There are lots of books on the market about “how to get a job”. Some emphasize resume formats; others tell you the best answers to the latest questions; others tell you which search engines or job services to use. Most assume that all employers are the same, all of them are in the private sector, and all techniques are transferable. However, almost none of the “business books” are suitable for preparing for a Canadian government “selection process”.

This book is designed to help you improve your chances of successfully applying for and getting a job in the Canadian federal government. But before we begin, we have to dispel two very big myths.

Myth #1: You Have To Know Someone To Get In

One of the biggest myths about working for government that drives me bonkers is when someone says, “Oh, I can’t get a job in the public service, you have to know someone.”

Sure, there are examples out there where someone hired their nephew, brother-in-law, or third cousin twice-removed, particularly in politician’s offices where the rules are more lax. Nepotism can and does exist, just the same as it exists in any industry. Yet most permanent HR hiring by the public service is subject to rules and processes that make such an outcome doubtful.

However, there is one aspect of that statement which is absolutely true. Information about how to prepare for an exam or an interview is rarely written down. So, sometimes it does help to know someone who knows the process and who is willing to share it with you. So, with that in mind:

Hi, my name is PolyWogg. Nice to meet you.

There. Now you know someone who’ll tell you what you need to know.

And I’ll do it right here, right now. Although there are some unique tips and tricks, it is not rocket science. No need to pay HR experts to “coach” you or take courses on how to write a resume. If this book can help you in the same way that the information and approaches have helped me and others, then my work here is done.

Myth #2: PolyWogg Is An Expert In Human Resources

I am NOT an expert in human resources. I don’t even WORK in human resources. Instead, I am basically you. I joined the public service and wanted to better prepare for competitions so I could advance – so I had to learn what to do and what not to do, what to read, what to say, how to prepare for an interview. Just as you need to do. In fact, the only difference between you and me is that I’ve already climbed the information mountain, and I’m willing to throw you a rope to make your climb a bit easier.

I do have a Master’s in Public Administration, have worked for municipal, provincial and federal governments, and have over twenty years of experience in the federal government including both competing for and running competitions myself. Plus I’ve been informally coaching people on HR processes on an active basis for the last fourteen years, with my “students” experiencing success of their own in applying my approaches and techniques.

But I didn’t start out looking to develop an expertise in this area. It just happened – because I needed to know the answers for my benefit. And the approach I outline in the following chapters is based on five principles that have worked well for me.

My Five Principles

I first became interested in formal competitions back in 1990 when I wrote the LSAT and GMAT exams for law school and graduate programs in public administration. I didn’t know anyone who had passed the tests or even who had written them (and the internet hadn’t been invented yet!), so I went out and bought some books and practice exams, and by doing repeated trials before the real test, I raised my score from 80th to 99th percentile for both exams. This confirmed my first principle:

P1. Solid preparation and repeated practice for standardized tests improves your performance.

I know, you’re thinking, “Well, that’s not exactly news.” True, it’s not news. But stay tuned for a second.

Subsequently as a graduate co-op student, I did a lot of government interviews in a short period of time, and I noticed that the interviewers asked me very similar questions over and over, even when the words were slightly different. So, with each interview, I slowly improved my answers. For example, I developed little “speech modules” I could use – strengths, weaknesses, policy development, legal principles, whatever they threw at me. There were always one or two questions that were unique, but after the first ten interviews, the majority of the questions were repeats. These conversations led me to my second principle:

P2. Interview questions for government interviews tend to be standardized.

That WAS news to me…I had originally expected every interview to be as unique as the department that was running it. After all, the written exams and interview questions that government managers use don’t really look like “standardized tests”, but they are. Trust me, you’ll see this in later chapters when you start preparing.

While doing a co-op at Foreign Affairs, I applied for the Foreign Service. At the time, you had to write three tests – the “Entry-Level Officer Selection Test (ELOST)”, the Written Communications Test, and the Foreign Service Knowledge Test. Out of 7000 applicants, only about 100 would be hired. I talked to other officers, and learned which things were good to say and which were not. I also found out that there was a former Foreign Service officer who offered preparation courses for the exams, similar to those offered for LSATs and GMATs. I signed up and learned a lot of neat little tricks on how to improve my score. I didn’t have time to re-invent the tips by myself, and they weren’t written down anywhere else, so his course helped me shorten the learning curve. I made it all the way to the interview stage on the first try, but didn’t rank high enough to be accepted. Since lots of people who work for DFAIT don’t make it that far on their first attempt, my experience led me to my third principle:

P3. Others have tips on how to improve and you can learn from them.

For me, this was really the beginning of my approach – standardized tests, solid preparation, and talking to others about what they had learned from previous competitions.

The following year, I applied for work at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Just before the interview, I met up with a friend who had been hired the year before, and she told me the types of questions she had been asked. I was still somewhat nervous, but the interviews were just like the other ones I had done – fairly standardized questions. I aced the interview, with only one question that I wasn’t expecting, but I was able to create a solid answer for it too. And, with that process completed, I became an indeterminate employee of the federal government. I also gained my fourth principle:

P4. Even if it takes multiple attempts, it can and will come together for you.

It may not be the first interview, it may not be the second, but you can improve if you’re willing to take the time to learn. Like I said above, it’s not rocket science, but up until now, I have talked mainly about “getting in”. However, one of the most surprising things for me was finding out that some people who are already in government don’t know how to prepare for competitions either. Lots of outside people think that once they are “in”, the curtains will part and the mysteries of managing your career or passing competitions will suddenly be revealed. But the curtains do not part so easily.

Human resources (HR) processes continue to be dark and mysterious for some, and not a lot of the information that you need to properly prepare for promotion boards is formally documented. Even people participating in formal career development programs often complain that it is “too loose” and “unstructured”, not enough guidance to tell them what they should or should not do. If you look for rules, you’ll find them – but almost all of them are about what you CAN’T do; there are very few guides for employees on what they SHOULD do to prepare for formal competitions. And formal competitions are still the main way to enter or advance within the government once you are “in”.

I felt a bit lost when I started at CIDA. Even though I was in a career development program, it was relatively new. Information wasn’t documented, there weren’t even templates for how to write an appraisal properly to get your next promotion. But I managed to struggle through. I moved from an IS-03 (term information officer) at Foreign Affairs to an indeterminate PM-01 (project management) position at CIDA, and then passed paper-based promotions to subsequent levels PM-02 and -03. Then came time for my first internal competition – an ES-04 (policy analyst) position.

So, based on my first four principles, I talked to people, asked what kinds of questions had been asked for similar positions, talked to HR people to get advice, etc. And suddenly, for the first time, I found out there is a two-part HR code that the people working in HR assume everyone knows.

The first part of the code is obvious – the jobs are described in a formal poster that tells you the experience, knowledge, abilities and personal suitability elements you need for the job.

The second part of the code, though, is more subtle – not only does the competition test you on those elements, but it also ONLY tests those elements.

No surprise questions, no off-the-wall, out-of-the-blue, navel-gazing questions. No asking you, “If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?”, because the poster doesn’t say “Ability to analyse personality traits as if you were an animal”. Instead, it will say something like “ability to write briefing notes”. Guess what? That means they’ll test your ability to write a briefing note.

Put differently, government hiring processes are governed by legislation and the legislation requires transparent processes that can be appealed and adjudicated. So most managers follow linear processes to avoid being over-turned by others. Which leads to the most important principle of all…drum roll, please:

P5. Government competitions are predictable.

So, for example, ask yourself, “The poster includes initiative, how will a manager test initiative?”. Answer: “They might ask the candidate to tell them of a time when they have demonstrated initiative.” Or “They might give the candidate a scenario and ask them what initiative they would show in the situation.”

And since it is predictable, you can prepare your answers in advance. Not necessarily word-for-word, but you can prepare some pretty good outlines / speech modules in advance.

Successful Application Of The Five Principles

Using these five principles, I ranked first in my ES-04 policy analyst competition. And then an ES-05. And then an ES-06. I had already figured out how to write proper cover letters to get myself screened in – from 1993 to 2013, I was never screened out at the application stage of any competition, and I participated in a lot. I was even screened in for Director-level positions while still being three levels below and had consultants flag my resume as a “model application” for managers to help them explain to others how to write their application.

As I’ve become more senior, I’ve also worked the other side of the table and conducted interviews for ES, PM, AS, co-op and FSWEP positions (all these acronyms will become clear later). I’ve also attended conferences to get the latest in HR trends and issues.

But, most of all, I have never stopped asking other people the golden question. “So, what types of questions did they ask you in your last competition?” Because it is STILL not written down, and if you don’t ask, you don’t find out.

Ultimately, that’s why I’m writing this manual. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if people are struggling to prepare for a competition – it isn’t rocket science, it’s knowable, it’s predictable, and you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you go to prepare for a competition. Someone else has already done the basic research – in this case, me! And it’s equally a waste of time to lose out on a good candidate who could do the job but who didn’t pass the exam because they suck at “surprise” tests.

There are little things you can do to better prepare for an exam or interview, and you can learn them. You still have to do the work, you still have to answer the questions, and there are no guarantees of success. But if you can give yourself even the smallest of edges, you dramatically raise your chances of success.

So, let me tell you what you need to know…and the rest of this guide is geared around the things you need to understand.

Know Yourself

Most people reading this book have already decided that they want to work for government for various reasons. Maybe they know some people who work there, maybe they were looking for work in a specific area. But before we get to figuring “where and how”, let’s ask a more fundamental question.


I don’t mean a general question like “Why work for government?” but rather a very targeted question to you — “Why do YOU want to work for government?”.

Maybe you think people in government don’t do anything, so you think it’s easy money. Or maybe you simply “want a job”. If those are your reasons, you can probably stop reading right now. Because once you get a job in government, you’re going to be miserable. The first isn’t true and the second is a poor reason to take any job for any length of time.

People in government like to use the phrase “best fit” to describe which candidate is the best fit for the team. However, you too have to decide if government writ large or a specific job within government is also the best fit for you. Or a specific job. What does a given organization offer you, what aspect of the job resonates with you?

There are two main paradigms for answering this — the Substantive Content paradigm, and the Personal Value paradigm. Note that as I mentioned in the previous chapter, there are whole courses and self-help books designed to help you “find your passion”, and obviously I’m not going to cram all of that into a single chapter. Instead, I’m going to show you the two big paradigms, and see if it helps you understand a little bit about what is driving your interest in government.

Substantive Content Paradigm

Some obvious things for people in choosing jobs are the size of their paycheque, level of benefits, the work environment, opportunities for growth and personal development on the job, and, most importantly, the job itself and what your coworkers are like. The first three (pay / benefits / work environment) are relatively similar across the federal government; growth and development vary considerably; and the job itself along with the type of coworkers are likely to be the deciding factors whether you enjoy working for government. But that’s the second paradigm.

For this first paradigm, you can do full tests online, detailed analysis of personality profiles, or even entire courses on figuring out what you want to do with your life, but I just want to ask some basic questions to see if government is right for you. And if so, then ask why, how and where you might fit.

First and foremost, have you ever / always thought of working for government?

If the answer to that question is no, you probably shouldn’t. You may be wanting to change jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should head for government. I’m definitely a “lifer” with government, it was something I’ve always wanted to do. If you haven’t, perhaps that’s telling you something about where your interests lie. Personally, I’d go crazy working in the private-sector for a commercial company making or selling widgets to the public (external), or even helping those who make the widgets talk to those who sell the widgets (internal). The entire activity holds almost no interest for me, because I don’t care about widgets or the steps in producing or selling widgets. If you feel the same way about government, or government service, that’s a strong reason to avoid it like the plague. Entrepreneurs, strong outcome-oriented people who like to see the direct visible results of their personal work and initiative tend to be the unhappiest ones in government. They dream of running a business while others dream of policy discussions or service delivery.

Second, do the issues / programs / services interest you?

Unless the issues, programs or services that the federal government deals with are ones that interest you, government is definitely not going to be right for you. The literature calls it “interest/function alignment” but basically means, “do you care about the work your organization does”. If you don’t, because the issues don’t excite you, work becomes nothing more than a series of very long days until you retire or die. Not surprisingly, different departments deal with different types of issues. Some deal with the most vulnerable groups; others deal with businesses. Some are at arms-length from Canadians; others are direct service providers. But the “content” / issues are what usually drive people to want to work in these organizations, and frequently determine if they like their job at all. Someone might want to really work in health, but have no interest in fisheries, for example.

Heavily related to this is the type of impact the organization has and thus the scope of work of the organization. Some people are all about individuals and want to deal with micro issues. Others are more about mid-level issues, and generally are focused on infrastructure. Still others want to see the big-picture, macro-level issues and thus focus on how systems work and inter-relate.

Third, is government the right sector for you?

Would you prefer the private-sector? Semi-public or not-for-profits sector? There are lots of other ways to work on public issues without being a government employee. Even if certain issues / areas excite you, government may not be the right SECTOR for you, and some people care heavily about the sector, not just the issue area. While the spectrum runs from the private sector to the public sector, there are lots of organizations along the curve.

For instance, some are only interested in the private sector. If so, they generally get to pick between an established company, a start-up, a consulting company, a temp agency, or act as an entrepreneur. If these are attractive to you, the likelihood of you liking a government job is relatively low.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are government jobs. Here the choices are between orders of government – federal, provincial or territorial, regional, municipal or even internationally through entities like the United Nations.

In the middle are other types of organizations, often dealing with similar issues to government, particularly on the social front but operating somewhat more like a private business. This includes NGOs in general, associations, educational organizations, health care providers, and Crown Corporations (business arms of the government).

Combining these questions together may help you narrow your search effort to focus on only those organizations that actually interest you, and I firmly believe that life is too short to waste it doing something other than what you want to be doing. So, again, “why do you want to work for government?”.

I confess that part of the above resonates with me. As I said, I’m a lifer with government, it’s the right sector, right issues, right level for me. Which means choosing to work for government is a no-brainer for me, but where I work in government is a far different question. For this, there’s a different set of issues at play.

Personal Value Paradigm

For some people, they are all about the type of work on a more micro basis. For example, they may work for government, but what they are really passionate about is policy analysis, program development, service delivery or enabling services (such as HR, finance, evaluation, research, communications, or legal services). Some of them may even move, as people have done at CIDA, between private companies or NGOs delivering programs to CIDA to do program development and then on to a think tank or university to do longer-term policy analysis. They like the issue (international development), but they don’t care which sector, they just float in between. Others are more interested in the scope of their file – are they focusing on design, implementation, evaluation/review or change/transformation? Finally, others are more compelled by their own personal value-added. Are they great at a task? Are they good at freeing others to do other things? Is it compelling that they are part of something important even if their own role isn’t?

The HR literature in this area has identified four key factors that tend to determine if you’re going to be happy with a job or not, separate from above.

First and foremost are the job and the organization themselves. Obviously, the simplest form of this question is whether you like what the company or you are doing? Does the mandate of the organization align well with your own personal interests, principles and skills? Alternatively, some people are all about the impact – are you making a difference (personally or as part of a good organization)? This is a bit different than the way the question was framed above, and no longer about the large impacts of an organization but rather more about your specific role and contribution.

Secondly, people often enjoy even seemingly less-than-ideal jobs if they know that the job is helping them grow and develop. This can be in the form of skills development that serves as a stepping stone to future work, or it might be simply opportunities for learning i.e. professional development, travel, language training. Others are looking for challenges that will help them grow personally, while others want to flex their personal creativity muscles and are looking for autonomy, flexibility, and an increased variety of tasks. In short, what are you getting out of the job and is it clear? Again, this is more about YOU than about clients.

Third, the work environment is critical to enjoyment. Do you have clear direction from above i.e. leadership? Does the culture encourage pride of ownership and a healthy day-to-day atmosphere? Or are people demoralized in soul-sucking pain? Obviously much of this depends on the community you work with inside the organization – not only your supervisor(s), but also your peers, subordinates, and work partners. Are employees engaged in the work, including two-way communications? Or are they automatons being told what to do? Of course, the literature frequently reduces job satisfaction into a general “work-life balance” equation, which is important, but for others, it might simply be determined by the stability of hours of work or the physical location of the office.

Finally, there’s your direct and indirect compensation. This includes a long list of related items — the direct compensation i.e. the size of your pay cheque which is set by legislation and regulation, and negotiated in bulk; job and income security i.e. government jobs used to be considered relatively secure and permanent; leave i.e. time off for sick leave and vacation, which is also negotiated for all workers by the unions and is an important portion of compensation (often tweaked in lieu of larger pay raises); and benefits (such as top-ups for maternity leave, sick benefits, health coverage, etc.).

Combining these as a separate paradigm, or with the previous paradigm, can either help you determine where in government you want to work, or if there is no place that meets your needs, whether you want to work in government at all. But even if you decide “Government is for me”, it doesn’t really narrow it down much further than that…because you don’t really know what the options are within government. You may now understand yourself better, but you still need to understand different types of jobs in government.

Types of Jobs

Now that you better understand yourself, you need to understand what types of jobs the federal government has if you want to figure out what type of job you are seeking. As with the previous chapter, there are two large perspectives to think about: functional classifications and departmental roles.

Functional classification

Generally speaking, there are five types of jobs in the federal government:

ManagementEnabling Service
Policy development and program designSpecialist categories
Program management / service delivery

Let’s talk a bit about each of those, as it will help you figure out what interests you. We can eliminate two from consideration pretty fast – management and specialists.

For management, the public service is pretty similar to the private sector – people aren’t usually hired into management positions unless they already have experience at lower levels in the same field or industry. Which means most departments don’t usually hire management people off the street – they promote former analysts, program managers, and administrators who have experience in policy, programs, or administration. This leaves the rare individual who is able to jump in from outside and take over a management position without ever having managed policy development, government programs, or enabling services, all of which have a myriad of rules, procedures, and regulations that don’t exist in the private sector. In addition, Executive competitions are very different from the rest of the positions addressed by the techniques you’ll find in the subsequent sections. If that’s your niche, what you are trying to do, this book will likely be too general for your unique situation. 

Equally, the needs of specialists are also not likely to be completely met by this book, as you’ll need to supplement it with additional details about where and when to apply. For example, are you a veterinarian? If so, you probably already know that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are likely the only ones to need you. Other specialists like air traffic controllers, correctional services, and police operations support tend to have only one or two possible Departments. This book can help with general approaches, but Departments that hire specialists often also have detailed sub-tests that are too unique to cover.

This still leaves the three main areas that represent about 90% of the public service.

First up is policy development and program design. These generally are policy wonks, most often with a background in economics, sociology or statistics. Officially, they are part of the EC (economics or social science) or SI (statistics) streams, but that is a narrow definition (there are other categories that are very similar, see more below). Their work is often around the “big picture” and figuring out how best for the government to respond to a large problem. Policy research, statistical trend analysis, and identification of key drivers in the economic or social spheres of Canada are the starting point for “policy development”, but quickly leads to consideration of possible instruments that the government has at its disposal to respond – legislation, regulation, direct delivery of a program or service, third-party contracting for service delivery, tax benefits, public awareness, direct benefits to individuals, etc. Parliament and Ministers set broad policy direction, but it is the ECs and SIs who figure out how to achieve the policy objectives and develop detailed policy options for Cabinet to consider. This category of work has one over-riding element in common – they spend most of their time reading and writing. Sure, they have meetings and consultations, and the SIs also do a lot of number crunching, but what this group ultimately does is read stuff and then write about it.

The second category is program management. Primarily this falls to one main job classification – “Program Management” aka PMs. Many people confuse “public program management” (the job classification) with “project management” (a type of work that the private sector likes to use). However, they are very different. Program managers in the public sector take what has been designed by policy wonks and approved by politicians, and translate it into a program helping Canadians. Note that much of this work looks more like “project administration” than what the private-sector calls “project management”, but even PMs in the government will inaccurately say they have numerous projects that they “manage”.

Actually they rarely manage them at all – instead they manage the funding of the projects, not the actual projects themselves. In the private sector, admin people will deal with a lot of the items above, while the PM focuses on actually managing the project – keeping sure timelines are met, maintaining GANTT charts and project trackers, addressing resource needs at different times of the project, etc. But in the government, a PM manages the funding of companies and NGOs who will in turn actually manage and deliver the projects.

This is often VERY clear in areas like international development. While the former CIDA might have had 3500 or so projects at any one time, CIDA didn’t “manage” the projects. It manages the financing of the project with reports and disbursements, while the private sector and NGOs would do the actual management and delivery.

