Designing interview tests

A good recruitment process will help ensure you employ and retain suitable staff with the required skills.  A poor recruitment process could lead to the opposite situation, with performance/capability issues, high staff turnover, increased recruitment costs (in both time and money) and lower morale in the existing workforce.

Therefore, it pays to prepare your recruitment process well, starting with the job description and selection criteria.

Candidates must be assessed against the selection criteria on the application form, at the interview or by using exercises or tests in tandem with the interview.

Here are some examples of the types of tests you can use:

  • Presentation
  • In-tray/inbox exercise
  • Role exercise
  • Case study (sometimes referred to a critical incident reviewing)

Some employers also use psychometric testing and/or personality questionnaires, but I am not going to discuss these here for the following reasons:

  • They can be expensive, and few libraries use them
  • Tests need to be administered by trained staff, and the results interpreted by people who thoroughly understand what they do – and don’t – mean: again, this cost means they are little used in our sector
  • I don’t believe that psychometric/personality tests give evidence about a candidate’s ability to do the job that cannot be elucidated from a good selection process

So I will return to the list of good examples of tests you can use.  For the best results, plan your interview questions and test(s) in combination, so you can ensure you have covered all the selection criteria without unnecessary repetition (you’ll soon realise if you’ve doubled up, as you will feel bored of asking the same questions to each candidate after the second or third interview!).  For example, if you’ve asked the candidates to tell you about their experience of working in a customer service environment in their covering letter or application form, don’t ask them exactly the same question at interview.  Modify the enquiry or give them an example situation to respond to instead, and you will learn more about their skills and experience.


  • Decide whether you are assessing each candidate’s presentation skills, the content of their presentation, or both
  • Consider the type of skills their job will require and set a topic for their presentation that is relevant
  • Allow adequate preparation time – let the candidates know that they will have to give a presentation when you invite them for interview, and always provide details of the equipment that will be available to them on the day (including software and version)

In-tray/inbox exercise

  • This is an example of a time management task, in which you give each candidate a scenario in which they have just arrived for work and have the following tasks to do (for example): an unopened letter, 10 unread emails, a telephone message, a meeting to attend and a person waiting at their desk to speak to them
  • The candidate has to decide how to prioritise the tasks and explain the decisions they made
  • This is a great example of a scenario that doesn’t have one correct answer, but has a lot of potential pitfalls
  • The most important part is the candidate’s explanation for what they would do and how.  It will reveal how they prioritise and can tell you a lot about their people skills, flexibility and ability to work under pressure, so be sure to give them plenty of time to explain their rationale to you
  • Ensure that the examples relate to a typical day’s work in the role
  • The task can be set as a written exercise, but don’t forget the discussion part
  • Think about how you will assess/score the responses.  You could give each candidate 20 points to begin with and deduct marks for ‘mistakes’

Role exercise

  • These are particularly useful if the job involves practical skills, such as boxmaking, conservation work, or a lot of lifting and carrying
  • Role exercises allow you to test for the ability to carry out a typical task they would encounter in the job
  • Again, consider carefully your objectives (what you are trying to measure) and scoring

Examples include:

  • manual handing  – e.g. invite the candidate to lift a box of books and ask them if they would be happy to do this many times a day. They may say no and withdraw from the recruitment process, which saves you interviewing someone who has decided the job is not for them
  • word processing or spreadsheet task – so many people claim “I have good IT skills” in their application, and this is a great way to see if they really do! It’s also good for testing if they can follow instructions
  • telephone skills – do they answer the call politely? Do they offer to take a message, and do they note all the key information?
  • finance test – similar to a spreadsheets test, but specifically using financial skills such as calculating VAT or exchange rates
  • dexterity test – e.g. covering/labelling a book, paper conservation or preservation work
  • drafting a response to an email – a good opportunity to test their written communication skills; spelling, punctuation and grammar; and attention to detail
  • write a press release – tests ability to use information provided in a new form, and ability to write for a particular audience
  • shelving test – I’m sure I’m not the only person to have seen candidates for shelving jobs who perform well at interview but can’t put books in alpha order

Case study

  • This type of test is more relevant to senior posts with greater responsibility
  • An example of a case study test would be to give each candidate some information about a crisis that could happen in the library (e.g. flood, fire, electrical failure, moth infestation – ‘crisis’ doesn’t need to be life-threatening), give them time to think and make notes, then  ask them to explain what they would do, the resources and people they would deploy etc
  • A case study test is useful for assessing their knowledge of particular subject area or their approach to handling situations
  • Like the in-tray/inbox exercise, the most valuable part of this exercise is hearing the candidate’s explanation of their actions and justification for decisions they would make, so allow they plenty of time to talk

