performance, we came to that question and I cringed. I figured I might have got 3 or 4 out of 10. I was gobsmacked to find out my score had been 10/10.

I was pretty candid with the HR person giving the feedback and bluntly asked, “How is that possible?”. He looked over the notes and he told me that he remembered my answer as the ONLY one in more than 500 interviews that he had been part of where the candidate had actually had any sort of logical structure to their answer. He admitted that other people had more creative solutions, some had really grandiose plans, some were really impressive even. But it was like watching some sort of wild brainstorming exercise, thoughts all over the place. The interviewers often had trouble taking notes because they had no idea where one partial idea ended and the next partial or full idea started.

I had a good structure and somewhat average content, and I got 10/10.

Others had a bad structure and great content, yet failed the question.

Wow.

Such results aren’t often as startling now that people get questions in advance for 30 minutes, since they can use that time to create at least a basic structure, but structure still reigns. Repeatedly in interviews where I had weak content, I made up for it with a near-perfect structure. And received high marks because of it. And from the other side of the table, well-structured answers look downright awesome. As an interviewer, I sometimes feel like someone gave a great answer, yet afterwards when I look at only the content in my notes, it isn’t always as good as I first thought. But my first impression was that they had given a solid answer, easily passing the mark for that question. And I have never first thought someone passed and then subsequently failed them on secondary review. I might have lowered their mark from an 8 to a 7, but never below the line. And since marks are usually a consensus of the board, that isn’t just me being an easy marker…the other members of the board thought they were clear passes too, but in the final review, we might downgrade them to a more appropriate grade. Still a “pass”, but with some of the shine removed from a great structure. And some boards don’t even do that secondary review, they just go with their first impression.

Structure is queen, all hail structure.

However, once you understand those upfront elements, you need to prepare for four things in the interview preparations — knowledge, abilities, personal suitability, and what I call “extra” modules.

For the knowledge, it is exactly like the preparations previously described for a written exam. You’ll read the Departmental Plan (formerly Report on Plans and Priorities) to find out what is going on in the department. You may read recent statements by the Minister, particularly if they did any overview speeches with Chamber of Commerces. You’ll also need to refresh your memory of any of the special content / background documents you reviewed. However, there is a difference between the written and the interview. While the goal of the written was to have really detailed knowledge ready to “dump” into written answers, you are going to be using the info in the interview to populate some “extra” aspects of your answers. So you might get a question in the written exam where you have to explain the mandate and current priorities of the Department in detail in a memo, but in the interview, it is more like you will be asked to respond to a scenario of a new priority and how to handle it, and in your answer, you MIGHT want to drop in a reference to how this new priority fits within the existing priorities. You may not be getting a lot of points for “knowledge” in this part, but if you can throw it in, your answers are just automatically richer in content, and your overall score will go up. You’re just making your answers that much more concrete than without the knowledge. But if that is all you need, i.e. context, you’re more trying to drop in big headings in the interview, not the detailed sub-knowledge of each priority.

I do have one very large caveat to this comparison. I am basically saying that the written requires heavy knowledge content, almost an info dump, and the interview doesn’t, more the headings to help populate your answer a bit, make it richer. In the first instance, knowledge is the main course; in the interview, it is more like a mere spice to enhance flavour. However, this assumes that your competition had a written component that was separate from your interview. In other words, it assumes that by the time you get to the interview, you have already been tested on knowledge…but if you WERE NOT tested previously on knowledge, all bets are off in the interview. In that case, you WILL need to know all the detailed content.

When I applied to CIDA’s post-secondary recruitment, there was no written exam, and the first three questions of the interview were basically data dumps by the candidates to show the interviewers we had read all the priorities and could regurgitate them back in some form. And yes, that is as deadly as it sounds for both the candidates and the markers. Listening to the same answers over and over and over. It was even worse though because we didn’t get the questions in advance, it was just “enter and answer”. The first question I got was to outline CIDA’s six priorities. No indication of depth of answer required, no indication of what was to come. So I started answering. And I spent about 3-4 minutes on each of the six priorities to explain them in detail. Regurgitating what I had memorized. A complete brain dump. After my 15-20 minute answer, seriously, I stopped. I had no idea if that was too much or too short. They then said, “Okay, Question 2 is to take one of the six priorities and explain it in detail. You’ve already answered that, let’s go on to Question 3.” Oops. And Q3 wasn’t too far off some of the stuff I had already said too…I almost answered all three with my first answer.

Which is one of the reasons you get the questions in advance to review, so you can balance your answers better, but this type of answer is what I mean by the content required if you don’t have a written exam. If you have a written, that’s the spot for the detail; if you don’t have a written, the knowledge detail will be required in the interview.

For abilities and personal suitability, the possible questions seem endless. For example, if I’m running a competition and I’m marking initiative, and I ask you about a time where you demonstrated initiative, you might think that because everyone will have a different example, it’s impossible to figure out the question in advance. At first glance, lots of people think that way — because everyone has different answers, the question must be impossible to predict.

But it isn’t. It’s the same question. I’m marking X so I ask you to tell me of a time when you did X. And when five candidates answer that question, I am going to hear five different answers. But my marking grid, which I have to create in advance, has what I think is a generic answer that will allow me to mark everyone’s answer. For example:

  • Did something that wasn’t assigned to them i.e. they initiated the activity;
  • It wasn’t something they were expected to do as part of their job i.e. it was above and beyond or separate from their current responsibilities;
  • It took some effort to do i.e. they had to figure out a way to do something or to do it better, something that wasn’t obvious, preferably something with options, and they had to make a choice / can’t be something really simple or obvious;
  • There has to be a better result because it was done i.e. not just doing something different but actually improving something / so what; and/or,
  • It challenged the status quo or was innovative.

