Interviews - A Social Worker's View

A social worker’s advice on getting the most out of an interview

‘I’m useless at interviews’. My colleague had been unsuccessful in two interviews, and the feedback was that she had ‘undersold herself'. She said ‘I don’t like to brag- it’s not me’. I have heard many similar comments from social workers, but in these uncertain times, for many it has never been more important to be good at interviews.

After a spell of applying for jobs unsuccessfully, I worked hard to improve my interview techniques and approaches. I have passed on these tips to others including my aforementioned colleague who secured the next job that she applied for. I do not think these principles are necessarily new but they seem to be effective.

Good Preparation and a Positive Attitude are essential to a good interview:

Preparation

If we are knowledgeable about our subject then we will come across as more confident and authoritative. Review relevant legislation and the policy framework: The Children and Families Act 2014, The Children Act 1989, Working Together 2010, Laming, Every Child Matters (especially those five outcomes- a favourite test for interviews, even if a rather limited tool for practitioners.) What are the current political developments? SWRB, Munroe, proposed Government changes regarding matching and ethnicity in adoption… and much more. A post in adoption may require knowledge of direct contact research, or attachment theory. A children and families social worker will need knowledge of safeguarding and risk assessment. Practitioners should keep up-to-date with policy, practice developments, legislation and research, but interviews test this.

Although tedious, there is no short cut to this preparation. However, even if we are not specifically asked, bringing this material into our responses will impress. Write them down and memorise the detail.

Secondly, record five or six case illustrations from your work that show what you can do. Use the pronoun ‘I’ throughout. Only use the case detail that illustrates what you did. Explore case dilemmas and debates, and how you reached a conclusion. Make explicit any anti-discriminatory issues and dilemmas. A couple of your case examples should specifically focus on issues of anti-discrimination in practice. Describe how you acted and any consequent outcome.

Thirdly, write down all potential questions.

Consider: What is the nature of the job? What are the challenges? What are the work practices? I always write down the questions as soon after the interview as possible to aid my preparation for future interviews. Consult others. There are some interview standards: making use of supervision; contribution to the team; dealing with stress.

Now write down your answers. Try to find three clear points for each question. Find debates that you can explore from different perspectives. Remember to focus on you. Try to find personal examples.

Let me give a personal illustration. When I am asked about stress, I like to say: ‘I love stress! Stress motivates me and keeps me focussed. The downside of stress is when it becomes too great and out of control’. I talk about prioritising and re-prioritising; keeping appropriate boundaries around work and home life, but that I am willing to be flexible around work times where the task requires. I manage my workload, but the manager has a responsibility to ensure that my workload is manageable. I don’t do Yoga, but do have outside interests that give me an alternative focus.

Thus my presentation is personal, interesting, balanced, and gives important messages about my management of and commitment to the work. It is vital that we are true to ourselves.

Attitude

I imagine 95% of social workers would say they are not good at interviews, and that nerves get the better of them. The first thing to do is to purge ourselves of all negative thoughts. Instead the interview should be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate our value and worth. It should be fun!

A colleague recently had to apply for his own job. It was demoralising competing against his peers. His approach was to regard this as though an interview for a new job, and to get excited about the post, in order to present positively.

I asked my female colleague, mentioned earlier, ‘do you deserve to get this job?’ She said yes, so I asked her why? We teased out that she had experience, skills, and qualities, and then we drew out examples of each that she could present. I told her ‘with all of that why wouldn’t anyone want to employ you?’ I had her repeat to me several times ‘why wouldn’t anyone want to employ me?’ In the interview she was asked the question, ‘why should we offer you the job?’ She laughed and said ‘why wouldn’t anyone want to employ me!’ and went on to tell them exactly why they should want to employ her!

She was terrified by the interview panel. I asked ‘are they for you, against you, or neutral?’ She said neutral. I said she was wrong. The interview panel is there to get the best out of interviewees. I told her they are ‘your new best friends’. I talked about the importance of eye contact, gaining a rapport, and allowing her personality to shine through.

I would advise anyone to ‘be themselves’ at interview. But quiet, anxious people have to find the ‘confident me’ in them and act that part of them into being in the interview. It is important to project confidence- even if we do not feel it. However if our preparation is good, our attitude is positive, why should we not feel confident?

The Interview

Project warmth and confidence as you enter. Smile, seek good eye contact, greet the interviewers. Remind yourself: ‘these are my friends and there is no reason why they should not want to employ me!’ Tell yourself: ‘relax; enjoy the experience’. People are said to make their mind up in the first thirty seconds, so you already half way to securing the job!

Take a moment to consider each question and frame your reply. Ideally think of three key points to structure your answer. Think about illustrations to give. Is there a dilemma to unpack? I have sat on interview panels and responses come alive with examples. Direct your answer to the person that asked the question. If you are able, use gentle humour: ‘stress? – there’s no stress in social work, is there?’

Some people say that they dry up or fear that they will in the interview itself. ‘My mind goes blank’. If you are struggling with a wordy question or your mind is going blank, either ask the interviewer to repeat the question, or repeat it back yourself asking clarifying questions. Sometimes when the questions are complex it helps to chew over out loud the thoughts that are in your mind, ‘this is quite a complex issue, I suppose my first thought was … but then again I thought… can I clarify, do you mean…? OK’.

Interviewers often look for particular answers and award points. You can usually read the signs if they want more from you. Think laterally ‘what other angle can I come from?’ It is OK to ask the interviewer, ‘Should I go on? Am I missing something…?’ They may offer a prompt or supplementary question, but even if not, it buys you some time. Again you can think out loud, ‘Let me see, you asked about … I answered with … and … what else might you…?’

If asked what are your ‘strengths and weaknesses?’ ensure that your weakness is really a strength in disguise. ‘Although I am good at engaging younger children, I am less natural with teenagers, so I prepare my visits thoroughly and use a range of approaches, for example….’ now give an example of a cracking piece of work with a teenager you had wanted to tell anyway.

If you dried up on a question early on, when you come to the end of your interview, ask for another opportunity to answer it. They will usually give you that chance.

End confidently. When they ask if you have any questions, I would suggest you ask about the team you may be going to- what are the staffing levels like? Is there any sickness in the team? Is the manager permanent? If they cannot tell you which team at this stage I think these are important questions to ask of the service, and later of the manager of the team you are appointed to. There are some high risk teams where particularly as a new worker it could be damaging to your career to take up a post. Remember this is a two-way process. They might not come up to your expectations!

Finally after the event, evaluate how you performed: did you enjoy it? What went well; what did not go so well? Seek feedback- especially if you did not get the job- but treat it as a learning point and don’t take it personally. Weigh up what is said: it may be unhelpful, skewed by the views of a particular interviewer; but usually feedback provides useful tips for next time.

Remember that there are lots of applicants for every job and that someone may just be more experienced or qualified or have come over better. It does not make you of any less worth. You will get a job eventually- after all, ‘why wouldn’t someone want to employ you?’

 

Colin Mabbutt
Senior Practitioner
Nottingham City Children and Families