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Public service job interview questions that star-struck panels need to ditch

The STAR recruitment model encourages dishonest or simplistic answers.

A long-used practice can seem well-tested, sound and useful, yet ignore realities that undermine its value. Such is the case with the recruitment and selection practice of using the STAR model to guide application and interview responses.

The STAR model is a framework for presenting information about a job applicant's skills and knowledge in responding to selection criteria and behaviour-based interview questions. The details sought are:

  • Situation: Give a brief outline of the setting.
  • Task: Explain what your role was, what you needed to accomplish.
  • Action: Outline what you did to deal with the situation and how you went about it.
  • Result: What outcome flowed from your actions.

Government agencies direct applicants to write responses to selection criteria based on the STAR framework, as does the Public Service Commission's Cracking the Code, government career websites such as "myfuture" and "JobAccess", and numerous career advisers in universities and private practice. The STAR model is also recommended on British and United States career websites.

While providing a useful structure to elicit desired information, the model overlooks a crucial aspect of workplace life: its inherent messiness.

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The model implies that a person's experience comprises isolatable situations to which they responded, taking action that causally produced a "happy ending", namely a result or outcome. While applicants can come up with situations that fit this requirement, what happens when, for various reasons, their experience doesn't fit?

The model suggests a well-considered, informed approach to dealing with a situation, yet some work progresses by the seat of the pants. Many a time there is no happy ending either, due to incompleteness, or the result is not desirable or mentionable to a selection panel. One can hardly mention that brilliant report that sat permanently buried on a manager's desk, the one that was considered by executives multiple times but without making a decision, nor the one that was completed a month before an election that saw a change of government and the whole project dumped.

Then there's the messy, sometimes murky, business of underperformance, a favourite interview question. My tidy STAR story would see my recalcitrant staff member recognise the error of their ways after hearing my wise counsel, take remedial action voluntarily, reform and then return to become a star performer. The reality is that my staff member is rat-cunning, avoids doing more than the minimum, has a strong sense of entitlement and is not above making false harassment claims that bind me to months, if not years, of appeals and inquiries.

How is a panel going to respond to a protracted performance saga that ends with a person insisting on moving to a new job, resigning or winning a promotion, leaving the matter unresolved but no longer an issue? Despite a person's best efforts, informed by all relevant policies, procedures, guidelines and strategies, there is no happy ending.

The STAR model demands that a job applicant become a historian, constructing a plausible narrative of their past experience. What if a selection panel member was part of the story? Is their interpretation going to match the applicant's? An applicant is hardly going to ask: "Does my interpretation fit with your view of what happened?" If a story has multiple players, such as an underperformance example, there are bound to be contested versions of what happened.

Then there is the brilliant work a person completed on a high-pressure program that becomes tainted due to reviews or inquiries. How open-minded is a panel likely to be when faced with STAR stories about the home insulation or safer streets programs, both the subject of unfavourable Australian National Audit Office reports?

Process roles don't easily generate STAR stories. A person who spends the bulk of their day diligently processing piles of invoices, travel requests or ministerial responses can be hard-pressed to isolate a meaty story. Then there's the matter of juggling the individualistic focus of the STAR response with the team contribution. For the applicant, the challenge becomes walking that fine line between working independently and being a good team player.

Combined, these examples of messiness are more likely typical of the workplace than the resolved, completed mini-projects that suit the STAR structure. Recognising this dilemma, applicants are forced to make prudent choices, then edit and censor their STARs accordingly.

Illustrative material is not always helpful, particularly for the more senior applicant grappling with complex situations. A tertiary education institution has gone so far as to describe their STAR model-based template for applications as "exciting changes" to the way people apply for jobs. Based on clusters of requirements for a job, applicants are required to provide their "three best STAR examples" of how they demonstrated skills and knowledge in the past. An explanation is provided of what is meant by the acronym, along with an example to illustrate based on "demonstrates high-level written and oral communication skills". The content of this example is about achieving high grades during a university course, hardly a useful example for an experienced person who is interested in a middle-level or senior administrative role.

Some online advice says the STAR framework is "one way to respond" but you'd be hard-pressed to discover any other ways. Would an interview be seriously impaired if STAR sagas weren't always used? HR people say the benefits of a STAR approach for panels is the consistency of format across applicants. How, though, do panel members assess applicants when a range of stories is presented in response to the same interview question? Does the story with a "happy ending" score more highly than the one with a messy ending? How does the story about involvement in a tainted program fair against one that has received acclaim and awards?

STAR-struck panels could take a more nuanced approach to interview stories, by unpacking an incident to reveal more about how it unfolds. Such an approach would step an applicant through the following details:

  • Self: A person's role, what they thought they were trying to do, what demands it placed on them.
  • Others: Who else was involved, what were their perspectives, what were they trying to do, how were they linked to each other?
  • Situation: What decision was needed, what factors were operating, what was hidden beneath the surface, what were the conflicts and compatabilities?
  • Issues and concepts: What were the key issues, what principles guided action, how compatible were they, how complicated or complex was this situation?
  • Action/decision: What was decided and how, who was involved and listened to, who was ignored and why?
  • Response: How did they feel about how the situation was handled, was it satisfactory, what would they change and why?
  • Outcomes and consequences: What was the result of the decision, what were the consequences, how helpful are these now, were there any unforeseen consequences?
  • Reflection: What did they learn from this experience, how did it challenge them, how did it change or reinforce their beliefs and behaviour?

While SOSIAROR does not generate a memorable acronym, its expanded, more nuanced detail would reveal much more about a job applicant's experience than the simple, often simplistically applied, STAR model.

Recognising the STAR model's limits would mean inviting applicants to provide different information, tailored to the nature of the role. It would also mean selection panel members developing more sophisticated assessment skills.

Dr Ann Villiers is a career consultant at Mental Nutrition and the author of How to talk and write to selection criteriaavilliers@mentalnutrition.com

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