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February 15, 2012

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Career development – Straight to the core

Last month, James Pomeroy advised candidates seeking an OHS role on the importance of having a set of prepared, intelligent questions to ask at job interviews. Here, he provides practical guidance for both recruiters and candidates on how to approach and what to expect from the interview process.

Every organisation and interviewer will have a certain style of interviewing and will use different techniques when questioning candidates. However, most interviews can generally be categorised into one of two different approaches: unstructured and competency-based (often referred to as a structured, or behavioural interview).

Unstructured interviews are essentially a conversation where the interviewers ask questions that relate to the position for which they are hiring, but without any structure or methodology other than getting an overall impression of the candidate. Hypothetical and scenario-based questioning is often used to evaluate how a candidate would handle a situation. Despite being subjective, unstructured interviews remain common, particularly where organisations have limited knowledge of how to identify and evaluate the required competencies. 

Competency-based interviews are systematic, with each question targeting a specific skill, experience, or personal quality. The aim is to assess how an individual would actually manage a situation, based on the theory that past behaviour is the best predictor of future performance in similar situations. Interviewers focus on particular competencies, questioning candidates about their past behaviour in specific circumstances. They will then dig further into the examples by asking for specific explanations about the candidate’s behaviour or skills – for example: “What prompted you to choose that course of action?” or “How did you handle that resistance?”

Interviews for more senior OHS positions and those within large organisations will almost certainly use this technique for a significant proportion of the discussion (it is common to blend both traditional and competency-based questions within a single interview).

From a candidate’s perspective, preparation is essential. Study the job specification in detail, ensuring you clearly identify the characteristics and competencies listed. Then think about the context of the role and how these competencies will be required. Identify examples from your past experience that you can use to demonstrate that you possess the required competencies. Finally, learn to ‘tell the story’ by setting the scene, explaining how you handled the situation by placing the emphasis on your role, and detailing the outcome/result.

Identifying core competencies

While the requirements and demands of every position are unique, there are notable differences between the competencies required for practitioner and manager roles.

While the former generally place a high emphasis on technical capabilities and experience, managerial positions focus on interpersonal skills and the individual’s past achievements. This subtle difference is commonly overlooked by practitioners attempting to move up the career ladder, when the focus of the recruitment is on past deliverables and achievements, i.e. what improved as result of their involvement? Interpersonal skills, such as communication, team working and negotiation, play a central role in determining senior positions because they are central to leading, motivating and delegating.

A further distinction is that managerial roles in OHS emphasise transactional skills, such as planning, project management, programme development, conflict resolution and team work, while leadership roles focus on transformational competencies. These are the interpersonal skills that enable an individual to lead and develop a large organisation’s OHS programme and include creating the vision, marketing and influencing, change management, coaching and mentoring skills.

Questioning technique

Two different styles of questions are commonly used in job interviews: traditional technical questioning, which seeks to assess a candidate’s basic competencies, and scenario-based questions that explore an individual’s character and soft skills.

Scenario-based questions present a hypothetical situation and aim to evaluate an individual’s interpersonal skills, such as conflict resolution, persuasion and negotiation. The objective is to assess how the individual handled the challenge and what drives their decision-making process. This approach is useful because it provides insight into an individual’s character, the way they relate to others, and how they view the role of the safety practitioner in the workplace. For me, the litmus test is how a candidate responds to challenge and what they learn from each encounter.

Questions that evaluate a candidate’s technical knowledge should be unique to the requirements and demands of the position. When designing technical questions it is advisable to avoid closed questions that are highly specialised, or for which there is a precise answer. The pressure of a formal interview can leave even the most knowledgeable and competent candidate struggling to recall something in which, under normal circumstances, they have a wide proficiency.

Furthermore, given the sheer breadth of topics in which most practitioners must be versed, it is more important to know where to get the right answer and what to do with it. A more effective way of evaluating technical competency is discussing a candidate’s experience of a particular hazard or topic and then selectively asking more probing open questions to judge their experience and knowledge.

