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The murky ethics of job applications and selection criteria

Date

Is it ethical, or even lawful, for a public servant to pay someone else to write a job application?

Gilding the lily while on a job hunt appears to be no great crime.

Gilding the lily while on a job hunt appears to be no great crime. Photo: Lyn Osborn

Job applications and their associated dross, such as claims against selection criteria, are mostly awful documents. Many candidates who should know better can't seem to resist filling them with jargon, parroting the management phrases they think impress others.

The employers want sophisticated writing; they don't want simple English. They're just so used to double Dutch. 

Christine Makella

Yet what makes these documents particularly painful to read is that so many are burnished well beyond the truth, often transparently so. This is especially uncomfortable for Australian readers, who are bred to despise tall poppies and arc up at any whiff of big-noting.

Cartoon: Rocco Fazzari

Cartoon: Rocco Fazzari

Still, it's hard to be objective about ourselves, so big-note we do. Casual work in a mail room morphs into logistics coordination. Updating a spreadsheet? That's database management. An EL1 officer once sat a few metres away from her minister at a meeting - ''demonstrated high-level liaison skills''.

The compulsion to inflate our achievements is not peculiar to the public service. The trouble for federal bureaucrats, however, is twofold. One is their statutory obligation to ''behave honestly and with integrity in the course of APS employment''. The other is that public servants' job applications assume a greater importance than those in other workplaces, because government recruiters must be able to ''prove'' that their employment decisions are merit-based. The paper trail can become crucial evidence in the event of an appeal.

Nonetheless, gilding the lily while on a job hunt appears to be no great crime. I am aware of one SES officer whose resume stated she held a master's degree; when it was revealed she didn't, she was given time off to finish her studies. And while individual agencies do occasionally ping staff for telling whoppers or plagiarising applications, tribunal case law suggests a rebuke or a demotion is a far more common penalty than a sacking.

But what of public servants who pay someone to write an application for them? This is no hypothetical; many APS job candidates are desperate for expert help, and a relatively large number of businesses vie for their money. It's unsurprising: the bureaucracy's Byzantine recruitment rituals force even junior staff to conjure up a couple of thousand words explaining how they ''support strategic direction'', ''communicate with influence'' and so on.

I can suggest one obvious way of demonstrating communication skills: write your own job application.

Nonetheless, as specialist recruitment writer Christine Makella, of the firm To The Letter, points out, government selection criteria can undo even great communicators. She says most of her clients have postgraduate qualifications and many are senior executives. Some are even HR or communications specialists themselves. ''Although they have good writing skills, it's a very specialised type of writing that's needed.''

Makella says there is ''absolutely nothing'' unethical about seeking professional help to write an application, even if one of the document's purposes is to demonstrate communication skills. She always tells clients to ''read through it and tweak it, and feel comfortable that it represents you''.

The reason people struggle with the process, she says, is they're too subjective. ''They're either too boastful, because they're trying to say how good they are, or they're too humble. Rarely do they come in down the middle.''

Makella takes between five to 12 hours to prepare claims against selection criteria. ''They're really arduous. I studied law, and I've spent longer on one selection criterion than I did on all of the reading and writing for a law essay. That's how difficult they can be, but [government agencies] are too lazy to change them.''

And that's where any blame should lie, she says: with the employer. The applicants are the victims. ''The employers want sophisticated writing; they don't want simple English. They're just so used to double Dutch.''

Career coach Ann Villiers wrote the best-seller How to write and talk to selection criteria, but, like Makella, she is no fan of how the bureaucracy uses them. Villiers says generic criteria are mostly useless - ''particularly the one about 'strategic thinking' '' - and understands why applicants turn to experts.

''It's a highly specialised form of writing, which you don't use anywhere else. And in a competitive marketplace, why wouldn't you seek help to present yourself as well as you can?''

Yet Villiers prefers not to accept the occasionally lucrative offers to draft job applications, not least because of her discomfort with the ethics of doing so. She has reviewed candidates' drafts and given advice, but says ''people need to do it themselves''.

''Most selection criteria actually ask applicants to demonstrate their writing skills. I think someone's application needs to speak to their integrity, and who they are," she says.

''Also, I've had people come to me and say 'I've paid someone buckets of money to do this and it still doesn't work'. Smart selection panels should be able to pick them [professional applications]. And it will be exposed in the interview, anyway.''

Nonetheless, the business of recruitment writing appears to be booming, no doubt spurred by a tightening labour market and increased competition for fewer government jobs. But the question of whether it is ethical, or even lawful, for a public servant to pay someone else to write an application appears to have no simple answer.

The Public Service Commission says the issue is complex. ''We expect, for example, that public servants will be honest in the statements that they make in pursuit of promotion,'' its spokeswoman tells the Informant. She also notes that the Public Service Act's recent changes made it clear that not only existing employees but potential new recruits, too, are now obliged to be honest in their applications.

''At the same time, some employees may, for understandable reasons, find it hard to write their own applications and may prefer to seek professional assistance,'' she says.

''In some cases this may be because they don't feel they have sufficient time, for example, or it may be because some employees, out of simple modesty or inexperience in writing such material, find it difficult to talk about their own genuine achievements.''

Yet while there is no blanket ban on staff using businesses - or their friends, for that matter - to help write job applications, employees must still ensure ''that the claims made in those applications are honest and do not misrepresent their experience or abilities,'' the spokeswoman says.