So that’s my marking grid. Because that’s what initiative means. Which means when I hear the five different answers, I’m looking to see how many of those bullets you have. One or two? You probably fail. Three or more? Probably enough to pass. All five? High scores all around, well done!

Now let’s digress for a minute to look at those five bullets. Where did I get them from? Did I have some magical resource that exists only for managers? No. I have the same resources you do. Dictionary.com. Google. Thesaurus. Websites like Treasury Board’s that explain what initiative means as a competency or ability. And after you look at a few, you see some common denominators.

Initiative requires that YOU initiate. Lots of people will tell me of a project they led or we’re in charge of, and all the great things they did. Except they were told to do it by their boss. That’s not initiative, because you didn’t initiate; you maybe demonstrated management or leadership, but not initiative. The number of people who give leadership examples is astounding…close to almost 70% in my experience give a leadership example as they have never thought about what initiative actually means.

Or they say that they came up with a way to track all the correspondence in their unit in a special spreadsheet. Great. But what was their job? Correspondence manager. Someone who was expected to track the correspondence. It’s their job. So yes you came up with a tool, but you were kind of expected to do that anyway. It’s not anything “special” or “unique” or you showing initiative, you’re simply doing your job.

Often, too, people will talk about this fantastic thing they came up with as an idea, and yet it is extremely simplistic. For example, they were designing a new tracking system for urgent files, and they came up with the idea to use blue tags for correspondence and red tags for memos to allow people to triage the files quicker. Total time to come up with the idea and implement it? Thirty seconds. It was a good idea, but there was no effort involved. There were no real obstacles to overcome, no planning involved, you didn’t have to work at it. Which means as a demonstration of initiative, I simply don’t care about it.

Or the worst scenario? They’ll tell me how they completely revamped a system, because they thought it was fun to do, and when they were done, it made no difference whatsoever. No better outcome. No improvement in speed or result. No result other than that they did something different to fix something that was working just as well previously. I’ve even had people admit that after they left, their replacement dumped it and went back to the old way.

However, one thing that always looks good is if you were challenging the status quo or truly being innovative. Yet without those other four elements above, why will I care as an interviewer? Did you do a lot of work to improve something, or are you just someone who likes to spin their wheels doing things differently because they hate whatever is already in place and they just want to be “innovative” for no reason?

Ultimately, look at the answer grid. If you tell me that you set up a new colour code system because your boss told you to do it, it took you thirty seconds, it was different than what went before, but two months after doing it, they dumped it because it didn’t matter, how is that an example of initiative? Contrast that with an example where you’re perhaps in charge of finance, but you’re pretty good with Excel; you aren’t involved with the correspondence system, but you know they are over-worked and having trouble finding time to triage files properly or come up with a new tool; you suggest to your supervisor that perhaps you could take this on as a special project, and you study it for a couple of days or weeks and come up with three or four options but recommend one particular one that involves a new Excel file that you design and train people to use, along with a new colour coding system; it’s completely unique in the branch; and it works so well that response times are cut in half, your group is suddenly meeting all of its correspondence deadlines, you have a tool that generates reports for management, and other directorates or divisions are asking if they can have a copy of the tool to use in their offices.

If you contrast those two examples, which one do you think demonstrates initiative? As a marker, the second one gets 10/10, the first one perhaps 1 or 2, nowhere near a passing grade.

Now, you might suddenly say, “Yes, but I’m a junior employee, I don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate initiative, all my files are assigned to me.” That is absolutely a common problem. But it doesn’t mean you can’t give me an initiative example. You may have to give me one that was assigned to you, true. And as such, you’re not getting the points for coming up with it on your own. But if it took effort, if it was innovative, if it produced a good result, if you went above and beyond the tasking, then you’ve demonstrated the other four elements pretty well and you’ll get a good mark. Just be aware that in an ideal world, you don’t start off with that spot if you can avoid it. Or if you do, make sure you hit the other marks as best you can.

Going back a few steps though, the question was about initiative, but the context was whether or not you can predict the question in advance. Some people will tell you of course not, you’re not a mind reader.

But you don’t have to be. Here’s the magic trick. In almost 95% of all interviews that are asking about abilities or personal suitability, there are only three types of questions I am likely to ask you. Some call it past, present and future; some call it applied, situational or theoretical. I prefer to think of them as experience, process, and principles.

  1. Experience (or past or applied) — Tell me of a time when you’ve demonstrated strong interpersonal skills?
  2. Process (or situational or present) — Here is a specific situation, tell me how would your strong interpersonal skills help you to deal with it?
  3. Principles (or future or theoretical) — Why are strong interpersonal skills important to being part of a team?

When I do my presentations, people are almost shocked that there are only three types of questions. So they start trying to come up with scenarios or questions that would be a fourth type. Go ahead, do it yourself now. I’ll wait.

Now that I’ve hummed the complete soundtrack to Jeopardy, what have you got? Now take that question and ask yourself this…is it REALLY any different from one of the above three? Remembering too that the situation could be different, or your past might be different, or it says in a group instead of a team, but ultimately they are asking you to talk about interpersonal skills.

Remember above where I said they had a generic marking grid? They have it here too. For interpersonal skills. So no matter which answer you give vs. the next candidate’s answer, they can still mark both. So they googled “interpersonal skills” and came up with some headings. Like showing respect. Listening. Working together. Building trust. Clear communication. Transparency. And another four or five other possible headings.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that I as the marker only decide to list three things about interpersonal skills — respect, trust and communication. Now, ask yourself…what is my marking grid if I ask you to tell me about a time when you demonstrated good interpersonal skills?

  1. Shows respect for others
  2. Builds trust with other people
  3. Clear recognition of the importance of communication

Now ask yourself…If I give you a situation where you are in a new team, there’s been some conflict, and I want to know what you’ll do to demonstrate good interpersonal skills, what does my rating grid look like?