Outlined below are examples of questions that can be used when hiring practitioners and managers. The answers are not intended to be exhaustive and absolute, but merely cover some of the points for consideration.1

Practitioner and technician roles

Because of the emphasis on delivery within the practitioner/ technician/advisor role, recruiting often focuses on technical capability and regulatory proficiency. The development of systems and training also form a large part of the role, so communication skills are subjects that interviewers hone in on. Scenario and situational questions are frequently used to evaluate an individual’s analytical thinking – skills critical to accident investigation and risk assessment. Areas commonly discussed during interviews for practitioners include:

How do you engage supervisors in safety?

Candidates should highlight that effective engagement of supervisors and line managers requires more than a general requirement to “support safety”. Specific activities need to be defined for supervisors and managers and good candidates will highlight that such activities should be documented, incorporated within their performance reviews, and monitored.

How do you keep employees involved in safety?

There is a variety of ways, including: regular communications through toolbox talks and safety briefings, getting employees engaged in safety teams and committees, along with participation in safety activities, such as audits, risk assessment and behavioural monitoring, and getting input from employees on decisions related to the safety programme.

How do you verify that safety training given to employees was effective?

Answers could include undertaking behavioural observations to verify if employees are following the correct procedures, questioning employees on the critical elements of the training, asking attendees for feedback on ways to improve the training, and, finally, reviewing incident and near-miss reports.

In performing a safety inspection, you find an employee violating a safety policy or rule. What do you do?
The immediate focus is on stopping the employee’s behaviour to protect them from potential harm. The candidate should then discuss coaching the employee who committed the unsafe act, highlighting the interaction with the individual and bringing the matter to the attention of their manager, rather than simply disciplining them. Interviewers could then ask the candidate to discuss ways in which they coach the employee, focusing on their experience in influencing employee behaviour.

Finally, the candidate should highlight the need to review the underlying factors that led to the unsafe act, along with the follow-up steps that were taken to ensure that the unsafe act is not repeated (department meeting, re-training, increased monitoring, etc.)

How did you use the information collected during safety audits?

This question will give you some insight into a candidate’s critical-thinking capabilities. Candidates should highlight how they analyse the information to look for trends, breakdowns in processes, or other deficiencies in the OHS system. Competent practitioners will highlight practical examples of where their analysis led to modifications of the OHS system, revisions to risk assessment or procedures, additional training or inspections, increased involvement by managers, etc. Good candidates will also highlight how they communicate audit findings to management and employees to reinforce safe behaviours, motivate the team and seek ideas for improvement.

Give some examples of leading indicators used to measure safety performance and explain why you selected them.
Some of the common leading indicators used include: the number of audits completed, risk assessments reviewed, or the scores from safety inspections; the percentage of safe/unsafe acts observed; the number of safety audit recommendations closed out on time; the number of employees trained, or training units/hours completed; and the results of employee perception surveys of the organisation’s commitment to safety.

Candidates should state that a leading indicator should relate to the underlying causes of the injuries. Whatever indicators are selected should be robust, verifiable, repeatable, and involve management. Finally, good candidates will highlight the care that should be taken in selecting the indicators because metrics drive behaviours and actions – inappropriate selection could lead to unintended and possibly counter-productive consequences.

Manager and principal advisor positions

As OHS has become more professionalised and socio-legal expectations for workplace safety have increased, the role of safety manager has become more common. In addition to the core technical competencies required of a practitioner, OHS managers need to be competent in analysing and interpreting data, developing, planning and overseeing projects, and implementing business systems.

Negotiation, influence and flexibility are central to the role and this requires strong verbal and written communications, and excellent listening skills. Finally, individuals must be self-confident, able to multi-task and deliver under pressure – only optimists who are passionate about safety need apply!
Questions often asked when interviewing for OHS managers include:

What is the purpose of an OHS strategy and how would you go about developing one?

