Let’s talk about job interviews

Posted in: Leading Public Engagement, Thinkpiece

Are the current standard interview practices in the recruitment process really the best we can do? We at the Public Engagement Unit certainly don’t think so, and over the last 12 months, we have been testing out a new approach.

It started with a tweet

Scrolling my feed on Twitter (now X) over a lunch break back in January 2022, I came upon a post by (now former) Vocal Eyes Director Matthew Cock highlighting how the interview panel he was part of had given all the candidates the questions in advance of the actual interview.

And it struck me, why would you not? Interviews are treated like tests, and often, candidates might put too much effort into trying to second-guess the questions that might get asked. It feels like you’re being assessed on how well you perform under test conditions, and really, when will that be the case in the day-to-day of many jobs?

As my wonderful colleague (formerly of Wellcome) Rosie Stanbury put it,

You wouldn’t run any other important meeting without giving everyone a clear heads-up on what I was expecting to discuss, why are interviews any different?

Full of flaws

We all know how it goes. After submitting a personal statement outlining the evidence of how you meet each of the 20 essential criteria in the person specification, you get invited to a 60-minute interview at an allocated time on the allocated day with a week’s notice and prepare a 15-minute task with a PowerPoint and associated document with details of your methodology.

Ok, this is a little extreme, but not far from what I’ve experienced in the past.

Once you start to think about it, this approach is deeply flawed, exclusionary and inaccessible.

Interviews, as they stand, currently privilege men, certain personality types (e.g., extroverts), neurotypical people, and people from certain socio-economic and educational backgrounds (e.g., privately educated people and people with tertiary education qualifications).

We expect applicants to conform to this norm instead of challenging the embedded privilege of this format's status quo.

We are potentially excluding potentially brilliant people from joining our teams.

Doing things differently

Earlier, I mentioned the post that started my thinking, but here at the Public Engagement Unit, we’ve always tried to do things differently in recruitment. For example, for my post in 2019, the criterion of having a degree was removed from the person specification.

Because inclusive practice has developed over the last five years and the importance of accessibility and inclusivity in our work has increased, we felt now is the opportune time to build on these small steps and have permission to be a bit more radical.

What we did

We decided to try a new approach with our two latest roles at the Public Engagement Unit.

We put considerable planning into creating our recruitment process, so when the roles went live, we had what we hoped was a rigorous, open, and transparent process in place that would enable us to find the right person and help the applicants be as informed about the role as possible and confident that the team and the role were right for them.

Person specification

Our process, unsurprisingly, started with the person specification. We kept specs for both roles to 10 max, worked hard to exclude any that weren’t absolutely necessary for the role and tried to be clear and specific. We also outlined how and when we would assess these (i.e. at the application stage, during the interview, with a task). We also tried to avoid specifications that were character traits, instead focusing on behaviour-based specifications, hopefully helping applicants understand what the roles involved and what is expected of them without insider information.

Job pack

This was a key document for us. We wanted applicants to know exactly what to expect in the recruitment process and when. Instead of pushing people to the University’s recruitment portal in the first instance, we directed them to a pack we created. This pack:

  • outlined our approach to the recruitment process
  • gave important contextual detail about the role, the Public Engagement Unit and specifically the ParticipatoryResearch@Bath project
  • detailed the information session for the role we were holding and invited applicants to meet and discuss the role at 121 surgeries at their convenience with us at the Public Engagement Unit
  • outlined the timeline for when applicants would be contacted during the stages of recruitment
  • highlighted our approach to the interview process


I was adamant our interview would be different to the standard. We designed the interview with the applicant in mind. It was an opportunity for them to talk about themselves and their experience for 60 minutes (in a structured way) and how it relates to the role. Our interview pack included:

  • the interview length
  • the make-up of the interview panel
  • details of how the interview would be run
  • the interview questions, which consisted of a series of competency and situational-based questions
  • details of the task and being explicit about the expectation of not requiring visuals or PowerPoint


As a recruiting manager, taking this approach to the selection process and using all the evidence from the application form, interviews, follow-up questions and tasks really helped me and the panel understand the candidate's suitability for the role and ability to undertake the duties much more comprehensively than any recruitment process I'd been involved in previously. Personally, I also found the conversations much richer and felt like the candidates were more comfortable and at ease.

The feedback from candidates (both successful and unsuccessful) has been positive, with people telling us how they felt supported through the process.

However. All did not go entirely to plan.

Once we made our decision, we updated the recruitment portal with the results and, accordingly, thought the process of notifying all candidates would kick in. This wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until a candidate emailed us a week after the interview that we learned they’d not been informed despite our indicating the timeline.

This was horribly disappointing for us, especially after we put so much effort into creating a caring and supportive environment for candidates.

While we were able to fully control parts of the recruitment process, this episode starkly demonstrates that we were still operating within a system with fixed elements. We focused on the front end of the process, and on reflection, we should have paid more attention to the parts of the process that were not in our control. We could have used this knowledge to inform our timelines, and it would enable us to openly communicate this to candidates to help manage their expectations.

While it is tempting to focus on where our approach fell down, we need to remember whether we got the outcome we were hoping for.

Being more accessible and inclusive in our recruitment process meant attracting a more diverse pool of candidates, and that was definitely the case.

Making change in a large organisation

I know we’re not alone in our critique of recruitment practices, and there is a whole movement of human resources professionals working to improve recruitment practices more broadly. What we did is by no means a perfect exemplar of excellent practice.

However, we were able to challenge accepted recruitment practices and be a little disruptive in our approach, all whilst still operating within the constraints of an organisation that is largely process-driven. Interestingly, instead of being a blocker to change, the HR team supported us throughout the process, providing helpful feedback on what we wanted to do.

If this is the change we can make at a large organisation like a university, it must be possible at all organisations. Giving a little bit of thought to fairer practice may take time, but it can make a huge difference. Doing nothing different really shouldn’t be an option.

Dean Veall is Deputy Head of Public Engagement at the University of Bath.

Posted in: Leading Public Engagement, Thinkpiece


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