Why giving applicants feedback is difficult

Giving unsuccessful applicants feedback is not an easy job. Yet selection panels make this task more difficult than it has to be.

The main reason why members of selection panels experience difficulties when providing feedback after selection processes is that their decisions are not based on clearly defined behaviours.

As a result, selection reports and verbal comments rely on descriptions of the person, using adjectives and adverbs, rather than reference to behaviours.

For example, a report reads: ‘Bill is coherent and concise.’

This reads as a statement of what Bill is like. An alternative is to link the descriptors to communication behaviours, rather than Bill.

‘Bill’s responses were coherent and concise.’

‘The way in which Bill expressed himself demonstrated coherent and concise verbal statements.’

Comments that are expressed as: ‘You were nervous,’ ‘You were not sufficiently detailed,’ have an accusatory flavour that describes the whole person in terms of the descriptor. Such comments are bound to get people’s backs up. Applicants usually are nervous.

Nervousness is not a deciding factor in selecting applicants. It is the job of the panel to probe answers and assist applicants to ensure they have every opportunity to manage their nervousness and provide the evidence sought.

A more useful way of expressing these comments is: ‘The responses given during the interview were insufficiently detailed to provide the evidence the panel was seeking.’

This assumes the panel knew what they were seeking. If so, then this information can be conveyed to the applicant.

Another unhelpful comment is: ‘Susan’s comments lacked depth.’ This doesn’t help the applicant nor does it inform anyone that the panel actually knew what ‘depth’ they were looking for.

For panels to write a credible report and give useful feedback, they need to have clearly defined what evidence they are seeking in behavioural terms. This means the panel:

  • Analyses the job and determines the genuinely needed capabilities expressed in selection criteria.
  • Understands what the criteria mean. (for example, understanding the difference between similar terms and understanding how capabilities are expressed at the level of the job)
  • Knows what specific behaviours will provide evidence of each criterion.
  • Shares a minimum standard for what a ‘suitable’ applicant will demonstrate for these behaviours.

For example, let’s take stakeholder management. For a given job, a ‘suitable’ applicant will demonstrate these behaviours and knowledge:

  • Able to identify a range of internal and external stakeholders
  • Gives an example of establishing a network of contacts
  • Gives an example of dealing with a challenging situation that shows an understanding of another person’s viewpoint, flexibility to deal with that difference, and positive results.

An answer ‘lacking depth’ could then mean:

  • Only mentioned a few stakeholders
  • Hasn’t established a network of contacts and is unable to think through all the steps involved in establishing a network.
  • Didn’t give a suitable example; gave an example that was not sufficiently complex to demonstrate all aspects.

Rather than writing in the report: ‘Susan’s comments lacked depth.’ The report could now be expressed in these terms:

‘Responses regarding stakeholder management included a narrow range of stakeholders, limited knowledge and experience of networking and adapting to different viewpoints.’

Feedback to the applicant could cover these suggestions:

  • Research a job more thoroughly.
  • Analyse your own stakeholder network and how it was established.
  • Seek out more challenging interpersonal situations.
  • Obtain more professional development.

When selection panels have carried out a thorough analysis of the job and the evidence they are seeking from applicants, selection reports will be more credible, less offensive, and feedback to applicants will be more useful.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.