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
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.
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 PrepTest-taking Strategies & Career Articles
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