The Truth About the Hiring Process

The truth is most people who apply for a job are not going to be selected.

Two weeks ago I wrote about MSPB’s report on hiring practices. MSPB was concerned that expanded use of special hiring authorities may be adversely effecting opportunities for women and minorities. I encourage anyone who is interested in the Merit System to take a look at the MSPB report. Like all of their studies, it is thoughtful and interesting. I do not always agree with their conclusions, but their research is excellent.

Since the post two weeks ago, I have gotten some questions from people asking about the hiring process.  Is it really a “Merit System?” Do managers know who they want most of the time? Do they and HR rig the process? If not, why do so many people think the process is always rigged? Is it worth it to even apply for a job given the earlier questions? Is there a way to fix it?

I no longer work for the Federal government, so I decided to offer my candid views on those questions, based on 33 years of experience in Federal HR, most of which was in staffing.

Is there really a Merit System? Yes, but Merit is like beauty – it is in the eye of the beholder. When a manager and HR specialist work to fill a job, it is almost always with the intent of finding the best person for the job. But what is the “best?” My priorities and yours may be different, so we might have strongly differing views on what constitutes the best. People disagree on politics, religion, what food tastes good, and just about anything else you can imagine. Why are we surprised when they disagree about who is best qualified for a job. But – there are times when it is apparent to HR that the manager has someone in mind whose qualifications are not readily apparent, but to the hiring manager that person meets his or her requirements for the job. Yes – sometimes that means they are hiring a friend, or colleague, or even someone they have a personal intimate relationship with. Those situations are nowhere near the majority of jobs, but pretending they don’t happen is foolish. They do. And HR cannot always know they are happening. How many people really believe a manager is going to go to HR and say “Hey, can you help me hire this person I’m having an affair with?” The unethical manager in a case like that is not going to advertise it. I have intervened to stop actions like that, and I know a lot of HR folks who have done the same. But they cannot catch all of them and, even when they do, they may not get support from higher-ups in the agency when they try to stop it. Luckily those situations are so few that they do not corrupt the overall Merit System.

Do managers know who they want? Is preselection real? Many times, yes. It is not uncommon for a hiring manager to have a candidate in mind, particularly when the job is being filled through the Merit Promotion Program. In Merit Promotion, they are mostly looking at the people in the organization and making a call based upon their observations of performance. Some folks see that and say it is unfair, but most people also believe organizations should promote from within when they can. So – if the hiring manager wants to promote from within, is s/he corrupting the Merit System? Or is s/he doing a good thing by promoting from within? Keep in mind that when a manager is promoting someone in the organization, s/he knows what they are getting – good and bad. The hiring manager does not have that kind of balanced picture of outside applicants. Those folks are evaluated based on what they say in a resume that may be full of puffery. The hiring manager has no idea what the applicants weaknesses might be, because the applicant does not write about them and does not talk about them in an interview. That leaves the manager with an incomplete view of one applicant (the outsider) and a reasonably complete view of the insider. Combine that doubt with the interest in promoting from within, and it is easy to see why managers make some of the hiring decisions that tilt to inside applicants.  My experience was that the numbers were very different for competitive examining, where managers sometimes knew who they wanted, but to a far lesser degree than for Merit Promotion. Knowing who you might like to promote is not a prohibited personnel practice, but rigging the system to get who you want is.

Do managers rig the system to get who they want? Sometimes, yes. But what constitutes rigging the system? There are many shades of gray in the answer. Let’s say a manager wants someone with a particular type of experience and explains to HR why that is needed (based on the job description). Then we find out the manager’s desired candidate has that experience and most other applicants do not. Is that rigging? Or is it a legitimate requirement based on the duties in the job description? The problem is that it is often hard to know. If the requirement is in the job description, then it might be a case of the manager using the system to get what s/he wants, but it is most likely legal. After all, the manager is using a requirement from an approved job description. Where the problem occurs is when the manager amends the job description to add a requirement that only the preferred candidate is likely to have. I have seen cases where that type of change was made at the same time the job is being advertised. I have also seen cases where HR worked with the manager to do it. Everyone involved in most of those cases could rationalize why it was OK, but some could not. So yes, there are cases where managers rig the system to get who they want. It is a prohibited personnel practice, but it happens. How often? In my experience, managers trying to rig the system were not common, but they were not rare either. The problem is that HR suspecting something is amiss and HR being able to prove it are two very different things.

