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December 22, 2011

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Safety job interviews – If you ask me

Following on from the recent articles in SHP on getting invited to and succeeding at job interviews,1,2 James Pomeroy suggests areas candidates could explore during the interview to better understand safety within the hiring organisation and thus stand out from the crowd.

The job-interview process provides candidates with an invaluable opportunity to better understand the hiring organisation’s view of occupational health and safety, and its vision for it. Most interviews will also offer candidates the opportunity to ask their own questions and, by researching the organisation, and asking the right questions, it is possible to gain insight into its attitudes towards risk, compliance and safety.

A word of caution, however: although the time to ask questions usually comes at the end of the process, and is often more relaxed, it is a mistake to think that the assessment process has ended. The questions asked and how they are framed say as much about the individual’s suitability for the job as any previous answers they have provided. Well thought-out questions not only demonstrate a candidate’s interest in and enthusiasm for the job but also reveal their understanding of the situation, their maturity and insight.

So, what are good questions to ask, and how should you go about developing them?

Firstly, and most obviously, actually ask questions! The number of candidates who pass up the opportunity to question the employer about the position remains high. Having no questions tells the potential employer that the candidate is indifferent, ill-prepared, or – worse – clueless.

Secondly, think out the topics you might want to discuss, remembering that employers continue to make judgements about candidates based on the questions they raise. Plan the areas you want to explore, research the organisation, and then develop the questions. Don’t limit your research to the organisation’s website; consider sector information from the likes of the HSE and trade associations. The latter are particularly useful if you have no prior experience of the industry within which the organisation operates.

Do your homework
When researching an organisation, start by clarifying the key OH&S risks it faces. This may sound obvious, but the more you home in on the significant issues the better you will understand the organisation and thus have a stronger set of questions.

Once you have a good idea of the services provided by the organisation and fully understand the sector in which they operate, it can be useful to consider the context in which the hiring is taking place. If the organisation publishes information about its aims, targets or strategy, you should think about the safety implications of these.

For example, a construction firm might be planning to move into the refurbishment sector, a retailer has announced a plan to merge distribution centres, or a council is seeking to reduce operating costs by 15 per cent. Organisational change has implications for safety practitioners at all levels and candidates who demonstrate an understanding of this will stand out from the crowd. 

It is also advisable to research what performance data are available. Is it possible, for example, to obtain any injury and ill-health statistics for the sector, or even the organisation itself? Is there any record of previous enforcement action against it? Competitors or other organisations in the same sector may also provide something to compare against.

Formulate your questions
Once you have a feel for the organisation, start drafting your questions, based on your research. Think, too, about how to frame the questions to ensure they appear informed and are respectful. Always try to ask ‘open’ questions, i.e. those that require a detailed answer, rather than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This will ensure the interviewer is drawn into a discussion, providing an opportunity for candidates to again demonstrate their experience of managing a risk, or handling a particular situation.

Ask questions that reveal the depth of your research and your interest in the job. In other words, do not ask questions that are easily answered on the company website, or in the job description – “Have you not read the job description?” The areas to enquire about are the goals of the organisation, the challenges of the role, and your expectations as the candidate.

While there are no hard and fast rules on the number of questions to ask, you should prepare six to eight, on the assumption that half will be answered during the interview itself. Prioritise your questions based on importance and whether you are at first, second, or third-interview stage. Asking an obvious question in a second or third interview can be counterproductive!

While the questions you ask will be fairly specific to the organisation, following are some subjects and generic questions that I have been asked by candidates when hiring OH&S practitioners.

How are managers measured on their leadership of safety within the organisation?

The way OH&S is reviewed and reflected in performance reviews and, where applicable, reward systems, can tell you a lot about an organisation’s position on safety. The topic can lead to a whole discussion on the limitation of reactive OH&S metrics, which candidates can then use to highlight their experience of the issue, such as developing performance metrics and personal safety goals.

To what degree does senior management get involved in the OH&S programme?

When candidates have asked questions around this subject it normally leads to a discussion on the role of managers in the safety programme, and what constitutes engagement and effective leadership of safety. This provides a great opportunity for candidates to summarise how they have developed activities and processes to engage managers in the delivery of safety tasks.