  1. Shows respect for others
  2. Builds trust with other people
  3. Clear recognition of the importance of communication

Hmm, looks familiar. Now what if I ask if you think that good interpersonal skills are an important aspect of teamwork? What does my rating grid look like?

  1. Shows respect for others
  2. Builds trust with other people
  3. Clear recognition of the importance of communication

You’re not seeing double or even triple. It’s true. My rating guide for all three of those questions is (probably) identical. Oh, sure, I might have said “showed respect” in the first, and “shows respect” in the second, and “important to show respect” in the third, but it is the SAME rating grid.

Now, at this point, you know there are only three types of questions and you also know that I’m going to mark whichever one I ask (almost) exactly the same as the other two.

Doesn’t that sound like a question you can predict in advance?

Of course it does. Because I, as the hiring manager running the competition, am not a rocket scientist. I am not gathering magical information from the Oracle at Delphi to populate my rating grid. Instead, I’m basically doing the same thing you’re likely to do. Google it. Talk to other people about what it might mean. Come up with some headings. Put together an outline of possible things people may say. Call it done.

In the above example and summary, I keep saying that all three are “almost” identical, and they are. But there is a slight nuance difference.

In the first form of the question about experience, I need you to give me an example that shows those headings. In the second form of the question about a situation, I’m looking for the steps in a process that you’ll follow to show that ability. In the third and final form of the question, I need you to talk more about the principles involved.

But if you combine all three, you can create a single answer that answers all three and actually gives you more points for any of the three. Let me show you.

Suppose for example I ask you to tell me of an example where you demonstrated good interpersonal skills. You’re likely to immediately start with the context, what you did, etc. and tell me you showed respect, built trust, and emphasized communication.

But what if you started with, “I think the most important element of interpersonal skills is respect for other people. So the example I’m going to give you…”. Instead of starting with the details of what you did previously, you already are creating a great structure that says, “respect for others” and now your example is evidence of how you have done that exact heading. Then, as you go along, you might say. “After setting up those first few meetings and respecting what the others had to say, I felt it was important to start building trust with others.” Now you’re pulling from the process type response. And perhaps you finish with the experience example, “I really learned from  this interaction the clear importance of communication, and I try now to incorporate it in all my interactions.” Wow, all three elements in the same answer.

Why would you do that? Because the first one is a basic answer. The second one is much more robust, more comprehensive, gives concrete examples, talks about principles and what steps you would take again, etc. And more robust while still maintaining a good structure means higher marks. Instead of getting 6 with your first example, you’re up into the 8 or 9 point range with a full answer.

Remember back in Chapter (x) where I said there was Secret Template #1? It is time for Secret Template #2. For every element that they are marking in the interview, you’re going to fill out the following table with short bullet points.

 ExperienceProcessPrinciples
Ability 1Position / Project 1

 

Position / Project 2

(Work / academic / volunteer)

Step 1

 

Step 2

Step 3

Principle 1

 

Principle 2

Principle 3

Ability 2Position / Project 1

 

Position / Project 2

(Work / academic / volunteer)

Step 1

 

Step 2

Step 3

Principle 1

 

Principle 2

Principle 3

Ability 3, 4, 5…Position / Project 1

 

Position / Project 2

(Work / academic / volunteer)

Step 1

 

Step 2

Step 3

Principle 1

 

Principle 2

Principle 3

Personal Suitability 1Position / Project 1

 

Position / Project 2

(Work / academic / volunteer)

Step 1

 

Step 2

Step 3

Principle 1

 

Principle 2

Principle 3

Personal Suitability 2Position / Project 1

 

Position / Project 2

(Work / academic / volunteer)

Step 1

 

Step 2

Step 3

Principle 1

 

Principle 2

Principle 3

Personal Suitability 3, 4, 5…Position / Project 1

 

Position / Project 2

(Work / academic / volunteer)

Step 1

 

Step 2

Step 3

Principle 1

 

Principle 2

Principle 3

See Annex 2 for a sample blank layout that you can use to populate your own info. Note that you do not want a lot of information, as you won’t be able to memorize it. I’ve listed 1 or 2 projects for experience, but ideally you can get it down to one really solid one that meets all your headings. For processes, I think in some cases it might be 4 or 5, but again, will you be able to remember them all when you get in the interview? And for principles, I like to stick to the rule of 3, as it is easier to remember those than it is for 4 or 5. And often if you are trying to do 4 or 5 principles, you’re too far into the weeds. Plus, if you did it right, you’ll be able to pull from ALL THREE columns for your example to create a really rich and robust response to whichever form of the question you get asked. So you won’t have room for two examples, five steps, and five principles in your answer. Keep what works, drop what doesn’t.

You’ll see in the above table that I have taken the identical approach to abilities and personal suitability. Some managers have noted that abilities tend to emphasize the experience and process/situational columns more so than principles, while personal suitability tends to use principle questions more often than experience or process. I tend to believe that is generally true, but I have no quantitative evidence to prove it one way or another. However, both abilities and personal suitability CAN ask any of the three types, and you need to be prepared, so I don’t recommend shifting emphasis in that fashion. Note too that you can expand the table if you want to include rows for the essential experience and knowledge, but the three columns don’t work as well for that. Essential experience is covered by the application, and you have a separate table to cover all the “experience examples” in more detail. For knowledge, you could put the knowledge factors down the left hand column, but usually you would be only using the process or principles at most, and highly dependant upon the type of job you’re doing (an FI might have some examples of where they used legislation, or the steps they used, or the principles behind the legislation, whereas an AS might have steps only). I think knowledge prep is mainly about the different types of documents referenced earlier, not putting it into a table like the two secret templates.

Finally, I said at the beginning of the chapter that there were four areas to cover and the one that is left is a heading for “extra” modules. If you did the work above, you know how to answer questions that fit 95% of the form you’ll see. Past, present or future, for example. You’re good to go.