Why do so many people think the process is always rigged? That is the easiest question of all. Studies show that most people rate themselves in the top 20% of performers. Obviously not everyone can be in the top 20%. The typical job announcement fills one job. It may have 50 or a hundred or even a thousand applicants. If one of those “top 20%” folks applies and does not get selected, it is easy to blame it on a rigged system. The truth is most people who apply for a job are not going to be selected. There are too many applicants and too few jobs for that to happen. So – people are not selected and rather than admitting they may not have been the best candidate, they blame the system, the hiring manager, or HR. That does not make it true, and even if agencies ran a 100% clean process every time, a lot of people would still argue that the system was rigged because the best candidate (i.e., them) was not selected. If you are a Federal employee, you were almost certainly selected for a job at least once (and probably more) where other applicants thought the job was rigged for you. Was it?

Is it worth it to apply? Absolutely. Even with dramatically lower Federal hiring in 2014, agencies hired almost 138,000 new employees. Even if a small percentage of the jobs were rigged, over 100,000 people got hired competitively. My own experience is a good example – when I was selected for my first Personnel Officer job (a GS-14) in DLA, I knew no one in DLA and had zero connections. I just saw a vacancy announcement and applied. I was also selected the same way for my first GS-15 job in GSA and my first SES job at Commerce – agencies where I was an outsider and had no connections. The system may not be squeaky clean all the time, but a lot of people compete – fair and square – and get selected.

Can it be fixed? Yes, and my next post will cover my recommendations for bring more transparency and integrity to the hiring process.



Surprising Results From the Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study

A 8:30 this morning, the National Academy of Public Administration and ICF released the results of the Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study. It is the inaugural study designed to determine the viewpoints and perspectives of Federal government leaders about the pace with which the government is adopting, applying, and leveraging digital technology. I served as a member of the Panel that conducted the study in my role as a NAPA Fellow and as an executive at ICF.

The survey, crafted by a panel of 5 NAPA Fellows, asked about 50 questions regarding the government’s use of digital technology. We had 13 Findings and 14 Recommendations, with 3 major findings that give a broad overview of how Federal leaders view digital technology, including the results they have achieved, how employees are adapting, and how easy (or not) it is for the government to acquire needed technology.

Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study Results Infographic

I have to admit I was surprised by two of the Findings. First, the Luddites lost. Ninety-three percent of respondents believe digital technology has improved their productivity and that of their staff and they believe the technology helps them meet mission requirements more effectively. I can still remember working for managers who bragged that they did not have a computer on their desk. Some of those same people still resent the fact that Federal workers can use compressed work schedules or work from home. Despite their best efforts to resist change, the government has embraced digital technology and wants more of it. The second surprise was the degree to which younger and older respondents shared that view. There is clearly widespread support for digital technology across all demographics.

In addition to the surprising Findings, there were some that I expected but was still disappointed to see. First, there are very mixed opinions about the impact of technology on work/life balance. Just over 37% believe it has helped their work/life balance, while 35% believe it has harmed their work/life balance. The finding is disappointing because the impact of technology on work/life balance is controllable by agencies. The 35% said work was intruding into their lives in inappropriate ways, with managers expecting them to be available at night, on weekends and even when they were on vacation. In effect, they felt tethered to work with no ability to have downtime. The 37% who found improvement said technology had made it possible to telework, gave them more time with their families, and made it possible to be available for work in ways that could keep problems from expanding into crises. The “always on duty” perception is one agencies can deal with effectively through policy and practice. While it was disappointing to see more than a third of employees having a negative impact on their work/life balance, it is good to know that agencies can deal with the problem effectively without spending a lot of money they do not have.

Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study Results Infographic 2

Opinions on government’s ability to keep up with the pace of technological change were mixed. More than half (52%) believe they are not keeping up. Only 36% believe employees are adequately trained to use new technology, and 79% believe their processes for acquiring technology are not sufficient to meet their needs.

We (the panel) believe strongly that much can be done to improve government’s ability to acquire and use technology effectively. Training is an obvious area for improvement. Agencies cannot get the return on their technology investments when workers are not fully trained in use of the systems. Any technology acquisition should include adequate training for employees prior to implementation and follow up training as needed to keep skills current.

Acquisition is another area where agencies have the ability to make changes now. None of the panel’s 14 recommendations require the Congress to act or ask for a rewrite of the Federal Acquisition Regulations. The panel said “Agencies should adopt best practices that have been shown to improve technology acquisition. Some agencies have shown they can get good results, without substantial revisions to the FAR and DFAR, by streamlining their processes, ensuring requirements are thoroughly defined and communicated, producing statements of work that take into account latest technological advances and that industry can understand, and improving communications between requirement owners, offerors and other stakeholders.” By making internal improvements that do not require other parties to act, agencies can begin to get a return quickly.

All of the panel’s Findings and Recommendations are available in the full report, available here.

When is Fair and Open Not Fair?