Things to consider for all types of test

  • Is the test appropriate/relevant?
  • Candidates should be informed in advance of what they will be expected to do on the day of interview, and let them know if they are expected to prepare anything in advance
  • Choose a suitable location for the test – perhaps a quiet and uninterrupted environment, or maybe in a busy open-plan area if that’s where they will be working if they get the job
  • Test results should be taken into consideration after the interview, so the interview remains the most important part of the process, but think again about someone who performs well at interview and poorly on the test
  • Scoring and weighting – decide this in advance.  A scoring system can be simple (yes/no, pass/fail) or marked (positively, with points awarded for good performance, or negatively, e.g. starting with 20 points and making deductions for mistakes as mentioned above)
  • Consider equal opportunities and make sure activities are accessible or can be modified to allow participation by all candidates

May your well-planned recruitment yield a candidate and a role that were meant for each other!

What types of interview tests have you taken part in or designed?  Let me know in the comments.

For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.


Designing good interview questions

These notes are adapted from a session run by Cathy Hamer at the Bodleian Libraries.

Why do we ask questions at interview?

The main purpose is to assess the interviewee’s abilities, so to be fair to all candidates, a consistent approach is necessary.  Careful planning of questions allows the candidate to do most of the talking, demonstrate how their skills and experience fit the role, and their responses to be assessed against the selection criteria for the role.

Open vs closed questions

Closed questions allow only short answers, such as ‘yes’ or ‘no.  Example: Did you have supervisory responsibilities in your previous job?
While closed questions may be suitable for confirming details at the end of an interview, they do not allow the candidate to elaborate on their experience.  Open questions use words such as ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘where’, ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. Example: ‘How do you set priorities in tackling your workload?’.  Using an open question increases the amount of information the interviewee can give you, and helps you learn about their opinions and attitudes.

Multiple questions

Asking more than one question at once causes confusion and often the candidate will only answer the last or easiest questions.  Example: ‘In your last job, what were your responsibilities in terms of monitoring the budget, and what was the system for balancing and checking the cash account?’.  Don’t ask multiple questions – separate out the questions and ask them individually.

Leading questions

A leading question is one which indicates the required response, for example ‘Presumably you will get on well with your work colleagues?’.   The interviewee can only provide a useful answer by interrupting or disagreeing, as they are unlikely to say ‘No’.  Instead, ask a more open question such as ‘Tell us about your experience of working in a small team’.

Discriminatory questions

Questions relating to the candidate’s sex, age, marital status, ethnic origin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or disabilities are an obvious no-no.  For example: ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Do you have any children?’.

Hypothetical questions

These are a type of open question, and can be very helpful in assessing a candidate’s thinking skills and how quickly they can respond to a new situation.  Example: ‘How would you go about planning the move of this unit/office to another building?’

Quantifying questions

These are a type of closed question which can be useful in ascertaining how many people the candidate has managed or the size of the budget for which they have had responsibility.  They are best used in conjunction with a follow-up question to allow the candidate to give a more descriptive response.

Behaviour-based questions

Examples: ‘Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision that involved a large expenditure’ or ‘Describe a situation in which you had to work to a tight deadline.’
Past job behaviour is a good guide to future performance, so asking for prior examples can be useful in predicting if the candidate will be able to demonstrate the necessary skills in the new job.

Probing questions

Every conversation is different, even though the main interview questions will be the same for each candidate.  Sometimes you will need to probe a bit further for more details, or to validate a claim.  Be careful not to lose the thread of the main question. Probing questions can also be useful to help the candidate back on track if they have gone off on a tangent in their answer.


  • Well in advance, determine which aspects of the selection criteria you are going to assess at interview
  • Design a question for each skill that you wish to assess
  • As far as possible, keep questions open and only ask one at a time
  • Avoid closed questions, giving away the ‘correct’ answer
  • Address any gaps on the application form
  • Use a combination of application form/letter, task and interview to assess each candidate against all the selection criteria for the job
For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.

Giving and receiving references

These are my notes adapted from a presentation I attended last week, given by Ruth Newman (Bodleian Libraries)

See also: How to write a job description and How to shortlist

What is the purpose of a reference?

  1. It provides information about a candidate’s employment history
  2. It backs up (or not) the statements made in the application form
  3. It provides an opinion on the candidate’s suitability for the post for which they are applying

For jobs at The Bodleian Libraries, references are sought for the successful candidate once a conditional offer has been made to them – this is to ensure that any information relating to absence or disability is not revealed until this stage in the recruitment process.