''Equally, they will need to consider whether the use of professional assistance to write an application is likely to create a false impression of their own writing skills. This may be particularly at issue when applying for more senior positions, which place a premium on the ability to write well and present a convincing case.''

Ultimately, the commission says employees must exercise their own judgement, and ask themselves whether their application reflects honestly their claims.

So, with the exception of open plagiarism, it seems the practice of outsourcing one's own job hunt is lawful, and carries almost no risk of official sanction. Yet the ethical dimension remains murky. Disclosing the third party's involvement would be one way of sticking to the moral path, though it would be a brave job candidate who took that route.

Of course, an obvious solution is for government selection panels to break free of their fixation on the Integrated Leadership System, a guide initially developed for senior executives but which now subjects almost every prospective public servant to the regular torment of writing lengthy essays of meaningless tosh. Is it really too much to hope for a recruitment process that asks candidates simple questions that relate directly to the job at hand?

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant. psi.editor@canberratimes.com.au

25 comments

  • Of course to do so is appropriate ! If you are illiterate then you go to a professional for assistance - in this case a letter-writer. To do so is a sign of self-knowledge and discernment - consideration of one's readers being paramount. After all, in an interview one needs to tell the interviewers what they want to hear. So too with one's written application. Yours sincerely ...

    Commenter
    APS 1
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    March 31, 2014, 11:27AM
    • Goodness gracious. Do those who develop these selection criteria know what job the applicant is supposed to do? Doesn't seem like it.

      "We are seeking a person who is skilled in multi-tasking." instead of "We need someone who can set the laser printer on to stun."

      Commenter
      Faj
      Date and time
      March 31, 2014, 12:03PM
      • I know of one woman who regularly got her husband to write a job application for her. He was a more senior officer in the APS. His writing ability certainly got her more job interviews than people who performed more competently on the job. Nonetheless, she eventually got herself a promotion and those more competent in their actual job performance did not even get in for interview. If such a person is rated more highly in their job application and only performed at average on interview, they would still score more highly than others so eventually it's enough to get them over the line. Often if they are problematic in the workplace, their referee will give them a good reference just to get them out of their work area. Very creative.

        Commenter
        Felix
        Location
        ACT
        Date and time
        March 31, 2014, 12:11PM
        • The application gets you the interview, and the interview gets you the job (or otherwise) and if you have had professional help in preparing your application and cannot substantiate it in the interview, then you should come undone very quickly....

          Totally agree with the criticisms of the selection criterai - as the aticle suggests, they absolutely lend themselves to 'creative' responses that are meaningless in a real work situation - the sizzle becomes far more important than the sausage...

          Commenter
          J
          Date and time
          March 31, 2014, 12:11PM
          • Why is this an article? This type of behaviour happens in Private and non-government circles, the world over.

            Commenter
            Dr
            Location
            ACT
            Date and time
            March 31, 2014, 12:30PM
            • Hi Dr. The answer is explained above, in the bit that begins: "The trouble for federal bureaucrats, however, is twofold." Public servants have unique statutory obligations that make this an issue.

              Commenter
              Markus Mannheim
              Location
              Canberra
              Date and time
              March 31, 2014, 12:36PM
          • I spent a decade in private industry in the UK before returning to the APS (it took me two years to get back in). Private industry has no selection criteria so when I saw how ridiculously complex even they have become (have a look with a DIAC selection criteria) compared with those of the late 1990's, I felt I needed to use the services of a company who write selection criteria.

            Commenter
            farnarkler
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            March 31, 2014, 12:37PM
            • When the guiding document is called "Cracking the Code", then you need all the help you can get. It's not easy to describe how you drilled down through an overarching strategy to establish a beach head of options.

              Commenter
              Complex issue
              Location
              Acton
              Date and time
              March 31, 2014, 12:43PM
              • Sometimes this isn't an issue as most panels recruit from within and if done properly the panel includes someone who already knows the work of the applicants and can see when the claims are bs. The bigger problem is convincing the powers that be that it's ok to have criteria written in plain english
                ( as they often expect from applicants - despite what this article suggests ) and each criterion only focuses on one thing, not 4 or 5 different and sometimes unrelated things. But try convincing an EL2 or SES of this when they only have a high school education !

                Commenter
                Jolly Roger
                Date and time
                March 31, 2014, 12:50PM
                • There are two major problems with APS recruiting.

                  One is that while you apply for a specific position, the higher the position, the more the employer is interviewing you for employment at that level (ie APS5, 6, EL1 etc) as opposed to job specific. This has the benefit of enabling you to move around at level once employed, or for the employer to move you at level, but it has the distinct disadvantage of ridiculously generic selection criteria. An APS 6 in a small agency may need to have strategic focus, and very high level finance skills (for example) while the same level in a much larger operational agency may need supervising skills but little or no focus on strategy.

                  The other issue is the merit based approach and mandatory external advertising for permanent positions. If someone is acting in a role for any reasonable period of time and meets all performance criteria during that time, how can a person simply through an application and interview process prove they are better at that role than the current employee? The answer is they can't because the application and interview process shows how good you are at application and interview, not how good you are at a job. What happens in private industry at the supervisor, middle management level when someone leaves? Next person along gets a chance to prove themselves in the role and only when it is absolutely necessary is the job is advertised.

                  The APS recruitment process is a massive waste of money.

                  Commenter
                  The Mike
                  Location
                  ACT
                  Date and time
                  March 31, 2014, 12:58PM

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