The truth about the federal hiring process

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author. Two weeks ago I wrote about the Merit Systems Protection Board’s report on hiring practices. MSPB was concerned that expanded use of special hiring authorities may be adversely affecting 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.

Jeff Neal
Jeff Neal, senior vice president of ICF International.
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 with which they have a personal intimate relationship. 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 percent of performers. Obviously, not everyone can be in the top 20 percent. The typical job announcement fills one job. It may have 50 or 100 or even 1,000 applicants. If one of those “top 20 percent” 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 percent 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 bringing more transparency and integrity to the hiring process.


Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.


MORE COMMENTARY FROM JEFF NEAL: When is fair and open not fair? Can government keep up with the private sector in digital technology? SES reform: Some facts

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