Questions asked of referees by The Bodleian Libraries

The above-named has applied for employment within The Bodleian Libraries and has given consent to our approaching you to provide a reference (copy of permission attached).  In particular, we would be very grateful for information on the following (where applicable):

  • The candidate’s relationship to you as a referee and how long you have known them in this capacity; The dates of the candidate’s employment with you, and job title;
  • The candidate’s ability, in your opinion, to meet the stated selection criteria for this post;
  • The candidate’s performance during their employment (for example, quality of work, relationship with colleagues, communication skills, attendance and time-keeping);
  • The candidate’s reason for leaving your employment;
  • The candidate’s current salary / salary on leaving;
  • The total number of days the candidate has taken as sick leave in the past 12 months, and the number of occurrences;
  • Whether there have been any disciplinary or other formal employment proceedings against the candidate which are still considered ‘live’ (including any in process at present / at the time the employment ended; and
  • Whether, in the event of a suitable vacancy arising, you would re-employ this person.

If you do not wish the candidate to see this reference, please mark it “strictly confidential”.  Any information you can give will be treated in the strictest confidence.  However, you are advised that under the terms of the Data Protection Act, all references are potentially disclosable to the applicant.

References may be written or verbal.  If a verbal reference is taken it should be written up and sent to the referee for confirmation that it is an accurate reflection of what they said.  Email correspondence is sufficient for this.  A conditional offer of employment is made subject to the receipt of two satisfactory references.  Alarm bells would include over 10 days’ sickness, negative comments, mention of disciplinary process in progress (6-12 months is the usual ‘live’ period for disciplinary issues).  If the references take longer than expected to arrive, the candidate’s start date should be delayed until they have been received, and are considered satisfactory.

Things to consider when reading a reference

  1. Who is the referee?  It is usual practice to use the current and previous line manager as referees, so if the reference is written by someone other than these people, investigate further.
  2. What have they included, and what have they omitted?  Compare their comments against the list of questions asked of referees.

Legal considerations

There is no legal obligation to give a reference unless explicitly stated as part of an employee’s contract; however, if the employer normally gives references for staff it will legally be regarded as an implied contractual term.

I have no legal right to see a reference written about me by my line manager, but I can ask to see my personal file once I am in my new job – and it should contain the reference!

There is no legislation specifically designed to cover the provision of reference, but it is covered in other legislation relating to (among other things) disability and sex discrimination.

If you are asked to provide a reference for someone:

  • The reference must be given by someone qualified to give the opinions sought – if in doubt, ask for help from your HR advisor
  • Reply on headed paper/from your work email account [note: not for a personal reference]
  • Reply promptly
  • You have a duty of care to the person about whom it is written and to the recipient of the reference, so the reference must be factually accurate, supported by evidence and fair
  • It is good practice for the subject of the reference to be aware of its contents, so give them a copy of the reference and discuss it if necessary.  Employees should be aware of any complaints or negative comments which will be included in the reference before it is written
  • Avoid any personal or discriminatory comments.  Comment on the job description and selection criteria, keep the tone professional and refer to the person’s performance at work
  • Mark the reference “strictly confidential”
  • Bodleian Libraries staff are asked to include a disclaimer e.g. “given in good faith and confidence, without legal liability on behalf of the author or Bodleian Libraries” to ensure they are covered by professional indemnity insurance.

For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.

How to shortlist

This follows on from my earlier post about how to write a job description

Selection criteria: essential and desirable

When preparing the job description, the selection criteria will develop as you define the role and decide which criteria are essential or desirable.  A quick test to see if a criterion is essential (E) or desirable (D) is to consider if the candidate must already have the skill or experience (E), or if it can be learnt on the job (D).

Criteria may be moved between the E and D categories depending on how many candidates you expect to have applying for the job: if you anticipate a large number of applications, you might consider moving some criteria from D to E in order to narrow the field.  However, you may only do this before the job is advertised: once it’s out there, the criteria must stay and E or D in order to be fair to the people considering applying for the job.


All the people on the interview panel should be involved in shortlisting the candidates.  Use a shortlisting matrix to evaluate each candidate against the selection criteria:

A variety of scoring systems may be used:

  • Simple tick or cross to show the criterion is met or not met
  • Marks out of 10 for how closely the candidate and the criterion match
  • Different criteria may be weighted according to their relative importance

It can be helpful to have several rounds of shortlisting.  For example, applicants for a graduate trainee position are required to have an undergraduate degree.  The first round of shortlisting would assess all candidates on that single criterion, and subsequent rounds would involve the remaining selection criteria.


Aim for about 5 interviewees.  Have a few reserve candidates in mind in case any interviewees drop out.  List the reserve candidates in priority order.  Allow at least 5 working days between shortlisting and interviews.


  • Remember to compare the candidates against the selection criteria, not against each other.
  • Keep a record of the shortlisting matrix.  This is very helpful if any candidates ask for feedback on why they were unsuccessful in being called to interview.
  • When advertising the vacancy, state clearly the closing date and time.  A cut-off time of 12:00 (rather than 17:00) can be helpful if any applicants have any last-minute problems with submitting their documents, and allows time in the afternoon for packs to be produced for the interview panel who will then begin shortlisting.

For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.