It is often easier to think of these government projects as split into two areas with “project administration” done by government and the actual “service delivery” contracted out to third parties, so to speak.

However, not all programs are contracted out or simply financed. Employment insurance, pensions, passports, etc. are all services directly provided by government. Some of their work mirrors the project management above. For example, they will review your application (i.e. your “proposal”), determine eligibility, approve or reject based on set criteria, manage your file, collect data, etc. The two differences are that it is often to serve an individual rather than a company and they will provide the direct delivery themselves rather than farming it out to a third-party deliverer.

But almost all of the work of PMs have one over-arching element in common – they are dealing with external clients…people, companies, NGOs, provinces, municipalities, associations, etc. These are the “front-line” people who deal directly with Canadians.

The third category is a bit of a trick category – it is called “enabling services”. Generally, enabling service people have a special function they perform internally within government. Human resources is a good example. This group provides administration support to the rest of the government, and generally ONLY deals with government people. They rarely deal with external people, unless they’re managing competitions open to the public. Finance is another enabling service, with lots of people with accounting or auditing designations working on tracking internal finances across huge or tiny departments and reporting on where every single penny goes. Again, they usually don’t deal with the public directly.

Some of these groups are specialists and have special classification categories like PE (for “Personnel” aka Human Resources) or FI (for “Finance”). However, the vast majority of the enabling service category is made up by a single classification – “AS” aka “Administration”. They range from admin assistants to office managers, correspondence coordinators to ATIP officers. In most cases, they are managing records, supporting employees, tracking finances, or managing infrastructure like buildings / IT, etc.

Oddly enough, some of the day-to-day work can look a lot like the PM category’s “project administration” mentioned above. So if they do similar work, have the same skill sets, and sometimes even work on the same files, why are there two classifications? The short answer is what I noted above — PMs deal with external clients i.e. Canadians (the “front-line” service mentioned above) while ASs deal only with internal clients. It’s an arbitrary distinction and it is expected that through future modernization initiatives, these separate categories will merge. However, at present, they are still separate.

All of this will still seem fairly theoretical, and your eyes may be glazing over at the same time that your brain is starting to fall asleep. Let’s get to a real example.

Suppose the government has decided that there should be a new program to help a struggling widget industry. How will that happen?

First of all, the ECs and SIs will research the heck out of the widget industry. They’ll review literature, case studies, talk to industry people, check statistical trends, compare it to other countries, try and figure out exactly what the current situation is. This rarely requires starting from scratch, we’ve probably been monitoring or involved in the widget industry for some time, but we’ll pull all the facts and info together into a “diagnostique” that says “here’s the current situation”.

Second, ECs and SIs will move on to the analysis stage, coming up with risks, mitigation strategies, proposals, considerations of instruments, etc. and all of it leading to a recommendation of a specific response or set of responses to meet the current need. The political sphere will consider, and approve or reject. (As an aside, recommendations are rarely rejected. This is NOT, as some people think, because the civil servants are in control, but rather because there will have been numerous back-and-forth discussions before the final recommendation is made, thus ensuring that the final options presented and the one recommended is one that is palatable to the Minister and political sphere, with any truly “unacceptable” or “unpalatable” recommendations weeded out at the draft stage).

Third, with policy approval and program authority obtained, the PMs take over. In this instance, assume that the program is a small project program that helps fund market assessments for overseas markets for the widget industry to identify potential sales niches and thus boost revenue. Companies will apply, goverment PMs will assess the applications/proposals, some will get funded, the private sector will do the market assessments, reports will be issued, monies will be tracked, and files closed.

However, while the ECs and PMs mentioned above did the major work for the program design and subsequent delivery, they didn’t do it alone. Someone had to hire them. Someone had to order their desks, manage their budgets, provide computers and networks. Someone had to manage the buildings and pay the employees, remit their taxes. And someone had to ensure that everything that was being done was done according to fairly detailed rules about how public resources can be managed. Parliament and taxpayers want to know that managers can’t just hire someone off the street, such as a friend for instance. (Hence, the need for a rigid, formal system for HR, and hence the need for a book like this to help someone navigate it.) The group that does all that work is the administrative stream, supplemented by PEs (HR) and FIs (finance).

I see you’re not convinced. You’re thinking, “People have different jobs. I get it. So what?”. The difference, unlike the private sector, is that while people change jobs, they rarely change classification. An AS almost never switches into an EC stream. Admin officers don’t do policy analysis for government programs. Equally, ECs almost never become AS. PMs can, and do, switch to both EC and AS (more so AS than EC), but even then it is a relatively low percentage. And it is very hard to simply switch if you start in what you decide later is the wrong category.

You may be thinking, “that’s just bureaucracy”, “that’s stupid”, etc. I have two responses.

First, yep, you’re right, welcome to government.

Second, on the other hand, if you were hiring a senior policy analyst, with specific educational needs and background (economics, stats, sociology), specific experiences (say in policy analysis), and specific skills sets (writing, synthesis, analysis, working in multi-disciplinary teams), are you more likely to find that combination in a junior analyst already in the EC category or in an admin officer who has been doing records management for the last five years? Equally, if you are hiring a senior admin person to manage an office of 40 people, are you more likely to find the specific education background (administration, accounting, finance), specific experiences (HR, budgeting, project administration) and specific skills sets (initiative, team player, strong interpersonal skills) in a junior admin officer already in the AS category or in a policy wonk from the EC category who has been studying the widget industry for the last five years? Different work, different skill sets, different category.

And from the previous chapter you have a better idea which of those types of jobs appeal to YOU. So choose wisely.

However, you should be aware too that there is a negative and mostly false perception amongst a lot of people who work in government that there is an informal hierarchy of classifications. Namely, that ECs are more senior/important than PMs and PMs are more senior/important than AS. Part of that is born out of a bias around educational requirements. Many AS positions only require high school completion. PM positions frequently require high school plus perhaps some college or other types of training such as accounting. EC positions want a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree and increasingly a Masters degree. Subsequently, people sometimes mistake the need for more education for EC positions to mean they are more senior or more important. That isn’t true, but the informal bias does exist in many organizations.

It also doesn’t help that pay often reflects that bias too – the ECs tend to have higher starting salaries, and tend to be at higher levels within the classification (i.e. a working level for EC is somewhere around EC-04 or EC-05 while there are huge numbers of PM and AS positions at the -01 and -02 levels). Promotions also often come faster for EC than PM/AS as well (i.e. if you get hired as EC-02, you’ll likely jump up to EC-04 or -05 potentially in a couple of years, while if you get hired as AS-01 or -02, there may not be many opportunities to move up to -04 or -05 levels very quickly).

Life beyond the three big categories

EC, PM, and AS positions are pretty easy to map against the three headings I listed at the beginning – EC does policy and program work, PM does program delivery, and AS does enabling service. But there are 60+ classifications in the government, and some of them are pretty similar to the EC/PM/AS jobs in terms of skill sets and work. For example, I mentioned at the start of the section that mapping the EC classification to policy work is an over-simplification. That’s because auditors (AU), commerce officers (CO), communications (IS), lawyers (LA/LP), and foreign service officers (FS) also spend most of their time reading, writing and analyzing policy. It often has a slight twist on the normal policy work (auditors have financial training and/or focus on internal control measures, commerce officers are working on trade and industry issues), but all of them are doing “policy” work by another name. Equally, the PE category is just a specialized AS category. Hence, a modified list below.

  • Process
  • Internal focus
  • Implement and support



  • Policy
  • External focus
  • Design and lead
Executive / Management (EX)
Personnel Administration (PE)Administrative Services (AS)Program Management and Service Delivery (PM)Economic and Social Sciences (EC)Statistician (SI)
Financial Services (FI)Information Services / Communications (IS)
Computer Services (CS)Foreign Service (FS)
Clerical (CR)Commercial Officer (CO)
Specialized administration-related positionsCore job functionsSpecialized policy-related positions

As you can see from the diagram, there is a spectrum going from left to right where you move from process to policy, internal focus to external focus, and from implementation and support to designing and leading. I deliberately put it in this order to prevent the normal bias that it goes the other way (the order from right to left) and that “policy” is more important than program management or administration. The two outer columns are specialized positions, but are often filled with people from the adjacent column.

And in terms of job mobility, the above positions frequently can move one column right or left i.e. if you are a PM, you can become an AS or EC with a bit of work. But jumping multiple columns i.e. from an CS to an FS would be quite challenging. Not impossible, but challenging.

Figuring out which of the five columns interests you most will help you figure out which jobs to target in your search. But you also need to understand which departments are out there.

Departmental Roles

There are a LOT of different departments across the federal government, ranging on some microlists to hundreds of organizations to some more abbreviated lists of about fifty. But those are just laundry lists. I’ll try and group them a little bit here to help you understand the categories. I’ve tried to group by type of files or operations, and included my own quirky description as to their roles, but I confess in advance that I am over-simplifying considerably and I am using somewhat different groupings than a standard “policy” text would use — if you want to know what a given organization does, check out their website.

Machinery of GovernmentGovernment InfrastructureEconomic DevelopmentInternationalHuman DevelopmentSecuritySectoral
  • Elections Canada
  • Privy Council Office
  • Canada Revenue Agency
  • Finance
  • Treasury Board Secretariat
  • Public Service Commission
  • Canada School of Public Service
  • Public Services and Procurement Canada
  • Shared Services Canada
  • Office of the Auditor General
  • Statistics Canada
  • Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada
  • Global Affairs Canada (GAC)
  • International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
  • Immigration and Citizenship
  • Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) *
  • Export Development Canada (EDC)
  • All government departments
  • Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)
  • Service Canada
  • Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (IANAC)
  • Health Canada
  • Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)
  • Public Safety
  • National Defence
  • Canadian Border Services Agency
  • Justice
  • Correctional Services
  • * Also CSIS
  • Agriculture and Agri-food Canada
  • Canadian Food Inspection Agency
  • Environment Canada
  • Natural Resources Canada
  • Parks Canada
  • Fisheries Canada
  • Canadian Heritage
  • Transport Canada
  1. Machinery of Government: There are five main organizations that deal with “machinery of government”, the bureaucratic phrase that means “how government works”:
    1. Elections Canada defines the rules for elections and the structures used to figure out who’s in charge (i.e. the politicians);
    2. These elected politicians become the Prime Minister, Cabinet, and Parliament and tell the Privy Council Office (who are civil servants) what the priorities are and they in turn tell the rest of the government;
    3. The Canada Revenue Agency collects money from Canadians and gives it to Finance to manage;
    4. Finance figures out how much each of the priorities will cost (in general terms) and manages the fiscal environment; and,
    5. the Treasury Board Secretariat sets the rules and regulations on how and when a department or agency can spend taxpayer money, and verifies that the rules are being met.
  2. Government Infrastructure: There are five organizations that provide common services to the rest of government.
    1. While there are multiple organizations that have some impact on human resources administration in the federal government, the two biggest are the Public Service Commission (setting and enforcing rules for hiring, etc.) and the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS, which provides training and certifications);
    2. Public Services and Procurement Canada manages or facilitates the purchase of buildings, vehicles, offices, desks, electricity, telephones, computers, etc. in all government offices (think of it as your building superintendent in an all-inclusive furnished apartment), handles most of the procurement process when the government purchases anything bigger than a stapler, and now has a separate Agency called Shared Services Canada that handles IT infrastructure for the Government;
    3. The Office of the Auditor General is often considered by many to be part of the “machinery of government” section, but I’ve put it here because it provides audit services to the rest of government in addition to its general oversight function of all government operations; and,
    4. I’m also including Statistics Canada here because they provide an under-rated service to most of government as well as Canadians. They track everything from the number of cars stolen in Canada last year (I kid a friend who works there that they probably count the number of tires stolen and divide by 4!) to the number of employed and unemployed electricians in B.C. (they do detailed surveys, in addition to the annual census) to the trend in income growth following labour mobility (which is government speak for “how much more money did people make on average by moving to areas that actually had jobs?”).
  3. Economic Development: Okay, those last two groupings might have put you to sleep. I’m not surprised – they put most people to sleep, even me, and I love public administration. So let’s get that economy going. There are very passionate people around the government and the country who tell you they are responsible for economic development, and most of them are deluded (see Finance, above). The real people who deal with the economy don’t work for the government. Most of them are in the private sector. Yep, I’m a bureaucrat, and I’ll admit it. The engine of growth is not government. But we do have some people who “speak private sector”. This includes Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (if there is an industry in Canada, they probably have a division that deals with it! And if you find a new one, tell them – they’ll create a program so you can get a loan to start a business in that area, so long as you put a Canadian flag on whatever you export!). Then there are various organizations that have traditionally dealt specifically with regional economic development across Canada. Most of these organizations have regional offices too. If you live in those areas, you’ll already have heard of them – the federal government likes to brag about their successes and various regional supports, particularly at election time, and the provincial government likes to complain about federal intrusion into the provinces’ business.
  4. International: I worked on international files for the federal government for 14 years, and I am amazed how many people think the only international group in the government is Foreign Affairs. They are, of course, the largest and most well-known. But there are seven main places that you can do international work in the federal government:
    1. Global Affairs Canada is the obvious one and their focus is on three main areas – political relations with other countries (including both political analysis and diplomacy); economic relations with the world (economic analysis); and international trade (helping Canadian companies do business internationally, sometimes through analysis of business environments or negotiating trade agreements to remove barriers to trade). Lots of people have started working at the former-DFAIT thinking it was all about going to international meetings and attending cocktail parties, and left after they realized they were going to spend a lot of time at a desk in Ottawa reading reports or at a desk overseas writing the reports;
    2. Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA, now merged with Foreign Affairs, err, Global Affairs) is the development arm of the federal government, but that does not mean they “DO” development projects – it is still a government department. Which means it FUNDS development projects, it doesn’t implement them directly (i.e. when it gives money to an organization to distribute bednets, it doesn’t distribute the bednets directly – CIDA mainly administers the financial aspects of funding other organizations who do the projects). There are lots of people who have started working at CIDA thinking they were joining the largest development NGO in Canada – but it is a government department, and it operates like one;
    3. International Development Research Centre (IDRC) does both direct research as well as helps to build the research capacity of developing countries;
    4. Immigration and Citizenship looks at ways to attract newcomers to Canada that are reuniting with relatives already here, coming as refugees, or are mobile labour that want to come to Canada to work;
    5. Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) does analysis of global security threats to Canada plus processes security clearances for most of the rest of government…shhhh, everything they do is secret, except of course for the stuff they put on their own website;
    6. Export Development Corporation (EDC) is very closely linked to both Industry Canada and International Trade, and their goal is to encourage exports abroad, often through catalytic financing; and,
    7. Every other government department! Almost every department has an international relations division in it, so if you like the idea of international work, but don’t want to work for one of the above six organizations, you can find other opportunities outside of the main six…however, just like at the main six, the competition to work there is extremely strong.
  5. Human Development:
    1. There are three main departments that do programming aimed at human development of Canadians. First and foremost, there is Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) including Service Canada. This is the largest department outside of defence, and has three large statutory programs that make up the bulk of its programming – Employment Insurance (EI), Canada Pension Plan (CPP), and Old Age Security. After that, it has numerous programs ranging from agreements with provinces for labour market program delivery to Canada Student Loans. Overall the Department has $110B in programming and more than 20,000 employees across the country;
    2. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada basically does a lot of what ESDC does, i.e. human and social development, except focused on Aboriginal communities and the North;
    3. Health Canada (and the related Public Health Agency of Canada) are responsible for a variety of health programs across Canada. In addition to managing the social transfers to Provinces and Territories, Health Canada is also responsible for long-term health research, epidemiological concerns, health promotion, and approval of all drugs.
  6. Security: For those interested in security, there are a wealth of choices. The most obvious of course is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They serve as a national police force, mirroring many functions of the FBI in the United States. However, in truly Canadian fashion, they also accept contracts from individual provinces to serve as the province’s “provincial police force” (i.e. in x, x, and x). As such, they have responsibility for high-level national crimes (terrorism, human trafficking, cyber crime) as well as many more routine provincial responsibilities (domestic calls, traffic enforcement, etc.). Public Safety combines high level readiness for safety with more specific readiness for emergencies such as natural disasters. National Defence operations are relatively straightforward and generally are exactly what you expect soldiers, sailors and pilots to be doing. On occasion, they are also called upon to assist civilians domestically for large-scale emergencies such as floods. Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) takes the lead for securing Canadian’s relatively open borders against illicit traffic of both humans and contraband (at times working with the Passport Office). Justice takes the lead for legislation and legal cases. Correctional Services has a strong role to play in simple containment, but they also do some policy work on rehabilitation. I already mentioned CSIS above under the international work, but most policy groupings would include it here.
  7. Sectoral: Finally, there are a series of “sectoral” ministries / departments that deal with specific sectors of the economy. Each of them does pretty much exactly what you think they would do based on their name:
    1. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency;
    2. Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and Parks Canada;
    3. Fisheries Canada;
    4. Canadian Heritage (including both citizenship / civic duties as well as running Museaums); and,
    5. Transport Canada (dealing with all transportation infrastructure).


Whew. That’s a pretty dense list. What does it all mean? It means that having read the previous chapter and this one, you know that you need to:

  • Know what types of work you would enjoy (by knowing yourself, previous chapter);
  • Decide on the types of jobs you might be interested in (the classifications, i.e. EC, AS, PM, etc.); and,
  • Identify which departments interest you.

After that, it’s on to finding out about jobs and applying for them.

The Process

Before you start reading about how to prepare for individual parts of a competition, it is good to understand the whole process. I know what you’re thinking – what’s to understand? Somebody has a job, I need a job, let’s go! Not so fast…

The process has a lot of steps, some of which involve you and most of which don’t. Plus, it is very different from the private-sector advice you will find on most websites. Need a quick example? How about cover letters – lots of websites will tell you to keep them to a single page, which if you do for a government job, you’ll pretty much ensure that you get screened OUT (you’ll see why later).

So, the better you understand the whole process from beginning to end, the better chance you will have of succeeding. Don’t worry, this is just an introduction, most of the applied learning comes later, stage by stage.

Government competitions are governed by legislation

The biggest difference between the private-sector and the public sector is that most government competitions at any level are governed by legislation. This is true for the Canadian federal government, and the legislation is broad enough to encompass a whole host of human resources issues in the huge entity known as the Government of Canada. It also goes into detailed guidance on process, well beyond what a private-sector company has to do to comply with labour law legislation.

While many HR people can debate eloquently about the subtle differences between government staffing and private-sector staffing, there is one singular difference that changes the nature of the process from beginning to end:

While both the private-sector and the public sector argue that hiring is always based on merit, the Canadian government has legislation that defines precisely what merit means for all competitions. Which means a manager must be able to document and substantiate HOW that person demonstrates merit and WHY they are the right person.

Put differently, it is not enough to find the right someone to do the job (fact), but to be able to document the assessment criteria beforehand and to prove the person meets it (fact + perception). After all, that person is going to be paid by the taxpayer. And Parliamentarians, on behalf of taxpayers, want to know that merit is being demonstrated for all hiring.

Considering what merit means in layman’s terms

Before going further, stop and think about the merit requirement from a personal perspective. Suppose you went to university or college. You probably thought hard about which one to apply to, which area to study. How would you demonstrate to someone that you picked the “best” or “right” program for you? Or suppose you bought a house. Lots of variables, lots of options to consider. How would you demonstrate to someone that it was the “one right house”?

The short answer is that in both circumstances you probably can’t. Not definitively, at least.

Instead, you could demonstrate that you:

  1. considered a broad range of options;
  2. identified a few factors that were important to you; and,
  3. impartially ranked a few universities or colleges or houses based on those factors.

But, in the end, you are not really demonstrating the “one right choice” so much as that you had a reasonable, logical approach to your decision. Instead of showing the right decision, you show that your “process” was sound and thus led to a “right” decision. This is basically how government processes prove merit too.

Merit prior to 2003

Up until 2003, the “proof” process was one of the biggest problems with government hiring. When the manager reached the end of a competition, there were numerous appeals where they had to demonstrate the “right” decision, or in some cases the “perfect” decision, and they couldn’t have anyone start the work until all the appeals were cleared. Managers felt constrained, employees felt it was too bureaucratic, and overall everything took forever. Let’s walk through a general example of how this worked prior to 2003, and then a specific example to make it more concrete (don’t fuss too much about the terminology at this point, I’ll come back to it later).