Then you get in the interview and they ask you something weird. Something you are totally not expecting. And it doesn’t look like anything you have prepared. You start to panic. What do you do?

Well, remember how I said structure was queen? You need a structure to answer the question. Because a good structure is going to give you something to say, and it might be enough to get you half-way to passing the question. But what structure do you use for a question you weren’t expecting?

You are going to use one of the extra modules you can create to handle the unexpected. For example, if you google “problem solving cycle” or “steps”, you’ll see there are tons of examples. I like to cheat and look at the images tab to see what diagrams people have posted on various websites. Some will have 4 steps, or 5 steps, or 10 steps. It doesn’t matter which one you choose, as long as it is one you can understand and remember easily. I tend to think of problem-solving as having five steps:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Analyse the problem
  3. Develop options and choose one
  4. Implement the chosen solution
  5. Evaluate the solution

Now, if you are doing policy work, you should have the policy development cycle too. Search the same way. Guess what you find? The policy cycle looks pretty similar. Define, analyse, options, implement, evaluate. If you’re in project management, look at the project management cycle. Hey, almost the same. It’s not rocket science, they’re all pretty general and generic. So, how do you use them?

Let’s look back at that example of Foreign Affairs where I asked how to have an event for Rick Hansen when I had no budget. I had no idea how to answer, so I reached into my bag of magic tricks and pulled out the problem-solving cycle.

  1. Define the problem — Have to have an event and I can’t pay for it;
  2. Analyse the problem — Three possible interpretations — I can’t pay for it because I have no money, I can’t pay for this event but could pay for another, or I can’t pay but someone else could;
  3. Develop options — Free event, merge with existing event, find a sponsor

I didn’t have to implement or evaluate the options for that question, I just had to give ideas. But it was an unexpected question and I needed a good structure — so I used my “extra” problem-solving module to give me the headings to use.

While problem-solving, policy development or project management are relatively the same, there is no universal set of headings to “choose”. The five part option listed above is pretty standard, but if a model that has only four elements works for you, use that instead. It isn’t about the right answer per se, it is about you having some headings that will let you give a good answer to an unexpected question.

There are lots of little cycles like this that are good for various types of jobs. If you are applying for a stakeholder relations job, it is a good idea to memorize steps in a consultation process. If you are in HR, maybe the steps in a general job process. If you are in finance, maybe the headings for the typical budget cycle. A researcher might have headings around managing a research project. Things that resonate with them and they can adapt to other unexpected questions on short notice.

I also like to have in my backpocket some sample answers to weird and wonderful questions that someone might use as an icebreaker or part of another question. They can ask:

  • How you are the best candidate?
  • What is your past experience?
  • What are your personal strengths?
  • What are your biggest achievements>?
  • How would this job relate to your career goals?
  • What is your biggest weakness? (Very rarely asked, as difficult to mark) and what you are doing about it (obviously you will not give an example that something needed / relevant to the job!)
  • What is a challenging project or situation with a difficult employee that you have dealt with?
  • Do you have any good examples of teamwork or partnering?
  • Tell us about your leadership style / communications style / personal values and ethics?

These questions are generally answered badly by everyone, so most managers never ask them. However, if used properly by the hiring manager, they can be good questions to use as icebreakers or just to see how they answer a difficult question in terms of communication styles, etc. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on them, but their worth reviewing every so often.

For the summary of yourself or your experience, it can be the same summary for best candidate, past experience, personal strengths, achievements, weakness, etc. It’s up to you to decide how you want to respond, and again, they are not likely scored so there are no wrong answers in terms of an answer grid. They are really just trying to get to know the real you. And to make sure you’re not a general whackjob who says their greatest weakness is poor integrity or low attention to detail for a job that requires high values and integrity and a lot of precise details.

For me, I’m a manager, so I often get asked a general question about my management style. I’ll embellish a bit, and make it a bit more hypothetical, but I could say. “You know, I think my management style is tied tightly to my values and ethics and how I deal with other people. For me, it starts with respect for others. Embracing diversity, the use of french and english in the workplace, and a strong commitment to lifelong learning. But I think my biggest accomplishment as a manager has been tied to transparency. I focus heavily on sharing information when I can, and using that information to create a shared vision with my team that is clear and open, and I feel like I have had a lot of success with this in my last 10 years as a manager.” Off the top of my head, is that a perfect summary? No. But I can tweak it, practice it a bit, improve on the structure and then voila! I’ll have a handy dandy little speech module that I can use in different ways depending on what “weird” or “unexpected” question comes along.

Interviews are complex, and you need to be ready for all the parts that come your way.

E. Best Fit

At the beginning of the chapter, I mentioned there were five types of interviews, and the one that is left is what is called the “best fit” interview. This is the interview where they are seeing, amongst a small pool of fully qualified candidates, who is the best fit for the team.

Let’s go back for a second to an earlier example. Let’s say someone has a bunch of tech support workers working for them, and also say that they have three areas to cover – mainframes, PCs, and Macs. So they have an opening and run a selection process looking at experience in providing tech support, knowledge of various elements of different systems, abilities to be a front-line service worker and the personal suitability factors for dealing with a lot of different types of people all coming to you for help. Now suppose they have an opening, and have found three really good candidates who have been tested, evaluated, all good – any one of them could do the job. But there is only one position available. And you have to choose one that will fit well with your needs.

Suppose for example that you have existing workers who are really good with mainframes and PCs, but you’re a bit weak on Macs. And one of the three candidates is REALLY strong with Macs. Then you might choose them as the best fit for completely legitimate operational – yes, all of them are qualified, but this one brings a little extra experience with Macs to the table, and you’re short in that area. Tomorrow, someone might leave from the mainframe team and suddenly you’ll pull a mainframe person off the pool.

