Added: 24 June 2008
This is Part 1 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.
The three guides are:
Hiring Staff: Part 1 – Recruitment
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.
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.
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:
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?
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
SG June 2008
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