It's not what you say it's the way that you say it ... Jobcentre Plus interviewers in the spotlight

Anyone claiming out-of-work benefits in the UK will, at some point, find themselves attending an interview with a personal adviser in a Jobcentre Plus office. How well that conversation goes is vital.


The way topics such as training opportunities, job searching and the benefit sanctions regime are introduced and talked about can have a direct bearing on motivation and decisions about next steps.

Researchers at York had a unique opportunity to study over 200 Jobcentre plus interviews, which were captured on video for the first time. They examined not only what was said, but also how it was said, resulting in detailed findings about the consequences of how advisers handled the interviews.


“Until our study, precisely what goes on in Jobcentre Plus interviews was uncharted territory, so adviser training has lacked an evidence-base. Working with real-time video data has given us an unprecedented level of direct insight into the techniques used by advisers that were most effective in helping claimants progress towards training or work”, said Dr Merran Toerien, an expert in conversation analysis from the Department of Sociology at York.

This innovative project drew on the Department of Sociology’s expertise in applied conversation analysis, combined with extensive knowledge of welfare policy and research developed in the University’s Social Policy Research Unit.

The two-year research project was commissioned by the UK Government’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its findings have gone on to shape training policies and procedures within DWP and Jobcentre Plus.

The research team studied conversations with claimants in different age groups and different circumstances, including lone parents and people claiming benefits related to ill health or disability. Because they had access to real Jobcentre Plus interviews, the researchers were able to provide guidance for advisers that went well beyond standard communications advice, such as ‘ask open questions’.

Subtle changes

“In many cases, the changes we recommended were quite subtle, but our research showed they can make a real difference by opening up, rather than closing down discussions - and that’s important for the Government’s goal of boosting training and employment options,” said Professor Roy Sainsbury of the Social Policy Research Unit.

For example, when advisers asked lone parents about their work-related plans, they typically asked ‘are you looking for work at the moment’. But sometimes they asked if they would be ‘looking for work in the future’. Both are in fact closed questions. Yet the team showed that the second form of words was more effective in opening up the discussion.

Through this form of detailed, comparative analysis, they showed that advisers were most effective when they were ‘collaborative, directive, proactive, positive and challenging’ in their discussions with claimants.

After the completion of the project the researchers ran a two-day workshop at York, where they trained a team of Jobcentre staff in the new techniques. They also presented their findings at conferences and seminars for DWP and Jobcentre Plus staff.

Professor Sainsbury said: “This project not only achieved real impact, demonstrating improved ways of helping unemployed people into work, but also showed the value of a University of York interdisciplinary team coming together to combine strengths in innovative social research methods and in-depth policy knowledge.” 

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In many cases, the changes we recommended were quite subtle, but our research showed they can make a real difference by opening up, rather than closing down discussions.”

Professor Roy Sainsbury
Social Policy Research Unit
Featured researcher
Professor Roy Sainsbury

Professor Roy Sainsbury

Director of SPRU he also leads the research group working on projects related to social security, employment and welfare.

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Featured researcher
Dr Merran Toerien

Dr Merran Toerien

An expert in conversation analysis.

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