That’s partly what best fit is about – seeing which candidate fits your basic and extra needs the best.

But I need to warn you of something else. That previous example could have probably been decided just on paper. So why an interview? Often the processes are large and complex undertakings with lots of managers doing the interviews. So it is quite common for a hiring manager not to have seen EVERYONE that was interviewed earlier. They may not have met YOU for example. So if they are good managers, they’ll narrow the pool down to a potential sub-list that looks good and then call 3-4 of them in for a quick conversation.

What are they looking for? They’re making sure you’re not a whack job, for one. I’m not joking. Just because someone passed an interview or wrote a test doesn’t mean necessarily that you want to work with them on a day to day basis. Anyone can clean up nice for a formal process, answer the right questions in the right way, and maybe no alarms go off. But they’re a whack job. Look around your own work unit…chances are there are a couple of people you would rather not work with, but hey, somebody hired them.

The “nicer” way of thinking about this best fit interview is partly just getting to know you and partly to see how you interact on interpersonal skills in an informal setting. Are you shy? Are you aggressive? Are you constantly joking, are you deadly serious? They just want a feel for who you are, what you’re like.

Another area they want to gauge is how interested you are in the job. I know what some of you are probably thinking…what do you mean? We applied for the job, of course we want it, doesn’t every one of us want it the same? The short answer is no.

Some people applied just to be in a competition and hopefully make a pool so their own manager could pull them and appoint them where they are working now. They don’t want the job AT ALL. They’re just playing the game to get promoted.

Some other people are victims of time…they applied nine months ago but since then, their lives have changed. Maybe they have a divorce in the works, or a new baby, or a new boss, and they don’t want to move right now after all. They want to stay put. Or their boss has offered them another opportunity. Or they made another pool somewhere else, or are about to make one. Lots of things could cause them to change their minds since they first applied.

Are managers going to outright ask you if you still want the job? Probably not. They’re instead going to ask you to tell them a bit about why you want the job. Maybe ask you what elements in your past experience make you think you’d be a good fit. Ruh roh. Yeah, that’s right, it is still an INTERVIEW. And you need to be ready.

Your main focus is different though. Instead of knowledge or abilities or personal suitability factors, they’re mainly judging two factors – indirectly your experience (it will be what you use to populate your stories and flesh them out) and more directly your interpersonal skills.

But you have to make a choice at this point in how you choose to respond.

Some people will say, “If you want the job, you have to be the duck.” Just like in the rest of the competition. Don’t deviate from that message. What do you like about the job as a duck? Being able to quack. What did you like in your past jobs? Whenever you got to quack. Quack, quack, quack. You’re still going to answer the questions, but every third sentence should be about quacking. It’s safe, it’s conservative, it’s traditional.

However, what if you’re actually a swan? Then you have three options.

First, if you REALLY want the job no matter what, just quack. Less risk.

Second, if you want the job but you also want to be yourself, quack and also show off your swan features. Let your wings unfurl. Strut a bit. It’s a compromise of being true to yourself while still pursuing the job strongly.

Third, if you are interested in the job, but you aren’t going to be happy if you can’t be a swan, then fully unfurl and strut. You have to. Because you don’t want them thinking you’re a conforming duck and hire you into a job that is a bad fit for you.

But this also leads to some good news.

You get to interview them too. You can ask what it’s like to work in the unit. Chances are they will tell you anyway before you ask. They’ll often describe the job in detail, or the division, or the branch. They’ll give you a bunch of info you didn’t get reliably earlier…and you may or may not like it.

Some people have thought the job was like X and then found out in the best fit interview that it was mostly about Y. Which they had no interest in, and now they’ve wasted a huge amount of time to get that far and they’re not interested in the job anymore. It happens. Mostly to people who applied for anything and everything without finding out what the job was about at least in general terms.

You also get to see the manager and / or director in an informal setting and see if you want to work for THEM. You can see how they describe files, people, the work, etc, and decide whether there is a whack job in the room, and it’s not you.

Those are the basics, and the challenge for giving advice on this section is so many of the questions you might have are “what if…” scenarios. Too many to address in their entirety, but I’ll attempt to address some common general themes.

Option 1: What if I’m invited but I actually don’t want the job?

Remember all those other factors I mentioned above? Life happens. You can politely decline the best fit interview and say you’re not interested in the job at this time, with or without an explanation, no harm, no foul. They might be a little annoyed, but they’ll get over it. If you have something else, just say so and move on.

However, I advise against declining. First of all, they ran a competition, invested a lot of time and resources in it, and you DID apply. The least you can do is here their pitch at the end.

Second, you actually don’t know what they’re considering. Tons of pools get used to fill OTHER jobs than the first one posted. You might think it is about training programs, and you’ve decided it doesn’t interest you in general, but in reality, they have a new initiative looking at training geared towards gender equality that is one of your passions. You don’t know, and you won’t know unless you go and have that little interview. And after you hear from them, if you don’t want it, email them the next day and thank them politely for their consideration but tell them it doesn’t seem like the best fit for you at this time. Even if they offer you the job, you CAN say no.

Option 2: I had the interview, seemed to go well, and I want the job. Now what?

Ideally, they offered you it on the spot and you said, “Quack yeah!”. More likely, they said, “Thanks for coming in, we’ll let you know.”

But you should also give them an extra bit of info – you WANT the job, now that you’ve heard more about it and met your potential bosses. So email them the next day and say thank you for considering me, and that you remain very interested in the position if they think you would be a good fit in the team. Lots of people think this is redundant, but the reality is that it is new info for them. They may THINK you will say yes if offered, but they don’t know for sure – they know you’re interviewing them for best fit too. So telling them you’re interested (or very interested) lets them know that for sure if they offer you the job, you’re going to say yes. You’re a sure thing. All uncertainty is gone. And there is a small psychological element in there too – just like in dating or friendships, it’s nice to be wanted, and you’re telling them you want to work with them.