Managers ran competitions for positions. They set up a list of criteria, they tested everyone on those criteria, and when it was done, the scores were totaled up and a global score was assigned to each candidate. Then, each candidate was placed on an eligibility list in order of their global score (called a reverse order of merit, but that’s not usually important anymore). A cut-off score, established earlier, was used to determine who made the list and who didn’t – if you were above the cutoff score, you made it; if you were below the cutoff, you didn’t. Sometimes there were five people on a list, or a hundred, and other times, just one. This was called a “competition” or a “competitive process” to create an eligibility list. Once the list was established, and all appeals had been heard / addressed, a manager could hire off the list. But s/he had to do it in order – the person who ranked first got the first offer, the second person got the second offer, etc.

That’s a pretty straightforward process, and is familiar to most people as it looks a lot like academic testing. If you get the most right answers, you get the highest mark. And get the job. A typical process of testing “merit”.

Now suppose you are a manager needing to hire a computer support person and you test just three things – software knowledge, hardware knowledge and interpersonal skills:

  • Person A gets 10/10 on software and 8/10 on hardware, but their interpersonal skills are terrible, and they only get a 5/10 on the last one. Overall score is 23/30.
  • Meanwhile, Person B isn’t as strong on software (2/10), but aces hardware (10/10), and interpersonal (10/10). End result is 22/30.

So Person A beats Person B by one mark, and gets the job. Except the manager is worried – customer service is a key part of the job, as is hardware. So Person B who is great with people, and even better at hardware, might be a better fit for the team than someone whose strength is mainly software. Under the old system, the manager had no choice – whoever came first on the scoring was the one who got the offer.

Even if you ignore the above example, we all know people who are great at certain skills or areas but lousy at taking tests. Equally, we all know people who are great at taking tests, but you wouldn’t want to work with them on a daily basis. Having global scores doesn’t ensure that the person who gets the best score on a series of tests is necessarily the best person for doing the work or for fitting into an existing team.

As a result, under the old system, many managers were frustrated – they would have someone who would rank first on a competition, but be a potentially disastrous fit. Meanwhile, sitting at number 2 on the list was a stellar candidate who missed by one or two marks. In the above example, it was one or two marks out of 30, but a competition might have tested multiple areas with larger scores. For example, on one competition under this system, I was tested on 10 or 12 areas, and beat the second-place candidate by two marks out of five hundred. I got the job. Was there really any difference between her and I on the results, if I beat her by two marks out of five hundred? She could have easily done the job too, but the manager didn’t get to choose which of us was the “better fit”, because I had a higher score. The second-place candidate was offered a different job, so she still received an offer, but she would rather have had a chance at my position (she did regularly remind me that I got the better job because I beat her by only TWO MARKS…I guess she forgave me, she did one of the readings at my wedding).

Yet, as with the above example, a manager had no flexibility once the scores were tallied. Ideally, if the manager was planning properly, they would have weighted factors differently. So, in the computer support person example above, they would have assigned 50 marks to interpersonal skills, 30 marks to hardware knowledge, and only 10 marks for the software side. Which, for the above scores would have given person A 25+10+24 = 59/90 and Person B 50+30+2=82/90.

But often, during appeals, those differential weightings were hard to justify – why is the interpersonal “5x” the software weight? Why not only “2x”? Or equal? Equal weightings are always easy to justify, and many managers defaulted to it. In fact, many HR people advised them to do so because it was easy to manage and easy to defend.

There are numerous academic articles about how bad HR processes were in the government at that time, as well as a couple of official government reports. All of them came to the same conclusion – too bureaucratic, too slow, too inflexible, too “score-driven”.

Merit after 2003

The Canadian government listened to the complaints and passed new legislation to govern human resources management. Called the Public Service Modernization Act (PSMA), it was passed in 2003 and came into effect throughout 2003, 2004 and 2005. Under the PSMA, there are four new or amended acts that encompass the web of rules pertaining to human resources:

  • The Public Service Employment Act (PSEA), which covers employment, staffing, and political activities;
  • The Financial Administration Act (FAA), which covers accountability;
  • The Canada School of Public Service Act (CSPSA), which covers development and learning; and,
  • The Public Service Labour Relations Act, which covers collective bargaining, disputes and labour relations.

The first two are the main ones because they affect how competitions are created and who can compete in them. They also changed the way merit would be assessed. According to the PSEA, an appointment is deemed to be based on merit when:

  1. The Public Service Commission (PSC) is satisfied the appointee meets all essential qualifications including language proficiency; and,
  2. The Manager also takes into account, potentially, any extra qualifications that might be helpful (but not essential) or operational requirements or organizational needs.

In other words, if the resulting appointee meets all the qualifications, they can be appointed WITHOUT having to rank first in all the essential elements, and the manager may consider some additional skills, needs, requirements that a candidate might meet (like other related experiences, educational training, etc.).

As a result of this change in definition of merit, under the new system (i.e. after 2003), “competitions” have been replaced by “selection processes” and “eligibility lists” have been replaced by “pools”. The difference is twofold:

  1. Each of the elements being tested must be passed individually. If you are strong in one area, but weak in another, you can’t compensate through a global score – each element is marked separately and a cutoff score assigned for each. Using the computer support person example from above, a manager might set the cutoff for “interpersonal skills” as a minimum of “6/10”, in which case Person A wouldn’t have passed even though their global score was the highest. Fail one element, and you are “out” – because you failed to demonstrate you are qualified for all of the elements. Oddly enough, this process actually means all elements are ranked equally (since you have to pass every element), but managers don’t have to choose whoever ranks “first” in raw score at the end.
  2. When the process is over, instead of a ranked list of successful candidates, you have a “group” of people who are all considered “equally qualified”. In other words, they all have demonstrated that they meet the essential elements of each of the criteria being tested. Or, in even shorter words, they can do the job. They have the skills. But since they are all “qualified”, a manager can now choose whichever one of them is the “best fit” for the existing team. Suppose, for example, that you were the computer support manager mentioned above and you had four people already on your team with one vacancy. Perhaps, too, the four people are all really strong with software, but not as experienced in hardware trouble-shooting. After the pool is done, a manager can now look at the “pool” of candidates and may want to choose one that is strong in hardware to complement his existing team.

As a result, you now have “selection processes” to determine the qualified person(s), and “best fit” to choose which of the qualified people will meet your current needs the best. The goals of this change in legislation were increased flexibility for the manager, a more streamlined process for appeals (due to some other changes discussed later), and a shorter overall timeframe for the processes. While there is some evidence of the first two, timeframes have not shrunk significantly since before 2003. An average process still lasts approximately six months from job posting to the person starting the job, and there is wide variation in the range (from three months to two years).

** Note that while the formal HR system now refers to “selection processes”, the layman term of “competition” is still used by most employees. As such, I will still use the term competition throughout the book for simplicity’s sake. However, for all current processes, it is technically a “selection process”.

The four legislative acts come into play more when we get to specific areas of the HR process, and I’ll address them where they are relevant in future chapters rather than going into any additional depth here.

Understanding The Selection Process / Competition

In a full selection process, there are eight phases and the candidate will likely only participate in two of them. While many of them are “short”, and some of them may even be inapplicable in a situation, a variation on them happens in most competitions. Here is the full list:

  1. Managers identify a “need”
  2. Managers formally advertise their needs
  3. Applicants apply and are screened in / out
  4. Candidates are tested for essential (and potentially asset) qualifications
  5. Managers select best fit candidate
  6. Managers formally state intention to hire specific applicant(s)
  7. Managers address appeals
  8. Managers hire the successful candidate

Let’s look at those steps in a bit more detail and see why you might care about all eight phases, even though it looks like you only participate in two of them.

Phase 1: Managers identify a “need”

Often, the need has been identified because someone has left the division and they want to replace them; other times, the unit’s workload has been growing and they need another body; and still other times, they have a growing or new need for a specialized skill that they don’t already have on the team. But managers have choices in how they meet their needs:

  • WORKLOAD: They could eliminate less “pressing” files;
  • PRIORITIES: They could postpone this work until someone else can do it;
  • TEMPORARY HELP: They can use temporary help to cover off on a short-term basis;
  • CONTRACTS: They can engage professional contractors on a short- to medium-term basis to provide specific deliverables; or,
  • COMPETITION: They can hire someone on an assignment (borrowing someone), determinate (specified period) or indeterminate (permanent) basis.

If it is a new position, and they are filling it through competition, the manager has to do a full job description and a list of duties to get a position “classified”. The classification process establishes two things – first, the stream of work (i.e. a Project Management Officer – PM or an Information Officer – IS or a Policy Analyst – EC) and the level of work (01, 02, 03, etc.). The stream generally matches what type of work you will be doing and affects which union you will join, while the level determines the size of your paycheque.

Classification is relatively easy if the manager is just replacing someone who left, as the position and its classification already exist; if not, and it is a “new position”, classification can take anywhere from 3 days to 24 months. (Note: That is not a joke – classification has to be done by the HR branch, as it must be consistently applied across government to ensure pay equity. Unfortunately, there is a significant government-wide shortage of classification experts. As such, some departments are faced with really long waits.) Given that possible delay, many managers will instead try to find existing positions that are sitting empty, and “re-purpose” them for a competition (i.e. borrow a Project Manager or Analyst position from another work unit that is sitting empty). Alternatively, some may use positions that exist but with the wrong classification (i.e. some managers, preferring expediency over form, have hired people into PM boxes knowing that they were going to move towards more EC work over time – and reclassified them afterwards). This is not a recommended practice for managers, and can be painful for the candidates too (by having them apply for positions that do not match their career goals, for example).

One “trick” that has sped up classification has been the development of “generic” job descriptions. For example, at ESDC, there are generic job descriptions for what a Policy Analyst, Level 4 (EC-04) generally does. On the positive side, a manager can create a new position, use the EC-04 generic job description, and classification is near-instantaneous. On the negative side, the job description is generic and may give little to no information to candidates about what they would actually be doing in that position once hired (Social policy? Labour market policy? Learning policy?).

There will also usually be some form of internal approval process whereby a manager will talk to their boss, and get approval (APPROVAL #1) to go ahead with staffing a position. This may be part of an overall HR planning process, or it could be a one-off approval. Either way, the manager will frequently draft a general list of duties that the new position would handle as part of explaining to the boss why the staff is required.

Why do you care about this “needs” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because if the manager is replacing someone who left, they may be looking for someone very similar to the person who left (i.e. a narrow-minded approach to staffing); however, if the manager is looking to cover new or expanding work, the manager may be more flexible on the profile of the successful candidate (i.e. open-minded). Knowing which is the case could tell you how much flexibility you have in how you tailor your application, resume and interview approach.
  • Because it is good to know that there are other options for hiring besides a competition as it opens up other ways to work for government. Some people have very enjoyable careers doing “government work” without ever actually being a government employee i.e. being contractors/consultants/temps.
  • Because candidates can and do ask for a copy of the “job description” that the manager had to develop during this stage of the process, but don’t be too surprised if it doesn’t completely specify exactly what the job looks like on a day-to-day basis (it’s extra information though, something most won’t ask about). The SMART candidate will also ask if there is a list of duties available too – HR and/or the manager may not share it, but sometimes they will. And you can then tailor your answers better in the interview towards the REAL job, not the generic job description! The closer you come to showing you can do the actual duties, the better off you are as a candidate.
  • Because classifications tend to reflect the type of work you do and it is not always easy to move between classifications, particularly outside of the National Capital Region. Let’s suppose, for example, you want to be a policy analyst. While lots of private sector people will tell you to take any job to “get your foot in the door”, difficulty switching between job classifications means you may be better off sometimes waiting to get into the stream you want rather than risk getting stuck in another stream altogether.

Phase 2: Managers formally advertise their needs

The Manager starts by writing up a Statement of Merit Criteria (SOMC). This is what most people think of as the “job description”, as it is what is posted online to advertise the job. However, the SoMC (which most HR people will pronounce as SAHM-SEE) is not the job description but rather the list of skills / competencies on which the manager will test you.

Once the SOMC is written, the Manager submits it to HR to get approval (APPROVAL #2) to post the advertisement. Managers are not HR experts, nor am I. The true experts are the HR people who will review the SOMC and job description to ensure that everything is clear, and, to put it bluntly, to make sure the manager has valid, testable criteria that make sense for the job. No sense in posting analyst criteria for a project manager position. They also serve as gatekeepers to the Public Service Commission website for posting jobs.

Once HR approves, they’ll send the SoMC to the PSC for posting. Most departments don’t do the processing of applications themselves. Nor do they handle “advertising” it (except for large scale recruitments like post-secondary recruitments, for example). Instead, they use the Public Service Commission to administer the advertising process and receipt of advertisements.

When the PSC gets the SoMC, they look at the classification and level, and look in their internal database to identify “priority candidates”. In general terms, these are people who were laid off earlier by the government, or who relocated because their spouse moved, etc. The unions have negotiated with the federal government to give these former employees priority when positions become available at a similar group and level. So, if you post a PM-03 (project manager, level 03) job, the PSC will check to see if there are any PM-03s in your geographical area who are on a priority list for future PM-03 jobs. The list is a little more dynamic than that, but you get the general approach. The PSC can give managers a list of priorities at two different periods of time – now, when the manager is first asking to post, or later, when the competition is done and the manager is looking to staff someone. Managers have to assess the priority candidates to see if a competition has to be run at all.

There is one last step to all of this, and some HR professionals will quibble if it is a step at all. The PSC will post the notice. HR wants to quibble, as each department has access to the PSC websites and can “post” the notices themselves. However, before the notices go “live”, PSC personnel do review the post and approve it going on their site. As such, it is easier to think of it as the PSC posting the notice.

Why do you care about this “advertising” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because knowing this is the list of testable items makes you focus on what is important and avoid wasting time on things that won’t be tested.
  • Because it is one of the first big “checks and balances” to ensure that the manager is going to run a fair and transparent process that makes sense.
  • Because this helps you immensely in knowing where to look for jobs! Rather than having to look at every department separately to see if they have jobs available, you can (generally) do one-stop shopping at the PSC websites (one for internal competitions, one for external competitions). It also adds a high degree of consistency across application processes and streamlines the application process. It also presents some challenges, but those will be discussed later. In addition, the notice gives you two contact information points per competition (a general enquiries person and an HR contact). This can be enormously helpful when following up on an element in a poster, or even just tracking the progress of the process. NOTE: These are NOT people you want to annoy with a multitude of questions, nor call them every day. They are there to help when you have a real problem, not hold your hand…that’s what this guide is for!
  • Because managers have to “assess” priority candidates against the SoMC to see if they have the requisite experience. If the candidates do, the selection process may stop here – the manager will offer them the job, and if they accept, you may never even see the notice. However, the lists are pretty broad and often the priority candidates aren’t an exact match to what the manager was looking for; in these cases, the manager may be open-minded and look to hire one of them anyway, or proceed with the original notice. This is not a simple “checkbox” to be ticked – the manager MUST assess each interested referral. Only when the manager has demonstrated they have assessed the priority candidates will the PSC give a clearance number to proceed with posting the notice.

Phase 3: Applicants apply and are screened in / out

Finally, the masses of interested people send in their cover letters and resumes!

Then the PSC and/or HR screens applicants for eligibility. The PSC will do a quick computer-based check of your information that you enter to make sure you’re eligible (some positions are restricted to internal candidates, or by geography, or to a single department, etc.) and HR often does an additional check on certain elements.

Once the HR gurus have done the basic tests, the manager (or a consultant) will screen applications for experience and education. This is the first big hurdle for you as an applicant. The relevant legislation that controls the process for all competitions / selection processes requires that YOU prove you meet the requirements. Administratively, this means you will show in your cover letter, with the resume as backup evidence, how you meet each of the experience and education requirements. It is NOT sufficient for you just to say you meet that element, you have to show how.

If a manager has 100 applicants for a position, it may be that they screen out a large number of them depending on how restrictive or open they are with the criteria. For those applicants who are screened out, they have the “right” to ask for an informal discussion. While I will discuss this in more detail later under “rights of appeal”, technically this isn’t an appeal. It’s a chance for a manager and an applicant to correct an administrative error. Suppose, for example, that the manager reads your cover letter, determines you didn’t explain how you met criteria 2, and screens you out. However, you request an informal and it is discovered that for some reason there was a second page to your cover letter that was missing from the printout. The manager can say, “oops”, reconsider your application and perhaps screen you in. This is NOT a way for you to say, “here’s more info I didn’t give you previously” – you can’t add anything to your cover letter or resume that wasn’t in your application. However, other times, it may be that the manager misunderstood part of your cover letter for differences in terminology and therefore screened you out. This is rare, as is missed information, but it does occasionally happen. To avoid the candidate appealing the competition later, this is a chance to quickly fix a possible simple error, and proceed with the rest of the competition.

Why do you care about this “application and screening” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because this is where you get to DO something – you know, apply!
  • Because if you screw up your application and put in the wrong information, the HR people will screen you out, and the hiring manager will never even see your resume. Or, if you’re not eligible, don’t try to “fake” your way past it – all this info is verified, and once your application is found to be invalid, you’re out. All you’ll do is waste your time and theirs.
  • Because if you are screened out, an informal can be a great way to get feedback on why! If you had limited budget experience, for example, and that was one of the requirements for a position, but you applied anyway (I’ll explain later why you might do that), then you know why you were screened out. However, if you did financial forecasting for a year, financial administration for 3 years, etc., and you were still screened out, it’s worth it to ask what they were looking for from candidates. Perhaps they’ll tell you the minimum was five years; or they may tell you that it was too “administrative” processing work and they were looking for more “strategic management” budgeting. Either way, you know either how to word it next time OR what experience you need to try and get in order to be screened in for these types of jobs in the future.

Phase 4: Candidates are tested for essential (and potentially asset) qualifications

Now that the real process is underway for you as an applicant, managers will now assess the candidates knowledge, abilities, and personal suitabilities. This is the phase where you will be tested on every element in the SOMC. If it said you had to have knowledge of the current trends and issues in reproductive health, they will ask you about the current trends and issues in reproductive health. The manager will use a variety of tools (discussed later) to assess knowledge, abilities and personal suitabilities. And if you fail an element, you’re screened out (and usually don’t proceed any further in the process). At that point, the manager will offer informal consultations to screened out candidates to explain where they went wrong. It is POSSIBLE (but not probable) that the scoring was done wrong, and you did pass an element. So, like with the application, an informal could correct an administrative error and allow you to reinsert yourself in the process. Officially, that is why the “informals” exist at these stages, but generally they are used for providing feedback (this will also be discussed in more detail in “rights of appeal”).

In addition to the knowledge / ability / personal suitability tests done by the manager, there will also be assessments by HR or the PSC of any special eligibility requirements like language proficiency. For most departments, the PSC is the organization responsible for assessing your ability in your second language. Each position will have a language profile requirement attached to it (specified in the original poster). Near the end of the process, you will be given an opportunity to be tested at the PSC to see if you meet the required levels (your results are good for five years, so if you already have a profile that meets the requirements on file, you won’t be retested; if you have no profile, or if your current profile is less than the requirements, you will be tested).

Why do you care about this “testing” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because if it is in the SoMC, they WILL ask you or your references about it. Somewhere, sometime, somehow. Guaranteed. And here’s the fun part – if it’s NOT in the SoMC, they won’t test you on it. They can’t – they have to test what is in the SoMC and ONLY what is in the SoMC. And, if you screw up somewhere, the informal is a great way to find out what you did wrong (spoke too fast, not enough content, drooled on the carpet, missed a question, too much content / not enough synthesis of your content, etc.).
  • Because you can’t fake your way past any element. If you have no chance of making it i.e. you have little to no french but the requirement is full fluency (CCC), you’re going to go through a lot of work likely for nothing, only to be excluded at the end. There are some SMALL exceptions to this situation, and it will be discussed later, but caveat candidatus – let the candidate beware!

Phase 5: Managers select best fit candidate

Once all the testing is done, the manager selects the “best fit” candidate. This doesn’t mean that the candidate with the best smile or the best scores is the one chosen. Once all the “successful” candidates (i.e. all those who pass every element) are considered together, the manager will decide which one is the best fit for the job, work unit, team dynamics, etc. After all, you’re all deemed “qualified” at this point and thus “merit” is proven.

