NUMBER 447 • 6 FEBRUARY • STAFF SELECTION
Human resource (HR) managers have argued for many years that the major difficulty with the staff selection process, as executed by managers in the public sector, has been the lack of attention, time and priority afforded it. Most managers would accept that its priority should rank very highly indeed — securing the best staff must be a critical part of delivering high quality services to service users. However, many managers find it difficult to allocate this task the time it deserves.
The method most commonly used and upon which most emphasis is placed in social work and social care is that of the panel interview. Research evidence has identified the many and significant weaknesses of this method (Tyson and York, 1996; Roberts, 1997), and these weaknesses have been rehearsed many times by HR managers and advisers. One of the complications in the world of social work and social care management is that managers sometimes overestimate the utility of the skills they are able to transfer from social work itself While these are useful, they are no substitute for the use of selection methods that are based on careful job analysis and build on a reasonable period of observation of the applicants (Woodruffe, 1993; Weightman, 1994). A process is needed that permits the selectors to spend time observing applicants while they undertake tasks that are simulated aspects of the role itself Best practice in other industries relies much more heavily on creating these opportunities through a series of exercises and tests over a period of at least a day. The shift away from a panel interview as the main or only method towards a more extensive and sophisticated process seems to have been hard to achieve in social work and social care.
The term most commonly used for this more complex type of approach is an assessment centre (called a selection centre by the Consortium to avoid confusion with the assessment centres that are a part of the vocational qualifications assessment procedure). In such a centre, which is a process rather than a place, a group of applicants is brought together for a whole day to take part in a range of group and individual exercises that focuses on particular aspects of the role.
A systematic and objective method for observation, assessment and scoring of applicants is used by selectors. The programme and exercises, for a group of up to ten applicants, are designed by trained staff to give applicants a range of opportunities to demonstrate their skills, knowledge and experience. This acknowledges that some people are better in one-to-one situations and others better in groups, and that good performance may be necessary in several different types of setting. The exercises are matched with the appropriate range of capabilities, and this matrix forms the basis for the observation and scoring. The assessment of applicants needs to be undertaken by trained assessors, supported by appropriately skilled administrative staff, with each selector observing and scoring no more than two applicants. Good accommodation for the process is an absolute necessity. Adequate suitable space for the exercises, waiting periods and for individual exercises is crucial for the successful running of selection centres.
The model is further strengthened by the addition of a personal interview (in England and Wales often called a ‘Warner Interview’) (Warner, 1992; Support Force for Children’s Residential Care, 1995) and a screening interview. The personal interview, which is again undertaken by specially trained staff, is an opportunity to probe attitudes and behaviour. This type of interview is designed to ensure that applicants’ boundaries are not likely to be problematic by exploring attitudes to issues such as sexualised behaviour and child abuse. The screening interview, which could be combined with a personal interview, is where the candidate’s application form is carefully and systematically examined, with the candidate, to ensure that there are no unexplained gaps in employment history and that reasons for leaving previous employment give no cause for concern.
Documentation surrounding the whole process is specially designed to collect the information needed for a well informed decision about applicants. This includes a dedicated application form (rather than a corporate one that spans a number of posts and disciplines) and a specifically-focused reference request form. Careful exploration of the application form by a staff member of HR staff in the screening interview can usefully identify areas that need to be pursued with referees, with former employers or with the applicant at interview.
This process is, to say the very least, labour intensive. Selectors need to be present for the whole of the day of the selection centre and then to participate in a ‘wash-up’ for two to three hours the next day. The ‘wash-up’ is the part of the proceedings where all the information, including references, application form and scores from the exercises for each candidate is brought together to arrive at a decision about appointability. In addition, time needs to be spent on briefing the members of the interview panel so that the interview can be used to focus on the most important issues.
Good practice demands that we should find ways of involving young people in the selection of the staff and caters who work with them (Kent, 1997; Kiraly, 1999). This, however, is a complex and difficult process to get right. The Consortium investigated this area and made recommendations in the Toolkit (Scottish Executive, 2001) that young people may be involved in one of several ways. One would be to prepare and support a group of young people to meet with all applicants, as a group or individually, to ask them specific agreed questions. Another would be to invite care leavers to participate in the panel interview. Again preparation for this is vital. In both cases young people need to know precisely what their role is to be and the level at which they are to be involved in the decision-making (Kent, 1997). Further, the communication link between the young people and the panel interview needs to be very clear and to work effectively.
Skinner, K. (2003). Searching for the Holy Grail — Excellent Staff and Carers who Work with Children. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care. Vol.2 No.1 pp. 40-42
Kent, R. (1997). Children's Safeguards Review. Edinburgh: The Scottish Office.
Kiraly, M. (1999). Recruiting and Selecting Residential Care Workers. Collingwood (Australia): Kildonan Child and Family Services
Roberts, G. (1997). Recruitment and Selection: A Competency Approach. London: Institute of Personnel And Development.
Scottish Executive. (2001). Safer Recruitment and Selection for Staff Working in Child Care — A Toolkit. Edinburgh: The Scottish Office.
Support Force for Children's Residential Care. (1995). Code of Practice for the Employment of Residential Child Care Workers. London: Department of Health
Tyson, S. & York, A. (1996). Human Resource Management (3rd Ed.). Oxford: Butterworth
Warner, N. (1992) Choosing with Care: The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Selection, Development and Management of Staff in Children's Homes. London: HMSO
Weightman, J. (1994). Competencies in Action. London: Insitute of Personnel and Development
Woodruffe, C. (1993) Assessment centres: Identifying and developing competence (2nd Ed.) London: Institute of Personnel and Development.