On both the upside and downside, their response will likely tell you which way they’re leaning. Now they may have to interview lots of others too, you can often tell by their response if it is GREAT, thanks for letting us know, or just okay thanks.

Option 3: I had the interview and I don’t want to even KNOW them, let alone work there

So email them the next day and politely tell them it doesn’t seme like the right fit for you at this time. No harm, no foul.

Option 4: I want the job, but one detail is a dealbreaker for me, when do I tell them?

The short answer is whenever you feel comfortable raising it. Not very helpful, I know. So let’s tease that out a bit more. It depends a bit on what the detail is about.

If it is about the job, you need to at least raise it as a concern in the best fit interview because that is pretty clearly linked to your best fit. For example, if you hate public-speaking and you find out that there is a component of that in the job and you didn’t realize that previously, try and probe a bit to find out how extensive it is. They’ll be able to tell that you don’t like or have a problem with that component and the conversation will address that to some extent.

Or perhaps there is a need to do a lot of outreach during the week, but every Tuesday at lunch, you are doing Toastmasters. You could mention that as something you do, and ask if that would likely be an issue. You aren’t trying to say “no”, because they’re not offering you anything yet to say yes or no to anyway, you’re just working out the ramifications of the job and another commitment you have. You can do all of this in the best fit interview.

However, if the detail is something about YOU, not the job, then you can wait for an actual offer before raising it. They’ll call you to let you know they want to choose you, at which time you can ask to meet to discuss a couple of issues you just want to clarify before you say yes fully. You’re still telling them it’s a likely yes, you just want to mention a couple of things.

Some of these things might be highly personal. For example, suppose you have to pick up your son every Tuesday at 4:00 without fail. It’s not an everyday thing, as that could have been discussed at any time in terms of the workhours for the team, etc. Instead, this is a dealbreaker for you. Will that be a problem? Usually it isn’t. But you want to know before you say yes.

Or perhaps you have a one-week trip planned in six months where you’re taking your great grandmother back to the home country. It’s planned, booked, and you’re going no matter what. If it is that important to you, you may say, “Is this oging to be a problem?”. Usually not, particularly with advanced notice, but this category is about something YOU decided was a dealbreaker for you, so you need to know if it is a problem or not.

After that, there are a huge number of potential really personal issues you might want to raise. Maybe you have a religious ritual that you do at certain times each day, and while they’ll accommodate you, maybe you want to know it isn’t simply accommodations but they are actually supportive and would never ask you to do it after you finish some urgent task. Many of these areas could even get into questions of human rights, but you want them to know before you start.

Which takes me back to the original response. Tell them what you want to tell them when you feel comfortable doing so.

Now, lots of activists out there will tell you that you don’t need to share, and I agree. You don’t HAVE to tell them. But you also don’t want to necessarily be faced with having to fight for something with neanderthal bosses…you want to know their views before you accept.

For me, it is the blog I write. I tell them in my best fit interviews, if not earlier, that I have a blog. And give them the URL if they want to check it out to see the types of things I write. Am I allowed to have a blog? Yep. Does that mean a boss might not give me a hard time about it? No, they could, and if that’s their attitude, I want to know that before I agree to work for them…mostly because I won’t accept the offer. I’m also going to feel them out about HR, training supports for employees, ways to approach certain types of situations. And all of that will be informally during the best fit because that is where I feel comfortable sharing it. Others might wait for an actual offer, but to me, that’s a waste of time. But I’m also not looking for just “any job” or trying to get a promotion. I will only accept jobs that are the right fit for me.


Comments

Interviews — 39 Comments

  1. Hi Paul, Thank you for taking the time to write this. It’s very helpful, it seems there are so many unknowns in the PS that aren’t very clear. Hopefully I didn’t miss this but I was wondering more about the ‘best fit’ interview. I recently had one as I was picked from a pool. My question is, would I be the only one having this interview (meaning they have already chosen me on paper) or are they doing these interviews with multiple candidates? Or does this depend on each department and each manager? In other words am I still competing? Or have they in a sense already made up their mind about who they want, they just want to confirm it? Thank you.

    • Great question Laura, and the short answer is it totally depends on the manager, and to a large extent, who was part of the earlier interview committees. In my experience, lots of HR processes are encouraged to join together with other managers looking for the same skill sets/level. So let’s say there are ten interviews, and they always want at least two people in the board, preferably three, so that is 20-30 manager slots to cover for the interviews. That’s a lot for a small division, so they recruit other managers who might want to pull from the same pool. Some processes could be 60 people to interview for larger processes like post-secondary recruitment.

      Which means that the hiring manager who wants to pull from it, even though they did interviews, might have only interviewed 5-6 people out of a larger pool of 20-30. They don’t know that the six they got randomly were the best six to consider, so even if they did interviews, they’ll often do a best fit interview with 3-4 people, some of whom they may have met, some they may not have.

      Soooooooooo, that gives you a bunch of scenarios:

      – If the hiring manager has never met you before, they’re probably interviewing several. Perhaps not, they might be of the mind “I’ll start with the most promising, and if it seems good, I won’t go further.” HR often encourages them to, but you’re already in a pool, there’s no official NEED to go further. They could be “one and done”. But most of the time, if it isn’t someone who was on your board for the interview, they are PROBABLY interviewing others. Standard HR advice is 2-3.

      – If they WERE on your board, that assumption shifts. Most of the time, in my experience, if they’re calling you, they may very well NOT be considering anyone else. They may instead be asking to interview you so other people in the same unit can hear you too (validating the manager’s choice), and to have a bit more conversation about what a selection might look like. For example, they want to know if they go to the trouble of offering you something, you will say yes. They don’t want to go through all the hoops and find out you’ve got another offer somewhere else. It’s a bit like dating at this point…they want to know if you’re going to swipe right or not without coming out to ask you. Or perhaps you tell them, “I can’t start for two months as I’m finishing up a project at my current job.” (risky, btw).

