Hiring Staff Part 1 – Recruitment

These guides on hiring staff are aimed to assist staff hiring for an MP. But these guides will also be of interest to anyone wanting to gain an insight into working in an MP’s office, whether at Westminster or in a constituency.

  • Part 1 – Recruitment
  • Part 2 – Interviewing
  • Part 3 – Induction

Hiring Staff:  Part 1 – Recruitment

  1. Which position?
  2. What to look for
  3. What are your long-term aims?
  4. What can you offer?
  5. Writing a job description
  6. Where to advertise
  7. Shortlisting candidates

So, you’ve been given the task of recruiting new staff for the office. Every MP’s office will go through this process in a different way, and your objectives will differ depending on whether you’re hiring constituency or Westminster staff, researchers, secretaries or caseworkers. This guide will give an overview for those starting the process on how to get the best applicants and eventually the most suitable candidate.

1.      Which position?

Before you rush out to put adverts on websites and take CVs from everyone you know think carefully about the actual position you wish to advertise. Whilst those of us already in a constituency office or at Westminster know that in such small teams it can be a case of “all hands to the deck”, the different types of salary ranges and positions can attract different calibres of applicants.

Whether you are replacing a member of staff who’s leaving or wish to create a new position take the chance to evaluate what skill shortages there are in your office or where you would most benefit from assistance. Also, decide which office they would be most needed in, constituency or Westminster, as this will influence where you advertise for the job, the salary you are offering and perhaps the type of person you are looking for.

2.      What to look for

Once you know what position you need filling you need to decide what skills you want that person to have. The guide to staff pay rates (http://www.w4mp.org/html/library/salaries/general.asp) is an ideal place to start as it gives the requirements for each position, but don’t forget that these can be tailored to meet what you need – you may want someone to do purely research for a Member with a front bench brief, or you may want your researcher to also deal with the diary and the casework and occasionally to work from the constituency – there are no hard and fast rules about what you can ask for from potential new staff. You may want to consider someone who:

  1. has previous parliamentary experience
  2. has an interest in politics
  3. will engage well with your constituents
  4. you know will fit in with the team – be it in Westminster or in the constituency
  5. knows the constituency
  6. has previous administrative experience but is new to parliament

3.      What are your long term aims?

Think carefully about what sort of commitment you are expecting from a new staff member. Researchers generally stay for between 1-2 years but secretaries and caseworkers perhaps slightly longer. If you’re advertising for a junior administrative role you are likely to still have a large number of graduate applicants or those with a strong interest in politics – think about whether the role offers enough to keep them in the position for long enough, or if they merely want a ‘foot in the door’ and you’ll end up replacing them before the year is out.

Do you want someone who can walk into the role knowing what they are doing and how the various parliamentary processes work, or do you want someone who you can train up and mould into your offices way of doing things?

4.      What can you offer?

Will you be there to train someone with little experience if they are to be based in the constituency and you are in Westminster? If not, then someone who has experience in that area would be more appropriate. Are you taking on a first-jobber with no office experience? Then be prepared to start from the very beginning – how to use photocopiers, the importance of filing, where to obtain information for research – do you have time for this sort of commitment?

What salary will you offer? Is it enough to encourage the right calibre of applicant to apply? Consider offering a 3/6 month pay review as an incentive for the right candidate to prove themselves. What would the career progression be – is someone taking a job in the constituency with a hope to one day working in Westminster? If that is not an option make sure it is known at the outset. If you take on a graduate as a junior caseworker/secretary it is likely that are going to want to do some sort of research in the future – if they don’t get that opportunity are they going to leave?

5.      Writing a job description

This is the key to encouraging the right applicants. Use the staff salary guide as an example of what the job will entail but also mention what skills you are particularly looking for. For example:

  1. polite and courteous telephone manner
  2. willing to travel to the constituency
  3. able to work independently
  4. an interest in politics
  5. a background in administration

These criteria will also make it easier for you when you come to sifting through applications – you will be able to see who has read the job description accurately enough to address the requirements in their covering letter.

If your job description is too vague, then you could end up receiving hundreds of applications – but don’t be tempted to “talk up” the job because it will only lead to disappointment when your enthusiastic “researcher” starts only to find out that 90% of the job is filing and typing and only a small amount of research is actually involved.

Do mention what salary band you are offering (i.e. caseworkers £17,443 – £22,611 or research assistant £14,212 – £19,380 – on the 2008/9 scales); otherwise people may make their own assumptions and this will lead to wasting your time and theirs if the expectations are wrong. Do leave yourself leeway to be able to pay more or less depending on experience.