After choosing one, the manager may then get approval from their boss (Approval #3) to select the candidate. Once the manager has chosen someone, they will likely show your resume to their boss to say “this is the person I intend to hire.” They’ll explain how you did in the process, etc, but often they’ll circulate the resume as an intro to their boss. Some managers won’t bother with this step if it is a relatively junior position, but if you are applying for more senior positions that will regularly deal with senior people, the managers will generally show their boss something before formally selecting you. This is also an opportunity for the manager to confirm with the boss that the management situation is still the same as when they started, and to avoid suddenly being caught by surprise if the boss says, “Oops, our budget was reduced and we no longer have the money to hire someone.”

The manager also has to get approval (again) from the PSC to select the candidate (including assessing priority referrals, if necessary; Approval #4). Way back when the posting notice first went to the PSC, managers had to “clear priorities” (if any) before proceeding. Now that the manager is at the end of the process, they may have to clear priorities (again, or for the first time). Generally these are “new” candidates who were added to the priority list after the initial request, but not always.

Why do you care about this “best fit” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because it means that you can come first on just about every element, and not “win” the job. Why? The manager may be looking for someone who is a strong extrovert to balance out an introverted team, plus a strong oral communicator to give presentations, and someone with superior language skills. Or maybe she was also looking for judgement, interpersonal skills, written communication, initiative, etc., where you excelled, but another candidate has a strong background in making presentations in French as part of outreach programs and is an strong extrovert (as reflected in their communication ability and interpersonal skills). As such, the manager may select the one that “best fits” the job and team. It may be you, it may not be. But you need to know this before you start – it means you are NOT trying to convince the manager that you are the best candidate, but rather the best candidate for a specific job. The more you can find out about the team and the job, the better placed you are to show how you would fit in.
  • Because while your first intro to the hiring manager was your cover letter – it’s what they used to screen you in or out – the first intro to their boss is likely to be your resume. Both have to be ready for prime time – no skimping on one or the other in your application process.
  • Because if someone is appointed as a priority candidate, you have almost no right of appeal. They are not considered “part” of the process, and departments may “cancel” the competition and appoint the person from the priority list. It’s as if the competition never happened, because the priority candidates are “outside” the process. Put another way, the course of true love never runs smooth, and neither does HR. Things change, and it may suck to be “leading the pack” only to have a priority candidate seem to jump the queue. Foreign Affairs staff had a saying – “Don’t assume you have the job until you have been doing it for a week, and maybe not even then!”. Good advice to remember – it’s not over until you’re appointed, no matter how well things seem to be going.

Phase 6: Managers formally state intention to hire specific applicant(s)

Okay, the manager has selected someone. And they post a “notice of consideration” that says, “This is the person we intend to hire.” Once a week has passed (the duration is usually a week), a “notice of appointment” is posted this is the formal notice that not only was the person “considered”, they are now being appointed to the position.

If you were the person, the hiring department will issue you a “letter of offer” that you and your boss have to sign, and you’re generally “good to go”. However, note that the appeals process mentioned earlier is not instantaneous. While the department will move ahead to appoint you and have you start, it is theoretically possible that an appeal could be launched, and if successful, your appointment revoked. This rarely happens, and usually would mean that the hiring manager really screwed something up in the process.

Why do you care about this “notice” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because of two reasons – if you aren’t the one chosen, this may be the first time you find out the process has ended and you aren’t the “winning” candidate. You should get a notice from HR earlier to say you were found qualified, but at that point, communication from the department may stop, leaving you scratching your head and wondering, “Now what?”. This tells you that for you, the answer is potentially “nothing.”
  • Because these notices formalize the appeal process, if you are considering appealing. Alternatively, it is also the mechanism for formally announcing that you are the winning candidate if you are the one being selected
  • Because the most important part for you as the winning candidate is not the appeals process, but the letter of offer. While this includes a whole host of language about values and ethics, etc., it also includes more immediate information for you – your title in the new position, which division you are assigned to (if it wasn’t clear previously, this could be exciting to learn), what your classification will be (this shouldn’t be a surprise, since you applied for a specific job), and what your level will be (which also equates to a specific pay scale!).

Phase 7: Managers address appeals

Most appeals don’t proceed very far in the formal appeal process for one of two reasons. First, if the appellant’s reasons are sound, and it appears the hiring manager was in error, the department will likely correct the problem themselves long before it gets to a tribunal stage. This may involve screening the appellant into the competition and assessing them from the stage where they were screened out, or giving them an opportunity to try a test that they missed for valid enough reasons to grant an extension.

Second, if the appellant is completely out to lunch, the union will advise them that they have no valid grounds to pursue, and possibly withdraw legal support. The person may complain, but they’ll likely let the matter drop once they get into a formal situation of filing briefs for a tribunal, responding to filings by the Department, etc. Some people view appeals as a waste of time – like buses, there will be another competition coming along any minute – and suggest that you just move on. However, sometimes there are grey areas where the appellant and the department do not agree on what was the right approach to take in a given situation (such as a person being tested for language early on in the process, rather than at the end, and getting screened out). In these rare cases, the appeal may go all the way to a tribunal who will decide first if the scope of the complaint is a valid grounds for complaining, and second if the appellant’s complaints prove the grounds of the complaint.

Why do you care about this “appeal” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because a whole separate volume could address why candidates should care about tribunal decisions, but at this point, note that tribunal decisions help constrain what is appropriate in future competitions and what is not. Knowing what to expect, and what is “out of bounds”, will help you focus on what really matters.
  • Becaise it is also the way of protecting your rights. Managers are not free to do whatever they want, there are rules in place that have to be followed. So an appeal may overturn a bad process. However, note that a tribunal does not have the power to say “Jane was right, John shouldn’t have gotten the job, the process was flawed, give it to Jane”. Their only power is to revoke John’s appointment. So even if you win, you may not get anything out of it beyond the satisfaction that the process gets tossed.

Phase 8: Managers hire the successful candidate

This may seem like an almost anti-climactic step as you already received your letter of offer at this point. But going back to the beginning, this chapter isn’t about understanding the competition part, it is about understanding the entire HR process from beginning to end. Which includes you actually starting the job, being assigned a set of duties, developing a performance agreement, planning some training, meeting your coworkers, etc.

Why do you care about this “appeal” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because if you remember those two chapters about knowing yourself and knowing government, this is the stage that will tell you if you actually will enjoy the new job.

Now, having read all the above, you know the eight main phases of a competition for a manager. Let’s drill down on the parts that you do as a candidate.

Find Jobs

There used to be two separate sites for finding out about available jobs in the government — an external site for people who didn’t already work for the government and were looking to get in, and an internal site for those who already worked for government and who were looking for a change or promotion.

In 2015, the government merged the sites into one — Jobs.GC.CA. The “jobs” part is obvious, GC is short for “Government of Canada” and “CA” is the country code designation for Canada. While each of those may seem obvious, they are not obvious to everyone — this site is for jobs with the Canadian Federal GOVERNMENT, not any of the provinces. And it should not be confused with Job Bank, an online inventory of external jobs in the private and public sector that the Government runs to help employers and potential employees connect (

When you go to, here is a sample of what you should see (there may be some layout changes, etc., this was snapped on May 14, 2017):

(Image © Government of Canada, 2017)

The site is run by the Public Service Commission of Canada which regulates and aids in HR staffing across the government. The site has:

  • info on the process, which is in slightly different form than what I wrote in the previous chapter, plus lots of details about applying online, accommodations if you have a disability, language requirements, different types of tests, etc.;
  • special sections for Veterans and Canadian Armed Forces members, students, and recent graduates;
  • some info for organizations or colleges and universities looking to partner with the government on recruitment issues; and,
  • a nice big section called “inside government”.

All of this is what departments call “public facing” information. Useful as background, but none of it is what you are really looking for — the actual jobs that are available. To get to those, you have two options:

  1. Click on “Search for jobs”, and this will list all the jobs available currently, with the search results shown in tabs. If you are from outside government, or not logged in, you will see one tab (jobs open to the public). If you are within government, and logged in, you will see five tabs:
    1. internal jobs i.e. those only open to those already in the public service;
    2. jobs open to the public;
    3. notices of consideration (kind of like a formal transparent pre-announcement of who they INTEND to appoint from an already-run competition in order to inform anyone who might have grounds for appeal);
    4. notices of appointment or proposal of appointment (the notice where they ACTUALLY say “okay, we’re appointing this person, let us know if anyone is appealing”); and,
    5. notices of acting appointments (people who are filling in temporarily for someone else at a higher level, i.e. a temporary promotion).
  2. Click on one of the more targeted links like for “Canadian Armed Forces” or “Public Service Recruitment Programs” or perhaps one of the featured areas farther down the page.

Feel free to go to the site and browse around. I’ll wait.

Okay, you’re back? Good. Hopefully you saw some jobs that might interest you. If you didn’t, that should tell you something (kind of like in earlier chapters, maybe government isn’t the right fit for you). However, before I move on, I do want to flag something that may not be obvious. These are not actually ALL the jobs available.

As I explained before, there are two types of government departments — one group that is called “core public administration” and one group that is considered separate from the core. The first group, core, publishes ALL their notices on this site. It’s required. For the second group, it’s a bit hit and miss. Some post there too as they know that it is a huge advantage to have all government jobs posted on one site. However, some post ONLY on their individual agency website because they want to control branding, look and feel, etc. It’s a smaller and smaller percentage each year of agencies that only post on their own site, but if you know of an agency or department that really interests you and you don’t see any jobs posted with them, check out their own agency website directly. Chances are you will find links to job notices or recruitment information.

Now, for the main JOBS.GC.CA site, if you actually want to apply for any of the jobs that come up in the job search window, you need to create an account. That is done easily via that helpful little link over to the right, up at the the top, that says “Create an account”. This isn’t going to be rocket science…they’re going to ask you basic questions like your name, email address, etc. You do NOT want to be creative here with your name like you might on Facebook or a news commenting site — this is a professional site where you apply for jobs. Putting in your name as Johnny Appleseed might be cute, but it is a quick way to look like an idiot when you apply for a job. And the security on these sites is way beyond what you see on someone’s blog, so your info is relatively safe. In this case, you WANT them to know who you are, and they have jobs you want, so you want to fill out any box that applies to you.

I’ll even go one step further — for your email address, make it look professional. If you have had the same one since you were 14 when you thought “fluffy_bunny92” was cute, or “big_stud104” was catchy, get a new one. I confess that I use my in lots of situations that I probably shouldn’t, as it isn’t as professional as I would normally recommend, but it also isn’t completely egregious. If in any doubt, I use a separate one that has standard as the format, and I just auto-forward that email to my G-mail account so I don’t have to check it separately.

You don’t have to do this next part yet, but once you are up and running, you can configure your logged-in profile in a bunch of different ways:

  1. Save generic searches so you can run them again quickly at any point (such as all jobs in Newfoundland, or all clerical positions in the National Capital Region or all PM-05 jobs within your own department);
  2. Set up email alerts to tell you when jobs that match your criteria are posted; and,
  3. Eventually, upload your resume and biographical information that will allow you to apply for jobs faster each time.

** One significant change for internal applicants is that the online system for internal jobs used to only be accessible from work computers. With the merger of the two sites, and the addition of logins and passwords, you can now login and check stuff from home, and even receive your job alerts at a non-work email address (note thate you have to set up your account first from a work computer so the network knows it is really you, but after that, you can login from home).

Once you create your account, and log in, you get a whole new set of menus:

  • Job applications (in progress or previously submitted);
  • Status of job applications (status of those you submitted to previously);
  • View your saved searches (covered below);
  • Edit email alerts (covered below);
  • Personal information — name and identification, address, contact information, education, languages, and your resume;
  • Account information (email, password, hint question and answer); and,
  • System notifications.

They are also located under MY ACCOUNT across the top as well.

Why are these boxes important?

I know you might think, “Oh those are just a bunch of profile things, I don’t need to fill those out.” Yes, you do. Because a lot of the information they do when screening is based on those boxes. If the job is limited to those living in Montreal, you need that box filled out to say you live in Montreal. If you have to be internal only, you want your Personnel Record Identifier (PRI) number listed in the identification so they can verify that you are currently working for government. If you have to have a university degree, you want that info listed in the education section. These are all quick ways for the system to triage you when you’re applying, and if the info isn’t there, the SYSTEM CANNOT SCREEN YOU IN. That’s right, the computer will spit you out of a competition because you didn’t give it the right information. That’s your responsibility (I’ll cover that later), no one is going to chase after you to make sure you did it right.

SPECIAL TIP: Your resume can be added to a text box so that you can just “attach” it to your applications easily. This is a plain text box, no room for fancy formats, etc. If you are using Microsoft Word (or whatever word processing software you did your resume in), chances are good that there are little tiny hidden codes in your text that you can’t see. If you copy and paste directly from a program like Word, those codes will be embedded with your text. 90% of them will do nothing. Maybe even 98% of them are likely to be ignored by the system. But those other 2%? They do weird things like tell printers to do extra hard returns, or overwrite the previous line or go up three lines, etc. And suddenly your carefully written resume comes out looking like:

[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;John Doe

[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;255 Park Street

In other words, it looks like bad formatting, and more importantly, unprofessional. You can’t see the codes, you can’t tell they’re there, but when the computer spits out your resume for the hiring manager, it will look like gobbledy-gook. How do you get around this?

Copy it from your wordprocessing program and paste it into something like NOTEPAD (in Windows) or a simple Text Editor. Some people have really basic email software and sometime paste it there first instead. You can use any software that has minimal formatting (preferably one with none). Then copy and paste from the non-formatted area into the website. Saving it as text in Word is not the same, it doesn’t actually strip everything. Use NOTEPAD or the equivalent.

The system does it’s best to strip out that stuff, but it may not get everything, so just play it safe — paste simple unformatted text. This goes for cover letters too.

Job Search Options

As noted earlier, the real power for this tool is of course to search for jobs that you might be interested in applying for and hopefully getting. The job search screen looks like this:

(Image © Government of Canada, 2017)

If you’re already in government, you’ll notice five tabs across the top that I mentioned earlier and the two most important are:

  • Internal jobs (open only to those already working in government); and,
  • Jobs open to the public.

Some people from outside government or even internally immediately object to the separation, but there are two reasons for it. Let me digress for a minute, and explain some of the differences between those two types of jobs. If you want to just get to the search function, feel free to skip ahead to “narrowing your search”.

First, there are union issues. Almost all government employees are in one of several unions that cover the public service, and part of almost every union agreement in any sector is that their members will be considered first for promotions, etc. before you hire from outside. Pretty standard stuff for staffing in an organized labour environment, and whether or not you agree with the need or role for unions, it’s well-established labour law that they are legal to exist and that employees have to be members. So, management has to consider them first for lots of jobs.

Second, it’s also more efficient in some ways. Bear with me, I’m not blowing smoke at you on this one. The goal of any hiring manager in any sector is to hire someone who can do the job. They don’t often care who it is, they just want someone who can start and do the job immediately with minimal new training, hopefully. They also don’t want to interview 500 people in a long laborious process — they just want to interview enough people to give them some selection, i.e. some choice, and take the one who is the best fit for the job.

So to use a private sector example, suppose the manager is in retail, and wants to hire a senior customer service manager. Who are they likely to find who is the most qualified — someone who already works in the retail environment doing customer service, maybe even a junior manager? Or would it be a senior customer service manager from a completely different environment like government? Would you think, “Hey, that person who has been managing EI benefits delivery would be great at selling yoga pants”? Or would you think, if you’re being generous, “Sure, they have some transferable skills, interesting work experience, professional outlook, but I really wanted someone with experience in retail customer service”? Chances are you want the latter.

Managers in government are no different. They might be hiring a senior policy analyst and the most likely pool of candidates who are going to have the exact skills and experience they are looking for is going to be the junior policy analysts already working in government. “Promoting from within” is a potential strength (and I’ll deal with the weakness side in a moment), and it is highly efficient. As such, the positions that are listed under “internal jobs” tend to be more senior positions. Not all, but many. By contrast, the jobs open to the public are usually one of four types:

  1. Entry level positions, a way to get “into” government, your foot in the door;
  2. Highly-specialized positions that the government can’t fill internally, such as specialized medical positions (doctors, veterinarians, etc.) or highly competitive fields that the government has trouble attracting (like computer specialists);
  3. Special recruitment programs designed to boost integration of specific groups like new graduates, veterans, students, newcomers, etc.; and,
  4. Specific targeted jobs to promote renewal.

This last one is where I said above that the government needs to address that “promote from within” weakness. Obviously, if an organization only promotes from within, there’s a risk of narrowing your diversity of options over time.

There’s a classic example of “group think” in a sociology experiment that was conducted with monkeys. The experiment was that they put five monkeys in an enclosure and electrified the bars, floor and climbing structures. Along with other food options, the scientists also hung some bananas. If the monkeys ate the other food, nothing happened; if any monkey touched the bananas, they would all get a shock. The five monkeys learned pretty fast, “no bananas”. The scientists then replaced one monkey, and of course the new monkey went for the bananas. However, the other monkeys knew they would get zapped so they stopped the new monkey from getting to the bananas. Eventually, the new monkey learned not to touch them either. So the scientists replaced the other four one at a time. Eventually, they all learned the banana lesson well enough to stop any other monkey from doing it until all five monkeys in the cage knew not to touch the bananas — but none of the monkeys in the cage had ever actually experienced the shock. The shocks only went to the first five, and THOSE monkeys set up a culture of “don’t touch the bananas” that carried on after the original five were gone. “Why don’t they eat the bananas? Because nobody eats the bananas, it’s always been like that.” The new monkeys didn’t know why, they just knew they weren’t supposed to do it.

Now lots of people might say, “That’s bureaucracy for you”, but it’s not about bureaucracy. Group think exists in every sector that’s been in existence longer than about five years. In retail, somebody might suggest a new type of promotion or marketing, and someone will say, “nah, we tried that once, didn’t work.” It exists as a direct result of best practices and training on ways that work, as people start eliminating ways that either they don’t think will work or which are not open to them. And, yes, it can happen in government too.

Take for example a problem with educational attainment and options on how to address it. There are a number of constraints on what the Federal government can do about it. It can’t, for example, decide that elementary education is not going well and thus open a bunch of new elementary schools to combat the problem — education is within provincial control and the feds are barred from doing it by that pesky little thing called the Constitution. Over time, some departments and their analysts may view that area not only out of bounds legally, but also out of bounds for even analysis. Yet what if one of the provinces might be open to some sort of joint project, or discussions of the issues at least, that would help inform their approach? Analysts in the federal system may have started to think that “all of it is off the table”, since it was never on the table in the first place. Then along came someone at some point who said, “Hmm, we can’t do anything as the federal government, but what if we offered the provinces money to do more in that area?”. A disruption in approach called “federal spending power”. Spending doesn’t violate the Constitution, so lots of things came back on the table in some departments.

Alternatively, you could have people at senior levels who don’t have a very good grasp of digital technology, or social media, and if you were in the area of international affairs, most of them might not have had a really good grasp of options around what is now called “digital diplomacy”. Then some people came along who said, “what if?” and suddenly international affairs officers and Ambassadors started using Twitter as a policy tool.

In both cases, external recruitment can be a good way to get fresh insights or fresh ways of looking at things, partly to make sure you’re considering all the possible solutions and not just the ones that have been working recently. A way of bringing in people with fresh approaches to help disrupt the status quo.

In government, that sometimes happens at very senior levels with a particular government appointing a deputy minister from the private sector, for example. Those tend to be very unique posts though, not something that would show up on a website advertised to the public. At the regular employee level, there are some recruitment programs that have the same goal — the “Recruitment of Policy Leaders” program, for example.

The RPL program is aimed at students and young policy thinkers who have shown some success in various disciplines through winning large scholarships or awards, working in interesting fields on large projects, etc. and generally having advanced degrees — Masters or a Ph.D. Instead of hiring them at the bottom of the policy analyst ladder (EC-02), and risking their entrepreneurial / innovation spark being driven out by Group Think while they work their way up the ladder, these high-fliers are hired at the mid- to senior-policy levels (EC-05 and -06). Deputy Ministers are heavily engaged in the hiring, and often serve as mentors. Fresh blood, fresh ideas, high-level access to ensure both potential innovation and that we consider all the policy options, not just the ones we already have under consideration. Many of these programs come with bumps and bruises in implementation, since after all, they are indeed forces of disruption, but they can achieve some forms of renewal and are actively managed.

So, as I said, there are jobs open to the public and jobs open to government employees, with the majority of senior positions available internally and most entry-level or short-term positions available externally. Simple, right?