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) released a new study on January 6 on the “Impact of Recruitment Strategy on Fair and Open Competition for Federal Jobs.” Like most MSPB studies, this one is thorough, well-written and worth reading. It addresses a subject of interest to most Federal employees – the Merit System – and how agency recruiting decisions affect the fairness and openness of the competitive process. MSPB concluded that agencies are making greater use of hiring authorities other than the “competitive” hiring process and that doing so has an effect on the number of women and minorities agencies hire. MSPB identified 5 factors it believes “threaten the principle of fair and open competition.”

  • Proliferation of hiring authorities that restrict the size and composition of the applicant pool;
  • Overuse of restrictive hiring authorities and practices that, among other problems, may lead to a workforce that is not representative of society;
  • The possibility that some managers may deliberately or undeliberately misuse hiring flexibilities to select particular candidates, thereby impeding fair and open competition;
  • Some HR managers and staff choosing to place customer service to individual supervisors over service to the agency and its obligations to protect merit and avoid PPPs; and
  • A lack of training for supervisors and managers on the MSPs and PPPs.

They also made a number of recommendations which are summarized below:

Recommendations for agencies:

  1. Create a culture that values fair and open competition.
  2. Examine the results of agency hiring practices in the aggregate to identify and eliminate (or reduce to the greatest extent feasible) barriers to fair and open competition
  3. Prevent the commission of prohibited personnel practices.
  4. Ensure that all managers, supervisors, and human resources’ staff are well-trained and well-versed in the MSPs and PPPs. This training should cover what each MSP and PPP is and why each one is vital to a merit-based workforce.

Recommendations for Human Resources:

  1. Advise managers and supervisors on recruitment matters including the ramifica- tions of repeated use of restrictive hiring practices as well as their joint obligation to avoid the commission of prohibited personnel pratices.
  2. Ensure that human resources supervisors and managers support their employees in refusing to commit prohibited personnel practices.

Recommendations for The Office of Personnel Management:

  1. Closely monitor how agencies use restrictive hiring authorities.

Recommendations for Congress:

  1. Reexamine the role of competitive examining in Federal hiring, and consider changes to make the process simpler, more transparent, and more widely used.

Multiple Hurdle Approach

They also reiterated their longstanding recommendation that agencies adopt a multiple hurdle approach to assessing applicants. The steps in such an approach are:

  • Evaluate minimum qualifications
  • Evaluate relative qualifications
  • Select the best-qualified candidates
  • Final assessment

I believe the most important recommendation MSPB makes is the use of multiple hurdles and their guidance that “All assessments used in this approach should be developed and administered carefully.” The simple fact is that most assessment processes are not developed and administered carefully. Agency HR operations have been faced with the double whammy of reduced staffing and demands that they fill jobs faster. That means quality can suffer. Over worked HR staff who are told to fill every job quickly often resort to reusing existing assessment questionnaires even when they are not very good. They also do not have the time to use a more thoughtful multiple hurdle approach because they will be criticized for taking too long to fill the jobs.

When the President announced his hiring reform plans and eliminated KSA essays from the initial screening process, it was very clear that they were to be eliminated from the initial screening. Agencies have the ability to use additional input from candidates who pass an initial screening. That means an agency could use a process where they go back to candidates who pass the initial qualifications and quality process and ask for more information or use a professionally developed assessment tool or test.

Years ago I was one of the people pushing to fill jobs faster. We were taking so long to get to final hiring decisions that we were losing candidates. I still believe a responsive hiring process is essential. But it has to be a good hiring process too. The solution to responsive hiring is not cramming jobs through the process as fast as possible – it is having effective workforce planning processes that give HR a better idea of what is coming so they are not always being reactive. It is also focusing on quality of hires as much or more than we focus on time to hire. Good planning and use of a multiple hurdle approach can dramatically improve the hiring process.


Can Government Keep Up With the Private Sector in Digital Technology?

Technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that it has changed the way we communicate, manage data, buy goods, share news, interact personally and collaborate professionally. Technology we never imagined a few years ago is everywhere around us. As advanced as today’s technology is, it will become dated and obsolete in just a few years. The private sector, driven by the need to be profitable and to survive in a highly competitive world, is rapidly adopting digital technology as a means of reducing costs, improving efficiency and delivering a better customer experience.

Do the unique challenges of government make it difficult or impossible for government to keep up? These are questions that led the National Academy of Public Administration to survey government leaders to get their views on government’s adoption of digital technology. I participated in the survey as a NAPA Fellow and my employer, ICF International, partnered with NAPA on the survey and resulting report.

