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Keys to achieving the highest marks in oral tests

Here’s why candidates who achieve high scores in the written exam can pass the oral portion of the testing process but still not achieve a high enough score to be competitive

In my role as the Director of National Police Testing Services, I have produced every type of police examination there is—from traditional written and oral examinations to full-blown assessment centers. Over the years, I’ve seen countless men and women seeking promotion to Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, and beyond participate in a process unique to policing. Those who survive the gauntlet of the written examination (and/or in-basket) proceed to an oral testing process. Usually only a few points separate the top candidates entering this phase, so the question of who will get promoted (and who won’t) is often determined by the oral part of the examination process. This article explains why candidates who achieve high scores in the written examination can pass the oral portion of the testing process but still not achieve a high enough score to be competitive.

Understanding of the difference between written and oral examinations is an essential first step as we seek helps to understand why some fall flat in the oral segment. A written examination measures present proficiency and seeks to predict future competence—that is to say, it indicates one’s mastery and understanding of job knowledge. Written examinations lack the ability to evaluate an individual’s intrinsic, intangible qualities. Leadership potential, verbal communication skills, and personal integrity (to name but a few) are characteristics not easily reflected in the results of a written exam. Because written tests are insufficient to recognize a person’s “doing” traits, oral examinations are used. Face-to-face, interpersonal oral examinations provide the opportunity to:

• Ask questions which investigate the reasoning behind a candidate’s answers
• Present role-playing situations in which open-ended questions can be asked
• Ascertain a candidate’s beliefs, attitudes, and intentions
• Discover a candidate’s lack of knowledge or confusion in specific areas
• Observe indicators of a wide range of intangible qualities in the candidate

Typical Mistakes in Oral Examinations
The top candidates all pass the oral portion of the examination, but most don’t score high enough to remain competitive and consequently they fall out of contention. For these candidates, the problem isn’t appearance, verbal communications, education, training, background, or job experience. Time after time I observe candidates either failing to thoroughly answer the questions from the oral board or demonstrating an inability to communicate the larger organizational issue behind the questions posed. To illustrate my point, a handful of iterations on a typical oral board question follow:

“You’re a Sergeant assigned to the patrol division. A female officer complains to you that a male officer has continually sexually harassed her. Both officers are under your direct supervision. How would you handle this?”

“You’re a Lieutenant assigned to the patrol division. A female sergeant complains to you that a male sergeant has continually sexually harassed her. Both sergeants’ are under your direct supervision. How would you handle this?”

“You’re a Captain assigned to the patrol division. A female Lieutenant complains to you that a male Lieutenant has continually sexually harassed her. Both Lieutenants’ are under your direct supervision. How would you handle this?”

In responding to the question, all top candidates will tell the panel that the department has a policy and procedure on handling complaints of sexual harassment which includes zero tolerance. They’ll tell the panel that they would have re-enforced this by modeling the correct behavior and providing roll call and other training relative to sexual harassment to those they supervise. All top candidates will indicate they would conduct a thorough investigation; be sensitive to the female officer in handling the complaint; require a report from the female officer as to the who, what ,where, why, and how of the harassment; interview the male officer and obtain a report from him; seek independent evidence and sources relative to the allegation; notify their superior of the investigation; report their finding to all involved and if a preponderance of evidence supports the allegation recommend and/or employ negative discipline due to the serious nature of the offense after looking at past departmental practice in this area. Sharp candidates even seize the moment to speak about establishing further training in this area for all personnel and referring the officers to EAP if warranted. Covering these areas would probably give a candidate with excellent communications skills a score of 80 (plus or minus a few points).

And yet, that’s not good enough! Here’s what’s lacking and why valuable points were left on the table.

Answering the Underlying Question
After finishing with the above response, top candidates will explain to the panel that going through the investigative process, training, and EAP was the easy part—that the real work of a supervisor/leader begins after formal discipline has been administered. The top candidates will explain to the panel that in a sustained complaint the male officer in all likelihood will eventually return to work after a suspension (for example), and that due to contractual language or the size of the department, they would not have the luxury of being able to separate the male and female officer involved. They will go on to explain that this means both officers will have to work together and may even have to back each other up on calls. Top candidates will inform the panel that they would meet with the officers (first separately and then together) to advise them both that the discipline process is concluded and the organization needs them to put that aside. Top candidates will talk about the need for each officer to provide assurances that they will be able to work together.

Top candidates will explain that it has been his/her experience that the male officer is probably angry, embarrassed, and believes the discipline was unwarranted or too severe. They will also recognize that the female officer may believe the discipline imposed was a mere slap on the wrist or far too minor given the offense and the harassment is likely to continue.

Top candidates will describe a plan to continue to meet with the officers separately as well as together—perhaps several times as time goes by—in order for each to agree to “do their jobs” regardless of their personal feeling towards one another. There must also be an inspection and monitoring component to the candidates answer, however, it’s the emphasis on the organization before the individual that separates candidates.

So, the real test question was (and is): “How will you get these officers to work together in responding to calls for service from the public?”

Every question is an opportunity to demonstrate thorough knowledge in a specific area. However, what ultimately separates the people bunched up at the top of the list is the ability to demonstrate a vision for the larger organizational issues underneath the question, and then painting a picture for the panelists of specifically how the issue(s) should be addressed. Panelists shouldn’t have to prompt the candidate to explore a broader approach in their answer or ask “Is there anything else you might do?” Whether the question is about deadly force, vehicle pursuit, emergency situations, motivation techniques, or leadership styles, explain to the panel not only how or what you would do, but also thoroughly cover any far reaching organization issues.

If you do, you’ll be the one wearing stripes, bars, or stars—not your competition!

Be safe out there!
—Larry the Jet

Career expert teaches how to prepare for and excel on police promotion examinations.