Candidates should state that the strategy defines an organisation’s goals for improving occupational health and safety. Strategies should contain a broad vision and a programme of measurable initiatives that have been approved, budgeted and which align to the organisation’s future direction. Considerations in developing a strategy are the implications of the future direction of the organisation, potential regulatory changes, and improvement opportunities in the current OHS system.

Key steps in developing an improvement plan include reviewing and benchmarking performance, identifying and evaluating best practice, consulting with stakeholders, preparing a business case, and developing a communications plan.

One way to improve safety is to introduce an incentive scheme. What are your thoughts on this?

If designed and implemented correctly, incentive schemes can have a positive impact, providing a clear safety goal that engages the workforce. They require very careful planning however, because, if poorly thought out, incentive schemes can lead to a multitude of serious and unintended consequences. Strong candidates will also highlight that there is no universal panacea for improving OHS – what works in one organisation or territory may not work elsewhere. Strategies need to be selected to match the organisational culture and challenges.

What approaches have you used to get senior management involved in supporting safety?

Candidates may highlight establishing a common goal, vision or improvement measure that aligns to the organisation’s objectives and plans. Another example could be the introduction of leading and lagging indicators for OHS, integrating these within corporate scorecards, and ensuring the senior team understands and reacts to the metric.

Educating senior management on the negative impacts of a poor safety record, such as the human impact, the deterioration of reputation and brand on employee, customer and community relations, along with the financial impact, is another approach.

Participation is another component, ensuring OHS is routinely discussed by managers at meetings, field trips, training, performance appraisals and in communications, thereby reinforcing management’s support for safety. Sponsoring OHS awards also demonstrates commitment, recognises effort, and requires little management time. For the executive level, the candidate may comment on the importance of senior management having oversight of safety performance and strategy.

We focus hard on addressing unsafe acts yet we continue to experience some serious accidents. Why do you think this is?

All too often, the corrective action following an incident involves re-training and supervision. Training over-relies on people acting safely and complying with the training. Wherever possible, risk improvements should focus on practical enhancements. Good candidates will also highlight that accidents have multiple causes, most of which relate to the workplace and working methods and only few are directly attributable to the actions of the worker. Exclusively focusing on unsafe acts alone may therefore overlook the more significant contributors, such as technical design of the process, organisational, cultural, and operational management.

How would you make a case to invest in an OHS initiative that is not required by statute but which you believe will improve safety?

Candidates should highlight the need to identify tangible and intangible benefits and demonstrate that the investment would make a difference. To calculate the tangible benefits, the candidate should discuss how to calculate and prepare a return-on-investment analysis. This would include a discussion of the cost of the new safety equipment, the anticipated savings from investing in the equipment, how the anticipated savings were determined (e.g. from looking at the experience of other companies), and how the company should determine if the investment is a wise one from a business perspective.

What are the keys to successfully managing safety at multiple facilities?

In developing a multi-site programme, the objectives are to identify any unique hazards, risks, or potential barriers associated with particular locations (based on work processes, operations, equipment, facility layout or location, skill set of employees, potential language or cultural barriers, etc); to involve local employees in the programme design; and, insofar as it is possible, to take a systems approach to managing OHS.

Once the programme is in place, some key activities are to build relationships with local management, set clear expectations, set goals and objectives, share best practice, communicate regularly, use technology where possible, regularly audit, and report location-specific safety metrics to relevant business managers.

Summary

This article has sought to provide an overview of the current practice in interviews by examining the different topics that are frequently explored, and outlining some questions that recruiters could use and candidates could anticipate. There is no hard-and-fast formula for conducting and excelling at interviews, but my experience shows that a candidate’s success in interviews is directly related to the time taken to research, plan and prepare. 

Reference
1    Several of the examples are adapted from the ASSE guide for employers hiring a safety professional – www.asse.org/docs/Employer_Handbook_version_5_6.pdf and the ASSE Career Guide to the Safety Profession – www.asse.org/foundation/publications/careerguide.php

James Pomeroy is Group HSE manager for Senior plc.

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