To begin at the beginning, management is clearly much easier if you can recruit the right people and then guide them successfully. But it is very hard to get it right, partly because we are often reluctant to spell out exactly what attributes we don't want, as well as what we do want. There is, for instance, plenty of room for shy, retiring, academic individuals in some parts of the civil service, but many Whitehall and other jobs require staff to be friendly, self-starting, clear communicators and so on. These attributes need if necessary to be spelt out and appraised, or else you will end up appointing an unemployable genius - great at completing crosswords but quite incapable of making decisions or managing fellow humans with all their faults and frailties.
It must be recognised, too, that recruitment, whether from inside or outside the civil service, is particularly risky because you don't have a lot of time to get to know the candidate before appointment. You must therefore be ready to accept that some appointments will not work, through no fault on the part of you or the appointee. But here are some thoughts that might help you cut the error rate.
- Take care to ensure that the job description and person specification are comprehensive. If you need the appointee to be friendly, approachable and flexible, then this needs to be spelt out in advance. Equally, if the job can be filled by a shy, backroom sort of person, then other attributes will need to be stressed. You may find Nancy Holloway's advice helpful in framing both the person specification and subsequent lines of questioning.
- Do not put too much weight on performance in the traditional 45 minute interview. Some candidates think much more quickly than others, and/or are more able to express their thoughts orally. These may be important attributes - but in many cases you will be better off appointing a deeper thinker, or someone who takes time to order their thoughts in way that allows them to communicate more clearly - especially in writing.
- It is much better, therefore, to arrange for short-listed candidates to have two discussions (not 'interviews') with two different halves of a four-person recruitment panel. This facilitates a much deeper investigation of the candidates' interests, character, strengths and weaknesses. This may seem time consuming, but it is a lot less time consuming than dealing with the aftermath of a less than optimal appointment.
- Do encourage genuine diversity. Your approach should not be “Come in and we’ll show you how to be like us”. It should be “Come in … and now we are a new organisation”. Even today, women seeking promotion often feel the need to be 'the right sort of chap' in both background and behaviour. This needs to stop.
- Similarly, do not demand sophisticated drafting skills from everyone. There is a marked waste of talent in many departments because good managers, good networkers – especially with those in industry - good ‘deliverers’, and many professionals are deemed unsuited to working closely with Ministers.
- It is also much better to rank candidates in advance of final discussion/interview based on a careful (and sceptical/evidence based) review of their achievements in previous jobs. The discussions can then be used to test the accuracy of the ranking rather than as an even on which the whole process hinges.
- Take care not to be fooled by embellished and exaggerated CVs, but do take oral references in advance of discussion/interview. Having learned from bitter experience, I would not appoint to a middle-ranking or senior position without taking a quite deep prior reference. Some candidates cannot supply these for good reasons, but others cannot provide them because they have been dismissed for incompetence or worse. It is seldom worth taking the risk.
- Equally, do take a moment to think about the motivation of the referee. Some managers are trying to get rid of poor quality staff, and hope you will end up holding this particular damaged parcel. And some will bad mouth staff who do not fit their particular mould, although you might rather welcome a recruit who is a little out of the ordinary.
- Do not downplay the difficult aspects of the job for which you are recruiting. Many public-facing positions, for instance, and jobs in Ministers' offices, are very stressful, as are jobs (such as some regulatory jobs) whose outputs are subject to intense scrutiny, including by the courts. The need for these positions to be filled by robust personalities must be spelt out to all candidates as it is no kindness to them (or you) if they are appointed to a job in which they cannot succeed.
- There is no need to ask all the candidates the same questions. Although the job specification is the same for all candidates, their experience and apparent strengths will vary, so your questions need to vary if you are to accurately assess their suitability for the job.
Don't forget that civil servants must be appointed on merit through fair and open competition. Further detail is here.
Remember, too, that recruitment needs to be followed by effective, targeted induction. This is too often neglected, especially in the case of senior appointments; this is one of the reasons why I created this website. It is particularly important that new entrants to the profession are introduced to the Civil Service Code, and come to understand its importance and implications. There should be no question of local mission statements or departmental core values overriding the provisions of the code.