Narrowing the search

The left-hand sidebar, entitled Refine Search, has a whole list of options to help you narrow down the list. For example, on the day I pulled the image above, there were 283 internal jobs and 552 external jobs available — across the entire Government. Some people think that is amazing, others wonder why so low. Either way, truthfully, most of the jobs don’t apply to you and your interests. There are multiple different categories, locations, etc. And most of those jobs are only posted for 2-3 weeks at a time, so the list is constantly changing. So narrowing it down to the jobs that apply only to you is a challenge. You want the list to be manageable, but you also don’t want to miss out on some potential jobs because you accidentally narrowed the search too fine. Let’s walk through some of the ways you can refine your search, and in particular, what I consider the four biggest criteria:

Job titleIf you are looking for a policy analyst position, or veterinarian, you could type in policy analyst or veterinarian and see all the positions. Relatively straightforward.If you search for senior policy analyst, but the hiring manager called it policy coordinator, it won’t show up. Just as search for veterinarian won’t pull up veterinary specialist.
Work locationEnter your city or province, narrow the search to jobs near you. This is the first of the big criterion — why look for jobs in Newfoundland if you don’t want to leave B.C.? You can also exclude international positions such as Global Affairs or multilateral or the old CIDA (under Global Affairs now) i.e. just see jobs in Canada.
If you type in Edmonton, you won’t see jobs you might like in Calgary. Or Ottawa might not pick up Gatineau across the river.
Job typesThis is the second big criterion — know what you are looking for and are open to accepting/pursing. It isn’t the classification (clerical, management, etc.), this is whether the job is indeterminate (i.e. permanent), term (i.e. a specified period of six months, or a year perhaps), a deployment (moving you permanently from your current spot in government to another at the same level), assignment or secondment (temporarily loaning you from one spot to another), or acting (temporary promotion). For external jobs, you can limit to graduate programs or student programs or just regular job postings (everyone).Some people only look at indeterminate positions (i.e. permanent ones) and miss out on temporary positions that might lead to something permanent. Or they search for assignments or secondments, without first knowing whether or not their current boss would agree to loan them somewhere else (your boss has to agree to secondments or assignments).
Date postedObviousThis is more looking for historical posts than anything, not much risk.
GC organizationsThis is the third big criterion — which departments or agencies are you willing to consider? Or are you willing to work for any department? You can narrow it down to just the ones you are interested in.As I explained in earlier chapters, you’re likely to be happier in a job if the substantive area is one that interests you, even if you’re doing finance or administrative work that is more generic.
ClassificationsThis is the last of the four big criterion — as explained above, you may only be interested in EC or AS or PM positions, and if so, there is no reason to look at veterinarian positions or park rangers. After you choose the classification, you can also choose levels.Some people limit themselves only to the classification they are already in, or the one they want to be in, which negates the fact that some AS or PM jobs might be quite similar, and even some IS and EC jobs could have common elements. In most classifications, there are sister / cousin classifications that are worth seeing too.
Language requiredPretty straight-forward, English / French / Bilingual. Many people consider this a big criterion, and for individuals it may be. But it’s more like a “fact”, than a search technique. If you’re unilingual, there’s no point in looking at the bilingual positions or the ones that require the official language you don’t have. It’s a very important element, but it is more like a screening criteria than a search technique — you either qualify or you don’t.If you search for bilingual only, it might exclude some unilingual positions that might interest you.
Minimum salarySome people use this rather than the classification one because it can help keep the search parameters open. For example, if you are interested in an EC-04 or higher job, but would consider AS-05, PM-05, IS-04, or higher, then you would have to enter EC, AS, PM, IS, etc. in your search plus the appropriate levels. Or you could say “anything higher than $70K”, and you’ll get all of those.You’ll also get some other ones you likely don’t want, including technical specialists or lawyer positions that you don’t qualify for, but it is an alternate way to search for specific levels of jobs. You just have to wade through a lot of jobs that might not interest you.
Process numberThis one is deceptively simple. Some people think, “Well, why would I search for that?”. Because that’s how you’re going to find out the status, look back at a description, etc. — it lets you find old ones.If you saw a job a month ago, and wanted to go back to look at it again for reference, it can be hard to find it again if you don’t know the number.

That’s the basics of the Job Site. Time to look at the actual application process once you find a job you want.


It still baffles me that people do applications so badly for jobs with pretty high salaries. An application generally includes two things — a cover letter and a resume. And people mess them up. Sometimes it is because they read a private-sector-oriented website about jobs and cover letters and try to keep it to a page — this is NOT how government applications work, so many people get screened out because they listened to the wrong advice. This chapter will tell you exactly what to do, some minor variations if you want to be creative, and some very clear things NOT to do.

You’ve seen an announcement of a “selection process”. You have printed out the list of qualifications (“merit criteria”), and you’re ready to start. If you look at the Statement of Merit Criteria (aka the “poster”), you’ll see a bunch of different sections in it. The five most important ones, and how they are tested, are listed below.

Eligibility criteria
  • 90% in your cover letter, online application
  • 10% with a language test (if applicable)
Essential Experience
  • 95% in your cover letter
  • 5% in your resume

* Officially it is 100% through the above two elements, but in practice, it is more like 80% cover letter, 5% resume, 5% written, 10% interview — I will explain what I mean by that where relevant below

  • 85-90% through a written test
  • 10-15% in an interview
  • 10% through a written test
  • 80% in an interview
  • 10% through reference checks
Personal Suitability
  • 30% in an interview
  • 70% through formal reference checks

* Similar to the experience section above, this is for the official reference checks, but in a practical world there is approximately 5-10% that is through informal reference checks, and I’ll cover that in more detail below.

With that framework in mind, we now turn to the meat of this chapter — crafting your application with your cover letter, your resume, and information about applying online.

Understanding cover letters for government

The application process has changed dramatically in the last eighteen months as most departments are now insisting on applying online only, and not giving an option to submit a cover letter by email. However, the principle is the same, so I am going to cover the standard cover letter for government competitions in order to show you the standard of what they are looking for even in the new online application process.

We’ll start with a typical cover letter. You’ve heard of cover letters before, you have even probably written some. And you’ve vaguely heard those magical words of wisdom from 20 years ago that is all over the internet — “your cover letter should be no longer than a page”. If you listen to that advice, you will get screened out. You will fail the application process, and you won’t even get to actually show your skills. Why? If you look back in the chapter on the overall process, I said the cover letter is the first step for candidates in a very bureaucratized process that is governed by legislation.

And I want to scare you with something about the importance of your cover letter. If you do a PROPER cover letter, the first one should probably take you at least two to three hours to do. After you have several samples done for different competitions, you’ll see some of the elements start to repeat, and your time will drop, but it should still take you at least an hour. If you are doing it quicker than that, there’s a pretty good chance you are missing things.

If your Uncle Harry wants to hire someone to work om his ice cream store, he can run a quick interview, ask you some basic questions, and as long as he doesn’t ask any illegal or discriminatory questions, he can basically run whatever type of interview he wants. Heck, he can just put a sign in the window that says “Help Wanted” and whoever shows up first, if he likes them, he can hire them. Not so with the public service. The legislation says that every applicant must demonstrate they meet the merit criteria for the job. And over the course of the process, you will have to demonstrate the five things I mentioned above — eligibility, experience, knowledge, abilities and personal suitability. The first two are demonstrated through your application, most of which is your cover letter itself, and you cannot possibly do it in a single page.

Some housekeeping elements

Your cover letter should start off with the basics — the competition number that you are applying for, the title of the position, the classification and level, and if you have one, your Personal Record Identifier (PRI) number (a number issued by the Government if you’ve worked for them as a formal employee — it’s your master ID number for employment with the government). These are basic tracking elements, and it helps the HR person properly file your application, which of course you want to be mistake-free. Here’s the standard format I use:

I am writing to you in order to apply for the (title) (xx-xx level) position in the (section, department) (competition xxxx-xxx-xx-xx-xxx). I am sending this letter, and the attached detailed resume, in order to demonstrate my eligibility (A) and qualifications (B-Essentials & C-Assets) against the Statement of Merit Criteria. My PRI number is xxx-xxx-xxx.

All of the information you need for this paragraph is on the notice of the competition — it’s all there. You’re just copying it over. Verbatim. No ad lib, no creativity, make it exact. So, what would this look like in practice? A lot like this:

I am writing to you in order to apply for the Sr. Policy Analyst (EC-05) position in the Corporate Planning Division, Policy Branch, Health Canada (competition xxxx-xxx-xx-xx-xxx). I am sending this letter, and the attached detailed resume, in order to demonstrate my eligibility (A) and qualifications (B-Essentials & C-Assets) against the Statement of Merit Criteria. My PRI number is xxx-xxx-xxx.

That’s it, that’s all. Your intro is written, with all the tracking info the HR person needs in order to file anything, and more importantly, if it gets lost somehow or mis-filed, where they should file it if/when they find it separated from the rest of the files. Basic housekeeping — a place for everything, everything in its place.


The first substantive item you have to address in the cover letter is that you are even eligible to apply. This divides itself into three components — core eligibility, conditional eligibility, and language profile. Let me start with core eligibility. I’ll spend a bit more time than is necessary on a simple part of the core, your address, because it will demonstrate how core works — it is either yes you’re eligible or no you’re not, very cut and dried.

Most postings for jobs are limited by geographical area (called the “Area of Selection”. It will likely say something like:

OPEN TO: [Employees in] the [Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)] [occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent] in the [National Capital Region (NCR).] 

* The [xxx] brackets in the above indicates the four separate elements to prove to show you’re within the area of selection for this process.

So, lots of jobs will be limited to the “the National Capital Region”. If so, you can’t apply unless your permanent address is in the NCR. If for example you are working and living in Vancouver, but you thought, “Hey, I’d like to apply for jobs in Ottawa”, you still can — but only those that were open to the entire country (some are limited, some are not). This isn’t meant to be discriminatory, it’s to limit the applicant pool to a manageable size. The goal for the hiring manager (remember him or her from the chapter on process?) is to be able to assess enough applicants to allow some choice of candidates at the end, not to assess every possible person in the universe who might be able to do the job. A large enough pool, and no larger.

If the government is hiring a fairly generic position, and they think they can get someone in the NCR, they’re not going to want to plow through all the resumes from people all over the country, incur the cost of screening them, interviewing them, selecting them, etc., only to have a large percentage of them say, “Oops, I don’t want to move across the country after all.” If you can find local workers, you can limit your pool of applicants to just that area. Same for people in Vancouver competing against other Vancouverites; no need to open it up to the world, if you can find enough local people who are qualified.

It’s a completely different world though when a department does a massive post-secondary recruitment (completely open for geography) or they have a very narrow field of study they want to recruit from and might have trouble finding people (veterinarians, for example). In those cases, they’ll go large on the geographic eligibility in order to get a big enough pool to guarantee some chance of finding qualified people. Just big enough, and no bigger.

How does the government know where you live? Because your application includes your postal code. If you’re in the appropriate zone, you’re screened in; if you’re not, you’re screened out. Nobody will even look at your letter or resume. It’s a strict yes/no test.

Now, would the government know if you’re lying if you put Aunt Sally’s mailing address instead of your own? Up front, probably not. HR will check the address you give them to make sure you’re in the zone, but at the start, that’s all they will do. It’s simple, it’s efficient, it’s low cost. If you give them an address that fits the criteria, they’ll screen you in. So you’ll think, “Hah, I’m in!”. Well, not really.

Suppose you get all the way through and make the pool. At that time, HR has a much smaller number of remaining people to deal with. So they’ll then double-check your address that is in the payroll system (since most applicants already work for government), and if you aren’t in the zone, you’ll get bounced from the competition. Yep, you might make it all the way through on a lie, and THEN they’ll bounce you. Some people have even made it all the way to getting a letter of offer, but when the HR people went to generate the letter, they noticed, “Hey! They can’t live in the NCR if their office is in Vancouver! Something’s not right!”. And the person was then bounced.

Now you might think, “Well, at that point, they might waive the requirement, since I’m the best candidate, and they’ll really want me then.” Here’s the deal — they can’t. It was a legal requirement of the competition. If you don’t meet it, you can’t be hired as you were never qualified to enter the competition in the first place. You’ll be tossed, because they have to toss you. No choice at all. Not only will the hiring manager be ticked off, you’ll also have wasted their time and yours, and look like an idiot.

If you aren’t eligible, don’t apply. Yes you meet it, and you’re screened in; no you don’t meet it, and you’re screened out. That’s how most core eligibility works. Black and white, very clear.

When I have given presentations on this, people tend to think I’m over-explaining this one, and I tend to agree. I do it because I want people to understand that for core eligibility, you either have it or you don’t. And people understand postal codes and maps and zones. But even this has some exceptions, as most rules do. Here are three that come up, using an example of a job in Ottawa:

  • Your regular position is in Quebec, but you are working on a three month assignment in Ottawa…can you apply?
  • Your regular position is in Vancouver, but you are on leave, and living with your parents in Ottawa…can you apply?
  • Your regular position is in Ottawa, but you work for Foreign Affairs, and you’re currently assigned overseas…can you apply?

All three of them have the same answer — it depends. Depends on the wording, depends on the nature of your assignment / leave, depends on the department doing the screening and what their normal interpretation for handling such things is (if they’re strict, you’re out; if they’re flexible, you’re in). It’s a bit of a grey area, even when normally the questions are black and white. But each of those are not “lies” that aren’t remotely true, they are degrees of nuances that present some exception to the black/white world.

However, if you want to challenge or clarify an eligibility element, do it AT THE START. Ask for permission to be screened in, make it clear and transparent. Because the last thing you want to do is make it all the way to the end before you ask, at which time they are likely to be VERY strict and rigid with the rules. Not to mention that you’ll waste time even applying. Just ask.

But geography is not the only restriction. Back at the beginning of this section, I noted possible wording:

OPEN TO: [Employees in] the [Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)] [occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent] in the [National Capital Region (NCR).] 

Based on that, you are also required to prove:

Sample wordingRestrictionComments
OPEN TO: [Employees in] the [Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)]
[occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent] in the [National Capital Region (NCR).] 
[Employees in]Type of employeeUsually one of four headings, including:


  • Indeterminate employees of…
  • Permanent employees of…
  • Employees of…
  • Persons employed in…

The other alternatives are open to the public or recent graduates.

[Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)]Department / Region  Usually one of two sub-criteria:


  • Candidates who work for a Department…
  • Candidates who work for the Public Service…
[occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent]LevelOften reserved for deployments or assignments/secondments, it means you have to be “at the same level” already, i.e. it can’t be a promotion. Sometimes it is also for acting assignments or specific recruitments i.e. they’ll let you apply if you are one level below.
[National Capital Region (NCR)] GeographyUsually one of two sub-criteria:


  • Specific city
  • Specific region

Not surprisingly, if it says that, you have to be:

  1. an employee, not just on contract or casual;
  2. working for ESDC, not Health / Finance / Environment;
  3. an EC-07 or equivalent (this tells you you have to be at level, this isn’t a promotion or an acting opportunity); and,
  4. working in Ottawa/Gatineau, not elsewhere in the country — your actual office has to be in the NCR.

When you apply, your application first goes to the HR people. All of those four things are in a central database and HR people will check to make sure it matches, using your PRI number to look you up. If any of the bits don’t match, they screen you out and the hiring manager will never see your application. You’re just done. Lots of people try to be creative to fake their way past eligibility, and a few years ago, it was occasionally possible.

Except when they got all the way to the appointment phase, someone goes to do the paperwork, and HR would bounce it — kicking the person out of the competition at that point, because they were never eligible in the first place. There is no grey area on these points — in / out, yes / no. If you’re in a strange situation such as being on assignment with ESDC, ask HR if you are eligible or not — the rules will say yes or no, and you can then proceed or not.

Now, as noted above, 90% of eligibiity has to be covered in the cover letter and so you’ll tell me, as noted above in the example, that you are an indeterminate employee working in the department listed at the same level and working in the region specified.

If it says “indeterminate/permanent” employee, don’t apply if you are term or casual. If it says “employees”, then indeterminates AND terms can apply, but not casuals. If it says “persons”, some departments will consider casuals too, most won’t.

There are two other areas where it is not quite so black and white. First, under the educational requirements, it frequently asks you for a university degree. For example, it might say for the EC categories:

Graduation with a degree from a recognized university with acceptable specialization in Economics, Sociology or Statistics.

That seems like a simple yes/no, but there are variations on what constitutes “specialization” (often viewed by tribunals as at least 5 courses in undergrad and 3 in a graduate program, but managers can set whatever number they deem appropriate on a competition-by-competition basis). But more importantly, the advertisement will then say things like:

NOTE: Candidates must always have a university degree*. The courses for the specialization do not necessarily have to be part of a degree program in the required specialization. The specialization may also be obtained through an acceptable combination of education, training and/or experience.
* Degrees may include, but may not be limited to Political Science, History, Psychology, Geography, Criminology or other disciplines associated with social science.

Some people find that confusing, and rightfully so. The rest of the eligibility factors have no wiggle room, but this one is more about general skills than certification. So, for example, if you had a degree in Psychology or Criminology, but you could show that the courses were cross-listed with Sociology, the screening manager may decide that is sufficiently close to accept your application. Other times, someone may have done a degree in Urban Planning, but has a “minor” in economics with five courses in the field as “electives”. Or perhaps they did a degree in history, and then after they graduated, did some additional electives in Statistics. So they would have a degree + courses outside their degree program that meet the specialization requirement.

If you have been working in a field for quite a while (usually more than four years, the same time to do an undergraduate degree) and if you have been doing a lot of economics or statistics in that time, the hiring manager may decide that is equivalent experience and accept you. However, let me perfectly clear — it is YOUR JOB AS APPLICANT to convince them you have the educational background needed. I’ll discuss this in more detail below, but the burden of proof is on you. If you have a degree in Economics / Sociology / Statistics for this example, your proof is easy. You say “I graduated from University of Manitoba in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics.” They will ask you later in the process for a copy of your diploma to prove it, but for the cover letter, that is sufficient. However, if you have a different degree and are relying on extra courses that you took to prove the specialization, or relevant work experience, you should list the courses you took or the work you have been doing that is relevant. If you don’t explain, they don’t have to come back and ask for more details — they can just screen you out. Your job is to prove it — the burden of proof is on you.

The second initially grey area is your language profile. It will likely say something like “BBB/BBB” — this means that you have to have intermediate english and french (in brief, X means no ability, A is basic, B is intermediate, C is fluent, E is exempt equivalent to native speaker). As with the first elements, the HR person will go into the PSC database and check your current results (good for 5 years at a time). If you have a current profile that meets or exceeds the level required, they’ll note it. If your profile is out of date OR you have no profile OR even if you have a current profile that is LESS than needed, they’ll note that you do not meet BUT won’t screen you out — they’ll send you for a language test, likely at the end of the process i.e. the last step before they appoint people.

Here’s the reason why you don’t get booted immediately — the legislation governing competitions says generally that you have to meet all the requirements at the time you apply (so just because you were planning to move to Vancouver, you couldn’t apply if you were still working in NCR). However, there is separate legislation regarding Official Languages and it says you have to meet the language profile of the position at the time of appointment. As a result, all of the other eligibility elements are tested at the beginning of the process, and you’re in or you’re out, but language levels are almost always tested at the end so that your results are as close as possible to the time of appointment. But it is still a yes/no element later — if you fail, you’re out. (With a minor caveat…a competition may say “various language profiles” which might mean if you get BBB, you’re eligible for a BBB job but not one of the other ones that requires CCC — the equivalent of being “out” for the jobs with higher language requirements and “in” for the jobs with lower language requirements.)

Here’s some sample text that shows how to meet the above requirements (if you’ve given your PRI previously, you don’t need to repeat it).

I am an indeterminate employee of HRSDC working in the National Capital Region as a substantive xx-xx, and my PRI number is xx-xxx-xxx. I have a Bachelor’s degree in xxxxxxxxxxxxx from xxxxxxxx (19xx) and a Master’s degree in xxxxxxxxxxxxx from Carleton University (20xx). I meet the official languages proficiency for the position, with a current profile of EBC.

A frequent question from people is what to do if you are taking language classes, know you’re close, want to apply, but don’t have a current profile. That’s simple:

I meet the official language proficiency for the position, but my profile is out of date and I need to be retested.