      And then there’s the terrible news. They may do a best fit with several people, and decide none of you fit. I’ll give you a general example, but it’s a common problem. Let’s say I’m hiring a computer science / IT person and I have a team that supports people with websites, mainframes, PC setups, and software configurations. I have a pool to pull from, and I do a best-fit that shows me the candidates have really good website and software configuration, and are okay on PC, but have zero mainframe stuff. Yet in my team, I already have those other three areas covered. I really really really need a mainframe person. Even if they all cover multiple areas, I need more support on mainframe and PC than the candidates can offer. I might decide on that basis to take NONE of them and keep looking.

      So there’s no clear answer. It might be:

      a. Interviewing several and they’ll pick one;
      b. Interviewing several and might pick none; or,
      c. Interviewing the best first and if you seem good, they’ll take you, or keep going.

      There are lots of variables in best fit as well:

      – How fast can they start?
      – Do they already have their security clearance to secret?
      – Is there anything in their profile that suggest priority hiring, self-identification as Indigenous or persons with disability for instance?
      – Did they do their MA on the same topic we’re hiring for?
      – Did they do a co-op for the same department before?

      There is also an intangible quality. Suppose you have a young crew who are VERY informal in how they work, flexible hours, they cover for each other and that’s a bit of the culture of the team. And you have a candidate who is very formal, wants very defined roles, has to clock in at 9 and out at 5, etc. Or the reverse — you have a team that is very siloed in their research work, they like to work quietly without being interrupted for extended periods, and the candidate is a very upbeat, dynamic, social person. Either way, that is not necessarily going to be the best fit. As a manager, you may look just at the hard qualities and say they’re the best candidate, but if you ignore the impact on the team, that’s not a great hire. You don’t rule them out flippantly, but you do want to think about what that fit will look like. 90% of the time, it isn’t relevant enough to matter, teams are usually pretty eclectic to begin with. But I’m thinking of a couple of cases where I’ve seen a person added to a team who should NEVER have been hired with the existing crew, and it just created problems for everyone.

      The problem is that the thoughtful manager screening someone out for bad fit doesn’t necessarily look any different on paper from a racist manager screening out an immigrant. That’s not really what you asked me, but it’s part of what I’ll have in my next update — a much more fulsome treatment of “best fit interviews” and the context around it.

      What I usually tell people in short is that best fit does not mean you’re getting a job offer but it does mean you’re down to the final selection at least and still competing! It doesn’t feel good to take a bronze medal if you’re hoping for a gold though. FYI, there’s also the possibility that they could be interviewing more than one but they also have more than one position. Or, as is quite common, a manager might interview three, pass on one, take a second but think the third is a REALLY good fit in another team and pass along that info to the other manager. I do it every comp. Doesn’t always end up being a win for the other person, I don’t know their exact needs, but it’s a leg up for the end process.

      Best fits are always good news, just not always great news. 🙂

      Paul

  2. Hi Paul,

    Thank you for sharing this informative guide!
    I have an interview coming next week, and it says my “ability to communicate effectively orally” will be assessed. I was wondering if they will set up some specific questions to test my language abilities or the assessment will through the interview process, based on my performance for each question? What kind of marking grid will they use?
    Since English is my second language, I am a little nervous about this criteria.
    Thank you!

    • Hi Jodie,

      You have a few different Qs in there, but I’ll break it into two parts — format and evaluation.

      For the format, there is no “single way” to structure oral communications. Sometimes interviews will ask a separate question, such as a small role play like, “You have to brief your boss on the overall policy approval process” (assuming you’re applying for a job where that was relevant) and “You have 90s to do so.” So you’re basically making a small presentation to them, it’s very formal i.e. “THIS is your COMMS question”. Alternatively, and what most interviews do, they assign a global score for how you do through the whole interview. And a third alternative, if for example you had a writing test previously, they could hand you that material back and ask you to prepare something a bit more formally (not often, it takes too much time).

      For the evaluation, it doesn’t really matter which of those it is, the marking grid is the same…are you using appropriate language for the situation/level? Are you using terms correctly? Are you mixing up your comms strategy, varying your voice, giving emphasis to certain points, using inflection, etc. as opposed to talking in a monotone like a boring robot? Are you clear in your message? Is it understandable? Are you making any large grammatical mistakes that create barriers to understanding?

      As you’ll see from my guide and info, in my view, about 90% of that can be addressed by a clear structure to your answer. Generally speaking, in almost every interview I’ve conducted, people have failed the comms part because they were confusing. For example, I asked for “3 trends”, they rattled off somewhere around 10 with no grouping, etc. I have no idea what their “3” were, so I have to take the first three. Or they were doing the same Q, transitioned from #1 to #2, but it wasn’t clear if it was #2 or just more about #1. It is preferable / easier if you don’t already have a structure by the Q to say, “I am going to structure my answer around three broad headings – Research, Development, and Approvals.” And then as you go, you say, “Let’s start with the first heading, Research..(blah blah blah). Now I’m going to turn to my second area, Development.” It doesn’t have to be THAT formal, but it makes sure (a) you’re clear and (b) you’re not likely to go back and repeat yourself, NOR are you likely to digress and confuse them. If you’re answer wanders all over the place, more often than not, you fail the substance of the Q AND you fail the comms part too.

      Hope that helps, and good luck!

      Paul

      • Hi Paul,

        May I ask if it’s necessary to write a thank you letter after the interview? If so, should some words of appreciation are enough or it’s better to emphasize your interest in the job as well as a few more lines about how your skills match the position?
        Thanks very much for your time.

        Jodie

        • Hi Jodie,

          Necessary? No, definitely not.

