Why we all hate the idea of an inbox and how to turn the experience around

What is an inbox and what is it for?

The exercise can be called an inbox, in-tray or in basket, and it’s used to test candidates on how well they would handle a real inbox of real work in the role they are applying for.

So for instance, if you were a Watch Manager you would receive certain emails in relation to your post. you would have to deal with these emails, not just in terms of sending a reply but also considering what further actions you’d need to take based on the information you’d been given.

An inbox or in basket exercise is a fictitious sample of the types of messages/ task you would expect to get as a watch manager, group manager or firefighter, whatever the role is you are applying for.

The reason the exercise is more usually called an inbox now is because your messages will probably come in email form; in the past you’d expect to get more tasks and memos etc. in paper form which would physically sit in an in-tray on your desk.

Why are they used?

If you can handle a fictitious inbox, dealing appropriately with queries/ requests and outlining the next steps and wider considerations related to each item you deal with, then the theory is that you will be able to do it well in the actual job. So it’s used to predict your future performance, in a standardised setting. This means all applicants have to do the same tasks in the same context so it’s fair to everyone.

What makes them difficult?

  • There is usually a lot of information to take on board in a short space of time.
  • There can be some confusion about what it expected of you. You don’t know how to respond, even if the email itself seem quite straightforward.
  • Candidates can get muddled about where the PQAs fit in. It adds an extra burden to have to think about, when time to do the exercise is short as it is.
  • It can be difficult to shift up a gear and think about what you would do if you were at a higher level of responsibility than where you currently are.

How to turn it around

If you struggle with your handwriting (more common than you’d think!) or haven’t held a pen for a decade then request to use a laptop. If you type faster than you write, it makes sense.

Read the tasks and any supporting information through once, then again, highlighting or making notes of points which seem relevant to you.

With every response you write, think about:

  • Who else might this affect? What do I need to do about them?
  • Do I need to get others on board? How can I do that?
  • Have I provided a solution or recommendation, if asked for one (or just waffled around the problem with no definite suggestion to fix it)
  • Have I suggested a way to move the issue forward? Or have I left it to someone else to action?
  • Do I need to consider any ‘political factors’ e.g. stakeholders, wider agendas, reputation or objectives (don’t worry about this unless you are a watch manager or above).

If you’re not sure how you would do in an inbox exercise, you can find all the information you need (and practical examples!) in our Supervisory Manager Assessment eBook  

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FRS Team

Our team of experts have the many years of Fire Service experience and are up to date with the latest selection news.

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