As is NAPA’s custom, they formed a Panel of Fellows to conduct the Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study. In addition to me, Panel members were:

  • Dan Chenok (Panel chair) – Executive Director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government and former Branch Chief for Information Policy and Technology with the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Governor Parris N. Glendening – President of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute and former Governor of Maryland
  • Bev Godwin – Former Director, Federal Citizen Information Center, General Services Administration
  • Sally Selden, PhD, SPHR – Professor of Management and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Lynchburg College

The Panel has completed the study and will be releasing the results on Tuesday, January 13, 2015 at 8:00AM at the University Club of the City of Washington (1135 Sixteenth Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.).  Please join us for a discussion of the Federal Leaders’ Digital Insights Study, featuring keynote speaker Beth Cobert, Deputy Director of Management at the Office of Management and Budget, and an opportunity to engage with NAPA Fellows.

Click here to register to attend.

SES Reform: Some Facts

I read an interesting article on Federal News Radio where former Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue slammed OPM for how it administers Senior Executive Service hiring. Mr. Astrue took several shots at the Office of Personnel Management that I believe are unfair. OPM has its critics (and I have been among them), but fair is fair. When we criticize OPM or any other federal agency, we should stick to facts.

In the article, Mr. Astrue says “It makes it much more difficult to get outstanding talent from the outside, and I lost a couple of really terrific people that way. And it also means that they [OPM] under-value skill sets that are important. And it’s particularly true for information technology.” He continued to say “And yet, OPM doesn’t recognize that, and it’s not any coincidence that they can’t run their own IT systems. If you’re filing for retirement as a civil servant — as I am, I’m filing for retirement now, I’m going through the process — it’s horrible. You can’t file electronically, the system’s a mess. Often it takes six months to 12 months to have it happen. Sometimes longer, I’ve heard those horror stories. And it comes in part because it’s an agency that doesn’t value expertise in information technology.”

He continues to say “You’d try and talk to them and they’d say, ‘Well, this person hasn’t managed 50 people,’ or something like that. And we’d say it’s an IT person, it’s a lawyer coming out of one of the very best law firms in Washington. They typically don’t get those types of experiences, that’s not the way their worlds are. But they’re outstanding because they have this accomplishment, this accomplishment and this accomplishment, and these are needs that the agency has. And they basically said, ‘We don’t care.'” “There should be a timeline for OPM decisions. And if they can’t make a timeline, make a decision within 30 days or 45 days or by default the agency decision should stand,” Astrue said. “They need to write guidelines — because if things aren’t down on paper, they’re not going to check the box at OPM — that stresses to a greater degree than now that the importance of accomplishment and expertise. Federal government runs with an outstanding civil service that should be politically neutral, and when OPM allows the process to become political, it really does diminish the excellence of the civil service, and it discourages people from applying and from staying,” he said. “I know from my experience that’s a real issue that increasing in severity and it’s something that this administration is not paying attention to.”

No. No. No.

First, the screening process for SES positions is administered by OPM, but OPM uses Qualifications Review Boards comprising SES members from agencies other than OPM. The system was designed to keep agencies from hiring people for SES positions who are not qualified, and to protect the competitive SES from being loaded with political hires. It is part of the checks and balances government requires to avoid the Civil Service reverting to a spoils system. QRBs make the call on qualifications and when they reject a selectee it is usually because they do not have experience that satisfies the Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs). There is nothing in the ECQs that is unusual or overly burdensome. Expecting someone to have experience as a manager before becoming a Senior executive is not excessive. The government has positions that are suitable for people with no management experience – they are called Senior Level (SL) or Senior Technical/Professional (ST). Agencies can also use political appointments to reach people who cannot go through a competitive process successfully. The career Senior Executive Service is not a place for people who have never managed anything.

Second, retirement applications do not typically take 6 to 12 months for approval. The process is certainly not as efficient as anyone (including OPM) would like, but there are a lot of reasons for that. Chief among them is the lack of consistency in agency HR record-keeping systems and the fact that many records that are required to process a retirement claim are not automated themselves. Even if OPM had a modern retirement processing system, it would still have to deal with agency systems and paper records.

Finally, OPM’s SES program team certainly does care about the SES and the ability of the federal government to recruit and retain good executives. I know those folks (they are career employees) and have complete confidence in their ability and integrity. They are not rejecting applicants for SES positions for political reasons. In more than 30 years in government I have seen people hired into career SES positions where I thought they were hired because of their connections. I have never seen an OPM QRB reject someone for those reasons. In fact, the most notable case I saw when I was in government was where the political leaders of the agency wanted to hire someone who was not qualified for a career SES job. An OPM QRB rejected the applicant because he was not qualified. They did their job and the system worked as designed.

Could OPM be made better? Yes, but we can discuss reforms while relying on facts and not impugning the integrity of the career workforce at OPM.


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