          Nice? Probably, although etiquette changes with the times too.

          Useful? Probably not. If you were applying for a job at level, a deployment / secondment situation, AND it was something that dealt with customer service, service excellence, stakeholder relations, and you sent a few words of appreciation, it could be a nice little reminder of who you are. I don’t think you need to express continued interest, but you could say you look forward to hearing the results of the process. But if it’s not that kind of job, just a generic, then whether or not a thank you card is useful depends entirely on the person receiving it. Many will junk it immediately, some will like it, some may think it’s pushy.

          Overall, I would say it makes no difference to the outcome of the process. If you are the type of person who likes to / normally sends thank you cards, you can do so. If you’re not, I wouldn’t feel obligated to do so.

          It IS good however to thank your references…

          Paul

  3. Hi Paul, thank you very much for sharing this great guide! I find it so useful for my interview next week. I have a question. Is there an official competency dictionary that the raters will use for scoring? I am trying to come up with the headings for each abilities and personal suitability but having difficulties finding the most authoritative ones. I read on forum that Treasury Board secretariat used to have a list but no anymore. Should I just google each competencies or is there any source you would recommend? Thank you very much for your time.

  4. Hi there, I find your Guides very useful for my interview next week. I am just wondering if you have a sample template / or an example of the Secret template #2 that you mentioned being in the Annex 2. I cannot find Annex 2. It would be even more intuitive if you had an example for each of ability and personal suitability.

    • Wow, good catch. It’s been up for quite some time and nobody noticed that, including me. The Secret Template got moved around, so it doesn’t show up in the right place. Download the overall guide (sidebar to the right) and in the powerpoint presentation, it is slide 27.
      Thanks for the feedback too, I’m in the process of completely redoing the guide, almost from scratch.
      P.

  5. Hi Paul,
    I came across your very informative page a few months back and am now preparing for a formal interview. I have a test question on critical judgement. I know how to use judgement however not sure how they will be looking for me to answer it in a work case scenario that involves people in management role above me. I don’t currently work In government so I’m unsure of the hierarchy but have heard the only people you take direction from is your immediate supervisor and never to go above them to seek answers. Can you clarify the chain of command in gov?
    Thanks

    • Hi CC,
      So, you are mostly correct that you don’t bypass your boss, but it is not a “command and control” environment like a military so much as a “lead and direct” environment. Officers / agents / worker bees report to managers who report to Directors who report to Director-Generals who report to ADMs who report to DMs. Roughly speaking.
      I guess I could envision three types of scenarios to match your description (although I find it an odd formulation, not something you would see very often).
      a. A simple scenario could be your boss has told you to do x, they’re not here, something has changed, and you have to decide if you’re going to talk to their boss.
      b. More harshly, your boss has told you to do x, you think it’s the wrong approach, and you want to go to their boss about it.
      c. Alternatively, your boss told you to do x, their boss comes to see you and tells you to do y.
      Generally, B isn’t likely to happen very often and there is an element of that which is just plain stupid. Most of the time, your boss has the right to be wrong. Their job is to give direction, and if it isn’t life or death, or illegal, bypassing them is generally a bad idea and more likely to get you slapped for bad judgement than rewarded for initiative. There’s a classic question that people have asked DMs about what to do with Ministers for example when the Minister says no to something that the DM thinks should go forward. Basically, present once, get your answer. If you don’t like the answer, then consider going back a second time. If you still don’t like the answer, consider going back a third time. And if it is still no? Shut up. That’s the Minister’s role, to make those decisions. And elected and appointed to do so. Sooo, extrapolating downward, managing upward is important but at some point, your boss is still your boss.
      The other two scenarios are common and fair game in a question.
      However, the important part to remember is that unless you have a ridiculous solution, there is no “one” solution that is best. What they are looking for in judgement is whether or not you can identify the key factors, weight them appropriately, make a decision, mitigate your risks, implement your decision, and follow-up. So if your big boss (BB) tells you to do y, and your little boss (LB) says x, go to your little boss and say, “Hey, so BB came to see me, and s/he asked for this.” If you have time, you do it before you deliver what the BB asked for. If you don’t, you make sure you follow-up afterwards. Plus, depending on your level, we might look to see if you’ll push back with the BB’s request. For example, do you say to BB, “I can do that, sure. FYI, LB had already decided on a solution/approahc, which was x. Do you want me to proceed with y or do you want to talk to them about X first?”. No one wants a robot. In the end, the BB is likely to “win” so to speak, so obviously you give their request more weight, but you make sure LB knows as soon as possible and doesn’t feel like YOU’RE doing an end-run around them. Nor do you want to say to BB, “Sorry, don’t work for you, you’ll have to tell LB who will tell me”.
      But, going back, the biggest piece is identifying and explaining the factors. So, for example, you could say “Well, I recognize the hierarchy and so I should listen more to BB than LB, but LB is my boss and perhaps BB doesn’t have all the info that LB had, so as soon as BB tells me to do something, if I have time, I will consult with LB as soon as possible.” Or “urgent, do what BB tells me, but alert them it wasn’t the chosen route of LB, and that you don’t know everything LB knows, blah blah blah” (i.e., push back a bit). Of course, that’s only one factor in critical judgement (managing upward), the solution may have other factors too (Time, cost, etc).
      Hope that helps…my normal answer is you rarely go wrong focusing on being as helpful and as transparent as possible.
      Paul

  6. 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!
      Paul

  7. 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,
      Paul

  8. 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?
    Cheers!

    • 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,
      Paul

      • 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?
        Cheers!

        • 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.
          P.

          • 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!

  9. 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!
    A.

    • 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?
      P.

  10. 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!
    KP

    • 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…
      P.

  11. 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!
      P.

  12. 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.
      PolyWogg

        • 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).

  13. 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!

Leave a Reply

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

HTML tags allowed in your comment: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>