Weakest link in federal hiring is at the start

In federal hiring, officials always have to strike a balance: fill the job as quickly as possible, while looking for the right candidate from as big a pool of a...

By Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

With recommendations to reform the federal hiring process expected by Nov. 1, the Office of Personnel Management needs to pay close attention to the assessment part of bringing workers on board.

In its latest report, the Partnership for Public Service found the assessment process is the weakest link in the agencies entire approach to hiring because too many times the best candidates get lost in lengthy evaluations.

“The unique federal hiring principles clearly affect the applicant review process, and the sheer volume of applications makes it difficult to identify qualified candidates and predict job performance,” the report states. “To be clear, evaluating candidates for federal jobs is a difficult task. But there are also numerous other barriers ranging from the lack of collaboration among key players in the hiring process to shortage of expertise and resources that require attention if the assessment of candidates for federal employment is to be meaningful.”

In 2009, agencies reviewed 13.5 million applicants and hired 159,000 of them, the report found.

At the top of the findings in the report is the need for all the parties in the hiring process to do a better job of working together.

“Agencies and OPM can do a better job of working together. What we’re seeing right now, is that we’re in a period of transition, before Nov. 1, where we’ve got new policies coming into place. Agencies are really asking OPM for more guidance around implementation,” said the Partnership’s Joshua Joseph, part of the team that worked with PDRI, a research and consulting team specializing in industrial and organizational psychology, on “The Weakest Link: How Strengthening Assessment Leads to Better Federal Hiring.”

Joseph also suggests that agency HR specialists and hiring managers might participate in joint training in hiring practices sponsored by OPM.

Several agency human resource managers say improvements will come from changing expectations.

Christine Majors, the director of human resources at the National Institutes of Health, said forthcoming OPM hiring reforms including possible improvements to assessments can go a long way to changing perceptions about federal hiring.

“Really, it’s the first opportunity that applicants have to see what the public sector and the government is all about, and we really want to make sure that we use the hiring reform to give a good impression of the government and to really make things work for the people in the public,” she said. “So, they can see where their application is during this period of time, they get feedback, and that they are properly assessed.”

Brian Costlow, the director of administration and a hiring manager at the Department of Energy, said his goal is to hire the best person possible, and to get that he needs HR folks in tune with his needs. He said human resource offices need to remember that they are in the customer service business and he, and other hiring managers, are their major customers.

“Get to know your customer,” Costlow said. “I run a very large organization, I have very specialized needs, I need engineers, I need project managers, and I need industrial hygienists. The better our staffing people in the HR organization know our needs, the better they’re going to be able to serve us.”

As part of the assessment process, Costlow also said HR specialists and hiring managers develop a list of common expectations outlining how long it should take to post a vacancy announcement, and other mutually agreed upon ways to determine the status of a hire.

Elizabeth Kolmstetter, deputy chief human capital officer in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said any reform of the assessment process has to shift the paradigm of employment for life that is a common theme in the federal hiring process.

“If we don’t set that expectation up front through the hiring process, which is , there’s more to do, there’s a probationary period, there’s a year-long look at you and your skills and your match to the occupation you’re doing, we’ve got to change that match, because it’s not out there today,” she said. “I wish OPM would take that seriously, and as part of their hiring reform, elongate the (employee) selection and the evaluation of the probationary period.”

This is third report on workforce issues from the Partnership since June. It issued one about the cybersecurity workforce earlier this summer, and another on its latest CHCO survey just last week.

So for this report, Joseph said the Partnership went beyond “the usual suspects.”

“(We talked to) hiring managers, industrial/organizational psychologists, veteran and labor groups, lots of folks from OPM, past and present, current and former executives, and even tapping into some data we collected from the applicant point of view,” he said.

Joseph said the goal is to take advantage of the perfect “aligning of the planets” for a hard look at assessments.

He added the economic downturn means more people are looking for work in both the public and private sector than ever. That means agencies are processing even more job applications than ever.

Following the release of the report, the Partnership held closed workshop discussions with federal HR managers, and representatives from OPM on ways to implement the report’s recommendations.

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