How I got here

Amanda Okill

26

October

2021

I joined byrne·dean at the start of the month. Before I got here, I found myself doing something I haven’t done in many years. I went through an interview process.

If I am honest, I didn’t relish the prospect.

My lasting recollection of interviews was their likeness to speed-dating: daunting, draining, and awkward. I remembered the most cringeworthy; all those nerves, putting on a brave face, then being knocked back by questions meant to illicit insight, but which could never possibly be answered honestly; what animal would best describe your character; what’s your biggest weakness? How could I admit to feeling like a three toed sloth with a ridiculous weakness for Doritos, Chilli Heatwave. I’ve been known to binge on them.

Since qualifying and years on in my career as a lawyer, I found myself at the other end of the table, interviewing trainee solicitors.

Anyone recruiting a candidate wants to get it right; they pool resources and time into the search but so often, like speed-dating, sabotage it at the wrong moment. My own interview, (which was far less scary than I initially thought) has got me thinking about what makes a selection procedure fair, one that delivers.

The first thing which comes to mind is the gearing and set up at screening stage. Most people reading this blog will agree, it has to be inclusive.

But I wonder how often those responsible for recruitment question the go-to selection criteria? By go-to criteria I’m referring to what feels like the safe stuff, criteria which have always been in place and no-one has thought to challenge. Look at any graduate application form. For so many the emphasis is on grades and achievement at school, leaving little room for anything else. I remember applying for a training contract as a mature student after living in France for a few years. I had not followed a linear pattern of school, gap year and university. There were a few forms I did not fill in because I felt them too narrow in their focus. It may be that the firms didn’t want a broader experience, but I somehow doubt it. What’s more likely is that they had decided what success looked like and put together a form which focused on one small aspect of it rather than considering other ways to assess a candidate’s potential.  

When thinking about the set up it’s worth considering who a selection or interview process could potentially exclude. Could a candidate with a different background to everyone else in an organisation bring a new and valuable expertise with them? Are university degrees, industry experience, social skills really needed for the job on offer? If not, why keep hold of them?

Secondly, something I feel quite strongly about is the importance of respect at interview stage. It would seem not everyone agrees. Some professions are known for the toughness of their interviews. They play hard ball, grab hold of some perceived weakness, like that D Grade in a GCSE (even if it was 10 years ago) and like a pit-bull, shake it around to the point of exhaustion. Some interviewers are rude and dismissive.

I’ve often wondered why this is considered necessary, and what it achieves.

Interviews are already pressurised. I mentioned my experience interviewing trainees for my old firm. For a few, the interview was a last hope for that season - if they didn’t get our offer, they would not be in a position to enroll at law school that year. The stakes were high.

An increasing number of organisations from finance, to media, to law actively promote the values of respect and empathy. This may be a reason why the candidate chose to apply for a job with them. Yet no amount of friendly promotional material can make up for a lousy encounter at interview.

Apart from the message sent out, the interview is intended to encourage optimum performance. The actual job may involve above average levels of stress and it’s understandable to want to know how the candidate will respond. Questions and tests can be designed to assess this. However, when an interviewer decides to deliberately throw a candidate off kilter, they must understand that this approach comes with risks. A candidate, who is no doubt already under stress, is more likely to clam up or just give up because, let’s be honest, nobody wants to work for people who disrespect them.

Finally, when a choice is made, those who’ve decided on a candidate should be able to justify the choice, based on objective criteria. Without this there’s an obvious risk of recruiting a 'cultural fit’ at the expense of genuine potential. I remember a former colleague once commenting on a new recruit’s grammar school. It followed ,according to my colleague, that the candidate would be hard working and bright. The recruit was not a recent graduate but several years into their career and I couldn’t help but question why their schooling mattered? I’ve also heard it said that people who played team sports at school or college make good team-players. But of course, it’s not necessarily so…

I do not wish to undermine early life achievements, but they rarely give us a full picture. They may in fact point to little more than generous parental investment. I recall a former client telling me about a graduate recruit who while still at school, had been a primary carer for their disabled parent. They didn’t have time to play sports; sing in the choir; and the parent couldn’t afford private tuition. That individual brought a unique and valuable package of skills and perspectives which added to the diversity of their employer.

People decisions are hugely important and none of us can say with absolute certainty that we will get them right. We need to go in with our eyes open, live to our own potential for bias.

For my part, I’m glad I decided to go for that interview at byrne·dean. I made it through with my dignity intact. I felt I was treated with respect. I just hope that my unconfessed penchant for Doritos and self-comparison to a sloth will not stand against me!