It’s a good idea to state on the job description when the closing date for applications is, when you want to hold interviews (perhaps give a couple of dates), and when the job starts. If someone knows they can’t start a job for another 6 months but you need someone straight away it’s best to find out sooner rather than later. If you are going to contact only those people you want to interview, then say so on the ad. It’s really annoying to have your CV go down a black hole.

If you have a written research task, why not set it ahead of the interview, or indeed make it a condition of the application. Set a word limit of 300 words. That way, you can weed out people who are just mass-mailing CVs, and drastically reduce the number of applicants. You only really need to see 5 people in order to get a good range. This is probably quite helpful if you think you will have a high level of applications – but its not worth doing unless you are actually going to read them!

One topic which we haven’t covered here is the legal side of recruitment; to do so fully would require more space than we have available in these short guides.  However, help is at hand. The ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) website has an excellent A-Z page with links to all the topics you could wish to see: http://www.acas.co.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1390.

6.      Where to advertise

The obvious choice is W4MP, but remember this inevitably only attracts those who already work in Parliament or have an interest or background in politics. If what you want is someone with strong administrative or casework skills then perhaps opening your search area wider might attract more suitable candidates. Options to consider would be:

  1. Public job search websites (fish4jobs, monster, reed)
  2. Local newspapers (for constituency based staff)
  3. Going through a recruitment agency (who can then initially vet staff for you)

Do factor in the costs for these options – particularly with recruitment agencies who can tie you into long contracts and could continue to charge you even if the candidate leaves within a few months of starting.

Ahead of advertising, see if your local constituency association has anyone who’d be interested. There are always keen volunteers looking for a job in the constituency office and Westminster, and they are likely to know what’s going on. They will also be useful campaigners.

7.      Shortlisting candidates

Parliamentary jobs attract high numbers of candidates – often over a hundred. You may be extremely interested in the first dozen CVs you receive, taking time to read every one and considering them carefully but, after that, you can become overly-critical of the tiniest flaws and barely skimming through them. The key is not to sit down and read them all in one session but to look through a few a day and separate them into a ‘no’ pile and a ‘maybe’ pile. This will get rid of those that are completely unsuitable and hopefully reduce the numbers drastically. Then sift through your ‘maybes’ and try and find the top 10 or so applicants that you would be willing to interview. Don’t reject the other applicants until you have finally appointed someone – you may need to re-interview if you don’t find anyone suitable initially.

The key is not to rush into employing anyone. Take time now to find the right person; otherwise you’ll find yourself repeating this process too often and inevitably spending twice as long.

If you’ve stated on the job description what days you will be interviewing, then candidates should have ensured that they would be able to make one of them – or have at least contacted you in advance to see if you would accept their application even though they might be unavailable at those times.

This is Part 2 of three guides on hiring staff to work in an MP’s office. They are primarily aimed at staff of MPs and particularly those of you who have the job of recruiting, interviewing and inducting new staff.  But these guides will also be of interest to anyone wanting to gain an insight into working in an MP’s office, whether at Westminster or in a constituency.

Hiring Staff: Part 2 – Interviewing

  1. Preparation for interview
  2. Interview Questions
  3. Interview Format
  4. Once you have chosen
  5. Obtaining References

1.  Preparation for interview

You need to decide on the most suitable place to conduct your interviews. If the job is to be based in the constituency, it may unrealistic to expect someone to travel to London for the interview and, therefore, you should aim to carry out the meeting in the constituency office.

If, however, you are hiring someone to work in Westminster, then the options are to interview in your own office or to book a meeting room. If you are intending to ask your candidates to take tests that involve using a computer, then the office might be more appropriate. However, a meeting room means you won’t be interrupted or distracted by phone calls or usual daily activities.

If you will be interviewing on your own, make sure you book a room near to whichever entrance your candidates will be coming into, as you will have to escort them to and from reception. Alternatively, have another member of staff with you to do this, to allow you time to make notes after they leave.

Ensure that you have water (and cups) available for you and the candidates and keep a mobile phone with you so that your office can let you know when someone arrives or if someone cancels at the last minute.

Take with you a copy of each candidate’s CV and attach a list of the questions with space to write your notes on – you will never remember every detail afterwards and this will help to refresh your memory. It is also worthwhile having a copy of the original job advert to refer to.

