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.



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.