Let’s be clear though. If you are AAA, and the requirement is CCC (i.e. no indication of various language levels), you’re not likely to make that level by the time you are tested in the process. Unless you’re close to the level, and expect that you’ll actually meet it at the time to be tested, faking your way through the application is generally a waste of everyone’s time. It’s a yes/no criteria — you meet it or you don’t. Or if you’re hedging your bets on how effective your current progress is going, you will meet it or you won’t. The manager can’t get to the end of the process and say, “Oh, too bad, they’re a great candidate, I’ll drop the language requirement.”

Conditional Eligibility

I am slightly mis-using a term here, because it isn’t exactly what the Public Service Commission means when it says “Conditions of Employment”. I call them conditional eligibility because you can meet all the other elements, make the pool, and then when they go to offer you a position, be unable to take it. Let me explain, because it isn’t the same as you being “out”.

First, there is “reliability and security”. It isn’t always clear what this means on a poster, but it is your security clearance. There are proposals to change the way security clearances work, but there is generally “reliability” (looking a lot like a simple background check for criminal records), “enhanced reliability”, “secret”, and “top secret”. These are all variations on a theme, with top secret asking for the most detail, going into a full background check for someone who is likely to have access to very sensitive high-level materials such as policy proposals, Cabinet decisions, or security files.

If you go through the whole process, make the pool, and they go to appoint you but you fail the Top Secret clearance, it means you don’t get that job, but it doesn’t exactly remove you from the pool. They may have other jobs that require lower clearances that they can appoint you to, although technically it is supposed to negate your candidacy like having too low of a language profile. But it’s handled more as a grey zone than a black and white decision point. In addition, though, you may have to wait for your clearance to come through before you can start since you have to have it to be appointed. Foreign Affairs is well-known for this, with some people waiting up to a year to start their job once their top secret clearance is complete. Of course, if you apply to a pool to work at CSIS, where all the jobs require Top Secret, and you fail, well, you’re just out. There are no “lower” jobs to be considered for, they are all closed to you.

Second, there are “other conditions of employment”. Sometimes they are black and white (such as “a valid drivers license”), other times the employee wants to discuss what exactly the term means before accepting the position. For example, a common phrase is “willing and available to work occasional overtime”. Does that mean once a month or three times a week? Does it mean planned overtime or sudden overtime? This could have serious implications for someone who has to arrange childcare. Equally, there is often a requirement for “occasional travel, as needed.” Employees might be willing to travel, but there’s a huge difference between a short business trip to Toronto for 2 days and a 3 week trip to Bangladesh for a series of meetings. However, before the employee is appointed, they have to formally agree to the conditions. More and more, HR sections are asking for it in the cover letter when they apply or if not there, later when the appointment process comes along. Personally, I put it right up front in the cover letter so there is no doubt of my continued eligibility:

I am willing to work overtime as required, and travel within Canada and internationally as part of my duties. I have a Level II – Secret security clearance which was updated in 20xx.

Note that this last example is NOT required, but I still recommend it in the cover letter. Some HR people will tell you to completely take it out, waste of space, because THEIR department doesn’t work that way. Some departments do, and some HR people move from department to department and don’t always follow the new practices. I have been told too that some departments say not to mention the language part at all because they have to test that anyway; other departments have screened people OUT (even though they’re not supposed to) if the cover letter didn’t say it.

Here’s my bottom line — it costs me nothing to include it and if it avoids someone screening me out for no reason and avoids my having to “fight” to get back in, I’ll put it in my cover letter.

Quick summary of what you need to include:

  1. Title, Level, Competition, PRI
  2. Education, Employment status, area of selection, language, citizenship
  3. Security clearance, organizational needs (EE), operational requirements (relocation/travel/overtime hours), conditions of employment (travel/irregular hours/part-time)


So I covered eligibility, and it took a lot of space to explain why you need about two paragraphs to ensure you’re not screened out. Now we come to the actual meat of the cover letter — how you show that you have the experience the manager is looking for in the poster.

Remember I said that private sector advice books tell you to keep your cover letter to a page? This is fine for the private sector where your cover letter outlines a bit of the type of experience and jobs you have had, and with a short resume, acts as an offer to the manager to call you to discuss it in more detail. That’s not the way government works.

Government competitions are governed by legislation and rules, since you’re going to be paid by the taxpayer, and the regulations say that you have to demonstrate in the cover letter how you meet each experience element. I don’t have to invite you in to discuss it, and in fact, I can’t — I have to have you TELL ME in the letter how you meet it. The burden of proof is on you.

Now, some private sector people would read that and say, “Sure, but I can still do it in a page.” No, you can’t. Because you don’t know what proof means.

If you look at a poster, there are likely at least four separate experience requirements. And you have to prove to me that you meet each and every one of them. You can’t just say “I have it”, you have to show me how you have it, what you were doing, when you did it, etc. For most experience requirements, you’re probably looking at a minimum of about 8-10 lines of text in a cover letter, and 1-2 paragraphs. Multiply that by four separate experiences, add two paragraphs from before on eligibility, include a salutation + closing, and an address at the top, and to fit that in a page, you would need about a size 6-point font. Not the best strategy to impress someone.

While some competitions do impose some length restrictions, most don’t constrain you too much. Let me give you a specific example of what I’m talking about in terms of proof. Suppose it asked for experience in managing human resources. Some people have tried writing the following:

I have experience managing human resources as I have been a manager of a team for 2 years.

Great! But how big a team? Was it one person or ten? What kind of team? Were you leading a research team on a file, like a working group, or were you the boss of several people? Did you approve leave? Did you manage their workloads? Did you rate their performance? Was it full time for two years?

All you have done in the sentence is that you did “something”, but it doesn’t prove to me that you managed human resources. You can’t just say it, you have to tell me and give me details. Try this one instead:

Since 20xx, I have had extensive responsibility for human resources. I acted as deputy director within the policy coordination team at CIDA, assisting in leading a team of eight, directly supervising two policy analysts, and acting as director for extended periods of time. While working at SDC on international issues, I was the head of a team of seven analysts and one support staff on issues related to bilateral relations, multilateral engagement, and policy development. As manager in policy integration at HRSDC, I led a team preparing an integrated policy framework, implementation plan for creating a Centre of Excellence, strategic regional engagement, participation in medium term policy planning, branch coordination of corporate planning requests, and international benchmarking and comparisons; and I am now the manager of the performance team within Integrated Planning and Acccountability, as well as having acted as director for five weeks during the summer.

That’s better, it adds more detail, but it’s missing something huge, at least for government. Now try the following:

I have significant experience as a manager of human resources since 2002. From 2002 to 2004, I was the acting deputy director and then acting director in the xxx section of xxx department, for a team of six employees. This included assigning work and developing resource plans. From 2005 to 2014, I managed teams of varying sizes – five employees while at xxx on the international front, three employees in xxx department’s Policy Branch, and varying-sized team since xxxx in my current Branch (ranging from three to eleven employees) and currently a team of seven.

Since xxxx, I have undertaken the fully delegated HR function for all of my teams – establishing performance objectives and expected results including formal performance management reviews, assigning work and managing workloads across team members, identification of resource needs and approval of training, and leave management (including both regular leave as well as two instances of extended sick leave without pay).

Now we’re getting somewhere. Is it likely overkill? Absolutely. Because it is my job to prove I meet the criteria and I don’t want anyone to have to think about it when they read what I wrote — I don’t want anyone “deciding” if it meets the criteria or not. I want them to read it and think, “Yep, obviously he meets it, tick that box, move on”. Overwhelmingly convincing, that’s the goal.

But let’s dissect what you need to tell them:

  • What your job was (manager, deputy director, team leader, etc.);
  • When you did it (gives indication of duration); and,
  • What you did + what that means.

Most people skip immediately to the “what you did” part (i.e. I managed HR) without saying what their job was, or for how long. More importantly though, the manager needs to see the “evidence” of what you did — headings plus examples plus some context (i.e. deputy director, team of six, assigning work and developing work plans, performance management, approving leave, etc.).

I’m partial to the following structure as an example, but you can use whatever style you want:

I have experience in [xxx criterion from the poster] while working as [job title] at [department, branch, division] from [year to year]. One file where I had to do this was [yyy] where we were [context]. As such, I had multiple occasions to do [aaaa], [bbbb], and [cccc]. Another file was [zzz] where I also did [aaaa], [bbbb] and [dddd]. In [this other position], I also got to do [dddd] and [eeee].

Is that example perfect? Hardly. It’s simply functional. It makes sure you’re on the right track to populate your letter with the type of experience that people need to include to DEMONSTRATE / PROVE they meet the requirement.

Why don’t people do that automatically? Partly because they don’t know that they need to do it, partly because they often don’t do any preparation before writing the cover letter that would allow them to have the evidence, and partly because they don’t know how to structure their letter in the first place.

Now that you have seen my sample text above, you should realize something. I am going though the poster line by line and showing how I meet the criteria. No, it’s not flowery. No, it’s not creative. It is very linear. Why? Because the process of applying is linear. I, as candidate, have to PROVE that I meet EACH element. The easiest way to do that is to do it in the same order it’s listed. Because that way I don’t miss anything AND it is how the HR and hiring manager people are going to tick the boxes. In order.

Which means, if it asks me about my educational background, I’m going to write a sentence or paragraph about my education. If I have four experience requirements, I’m going to put a heading and then some text, like:


[Examples of how I have managed HR]


[Examples of how I have managed finances]

That is why advice from private-sector cover letter examples doesn’t work, because that’s NOT how they do them. In the private-sector, your cover letter might look like:

Dear [employer name]

[Intro para to snag their attention]

[Example Job 1 with the giant results you achieved]

[Example Job 2 with the giant results you achieved]


Great, but now you’re applying to government. How does Job 1 and Job 2 relate to the four headings I’ve asked you about? Because if they don’t, you’re out. It is not my job to play forensic detective on your resume to see if you MIGHT meet, or even if you’re a wonderful person, it is YOUR job to PROVE TO ME that you meet my requirements or I don’t have to interview you. The regulations say so very clearly.

I have always done my applications exactly as I outlined above (heading 1, proof, heading 2, proof). So much so that early on in the changeover from the old application system to the new, consultants were flagging my application as “gold standard” formats for people to use. It just made the screening process for them so much easier. Yes, he has experience and there’s the proof all together. Tick.

And you might buck at this requirement. You might think it is stupid. So let me explain why it isn’t, with a very practical example.

Back in 2007, I ran a competition for an EC-06 position. You’ll know from the previous chapters than an EC is an analyst. Good at evidence-based analysis. And a -06 level is pretty senior. They’re not fresh off the street, they’ve likely been doing analysis for a number of years. Including writing memos to Ministers where they give some background, outline an issue, give their evidence and analysis, and make a recommendation. So they know what a basic argument in paper form looks like when you’re trying to convince someone of something. Which is what a cover letter is — it’s an argument in paper form to me as the hiring manager trying to convince me that you meet the experience requirements.

Of some 84 people who applied, only 25 did their cover letter the way I outlined above. Heading, proof, heading, proof. How many did I screen in? 24. Of the 25, all of them had the proof laid out very clearly and 96% convinced me. Because it was clear proof. The one who didn’t make it wrote a good letter, and they almost convinced me even though they were doing very different work than what I was looking for in the poster. Almost close enough. I even went so far as to ask for a second opinion from another manager because they were close.

Of the original 84, 20 people had no cover letter whatsoever. In the current climate, where the regs are much clearer now, they would immediately be rejected. No letter = no proof, they’re out. A resume is not sufficient. However, in 2007, the department I was in was not ready to be quite so harsh so I had to play forensic detective on their resume to see if they had, somehow, managed to demonstrate all the elements for the job in the resume. Do you know what NONE of them mentioned? Oral briefings. I had an element in the poster that asked for experience in providing oral briefings to management. But, by habit, almost no ECs ever think to include that in their resume. They think about written briefings, and that is documented out the wazoo. Yet most never mention oral briefings. They missed on some other elements too, but they all missed was on oral briefings. Since they never said they did it, I had no proof to base my evaluation on, and since it is THEIR job to prove it to me, they were automatically out. That’s not me being harsh or draconian or rigid — it is like an eligibility requirement. If they don’t work for ESDC, and that’s the scope, they’re out; if they give me no evidence in their application of oral briefings, they’re out. The regs don’t ALLOW me to screen them in. {Okay, small exaggeration there — the regs do say to screen them out, but there are ways to fudge the requirement and let them in, but officially, I was supposed to screen them out, and I did.}

That left 39 people who had done their cover letters mostly like the private-sector examples. They gave me lovely intro letters, mostly in a single page telling me they had experence, loads of experience, tons of experience, they were the Donald Trumps of experience, but gave me no examples or proof of how they had it. About ten recycled previous cover letters and didn’t even bother to make the effort to tailor it in anyway to my job. (Small tip — if I’m looking for an analyst, and one of the elements is “attention to detail”, and you send me a cover letter saying you’re applying for the “project manager” position, it doesn’t look too good). Again, as with those with no cover letter, I had to play forensic detective. Of the 39, I screened in about ten. Or approximately 25%.

Let’s recap:

  • With proper cover letter — 96% screened in;
  • Cover letter done badly — 25% screened in;
  • No cover letter — 0% screened in.

I did several comps around the same time, and they all had similar outcomes.

Somewhere around 2012, Health Canada started including a phrase in their posters. It said, basically, “Please note that it is the candidate’s responsibility to prove in their cover letter that they meet the criteria in the poster. Information in the resume is not sufficient. One way to do this is to use each experience as a heading and provide your examples under it.”

They ACTUALLY told candidates how to write the letter, and people still didn’t do it. Each competition, people would try and be creative and then wonder why they got screened out. By 2015, all departments were applying the same standard — if there was no cover letter, the application was tossed immediately. And the regs were updated to not only say they “could” toss them, they know say they “should” toss them. It’s the only way to ensure fairness across the process. We transparently evaluate what you tell us, we don’t go fishing.

Proper preparation

Yet, even with the proper format, people sometimes get screened out for jobs they are completely competent to perform. Why? Because they don’t give enough evidence in the cover letter.

Many candidates follow a typical approach of simply matching experience headings with the closest previous job that matches. So, here’s what that looks like:

Experience 1Job 1
Experience 2Job 2
Experience 3Job 1, 3

When they go to write the cover letter, they will talk only about Job 1 to substantiate / prove they meet the requirements for “Experience 1”. Similarly for Experience 2. From time to time, they might talk about two jobs, but not often.

Because we as candidates tend to think of our past experiences in terms of “what jobs I had”, not the sub-elements of each of those jobs. So when we prepare, we miss stuff. Contrast the above table with the following template. In my presentations, I have frequently called it “Secret Template #1”, but you’ll see that is a bit grandiose of a name for what I’m talking about.

Secret Template #1 – Quacking like a duck!
 Job 1Job 2Job 3AcademicVolunteer
Experience 1xxxxx
Experience 2xxxxx
Experience 3xxxxx

From that table, you should notice three things:

  1. I have put all the past jobs across the top so that you can see which apply to each experience;
  2. I’ve added any academic or volunteer experience you might have; and,
  3. I have put an X in every single box.

Why did I do this and what difference does it make?

Start with the Xs in the first row. Using this template, your preparation is a lot more rigorous. Rather than saying “Which of my jobs lines up with Experience 1”, you are now instead asking, “For experience 1, what did I do in Job 1 that was related to this?”, then “What did I do in Job 2?”, etc. Your goal is to put something in every box, no matter how minor.

Let me give you an example, and it will become a lot more clear why this helps. Suppose the experience requirement #1 was experience in managing financial resources. If you’re an EC, this may be a HUGE challenge for you to answer. You want to apply, but you’ve never been in charge of the budget before. Which might suggest you’re out before you even start (that happens).

Except, wait a minute. In Job 1, you were doing some research and you hired a contractor to help you. Contracts have financial components. Put it down. In Job 2, your boss asked you to do an analysis of research by the division for various research projects over the previous three years, and the project list included costs and totals for the division. Plus you “forecast” the expected projects for that year too, with the costs attached. Again, it’s finance-related. Put it down. Maybe your third job was when you were a waitress. Pretty sure you had to manage money, do totals, ring in expenses, right? Put it down. Oh, look, in your academic courses you took accounting and budgeting. And in your volunteer work, you were the treasurer of your church choir. Put it down.

You now have five separate examples for that experience requirement that you can combine into a single kick-ass paragraph. Will it be enough to screen you in? I have no idea. Depends on the person doing the screening. And what other people say too. But that isn’t your job to worry about — your job is to write the best dang paragraph you can about YOUR experience. Maybe something like this.

I have experience with managing financial resources throughout my academic, volunteer and professional career. During my academic studies, I studied accounting and budgeting, and was able to put it into practice as the Treasurer for the St. Alphonse Church Choir, 2003-2006. I was responsible for managing the budget, forecasting expenses, producing reports, and co-signing on all disbursements. While I was at university, I was the senior waitress for the ACME Diner (200x-200x), and had to verify all cashes at the end of the night, and balance the floats for each waitress. In addition, I regularly had to make the night deposits. Since joining government, I have also managed research contracts to do x, as well as analysed past costs against current budgetary projections for all research projects for our division (previous three years plus current).

Is that enough? I still don’t know. As I said, that’s up to the hiring manager to decide, and you should make HIM or HER decide. Don’t decide for them. Your job is to craft the best paragraph you can, without lying. You might embellish a little, make yourself sound a little more professional than you were, or more important than you were, but don’t go too far outside the lines. It’ll just bite you later.

But for each and every experience requirement, if you follow the template above, you stand the best chance of coming up with enough evidence to support your claim that you meet the requirement. You don’t have to use ALL the examples you come up with, just the best ones. You want to prove overwhelmingly you meet it, and often one single job isn’t enough to show it.

Be A Duck, Not a Swan

Yet people feel uncomfortable writing the above. They say, “But that’s not what they mean by managing financial resources!”. My response to that is two-fold:

  1. If you don’t think you meet it, why are you applying?
  2. How do you know what they mean?

Seriously, it’s your choice. If you don’t think you meet it, don’t apply. If you think you’re close, apply and LET THEM make the decision as to whether it is enough. Don’t decide for them.

But people don’t do that. You know what they do instead? They try to be self-deprecating and hedge their wording by saying, “While I have no experience in managing financial resources,…”. And then they write the para above. Because they think that’s more “honest”.

Except the hiring manager isn’t reading any longer. You told her in the first sentence you don’t meet the requirement. You said it VERY CLEARLY. So she stopped reading, put an X in the box for that element and moved on. You TOLD HER to do it. You SAID very clearly, you don’t meet that element. So why would she keep reading?

Ignore the specifics of the above, the financial or HR management stuff. Think of it as a random person who says they want to hire a duck.

Yes, a duck. Why they need a duck is not for me to judge. They said they need a duck, let’s assume they need a duck.

If you want the job, do you say “I’m not really a duck…”? Do you say, “I’ve never really been a duck…”? Do you say, “I have lots of friends who are ducks…”?

No, if you want the job, you say “Quack, quack, quack!”.

If you want to be a bit more verbose, you say, “I’m a duck, I’ve always been a duck, I’m the best damn duck you ever saw, quack, quack, quack!”.

Because they are hiring ducks. If you say “I’m not really a duck”, they move on. They’re busy and you just told them you don’t qualify. Why are you wasting their time?

I know, you’re a special swan, but you could be a duck if you only had the chance. Fine, tell them you’re a duck. Tell them you flap your wings. Tell them you speak duck. Tell them you are slightly off-yellow. Tell them you have webbed feet. DO NOT TELL THEM YOU’RE NOT A DUCK. That’s their job to decide i.e. if having wings, speaking duck, being off-yellow, and having webbed feet qualifies you as being a duck?

You’re still not completely comfortable with this, I know. But you already decided you think you can do the job or you wouldn’t be applying. You think you can be a duck. This part of the process isn’t evaluating whether you’re actually capable of being a duck, it’s seeing whether the experience you have is enough to qualify for an interview to be a duck.

Maybe for you, off-yellow is enough. For them, maybe you have to be fuzzy and bright yellow. You don’t know. The only way to know if you meet their threshold is to apply.

Now, if you do the above chart and you have NOTHING in that row, yep, you’re probably stretching too far. Or if you feel like you’re stretching two or three elements. But, other than that, it’s up to you if you want to try to be a duck or not. They said they’re hiring ducks. If you tell them you’re not a duck, they move on.

