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The background interview is used infrequently by assessment centers in the public sector.  If all participants are from the same organization, which is usually the case for promotional exams, they do not have a sufficiently varied background to realistically differentiate between performance levels.  However, for open competitive examinations, where participants have worked for different organizations, the background interview can be a viable selection process.

The background interview is not a simulation exercise.  Further, it is distinctly different from the typical civil service oral examination.  The background interview is a one-on-one process between participant and assessor.  The atmosphere is relaxed and congenial.  A considerable amount of preparation will have been done by both the participant and the assessor.

Before entering the assessment center, the participant completes a comprehensive background interview form.  The form lists education, work experience, community service, military experience, hobbies and interests and other information that may be of use to the assessor.  After obtaining the form, the assessor reviews the participant's background and then prepares a series of questions directly related to the dimensions being evaluated.  Questions are specific to the individual participant and, therefore, each participant may be asked different questions.

Questions focus on the individual's actual experiences, as opposed to hypothetical questions asked in civil service interviews.  For example, in a civil service interview, a candidate might be asked to display his/her ability to lead others by answering the question, "How would you go about improving the performance of your subordinates?"

This question is strictly hypothetical and merely allows the participant to express knowledge.  In a background interview, however, assessors might ask, "As a captain in Engine Company 1, who is your best firefighter, who is your worst firefighter, and why do you classify them as such?" or "What have you done to improve the performance of a) your worst firefighter; b) your best firefighter?"

These questions, plus follow-up questions, determine if, in the actual working environment, the participant will consider the performance of his/her personnel, if he/she can describe that performance, and what the participant has actually done to improve the ability of subordinates.  A participant who has not done anything will have a difficult time manufacturing answers, especially in regards to developmental activities involving the best performer.  Finally, the participant is asked what he/she actually has (or hasn't) done in this direction as opposed to what he/she would do.

Background interviews generally last an hour or longer, as opposed to the 10 to 20 minutes most often encountered in civil service interviews.

Some improperly-operated assessment centers have misused the background interview.  Instead of conducting a background interview, a traditional type of civil service interview is used.  While a traditional interview is appropriate to evaluate some dimensions, it is not cost-efficient to use as a part of an assessment center.  In fact, its use as a part of the assessment center is a cheap way for the consultant to fill time without having to develop simulation exercises or to prepare for a background interview.

When the traditional interview is used in an assessment center, another problem frequently develops.  Usually, participants are given a written assignment, such as an in-basket or written problem.  They are then called away from that assignment individually to complete the interview.  This process affects individuals differently, giving some an advantage and others a disadvantage.  The first participant to complete the interview does not start the written assignment, but instead starts with the interview.  After the interview, he/she completes the written assignment uninterrupted.  The last participant completes the written assignment uninterrupted, and then completes the interview.

The remaining participants, however, must start the written assignment focusing their attention on the details, organizing their material and thoughts, and recalling the information as necessary.  In the middle of this process, they are called into a totally different situation, forcing them to shift from one situation to another.  After completing the interview, they must then return to the written assignment, and again shift from one situation back to another.  In addition, they must reorganize their material, refresh their memory, and recall where they were and what they were thinking.  This loss of time, as well as the break in the thought process that some, but not all participants face, can directly affect performance levels.

If you would like to review additional promotional exam prep packages, go to our Assessment Center Exam Prep pages at the links below:

Promotional Oral Interview Exam Prep

Fire Tactical Exam Prep

Subordinate Counseling Exam Prep

Lieutenant/Captain/Battalion/Deputy Chief In-Basket Exam Prep

Leaderless Group Exam Prep

Test-taking Strategies & Career Articles

Don McNea Fire School's Assessment Center Exam Preparation has been put together by Fire Chiefs who are nationally-recognized authors and who have been assessors for thousands of assessment center examinations.

As always, all of our Assessment Center Exam Prep products come with a no-risk guarantee.  If you are not completely satisfied, we will refund 100% of the product cost no questions asked.


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