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.


One thought on “When is Fair and Open Not Fair?

  1. If only having a merit-based hiring process was really the objective…although it should be. You know, design a process that evaluates all applicants for their qualifications and suitability for the task at hand, and hire those who come out best. Instead, we have varions programs and policies intended to promote the hiring of people with particular characteristics that view those pesky qualification thingys as “barriers” to equal hiring opportunities. (Look no further than the FAA’s current attempt to allow anyone with pulse and respiration to apply to be an air traffic controller, because requiring training and experience was keeping those without any from applying.) I would love to think that we we trying to hire the best and the brightest, but it simply isn’t so. Or at least not the primary objective…


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