Completing the cover letter

So now that you have Secret Template #1, you can go through and do a bit of analysis of what experience you have for each element. Then craft a paragraph or two for each one. In the end, your cover letter probably looks like this:

Dear xxxx,

[Opening] — I am writing….(info about comp, number, your basic eligibility, conditions of employment, etc.)



Experience 1:


Experience 2:


Experience 3:



So that is your basic cover letter. Wait, what do I mean by “basic”?

I mean there are two other elements that you have to address. First, there are “asset experiences”.

The ones I mentioned above are the first part of the poster and are considered “essential experience” requirements. But often posters also have what are known as “asset qualifications”. So, for example, suppose a hiring manager is looking for an office manager, AS-04 level.

The essential experience might be having worked as office manager previously, managing some staff, handling correspondence, and coordinating a calendar for a senior manager.  Standard stuff, and often core to the position.

Yet the hiring manager might also look at the position and think, “You know, they also have to help with staffing, managing the budget, and our internet site. It would be great if they had that too.”

To put it simply, the first elements were “must haves” and now these three are “nice to haves”. So, the first four would go in as Essentials, and the last three might go in as assets:

  1. Experience in coordinating staffing actions;
  2. Experience in coordinating a budget for a directorate;
  3. Experience in managing an external website;

The wording might be better in an actual case, but you get the idea. These aren’t REQUIRED to apply, so they are listed separate.

But if you have them, you HAVE to tell them in the cover letter. Not later. In the cover letter. Because a hiring manager might get 100 applicants for one position. And they can say, “Hey, that’s a lot. Let’s see how many have the asset 1 on staffing.” And do an additional screening. Suddenly that “asset” looks a LOT like an essential. Because they might now only interview those who had that asset. Why not? If they have enough applicants, they might as well only interview them.

Separately however, it is also a reason later for them to choose you at the end. Suppose ten people make the pool, but you have an asset they don’t. Why wouldn’t the manager choose you?

In both examples, it only helps you to tell them you have it and to craft the same paragraphs as you did for the essentials. Yes, it’s more work. But do you want the job or not?

You would be surprised how many people don’t bother addressing the assets. Or doing so in the barest of terms. And then being surprised later when they get screened out because they didn’t bother to tell the manager they had that experience too. And later is too late.

If you meet the assets, INCLUDE in your cover letter. Every single one that you meet.

Don’t freak out if you don’t meet something in the assets, this is the manager’s “Christmas wish list”, nobody is likely to have all of them. That’s why they are assets, not essentials.

So how long is your cover letter at this point? Three to four pages is not uncommon. I once had a first draft that was 17 pages and I cut it to 6. Usually there isn’t too much restriction on the length of a traditional cover letter, although this is changing (see notes about digital applications below).

Don’t forget your resume

You just wrote four pages about yourself, tailored to the specific job, and yes, it took you a long time. But you also have to include a resume. There are lots of exciting models out there, and there are books and books about possible models. Again, mostly for the private-sector. Few are useful for government jobs.

For example, lots of resume formats suggest having an upfront “skills section” where the candidate lists the skills they have acquired. Not surprisingly, the books recommend this list match the skills list for the job you are applying for, so the manager can “see” what skills you have.

Except listing them is irrelevant to government competitions. You had to PROVE them in the cover letter, so why re-list them again? Similarly for things like “goals” or a “description” of yourself. That’s not part of this stage of screening.

A resume has one purpose and one purpose only in a formal competition. It validates the information that you included in the cover letter by noting the jobs you had, where they were, the duration and times, and what duties you had. Think of it like it is a “supporting reference document” that acts in support of the cover letter.

Which means the simplest design is to have:

  • Job title 1, Organization, Times, Experience/duties
  • Job title 2, Organization, Times, Experience/duties

Here’s an example from when I was working at CIDA:

Sr. Policy Analyst, Corporate Secretariat, Deputy Minister’s Office, CIDA: December 2004 – August 2005

Responsible in newly-created analyst position in Deputy Minister’s office for horizontal analysis of broad corporate initiatives; coordination and liaison with Branches seeking project, program or policy approvals of the President and Minister; representing the Agency at internal and external meetings with Minister’s staff; coordination and liaison with sub-units of President’s office (Corporate Planning and Analysis Group, Canada Corps Unit, Business Operations Group, Parliamentary Relations, Cabinet Liaison, Correspondence Unit, and Executive Briefing Unit) for input into Agency-wide exercises; leading on Agency input into requests from central agencies; acting as Executive Assistant to the Deputy Minister during absences of the EA; and corporate analysis of Treasury Board submissions.

It tells the reviewer my title, where I was doing the job, and when, plus gives a flavour of the types of duties I performed. While it is obvious from the above descriptions of a cover letter, each cover letter is relatively unique. And equally, a resume of your past job can be rather static.

Except for one thing, which is a best practice stolen from the private-sector. In the private-sector, they advise you to sprinkle key words liberally into your cover letter and resume, using the same words as are in the job description.

For government, you can do the same. So, for example, the above resume example was one I used in my resume for a job that required experience with “horizontal analysis”, “coordination and liaison”, “Central Agencies”, and “Treasury Board submissions”. If another job required “collaboration”, I could change the “coordination and liaison” to “collaboration with…”. It’s a “nice-to-do” if you have time, as it helps validate things a little more strongly.

I consider a “nice” addition, beecause as I said at the beginning, if you do your cover letter properly, it can take you several hours to apply. Which means more time spent tweaking your resume as a “supporting” document may not be the best use of your time. The cover letter is critical, the resume is simply needed to be solid.

Applying Online

I confess that I had a large debate going on in my head for this whole chapter. I kept wanting to write phrases like “But now they do it this way…” because the online system has a completely different interface than what I just outlined. And probably 90% of the applications today HAVE to be done online, the Departments won’t accept an email version of your cover letter and resume.

So, if you’ve been paying attention, you could be really angry right now. It seems like I just spent thousands and thousands of words to explain how to do a cover letter and you don’t even use them anymore. Trust me, I wasn’t leading you astray.

Yes, the online system has automated the process, but the content is still the same. Here’s what’s different:

AreaTraditional paper or e-applicationOnline system
Basic Eligibility Criteria (PRI, address, etc.)Top of the cover letterSeparate fields, pull down menus, able to be stored and “auto-filled” by the system
Conditions of EmploymentTop or bottom of the cover letterSeparate fields, pull down menus to say yes or no, different for each job
EducationIn the cover letter under separate headingCombination of pull down menus and supplmentary text boxes, some of which can be auto-filled
Essential ExperiencesIn the cover letter under separate headingsSeparate text boxes, one for each experience
Asset ExperiencesIn the cover letter under separate headingsSeparate text boxes, one for each experience
ResumeSeparate e-file, properly formattedSeparate text box, no formattting, can be auto-filled from saved versions

There are three problems with the online system, which is why I spent all the time explaining the above. And why I think you should use the above approach, even if eventually you copy and paste it into the online system.

It’s online through the internet, and thus the online system can and does time-out or crash. You can save drafts as you go, but there have been people who were working on their application quite diligently only to lose their connection or have the system time-out on them. Bye bye carefully crafted content. A giant pain-in-the-patootie. If you do it off-line first, you can just recopy and paste it.

The interface is pretty, well, basic. It looks like it was generated to be compatible with a Commodore 64. It isn’t very pleasant to look at, and people start getting focused on “I need to put something in every box” rather than “I need to answer this question with overwhelming proof that I meet the criteria”. It isn’t uncommon for people to start typing, feel constrained by the basic text box, and craft much shorter examples than they should. The threshold of proof hasn’t changed, just the way you send the info.

Finally, the format in the boxes is ASCII text. Yes, I know that’s stupid. Yes, I know HTML at least would be useful. But it is basic text. No underlining, no bolding, no indents, nada. It’s just text. Even for your resume. That’s right, you don’t get to upload an e-file (since they might have viruses embedded), you just have to copy and paste into the text box.


  1. Since you know it can time out, or crash, or just constrain you as you’re writing, do it offline first and copy and paste your text when you’re done.
  2. Left-justify everything, the boxes don’t maintain formatting at all.
  3. When you go to copy and paste, paste into a program like NotePad first as it will strip out any weird characters that Word sometimes leaves in text. Then copy and paste from NotePad into the HTML form on the website.

That last one seems stupid, I know, or not worth worrying about. Until you find out that you just applied for a job that pays $70K a year, and the manager is seeing your resume looking like:

]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; P. Sherman

]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; 42 Wallaby Way

]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; Sydney, Australia

The HTML site tries to strip all that crap out, and you may not see it on the screen, but some wordprocessing programs like to put weird codes in. Even trying to save as ASCII doesn’t really get rid of all of them. Pasting into NotePad and then recopying from there over will get rid of 99.9% of all of it. Just a thought.

In Conclusion

That was REALLY long, wasn’t it? All to tell you how to simply apply. I spent the time on it because it is the single simplest element to fix to stop you from getting screened out before you even get to the competition. If you do it right, you get to continue; if you do it wrong, you might as well not even apply in the first place.

Written Exams

Assuming you make it past the application stage, written exams are common for many competitions, and your preps can be divided into two tracks — what to write and how to write.

TRACK 1: What to write

I noted in the previous chapter that a statement of merit (i.e. the job poster) has multiple elements including eligibility (already addressed), experiences (already addressed), knowledge, abilities and personal suitability. For a written exam, the focus is on testing approximately 5% of your essential experiences, 85-90% of knowledge, and 10% of abilities. How does it do that?

Let’s focus on the largest component, which is knowledge. I’ll use an EC example as it is the simplest to understand. Generally speaking, there are likely to be three possible knowledge “elements” in the poster:

  1. Knowledge of broad Government of Canada policies and priorities;
  2. Knowledge of the Department’s specific mandate or its current policy or program priorities; or,
  3. Knowledge of something specific to the policy area relevant to the position.

In practice, this might read like:


K1. Knowledge of Government of Canada’s priorities;

K2. Knowledge of Canada’s labour market trends and issues;

K3. Knowledge of ESDC’s mandate, programs and priorities; and,

K4. Knowledge of the decision-making process in Government for policies and programs.


AK1. Knowledge of process for policy consultations with stakeholders

Now, as you’ll recall from an earlier chapter, the competition process has a double-edge sword — the hiring manager has to test you on every element of the poster (for Knowledge, Abilities, and Personal Suitability) AND can only test you on those elements. Which means you know at some point in the process you are going to be asked about GoC priorities, labour market trends, ESDC’s mandate / programs / priorities, decision-making processes, and (potentially) policy consultation process. Preparations for this are a lot like preparing for a test in school — you study, you memorize, you spit it back on during the test.

While Knowledge can be tested at the interview stage, most EC competitions will test you through a written test. Partly for another reason — almost every EC position also will have a requirement in the Abilities section about the ability to “communicate in writing”, so they’ll test if you can communicate in writing i.e. give you a written test.

So let’s assume I wanted to give you a single question on the written exam to test K1-K3. How would I do that? How about:

Assume you have a new Director in your group. She has asked you to prepare a background memo for her to help get herself up to speed, and the current state of play of your files. Write a memo (aka Ability to communicate in writing) to her giving the current state of the labour market (aka K2), and how it relates to broad Government of Canada priorities (aka K1) and more specifically to ESDC’s current mandate, programs and priorities (K3). The maximum length for the memo is three pages and you have two hours to complete the exam.

If you were an AS applying for a finance-related position, the poster might say:


K1. Knowledge of administrative procedures in ESDC related to financial approvals;

K2. Knowledge of broader GoC legislation and regulations related to finance;

In a written test, you might then see the following question:

Write a short email to your new Director outlining the procedures in the Department for obtaining approvals for at least three different types of financial expenditures (aka K1) and explain the relevant section of the Financial Administration Act that corresponds to the approval authority (aka K2).

Of course, the little clues (like aka K1, K2) wouldn’t be there, I just added them so you can see the links.

If you are not an EC and look at the first one, you might think “holy cow, that’s impossible!”. Except it’s the same thing ECs do every time they write a memo. Not quite so explicitly, but a lot of those elements are there every time.

Equally, if you’re not an AS dealing with finance, you might freak out with the reference to the Financial Administration Act, except anyone dealing with that type of file will know it’s a bit of coded language to say “tell me about s.32, s.33, and s.34 signoffs” (three standard signoff clauses for different types of expenditures).

Which is why I said above that the written test also partly informally tests your experience elements — if you haven’t done real finance before (i.e. you weren’t really a duck), you’re going to likely bomb that section pretty fast. If you are a duck, you’re going to simply say “quack, quack, quack” and swim merrily along.

How to prepare for a written exam

A lot of the jobs — AS, EC, PM — will have an element that basically says “knowledge of the Department” that is running the competition. Where are you going to find this information? The same place the hiring manager is going to find it.

Here’s the thing…if I’m running a test, I have to prepare that “rating guide” I mentioned way back in the early chapters about all the steps in the process. And in that rating guide, I will have a spot for “knowledge of the Department” and beside it, what I think a good answer will include. I have to write it down and share it with HR before I ever test anyone. Part of the whole transparency and accountability thing. Which means I, as the hiring manager, have to not only answer the question first myself, I have to have some pretty good sources that are defensible for a valid answer.

Let me explain that a little better. Suppose I ask you for the Departmental priorities, and I put down that I’m looking for the candidate to say A, B & C. Well, where did I get A, B, and C from? I got them from a document that says “The Departmental priorities are…”. I can’t just subjectively make them up. Is there a document or source that has that info?

Of course. Two of them in fact. The first is the Department’s website. The second is a corporate document that each Department has to send to Parliament each winter to say “Hey, Parliament, here are the Department’s proposed priorities for next year”. This document used to be called the “Report on Plans and Priorities”, but was recently renamed to be called the “Departmental Plan”. Every Department has one. And it’s publicly available.

Which means you KNOW in advance where the hiring manager is going to get his/her list of priorities from and can look at the same document. It’s almost like an open-book test. You know in the poster it said you would be tested on the Departmental priorities, and you know where they’re written down. Ergo, go read them. Study them. Memorize them somewhat. Cuz you’re going to be tested on them.

Similarly, if you want to know other info about the Department, the website will have sections on Vision, Mandate, etc. Easy to find, easy to see where the hiring manager will pull THEIR expected answer from for the test.

Special tip: One area that is rarely used by people preparing for exams is the speech section of a Departmental website. These are the formal speeches delivered by the Minister in recent weeks, months, etc. While some of them will be on very specialized topics, some of them are the equivalent of a standard “stump” speech where they talk about all the things that their Department is doing. Think of it like “Intro to my department”. Often, these are speeches given to general audiences like a Chamber of Commerce, for example. And in it, the Minister frequently will give a high-level description of all the priorities of the day. Crisp and clean, easy to read. So if you find a general one by the Minister, such as to a Chamber of Commerce, you’ll have a pretty good overview.

If you want to know the recent priorities of the Government of Canada, you’ll likely read the Budget announcements (each February or March), read the mandate letters from the Prime Minister to each Minister, or the Speech from the Throne by the Governor General (each fall). All three have the latest overarching priorities.

All of the above items are what I call “macro” documents…they are good for any high-level overview in any of the job categories. But what about more specific items? The “micro” documents?

For those, it’s impossible to tell you in detail what you need. If you’re going for an AS finance position, I can tell you that you’ll need to know the FAA. Or if you’re going to be working on Memorandum to Cabinet or TB submissions, you’ll need to know the decision-making processes of the Privy Council and Treasury Board (respectively). Or if you’re going to be a PM, you may need to know the latest approaches from the Centre of Expertise on managing Grants and Contributions (Gs&Cs).

If you’re qualified to apply, you’re qualified to figure that out for yourself. You know what the job needs, because you have experience in the area. You might add some info around finding out what the specific division does, i.e. it’s mandate or description, but that is usually a “nice to have”.

Just because you know a lot, it doesn’t mean you can pass the test

There is a huge incumbent trap for jobs. By incumbent I mean someone might be already acting in the job, or working in the same division, and they think, “Well, I don’t really need to study, I know this stuff, I do it every day.”

Except they don’t do it every day.

If you are working as an EC in the area, and someone says, “What’s the Departmental Mandate?”, you will go to the website and copy it over into the memo. You don’t have it memorized. You don’t need it for your job.

But you DO need it for the test. Most written tests do NOT have access to the internet or other source materials. So someone who doesn’t do it every day will study, and come up with short reusable modules to explain the priorities, or mandate, or a process, and they’ll pass the test. And the expert in the area who is already doing the job will bomb the exam because they didn’t study and they don’t have those short little modules / paragraphs memorized.

Under the old system where candidates had to rank first to get hired, 50% of incumbents did NOT rank first, and a hefty share of them didn’t even pass the exam. Someone from outside the group who didn’t know the job as well came in and wrote the exam, and explained the content better than the people in the division.

So, what is your goal?

Short reusable paragraphs or headings that you can throw into a memo or exam question to show you do know the priorities, or mandate, or process.

Even if you can memorize well, it doesn’t mean you’ll pass

Let’s go back to the EC example where the candidate has to write a three-page memo about priorities, etc. What’s the most important element? Most people will say “content” since they’re testing knowledge.

But they are not ONLY marking knowledge. A robot could regurgitate facts. Siri could find the departmental mandate. The test is whether or not you can feed it back in a useful, logical, clearly understandable memo. In other words, the marker has to understand what you wrote.

Which means the MOST important part is structure. Structure is King for written exams. A poorly constructed answer with great content will always get lower marks than a well-constructed answer with average content.

How do you ensure a good structure? You memorize those little modules that you need, and you figure out good headings to use when you feed it back out in the exam. In fact, the headings may get you most of your marks.

Every once in awhile, you’ll get a question in the written exam or the interview where you have no idea what to say. You might have a whole bunch of ideas bouncing around in your head, and you just can’t figure out how to structure a response. It happens.

But there’s a way out. If you prepare properly for the unexpected.

Expect the unexpected

I think it always a good idea for AS, PM, and EC candidates to have something in their back-pocket to use as a structure if they get a question where the appropriate structure to use is not evident. Essentially, you should have a generic structure to use in any situation. What is it?

  • AS — Steps in a problem-solving cycle;
  • PM — Steps in a project-management cycle; or,
  • EC — Steps in a policy-development cycle.

Now, take a moment, stop reading, and go Google one of those three. Maybe even find an image instead of a web-page that shows the cycle. Now do it for the other two. Did you see the trick?

They’re basically all the same steps.

  1. You start with problem definition / research / identifying the issue.
  2. You do some research to make sure you understand it;
  3. You analyse some options / instruments / policy choices;
  4. You choose one;
  5. You implement it;
  6. You evaluate it and provide feedback back to the starting position again.

Six headings that you can use for just about ANY question where you get stuck. Which is often, as I said, most of your marks. A good structure.

Depending on the job, you also might want to research things like steps in creating teamwork, partnerships, consultations, etc. Again, they’re all about the same.

You ‘re ready to write, now what?

TRACK 2: How to write

Your second track for preparations is a bit more about the physical setup and the actual time period for the test.

Most written tests these days are going to be written on computers, it’s just easier to mark. The problem is that not all departments are well set-up with computer labs for you to come in, ten or twenty people at a time, and write an exam. Some departments decide instead to do a “take-home” test in that they’ll email it to you at a set time and you have a set amount of time to return it to them by email too. Or some will have you come into their office, but instead of giving you a computer, they have you write it out. By hand. Sometimes by pencil.

No, I’m completely serious. I was invited to an EX-01 exam where I thought I was going to be writing on a computer, and instead was handed a sheaf of pages and some pencils. It was BRUTAL.

So, you need to ask some basic questions if they don’t tell you right up front when they invite you to the written exam.

  • Will it be take-home or will it be on-site?
  • If it is on-site, will it be on computer? Will you have access to the internet during the test or not? That last question is a bit of a tricky one. If you know, for example, that you will have access to the internet, do you need to memorize the mandate? Or do you just memorize “where” it is on the website, and go to the website and copy and paste it? But what if they tell you yes and then you arrive and the internet isn’t working? Is it grounds to appeal? Probably not.
  • How much time do you have to do the test?
  • Which elements are being tested?

This last one is important. Almost every competition now will tell you in advance when you are invited, in this case, to a written exam that they are testing K1 to K3, Ability 4 (writing), Ability 6 (judgement) and Personal Suitability 2 (interpersonanal skills). However, not all competitions do. Sometimes you’re assuming it’s all the knowledge ones, but there’s a chance it could ask you something about the others.

