4 Things to Expect on Your First Government Job Interview

Interviewing for your first government job is nerve wracking. There is a lot riding on your responses. You want to do well, and you have a huge incentive to do so -- a job offer.

The hiring manager is looking for the person who is the best fit for the position. There is no way to know if you are the best fit because it is highly unlikely you will know all the other interviewees. All you can control is what you do. You can’t control who the other applicants are, how they will interview or what the hiring manager values in people he or she may hire. Do your best, and don’t worry about the factors beyond your control.

Ideally, you have prepared for your government job interview by pouring over the organization’s website, reading what’s being said in the media, anticipating the questions you’ll be asked and coming up with questions of your own. These points of preparation are beneficial for any job interview, but there are some slight differences in how the hiring process will likely go because you’re interviewing for a government job rather than a private sector job.

Here are a few of the things you can expect on your first government job interview.  

You Might Be Given an In-basket Exercise to Complete

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It is hard to get rid of problem employees in government. Even in right-to-work states, government organizations often offer employee protections beyond what is required under federal law. Performance management systems and grievance processes give employees more than the benefit of the doubt, and managers must put countless hours into documenting terminations. In fact, minor disciplinary actions can eat up huge blocks of time for managers.

The best way for hiring managers to avoid the unpleasant time suck of disciplining employees is to make good hires. People can fake their way through interviews, so hiring managers sometimes put candidates through in-basket exercises before or after an interview. Candidates have already made the trip to the hiring manager’s office, so hiring managers use the opportunity to give candidates simulated work like the work the new hire will do.

The in-basket exercise can be whatever the hiring manager dreams up. For a researcher, the in-basket could consist of analyzing data and making recommendations. For an ombudsman, it could be writing responses to complaint letters. For a project manager, it could be to develop a basic project charter. The possibilities are as unlimited as jobs available in government.

Generally, a hiring manager will tell candidates when there is going to be an in-basket exercise and how long it will take. After all, many candidates will be taking leave from their current jobs, so they need to know how much leave to request.  

The Hiring Manager Will Probably Use an Interview Panel

There is strength in numbers. Whether you’re in an army, a street gang or an interview panel, there is peace of mind in having people back your decision. Hiring managers use interview panels for several reasons: to gain outside perspectives, to reduce the risk of a bad hire and to increase the credibility of the hiring process.

Hiring managers do their best to be aware of their personal biases, but no one can recognize them and keep them in check all the time. By including others in the interview, a hiring manager allows others into the process who can balance out the hiring manager’s biases and can provide fresh perspectives on the candidates.

Interview panels reduce the risk of a bad hire because it is more difficult for a bad candidate to get past a group than to fool a hiring manager. Panelists can ask follow-up questions the hiring manager would not have thought to ask. Listening to one person on the panel having some uneasiness about a candidate can save the hiring manager from making a bad hiring decision.

Interview panels give credibility to the hiring process because panelists can ensure one another do not discriminate against any of the candidates. A hiring manager cannot disqualify a candidate for discriminatory reasons because the panelists will point out the discrimination. Ultimately, the hiring decision rests with the hiring manager, but since others have input into the decision, the hiring manager has more credibility than if he or she completed the hiring process without any help.

From the candidate’s perspective, the hiring manager is the most important person in the room. However, a candidate should not ignore the others. If a panelist asks a question, the candidate should direct the beginning of the response to the asking panelist but should also make eye contact with the other panelists during the response. 

It Will Take Longer to Hear Back Than You Expect

The government hiring process takes a long time. Even when hiring managers are in a hurry to fill a vacant position, internal processes and approvals slow things down. Even if the hiring managers sees you as clearly the top candidate and knows you’re the right person as soon as the last interview is over, it can still take a few weeks for the hiring manager to give you a job offer.

While you’re waiting for the hiring manager to give you the thumbs up or thumbs down, do your best to relax. Just because you haven’t heard back in a few weeks does not mean you’re out of the running.  

Don't Expect a Job Offer That Same Day

No matter how well you think the interview goes, there is almost no chance of being offered the job on the spot. No matter how much due diligence the hiring manager and human resources department do on a candidate, there are still post-interview processes the hiring manager cannot complete alone. At the very least, the hiring manager’s boss must approve the hire, and that usually requires a meeting between the two to make sure they agree.