You also need to be aware of equal opportunities legislation.  Here are some websites to get you up to speed:

2.  Interview Questions

Try not to make the interviews too long – 30 minutes should be ample time – you can always carry out second interviews if you need to. Asking the right questions will provide you with far more relevant information than an unstructured chat.

These examples are designed to help you to elicit the relevant information and provide you with an insight into someone’s personality – and show how much research they have done on the MP.

a.      What attracted you to this job, and in particular working for (name of MP)?

This will show if they are just applying to any job or whether they have a genuine interest.

b.      What qualities do you think you will bring to this role? What are your strengths/weaknesses?

Any serious candidate will have worked out this question will be asked and should have thought through their answer in advance. Someone who is honest about their flaws but can then turn them into how they could prove to be strengths is obviously well prepared and self aware.

c.       What do you think you will enjoy most/least about this position?

Someone who is applying for an administrative role should not be answering that they dislike filing and typing!

d.      Where do you see yourself in five years time?

If the candidate thinks that they will be an MP and possibly Prime Minister is this the right person for you? And is it the right position for them?

e.      What are your hobbies and interests?

This question just allows you to learn a little more about their personality and whether you think you could work well together as a small team.

If that list looks too short, here are a couple more suggestions:

  • Ask what interesting political news story they’ve read/seen recently. This should weed out people who don’t read newspapers.
  • Rather than strengths and weaknesses, ask them when they last persuaded a person in authority to their point of view, what was their biggest professional mistake and what they learned from it, and other real life scenarios.

Remember, too, that discrimination on the basis of race, marital status, colour, sex, religion, national origin or disability is not legal. Here, for example, is a selection of the sort of questions you cannot ask:

  • Are you planning to start a family?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?

If you are still unclear about this, have another close look at those helpful websites we mentioned in the section above.

3.  Interview Format

Start by outlining a bit about the job and their potential role in the office. You can then ask them to talk you through their CV. This will explain any gaps or changes in jobs and the reasons why; it will also help them to relax before you start grilling them!

Ask the questions you have prepared – explain that you will be taking notes but that you are interested; prolonged silences while you write everything down can be a little unsettling. Don’t forget to go through ‘housekeeping issues’ such as do they have any holiday booked, the hours they would be expected to work, when they are available to start etc. Do also give them the opportunity to ask you any questions – this can be crucial in determining who is most interested in the position, and for what reasons.

Finish off the interview by explaining what will happen next. It is always worth saying that any successful candidate may be called back for a second interview – this will give the MP a chance to meet their potential new employee and if you find you have two strong candidates you may want to re-interview them – no one will ever be disappointed to find out they have got the job but there is no second interview!

Let the candidates know what timescales you are anticipating with regard to telling the successful person and when you would want them to start the job.

Depending upon the position advertised, you may wish to ask the candidates to carry out a test, in order to ascertain how good they are at thinking on their feet.  You may wish to give them a simple piece of casework and ask them how they would deal with it, and ask them to write a sample letter.  This will enable you to assess their literacy and IT skills.  If they have applied for a research position, ask them to give an example of a recent piece of work they have produced.

4.  Once you have chosen

Having completed all the interviews, hopefully you will have chosen the most suitable candidate – don’t reject the rest until you know that person definitely still wants the job! When you tell them that they have been successful, make it clear that it is conditional subject to references; and formalise this by putting any job offer in writing.

Once they have accepted the job you can write/phone the unsuccessful candidates. Try to give constructive criticism to those who took time to come to the interview. If you saw someone that you particularly liked, but that you felt was unsuitable for the position you were advertising, offer to help them out by recommending them to other MPs you know who are looking – this can really help them, and other offices.

5.  Obtaining References

No matter how good a judge of character you think you are, never take someone on without checking their references. Do ask them first that they are happy for you to do this – they may not have yet told their current employer they are planning on leaving.

When you contact the employer ask them to provide a reference and include details of if the candidate is:

  • punctual
  • suitable for the role (i.e. can keep matters confidential, able to work in a small team etc)
  • has a good sick leave record

Hiring Staff: Part 3 – Induction

  1. Formal Job Offer
  2. Resources Department
  3. First Day
  4. Training
  5. Services for Members’ Staff
  6. Office Work
  7. Finally

 

1.   Formal Job Offer

When you write to confirm a formal job offer make sure you include the following information in the letter:

  • Salary details: what you are offering and, if appropriate, when the salary will be reviewed
  • Office hours that they will be expected to work
  • Holiday entitlement (i.e. as per the standard contract – 20 days in the first year, rising to 25 in the following year) Might be worthwhile mentioning what their pro-rata holiday entitlement is – if they have joined halfway through a year they will be entitled to 10 days etc
  • The expected start date and time (you may want to suggest they start at 10.00am on the first day as this will give you time to get into the office and prepare for their arrival)
  • Dress code