How does the organisation capture and learn from near-miss events?

Organisations with an effective safety programme invest heavily in gathering and acting on near misses, and the strength of a near-miss programme is often a good indicator of an organisation’s safety efforts. This can generate a discussion on the difficulties of establishing and maintaining an effective incident-reporting process, specifically getting employees to recognise and report near misses. As with any question, however, be warned: if you ask it, make sure you, too, have some ideas and practical solutions to offer up, if asked.

What are the main causes of accidents within the organisation?
Sometimes, asking the obvious questions can tell you a lot, and the answer to this one can provide much insight and useful clues about the understanding of immediate versus underlying causes, and the importance of addressing unsafe behaviours.

If I am fortunate enough to get this job, what do you think is the biggest challenge I will face?

While you may get a generic response with little information, it is more probable you will get some genuine insight into the difficulties of the role. You may also be able to link the problem back to your own experience and explain how you dealt with a similar issue before. 

What are the organisation’s plans and objectives for improving OH&S in the next few years?
The value of the response will depend on the interviewer, and smaller organisations may not have the documented plans that you would expect from a larger organisation. However, their responses should still provide useful insight into the organisation’s view of OH&S. For example, answers that focus heavily on legal compliance and defending claims can tell you as much as those that highlight behaviour-based safety, or a goal of zero harm.

Can you clarify the reporting lines and ownership of budgets and resources?
Increasingly, OH&S practitioners operate in matrix reporting structures, which are less hierarchical. In these situations, they have to operate cross-functionally and are often reliant on resources from others. In other situations, resources are centralised and practitioners have direct responsibility for other team members and OH&S financial expenditure. Understanding the ownership of resources is a critical point that, if overlooked, can lead to frustration later on.

To what degree are employees engaged in the safety programme?
A response that indicates a high degree of involvement, such as participation in audits, accident investigations, observations and risk assessments will be more reassuring than an answer indicating that the safety team delivers the majority of the tasks and activities.

How well is safety integrated into the organisation’s operating systems and decision-making processes?
The degree to which an organisation integrates safety into decision forums, such as operational planning, strategy and change controls, and existing management processes, notably HR, operations and quality, can be illuminating. 

How will my performance be evaluated?
In addition to providing an insight into the type of management style you may work under, the answers to this question will also reveal information about the organisation’s attitudes towards and goals for safety. Responses that focus exclusively on accident statistics speak volumes about where accountability for safety resides. Similarly, answers that emphasise compliance and cost-based measurements say a lot about the organisation’s vision for safety. If you ask this question, however, do be prepared for the question to be sent directly back: “How do you think you should be measured?”

What are the most immediate challenges of the position that need to be addressed in the first six months?
This is a direct question that should elicit information on the immediate priorities of the role. Asking it suggests you intend to make an impact and are focused on addressing problems.

What were the major strengths and weaknesses of the last person who held this job?
Information on the history of the position can illustrate what does and does not work at the organisation, and how success will be measured. A less direct way to get similar information is to ask: What are the skills and attributes you value most in someone being hired for this position? The answers will provide another great opportunity for candidates to sell themselves by emphasising past experiences and ‘wins’.

Now that we’ve had a chance to talk, how does my background measure up to the role and to the other candidates?
If framed correctly, this question can identify if the interviewer perceives gaps in a candidate’s competencies, or technical skills. The response may provide an opportunity to address concerns and highlight strengths and experiences previously omitted.

The employment market remains very tough and candidates who make each interview count and take time to fully prepare always stand out from the crowd. Asking questions will give you a much greater appreciation of the type of position that is best for you, as well as providing you with better understanding of the role and ensuring you perform better in the interview. Doing your research and asking quality questions that are thoughtful and focused will also reveal much about the health and safety challenges within the organisation, and help you decide whether they are what you are seeking in your next career move.  

1    Asbury, S (2011): ‘Situations vacant’, in SHP May 2011, Vol.29 No.5 – full/career-development-situations-vacant
2    Asbury, S (2011): ‘Just the job’, in SHP August 2011, Vol.29 No.8 – full/career-development-just-the-job

James Pomeroy is Group HSE manager for Senior plc.

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