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Public job interviews: Justice or disservice to the candidates?

There is a shift in using of public interviews to fill up vacant positions in the public sector in Kenya. These interviews carried out in the full glare of the public eye who follow such proceedings keenly. Therefore, the interviewees are subjected not only to a panel of interviewers but also to public scrutiny. The style of interviewing has become more popular since the new constitution came into place in August 2010. The intention is to provide a free and fair way to determine suitable candidates for senior positions in the public sector.

I spent the last ten years of my career in the human resource profession interviewing either as a specialist recruiter (in-house) or as a Manager. I believe there are some solid reasons we should rethink the use of public interviews. My analysis is based on the review of the Judicial Service Commission interviews carried out for the positions of Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice and Supreme Court Judge to drive this point home. These have happened in the last few weeks and are about to end.

Some of the main reasons I am against using public interviews as a way to select a suitable candidate are;

Unfair Advantage: The interviews unlike those held behind closed doors provide an unfair advantage to the candidates that follow. They see the questions asked by the panel enabling them to prepare for the interview better than the initial candidates. They also have time to study the panellist's demeanour and understand their and the public's reaction to responses and could play to their wishes to their advantage. The public interest heightened at the start of the interviews fades off with time as the process continues. Therefore, the public also will tend to judge the first few candidates and be lenient on the last candidates.

Stage Fright: Several individuals suffer from stage fright. It is a real challenge because they have the pressure to perform in front of the panel and the public that is watching the interview. Whereas perhaps some court proceedings are televised live, that is not the only aspect of the job of the candidates being interviewed. A lot more is required on the job than what is shown on live television. Therefore, individuals with a certain personality will thrive better than others who cannot handle the stage fright well. The proponents of this method need to be aware and address it.

The Results: The deliberations on the candidate's performance by the panel are not made public, therefore they still lack the transparency the public process desires to achieve. If the process is to be fair to the candidates, the deliberations on the interview performance should also be made public. This will make it clear how the panel scored each candidate and the arrival at the final decision. Such deliberations would not be desirable as the panelists may have differing views and opinions. This could be debated heatedly after the interview with lengthy discussions and at times require negotiation to arrive at the final rating.

Throughout this public process, I also witnessed some glaring common interviewing mistakes:

First, the interviewers asked closed-ended questions. In an interview, the candidate should not be asked a question that has an answer as either yes or no. This does not allow the candidate to express fully in the interview. It is not clear how the scoring of such a question is done. An example is such a question: Are you a man/ lady of high integrity? The most obvious answer is yes. Expect none of the candidates to say no as they would be out of their mind to do so. The best question to ask the candidate is to demonstrate to the panel of a time they had to act in a manner that required their integrity to be tested.

Second, the questions were unstructured interview questions. The panel used different questions not structured to address a specific competency on the job to the different candidates. It will be difficult to determine the outright top candidate as they were not measured by the same yardstick. It’s true that some of the questions were common across the board, but this did not seem to address a specific competence that would be relevant in determining the best candidate. Some of such common questions were on a candidate’s stand on abortion, gay marriage, etc.

Third, there was clear bias shown by the panellists. The panel was very harsh to the candidates added to the process at the last minute. This happened when the court ruled to allow all applicants to be interviewed regardless of meeting set requirements. The professional action should have been to subject all the candidates to the same set of questions. If not qualified, then it would surface in the interview scoring. It is humiliating to demean a candidate at an interview regardless of the circumstance.

Way Forward

It will be difficult to reverse the trend of public interviews and therefore the best bet is to professionalize the process. The following are some of the ways I would suggest the handling future public interviews.

We should focus on having structured competency based interview questions that are similar across the interviews. To aid this, there will need to be a clear determination of the key competencies that the panellists will want to test and focus on. The validity of unstructured interview questions is low and some studies put this at about 2%. The studies state that it is better to toss a coin to determine the candidate as you have a 50% chance of getting the right candidate. It is much easier to develop a scoring sheet using the competencies tested. If the panel were to make public such results or decide to carry out the analysis in public, they will be able to show how they arrived at the final recommendation. I believe it is safe to assume that such a report is available for audit in the current interviews.

Addressing the stage fright in the interviews that could cause even the best candidates not to thrive will be difficult. A keen eye and proper training will enable the panel determine such nervousness and work to calm down or reassure candidates who suffer from stage fright. It would be best to avoid live interviews and leave it for the final vetting stage carried out in parliament. At this stage, the interrogation is based on the suitability of the candidate. The parliament will just be seeking clarity on any soft issues it may want to address before forwarding the selected candidate for presidential approval.

We should have another stage in the process to filter the candidates and have the final shortlist before the interviews. Using presentations and case study analysis the panel can have a better shortlist to work with. We need to use a more assessments based approach and this will increase the validity of the process. It is still not 50% as in the coin toss but is better than relying on an unstructured interview only.

Once we have an ideal shortlist, we can easily simulate a closed door interview. The rule of the thumb for all positions I have recruited in the past was a ratio of three candidates to one position. Interviewing any number above that is a waste of the panel’s time and will not improve the process. It only gives the panel a harder time picking the final candidate. I would suggest that we place the final three candidates in isolation and carry out the interviews in one session and not over the several days as witnessed. This will have a feel of the closed door interview and deal with the unfair advantage I had highlighted earlier on.

The best candidates for the job may have been selected but there needs to be a serious rethink on the structure of the public interviews.

Should we continue with this type of interviews despite the challenges witnessed?

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