You should also include:

  • Application form for a pass (available from the pass office at 1 Canon Row) and a stamped addressed envelope so they can return it to you
  • Copy of the standard contract (available from the Resources section for Members’ Staff on the Parliamentary intranet. When you get there click on Index > Contracts of Employment for Members’ Staff)
  • Details of the Stakeholders Pension Plan (available as above. Click on Index > Pensions – Members’ Staff)

2.   Resources Department

You must inform the House of Commons Resources Department that you have a new member of staff starting and request a ‘new starter pack’ from them (ext. 1340). This includes contracts, the SA1 form giving authorisation to pay a salary, a P46 which sorts out the correct tax codes and the pension application forms.

Make sure you send back the SA1 form as soon as possible otherwise the salary won’t be paid!

The contract must be returned with an outline job description, both signed, within 8 weeks of the start date. Ensure you keep a copy on your staff records and give a copy to the new staff member to keep.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Parliamentary Intranet, it’s worth spending some time browsing there.  From the home page, on the left side, click on House of Commons > Resources > Members and Members’ Staff.  This takes you to the Resources homepage; now have a scroll through the Index. You will be surprised how many useful checklists, guides and links you’ve always wanted – but could never find – are listed there.

[We hear from the Resources Dept. Personnel Advice Service that they are in the process of reviewing the new entrant pack and that a new version will be available from October 2008. Some of the forms currently in use will become obsolete at that time. Ed]

3.   First Day

To guide you in more detail on what to go through on the first day you can download a checklist from the Parliamentary Intranet and use this as a basis for information which you might need to provide.

However as a summary you should include:

  • Signing of contracts and job descriptions
  • A tour of Parliament (include the library, vote office, Post Office, cash machines, gym, restaurants and any other places you think they may need to go to regularly in future)
  • Rules and procedures relating to fire alarms, first aid, smoking areas, personal use of phone/email/internet

4.   Training

  • Book a new starter’s induction course (details available on www.w4mp.org). There may not be a course date for a few months but it will still be worthwhile.
  • Email address. They will only be able to obtain an email address once their pass has been received. Once they have this you should call PICT (x2001) and explain you have a new starter. They will email you a form to complete and details of a short presentation and induction for the new member of staff. Log in to the computer with the details PICT have provided, and ask the staff member to watch the presentation and complete the questions. Once this has been done you can complete the form and fax it back to PICT. They will then be able to create a new email account and give the new staff member their own log-in details
  • PICT will also be able to help you set up permissions in order that the new member of staff can access the Member’s mailbox, calendar and contacts if this is required.

5.   Services for Members’ Staff

There will be more specific details available on the resources page but as a guide you may be wish to point out the following:

  • Childcare. Staff with children under the age of 12 may be eligible to claim childcare vouchers if they need to arrange this in order to work (ext. 5973).
  • Travel Office. Staff can access discounted air and rail travel and foreign exchange services (ext. 4232) but these facilities are available  to staff only on Mondays and Fridays when the House is sitting or at any time during recess.
  • Library. You can organise tours and training for new staff at various times during the week (ext. 3666).

Full information is set out in the guide from the Office of the Clerk Facilities and Services for Members’ Staff (latest version is 20 October 2006) and covers: Employment and financial information, The Parliamentary estate, Business of the House and Information services

6.   Office Work

Each office works differently in how they train a new member of staff and obviously this will depend on what position they are working in, but it may be helpful to be able to provide your new staff member with:

  • Handover notes from the previous incumbent
  • The morning to look through files, emails and computer records in the office so that get an idea of how things work
  • Someone to take them to lunch, or introduce them to others working in nearby offices, until they have their own pass

7.   Finally….

Finally, if they haven’t already found it, point them towards the W4MP guides page (www.w4mp.org/html/library/default.asp) which will give them information on what to expect when working in an MP’s office, help with different types of casework and how to undertake research projects. Even if these aren’t relevant to their own position it will help them understand what other staff members do.

Many new staffers find the first few weeks pretty overwhelming and this can be made worse by the lack of independence they experience while waiting for their pass to come though.  You may have forgotten how it was for you but you can help a newcomer by acknowledging that it’s ‘normal’ for them to feel as though they have been thrown in the deep end!  Promise them that it will get better and try to spare time to show them round yourself.