This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
Let’s see a show of hands. Who thinks the federal hiring process works well? Who thinks it is designed to always get the best person for the job? Who thinks any successful company would choose its talent the way the government does?
When I ask those questions to groups of federal employees or job applicants, it is rare to see any hands go up. I honestly do not know anyone who says federal hiring practices are well-designed or operate smoothly. They are unnecessarily complicated, time-consuming, lack transparency, and serve as a barrier to recruiting and advancing talented people. The fact that so many good people make it through the process is more a testament to the intelligence and persistence of the people who were hired rather than the design of the process.
So why is the federal hiring process so bad? And what would it take to make it work? Like many questions in Washington, this one has multiple layers. There are aspects of the hiring process that are grounded upon good intentions, and aspects of it that are based upon the idea that people cannot be trusted. Some parts of the hiring process work, others do not. Much of the process is designed to defend the process itself.
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The basic merit system principles are sound. If all we had were those principles, the system would probably work far better than it does today. It is a big subject that I cannot cover in one blog post, so I am splitting into two. The first outlines the problems with the hiring process. The second will address what I believe are starting points for the solutions.
If the applicant selects answer A, he or she is qualified. What is supposed to happen next is that HR should review the application to verify that the applicant actually has the experience. In many agencies that simply does not happen. The same applies to the remaining questions that are supposed to determine who is well-qualified. So what happens is that hiring managers get lists of people who are not only not well qualified — they may not be qualified at all.
Federal hiring practices are a monument to excessive process. They are far too complex, and that complexity undermines the system. If you do not think the process is too complicated, take a look at the OPM Delegated Examining Operations Handbook. All 351 pages of it. The book is a good product that describes the process very well. The problem is not the book or the people who wrote it, but rather the processes it describes. Combine that complexity with the lack of investment in developing HR staff, and hiring managers who are not fully engaged in the hiring process, and you have a formula for a mess.
I know there may be many more problems that need to be addressed, but failing to deal with these problems will make it unlikely that “fixes” to the hiring process will actually fix anything. We have tried tweaking the system here and there for decades. Every time, we have added more complexity and created a bizarre contraption that virtually no one likes or trusts. It is time to throw the process out and rebuild a far less complex system based on the merit system principles.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.