But let’s focus a bit more on the actual writing and some basic tips.

  1. If you are writing by hand, write EVERY OTHER LINE on the page. It will be more readable, and if you have to change something later, you can without turning the page into chicken scratch.
  2. If you do have access to the internet, usually you are NOT allowed to simply copy and paste. Certain things, like the exact wording of the mandate, sure. An explanation from TBS about the steps in the policy development cycle? No, you’ll have to write that in your own words.
  3. If you have a bunch of short modules memorized for different things, spend five minutes just “dumping” them out of your head in some sort of short notation form. It’ll stop you from worrying that you’ll forget them as you write, and when you need them, you can probably use the short notes as your headings anyway.
  4. YOU NEED TO MANAGE YOUR TIME. If you do not finish the test, you are likely not going to pass. Part marks are possible, but not enough to pass. Even if a couple of elements are a bit “weak”, you need to finish completely. MANAGE YOUR TIME.
  5. If you are writing detailed information, outline your answer as you go to make sure you answer EVERY question. If it says “make a recommendation”, your note has to make a recommendation.
  6. If you are on a computer, SAVE OFTEN. If it crashes, and you lose stuff, there is no whining to the teacher to get an extension. This is the real world with real consequences. If you’re too stupid to save often, you’re too stupid to be given a job that pays $60-70K per year.
  7. If you are writing a take-home test where they send it to you by mail, make sure you have a good infrastructure in place. You will need a reliable internet connection to send and receive your exam. If you don’t have a reliable internet connection, that is not their problem. You are just done. If you are writing in your office, make sure you have no interruptions. Put up a sign at work saying “WRITING TEST, DO NOT DISTURB” or better yet, book a quiet room or a Director’s office where you won’t be disturbed. Put up the sign on that door too. If you are writing at home, this is not the time to decide your kids should stay home that day. You are writing a TEST for a JOB. You cannot be distracted as if you’re running a daycare and writing the test.

YOU NEED TO TAKE THE TEST SERIOUSLY. Unless you don’t really care if you get it.

Then relax. Keep your notes you made when you were studying. The test is over, but some of the prep is still useful.


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’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.


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. 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.

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.


At some point in your participation in a selection process, assuming you get this far, they are going to ask you for references. Most people think that when they choose their references, they should choose people who will say “Jane is great”. Actually, even if they said “Jane is great, awesome, etc.” with 1000 variations, you would actually fail the reference. Because the point of a reference is not for them to tell the hiring manager you’re great, but rather to give them concrete examples that demonstrate you meet the various criteria they’re assessing.

Let’s delve a bit more deeply. If you think about the four main things in the Statement of Merit (i.e., experience, knowledge, abilities and personal suitability), references are mainly about personal suitability factors. Judgement, leadership, interpersonal skills, initiative…some of them may have been tested previously, some may not; some may have only been tested in previous stages, some may be tested in multiple stages, some may only be tested through references. It varies from process to process, but most are tested through references.

Jumping ahead a bit, when you give the names, here is what is going to happen with those names. Let’s say for example it asks for three references for you. The HR person is going to get those names, and they are going to send those three people an email to say “Good afternoon, Mr. Doe. Candidate X is participating in a selection process with us for an [PM-3/EC-7/AS-4/CR-1/CS-1/etc.] position and has provided your name as a potential reference. We are accessing four criteria through our reference stage, and we have provided the attached questionnaire to help us rate their previous performance. Please fill out the questionnaire in writing or we can arrange to call and discuss the questions orally if you prefer. We are hoping to wrap up everyone’s references by such and such a date and hope you will be able to complete it before that time. In the first part of the questionnaire, it asks you to identify your position, how and when you knew the candidate, and in what capacity.”

There are some more bells and whistles but that’s about it…it says “we’re accessing A, B, C, and D”, tell us how you know the candidate and then answer the questions on A, B, C and D. When your reference turns to Question A, perhaps on initiative, they are going to be asked questions that look a lot like the experience questions you may have seen in the interview. “Please describe a situation when the candidate demonstrated initiative, including their role and what actions they took.” In other words, “Tell us of a time when…”.

Once the HR person gets the questionnaire back or they do a phone interview, they (or the hiring manager) reviews the details provided and assigns a mark. This is very important. Your reference is NOT the one assigning the mark of 4/5 or 8/10 (i.e., “she’s great, 10/10”!); they are providing details to the hiring manager so the hiring manager can access those details and grade your performance (i.e., “she sounds pretty good, good examples, 8/10”). Hiring managers have to do the scoring, not the reference. Which means the hiring manager needs a reference that is detailed enough for them to make such a scoring decision. 

What does this mean for you? It means that you have to choose references that:

  1. WILL provide details when asked; and,
  2. CAN provide those details.

Both have implications for what you have to do as the candidate. So let’s break that down a bit further.

Someone who WILL provide details

Not every reference is created equal for personality. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where it seemed like you were pulling teeth to get them to tell you anything?

How are you today?


What did you do on the weekend?


How is that big project going?


How is that junior staff doing on your team?

All right.

This is NOT the type of person you want giving you a reference. You want someone who responds to open-ended questions with more than a couple of words. If they are asked pointed questions, usually anyone will respond with details. If they are asked open-ended questions, you need to make sure the person will be expansive with their answers, they will respond in detail, they will answer the question in a way that provides enough examples for the hiring manager to be able to grade your abilities in that area.

I hesitate to give a blanket statement to say avoid all Type A, short, terse people as references, as often these are high-flying managers or directors too. Impressive even. But it is almost like you are hiring them to be your spokesperson on the competition, and you want to know they will take the time to be thoughtful and do it properly, not slap together three words and move on. Because if they do a crappy job on your reference, if they don’t give enough details, the hiring manager will rate you low and you won’t pass. Because the hiring manager won’t have enough evidence of your performance to rate you high enough to pass. 

A colleague of mine was in a development program. Her manager was not one to respond well to open-ended questions, and when she did the evaluation of my friend, she wrote basic information — yes, no, fine, good, etc. with short to no examples to back any of it up. When they followed up (which they don’t have to do, but they did) to ask for more info, the manager did the same thing, nothing expansive. And without more details to justify a higher score, my friend didn’t get her promotion for another six months. Because her reference was not a good fit for those types of questions. Most experienced managers know how they have to answer reference questions because they have been the one asking the questions in other processes, and therefore know what info they need, but not always.

Choose your references wisely. If you were hiring a spokesperson to prove you’re ready for a promotion, is that the reference you would choose to speak on your behalf?

Someone who CAN provide details

While it is important to choose someone who WILL provide details when asked, it is even more important that they be someone who CAN provide details, who knows your work well enough to do that type of reference.

Usually this is someone who knows you well enough and for a sufficient period of time (preferably as your direct supervisor) to discuss your performance in detail. Normally, this is for a minimum of six months. A year or two is obviously better, not only for their own credibility, but also for having the likelihood of several examples to choose from as evidence in their response.

Let me give you an example where I ticked all the boxes above, and it almost burned me. I used to work in a division where we had no director, just directly reporting to a Director General. EX-03 level, if you’re interested. As part of a huge interdepartmental initiative, he was made co-chair of a working group. And as a PM-03, I became his officer on the project, managing all aspects of the workplan and content. I hesitate to describe him as the figurehead, as he gave more guidance than that, but I was the lead for the file. I did everything for the day-to-day project, kept everybody moving along and giving us inputs, and wrote the final report and recommendations for the group. It was almost 80% of my job and it culminated in a series of recommendations to PCO and the larger group that were adopted. Everybody was happy, thanks all around, etc.

Fast forward three years, I’m up for a competition, he’s willing to be one of my references, and since he wasn’t managing me directly anymore (he had changed directorates), I sent him a quick little summary of some of my past projects as a little memory-jogger. I wasn’t trying to script him, but I did want to nudge him with some good examples of things I had done. Top of my list was this big interdepartmental group. And he replied to say, “Thanks, very helpful, I had forgotten about that working group.”

I was stunned. I *killed* myself for almost 18 months on that project, making it so he didn’t have to do much more than chair the meetings, and it was a great project for me, plus great experience for the competition. He did his part, I did mine. But he didn’t even remember it enough to mention in a reference? As I said, I was stunned. Not hurt, that’s not what I’m talking about…I’m talking about stunned that I assumed that since he thought I was amazing and gave me glowing reviews, that he would have multiple examples of my work to mention, and yet he didn’t / couldn’t remember my biggest file. 

Stunned, one of those “Are you freaking kidding me?” moments. At the time, I promised myself that I would never do that with MY staff, I would remember them better than that, smug little me. Which was warm and comforting right up until I was a manager myself, and a co-op student contacted me two years after she reported to someone in my team, wanted a reference, and I had to stop and think, “What did she work on that summer?”. I remembered her, I remembered she was good, sure, but I couldn’t have answered details about her projects to give good examples for a detailed / quality reference.

So let me go back to that moment. After I thought about it, I realized that, of course, he couldn’t remember. I was a PM-03, one of eight officers working for him, most of the others with much bigger files, and he only needed to chair the meetings, not manage it day-to-day. And when it was over, we moved on to other files. Plus he had had probably another 20 staff in total over the subsequent 3 year period. He remembered I was good, but he didn’t have the details at his fingertips. Maybe he would have remembered on his own, maybe not. But I’m sure glad I sent the prep information. Which I now do for ALL my references, just in case.

Equally, I ask for the same when I’m acting as a reference for someone. You did the prep work for this competition, you know what they are looking for, not me.  For example, maybe you did a computer project and a finance project for me. On the reference, they might ask me about a project you managed for me, maybe demonstrating initiative, and since I remember the computer project really well, I might mention that one. However, if there’s a finance component to the job, you might prefer I use that one instead. The only way I’ll know, or at least consider the other project, is if you remind me of both of them. If I’m going to be your spokesperson, helping me prepare will help you succeed.

However, what you absolutely cannot do is try to script your references with what to say, because they’re the one providing the reference, not you. But you CAN subtly nudge your references towards better examples. How do you do that? You do it by doing some preparation for them ahead of time.

Here’s what I do with my references.

A. First and foremost, I consider which potential references will respond thoughtfully with details.

B.  In advance of a specific competition, I ask them in general if they are willing to be a reference. Some people have what they consider to be a fantastic disruption in this area, widely touted as a breakthrough in the industry — they suggest asking your references what they’ll say about you. I think it is both brilliant and disruptive, but I would never do it. I feel you are asking them for a favour in doing the reference, and then you put them on the spot to tell you their opinion of you. If they hedge, you know not to use them, sure; but even if they like you, and would say good things, you might be making them really uncomfortable by asking them direct. And I can tell in the next step if it’s positive anyway.

C. At the time of a competition, I re-confirm with them their continued willingness, and mention the specific context. If they shy away for ANY reason (too busy, whatever), I drop them for that competition. Maybe they ARE too busy, maybe they didn’t really think you were that good, maybe they don’t think you are ready for the promotion…doesn’t matter the reason, you want people who are ready, willing and able to give you a good reference. If they aren’t willing, move on as quick as you can. Don’t make it a “thing”, just let it go. You don’t even have to tell them you’re NOT listing them, just leave them off the list when you submit. Choose somebody else.

D. Assuming they agree, I send them an email before they ever get a questionnaire saying:

  1. Thank you for agreeing to be a reference for this process;
  2. I have applied for the position of X at level Y in area Z (this gives them the context of what you’re applying for);
  3. I am attaching my cover letter for info (they likely won’t read it);
  4. I am also attaching my resume, and you’ll see my time with you is summarized on page 2 (or you could just paste it in the email…this gives them some good memory joggers of all the things you did with them); and,
  5. The reference is likely to focus on these personal suitability factors (* or if you know what is left to be covered, you can say it more specifically, or even ask the process people what the references will be asked to rate); and,
  6. Here are some examples I’ve been using in the competition that you may want to draw upon when you respond to the reference (and list a few key examples, no real details, mostly projects or files) for each of the factors they’ll have to respond to in the reference.

Note that you want to keep this as informal as possible…kind of like “Here’s some info, if you want it, if it’s helpful or useful”. You have to make sure they don’t feel like you’re turning them into a puppet or a mouthpiece, that you aren’t totally scripting what they’re going to say. Which of course you totally ARE trying to do without looking like you are. The goal is subtly nudging, not psychologically shoving.

And it works so well that now, if someone asks me to be a reference, I tell them, “Sure, but please send me your resume and any examples you think it could be good to mention if/when I get a reference.” It’s still my choice which ones and what I’m going to say, sure, but I might as well have you do some of the work. 

And yes, I do this EVEN WHEN I’m still working for them or they’re working for me right now. You’re the one who knows best what makes a good example for the job you are applying for, and so you might as well suggest the best ones you have to suggest. 

E. Write them a thank you note afterwards. Most people just do it by email, although it stands out more if you do it with a paper card. And do it whether you make it through the competition or not. Those questionnaires can take me an hour or more to fill out with the proper level of information and detail. It’s like I’m going through an interview myself, on your behalf. You can, sometimes, also include an update on how it went, etc., just so your former managers know where you’re at in your career management.

But what about…

So that’s the basic outline, and you see the steps for choosing and prepping your references. For most of the chapters, I stop at this point in a description of the process. But on references, there are some basic questions that immediately get asked every time I do a presentation in this area, so I might as well address them now.

The second-most popular question I get asked about references is from people trying to gauge their progress / success in the process. For example, “Hi Paul, I did my interview and I found out today I passed because they asked for my references, yay!”. Except that isn’t necessarily what that means. Or they ask more pointedly, “Hey Paul, if I get asked for refs, does that mean…”? No, it doesn’t mean that. Let me explain.

References are generally sought at one of three stages — at the time of a written exam, at the time of an interview, or after an interview. Once you realize that, you can see that when they ask you doesn’t really tell you anything. If they ask at the written exam, they haven’t even assessed you yet, so it means nothing. If they ask at the interview, again, it means nothing. Where people get tripped up is when they have finished the interview, and they get a subsequent request for interviews. And think, “That must mean something, right?”. It does mean SOMETHING, but not necessarily what you think.

Prior to 2005, competitions were done fairly linearly. Apply. Write. Interview. References. Language. Security. And most people didn’t get to do the next step if they didn’t pass the previous. So if you got asked for references, it meant that you passed the previous round almost 90% of the time. Maybe even 95% of the time.

But after about 2010 or so, under the new systems and techniques, HR people realized that references take TIME. So, while it costs money to send them out to lots of people, it is cheaper for the hiring manager to have the references done for some people who might fail another stage than to wait until the end and be delayed in hiring someone because one person’s references are taking FOREVER. So the standard HR advice is to ask for references as soon as possible to help them get that part of the process going. Equally, some legal advisors actually tell HR to complete the references for anyone who passes the written too since if they challenge the interview (i.e. appeal), it is good to have the files complete and know what is at stake in the appeal (i.e., if they know you failed the references, it helps in the rejection to say you failed more than one element rather than a single one). Either way, for process or legal reasons, HR is asking for references often before the interviews are scored (or as I noted above, even before the interviews happen!). So if you finish an interview, and a couple of weeks later they ask for references, the only thing it means is that they’re continuing the process. It doesn’t mean you passed the previous stage.

On a personal note, I feel asking at the written exam stage is too soon, but since references can be checked in parallel with other processes, some HR groups ask for it earlier. I prefer to ask after the interview and only check those of the people who pass the interview. But that’s just me.

The most popular question, and the most tricky, is actually several questions in one and applies to providing a name when you have a problem with your current manager. The multiple forms are as follows:

a. Hate my manager / my manager hates me, but they asked for the current manager;

b. I haven’t told my current manager yet that I’m looking;

c. My current manager has only managed me for 2 months;

d. My manager died / retired / moved to Africa;

The list goes on and on. But what it really asks, very simply, is “What do I do if I don’t want to or can’t list my current manager?”

Let’s start with the easy one. If your manager doesn’t know you’re looking, you are digging your own grave. You don’t need to say “I’m trying to get the heck out of here”, but you can mention, certainly in annual performance reviews, that you would be open to new opportunities, promotions, etc. and you intend to participate in comps in the future if something interests you. More general, less specific. While many people worry about vindictive bosses, my reaction is more pointed…if you think they’re going to be upset if they find out you’re participating in processes, how upset are they likely to be when you come to them at the reference stage and they find out then or even worse, if someone mentions to them you’re in a comp they’re running and you haven’t even told them? You can downplay it as practice for future comps, seeing how you do, getting more experience, etc., but people have ruined relationships with GOOD bosses by having them totally surprised at the end. Tell them early. If you didn’t, tell them now (and if you have to, downplay that you did it for practice, didn’t think you would make it, etc.).

Now for the hard one. If you have a conflict with your manager, you have three choices if the process asks for your current manager. To be blunt, none of them are good. First, if you can think it will be “okay”, do nothing, provide the name, let them assess you (i.e. expecting a fair reference), and leave it at that. Second, you can provide the name, but tell the HR people that you have a conflictual relationship with your current manager, and suggesting another name that you think provides a fairer assessment (preferably the previous manager). By telling the HR people, they will likely do an extra reference and average the scores. Because if you get screened out, and you appeal, they’re on the hook — they knew there was a potential issue with your current manager, and they did nothing to mitigate it. Third, you can ask your manager’s boss if you can list them instead if you think they will be fairer in the assessment. As a potential aside, I will also note that if you have a problem with your current manager, your best option may be to first do a lateral to another area before participating in a formal comp. Comps always do formal references, while laterals are more likely to do more informal ones (and while they will still want to talk to your current supervisor, it usually isn’t their sole method).

If your current manager has only managed you for 2 months, or really anything less than 6, almost all HR people will let you list your previous manager. Just tell them why (short duration) and they will let you list someone else because the tribunals have ruled that anyone managing you for less than 6 months is generally not in a good enough position to accurately assess your performance. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s about the norm. From 6 to 12 months, often HR will add another reference to your list (i.e., 4 instead of 3 people).

As a variation on that question, I frequently hear from people who say they have had four different managers in two years in the same division. In other words, the person hasn’t changed jobs, but their manager’s cubicle looks like it should have a revolving door. This was a huge issue back in the staff cuts in 2010/11. Lost of people needed assessments done, including references, and had NO ONE who had managed them for six months straight. You also frequently see it show up in HR grievances and appeal cases as contextual factors. A frequent formal solution is to find someone “above” them who has hopefully been there for longer and who can be the one to “sign” the reference / evaluation based on input from the people underneath. Kind of like cobbling together three or four inputs, and signed by the Director. Unless your Director is a jerk, or there are other factors at play, this is usually something they are willing to do because they know the bind you are in. Or the HR people will let you list someone else.

The last variation that comes up is really hard to deal with. Lots of people have had their references retire, often with promises to act as a reference anytime, etc. Except they aren`t in the office anymore. They are totally OUT of the culture, processes, etc. And getting them to focus on doing an hour-long reference for you might not result in the right amount of detail, particularly not without a great deal of preparation.

For example, one of my references who would sing my praises loud and long and take the time to write a good reference when he was my boss actually retired about four years ago. Subsequently, he changed his ISP and home phone providers, which changed his email address and phone numbers. All of my contact info for him now bounces. Yes, I can track him down, but not likely in time if I have to submit a name today.

Plus, in all honesty, HR prefers to ask active references, not retired ones. Not necessarily for any good reason, other than convenience, and because the ethical obligations of day-to-day management still apply. Managers almost HAVE to do it, and they have to do it fairly. Retired people may take longer, and may not fill it out as carefully. It is hit/miss depending on the retiree and how long ago they retired, and some HR people have had bad experiences that colour their views for the future.

My personal view is that a retired reference is good for about a year, maybe two if you’ve stayed in touch somehow. If they’re no longer available — moved, dead even, no contact info, etc. — there’s nothing you can do. You have to make do with who’s left in your contact list. Most people compensate by either using another manager at the same level in the same team (if they’re willing) or bumping up a level. But it’s tough.

One last caveat for choosing your references. If they ask for current manager, do not think you can fudge it by listing someone else. Because as soon as that other “replacement” choice goes to fill out the reference, the profile section says, “When did you manage Jane?” and/or asks them to identify if they are a previous or current manager. Don’t expect your previous manager to lie for you, and assuming they don’t, your HR people will catch that you don`t have the current one in the list. And then it becomes a THING. Likely one you can’t manage as well. Deal with it upfront, openly.