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Planning Retirement Online

A Guide to Job Searching in Later Life

Part 4 - Methods of Selection


DonWilde2.jpg (9403 bytes)For many of us in our fifties and sixties, it is perhaps some decades since we last had to go through any kind of formal selection procedure. As often as not this would just be a loose, unstructured interview – full of woolly and hypothetical questions – or even just a “cosy chat”. Needless to say there is now much evidence to show that the validity of this method – measured by the subsequent success in the job of those so chosen – is remarkably low. In the 90’s and beyond we find organisations increasingly using more objective methods, including a specific interviewing style, to make their hiring decisions This section sets out to forewarn you and forearm you when faced with today’s selection methods, not only interviews but also tests, assessment centres etc.


Whilst we could not pretend that the ineffective, unstructured interview has disappeared from the scene – far from it – many organisations are now using a method referred to, among other names, as “competency (or criteria) based interviewing”. This is based on the principle – well researched – that the best way of predicting how an individual will behave in the future is how they have behaved in the past (hardly rocket-science, you may think!). The hiring manager will have identified, early in the recruitment process if not before, the key behavioural criteria required for successful performance in the role. Examples of these might be such as communication, judgement, initiative, persuasion, team member, leadership, analysis, decisiveness, integrity etc etc. A major part of the interview will then be based around asking for examples to demonstrate how the applicant has applied the relevant criteria in their past working (or even out-of-work) life.


A requirement for initiative in the job might cause a question such as “give me an example of where you have introduced a new work process”. Leadership might give “tell me about a time when you have had to deal with a difficult member of staff”. Or, for decisiveness, “describe how you went about making a decision that was particularly difficult for you”. In other words you are being asked to tell a true story reflecting how you have behaved in a particular type of situation.

A few tips about how to go about answering these questions to best effect:
  • The interviewer is always looking for specific situations rather than generalisations. “Well there was the time 6 months ago when I had to ……..” is the right form, “yes, I have often done that and my approach is ….” is much less impactful.
  • What the interviewer wants to understand is your role, so your response should be full of “I” and not “we” or “the team”.
  • A really effective response, giving the interviewer a clear idea of your use of the competency/criteria being investigated, will include three elements – what the situation was prior to your action, what you actually did, and what the outcome was (in the most specific measurable terms possible). For example, you might be asked to describe how you dealt with a difficult situation involving a member of your team. Your response might be along the lines (although with rather more detail!) of: “One of my staff in my last role with Nurdin’s was having great trouble getting in to work on time, and this was impacting on team morale. I took him to one side, explaining the effect that his action was having on other people, and set some performance targets that enabled him to get to 100% timekeeping in a number of phases (he had specific problems causing the lateness). In the event he did achieve the targets, in less than half the time required, and as a result his colleagues congratulated both him and me on the achievement and his own performance increased significantly”.

Those of you who HAVE been interviewed over the past few years may recognise this method, now that I have described the background, as having been used on them. One of the great advantages that your knowing about this technique brings is in preparation for interviews. You can usually identify at least some of the criteria that the interviewer is likely to be looking for. They may be mentioned in the advert or the job description (if you have managed to get hold of one). Maybe your common sense will tell you a number of them (eg a Project Management job will almost certainly require planning and organising, negotiation, judgement, communication, leadership etc.) Well before the interview you can be preparing your own examples of when you have been in a situation requiring that attribute. You are then well prepared when the request for a specific situation comes up – but equally you can use the preparation even if the technique is not being used in that particular interview. For instance, when asked, perhaps, to list your key strengths, think how you enhance your case by saying not just “initiative”, but “well one of them is initiative, for example when I was with Nurdin’s I …….”. Equally if you are being asked hypothetical questions about what you would do in a particular situation, how powerful to be able to respond “I have already had a similar experience – let me tell you about it …..”.

Ability/Aptitude Tests

These have been around within some particular disciplines – eg computer programming – for over 30 years, but are now increasingly being used across a wide range of roles from junior office jobs to middle management and specialist positions. One of the reasons for this is that there is evidence to show that high scores in these tests equates to high work performance, regardless of whether the specific ability being tested is used in the job or not.

Whilst a wide variety of aptitudes CAN be tested, the most commonly used instruments are those involving verbal and numerical reasoning, albeit across a wide ability range. For example verbal reasoning at clerical level might involve “black is to white and hot is to ?????” type questions, whereas a management-level test will involve reading a passage and determining whether a group of subsequent statements are definitely true, definitely untrue, or unable to say, based on the passage alone.

Most of these tests are timed, and some deliberately designed to be impossible to complete in the time allowed. If you are aware that you are likely to be asked to take tests and feel exposed in this area, there are plenty of easily obtained books on testing your own IQ and ability tests – and practice does help!


Psychometric Questionnaires

Often used by organisations who want to gain some insight into your personality and character as part of the selection process, these are very unlikely to be used as a pass/fail device but more as a guide to the hirer on what “questionable” areas might be further probed at interview. By answering questions in either agree with/disagree with or most like/least like modes you enable a profile to be drawn of your personality against a number of scales. Usually not timed, there are no right and wrong answers, and there is little point in trying to outguess or bend the result. In general it is best to go through the questionnaire at a reasonable pace, filling in the response that comes to mind first, as experience proves that thinking too much about each question tends to skew the result.

Assessment Centres

The most accurate method of selection currently in use is the assessment centre – the fact that they are not used more frequently is primarily down to cost (money, time and resources). Nonetheless you might find yourself being called to such a centre (I hope that you would never find yourself at one without being warned) – likely to last anything for half a day to two days.

The Centre is based around competencies/criteria as with the interviewing mentioned earlier, but is designed to measure applicants through seeing them actually demonstrate the attributes rather than just talk about them. So the process involves putting all the candidates through a number of exercises in which they are required to display the necessary behaviours, although the context of the exercises will not usually be the same as the job being recruited for. Throughout the exercises the applicants are observed by assessors who rate the competencies shown on the basis of actual evidence recorded. What makes the process so objective – and therefore relatively valid – is that each candidate has each competence observed a number of times by different assessors in different situations and then decisions made jointly by the assessors on the basis of the recorded evidence.

Two advantages to the candidate of this method are a) that they usually feel fairly and objectively treated, and b) that they are normally, whether they pass or fail, able to get effective feedback with evidence to support what is said about them. At the same time there is a downside in that the process can be very tiring and very stressful, particularly if candidates try to double guess the criteria being assessed and behave unnaturally to impress. This rarely works as “put on” behaviour can not usually be maintained for any length of time.

Exercises may take any of the following (or other) forms:

Group exercises where a number of the candidates interact to reach a decision or make recommendations – sometimes with conflicting objectives to each other.
1:1 exercises, often role plays, where a candidate meets with a third party to resolve a situation, gather information etc
Individual exercises in which candidates work independently to produce a report or a presentation on some topic, often involving them in analysing a large amount of data first
Invariably there may also be criteria-based interviews, aptitude tests and psychometrics as part of the centre design.

In summary, then, the whole selection process has become significantly more objective over the past decade or so, but this has opened the way to the possibility of significantly enhancing your chances by planning and practice. We will move onto look more closely at this preparation, and at actual behaviour during the interview, in the next section.
Don Wilde, the writter of this Guide, has many years experience in outplacement and career consultancy, latterly on a self-employed basis but prior to that within the IT industry. He has experience in a variety of human resources, business and project management, and staff development roles.
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