Insight by Monster Government Solutions

How federal agencies can best integrate competency-based assessments into hiring practices

Federal agencies have consistently struggled over the years to hire and retain qualified candidates. But the federal hiring process is also notoriously lengthy,...

Federal agencies typically struggle to hire and retain qualified candidates. Part of it is the stiff competition from the private sector, which often has the advantages of higher pay and cutting-edge technology to entice applicants. But the federal hiring process is also notoriously lengthy, opaque and subjective, which can prevent highly qualified applicants from pursuing a job, let alone getting selected for a vacancy.

That last issue is what the June 2020 Executive Order on Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates seeks to resolve. The EO directs agencies to rely less on college degrees, and more on skills and competency-based hiring assessments. The Office of Personnel Management has extended the deadline for complying with this EO twice. Current guidance states that the EO must be implemented for at least 50 percent of jobs by May 30, 2022. Full compliance is expected by the end of the year.

But implementing hiring assessments for the sake of federal compliance shouldn’t just be a check off the list. “Agencies have an opportunity to realize the true potential and power of better assessing candidates for the nation’s largest workforce – and for some of the most mission-critical jobs,” said Shannon Kobus, manager of Industrial/Organization Psychology Services at Monster Government Solutions.

Get clear on hiring goals and assessment strategy

Agencies should always start with their hiring goals. Is your agency trying to hire for a very specific, technical job set, like an airplane mechanic? Or is your agency trying to entice a younger generation of applicants? The former might require a technical job-knowledge assessment. The latter may be better served with assessments evaluating non-technical problem solving and communication skills. These would help identify candidates who are better positioned to take an entry-level position within the agency and grow into a career.

But before agencies dive into their assessment strategy, they must understand their current state. Some agencies may already rely on sophisticated hiring assessments, whereas others may not use any. Some may be simple to develop and introduce – like structured interviews – and others may be more complex, like work sample tests. Large-scale applicant assessment technology exists to facilitate batch hiring or help narrow down the applicant pool.

These new skills or competency-based assessments would ideally be more objective and better supported than the previous “self-reporting” method, where candidates often over-estimated their own skills in a particular field.

“Agencies should be adding types of assessments that are objectively scored, like Situational Judgment tests, and built by experts in hiring assessments,” shared Kobus. “I/O psychologists can ensure these assessments are job-related and follow rigorous scientific methodologies to ensure they’re validated and reliable.”

But there’s a potential transparency issue here. Federal job applicants may be so used to the self-report method that when they see an objective questionnaire, they can have a hard time understanding its job relevancy.

Lead the culture change

“Using a job analysis linked to critical competencies in the assessment is a required step, but not always visible or intuitive to justify the assessment use to applicants,” said Kobus. “If agencies communicate to applicants why these new measures are important and how the scores are used, they can influence an applicant’s perception of fairness and motivation to perform.”

“This also requires a culture shift around assessment use among employees internal to the agency. Hiring managers are encouraged to understand why these assessments matter and execute them correctly in collaboration with HR for the best potential of getting the right people in the right jobs,” Kobus said.

“If an agency is new to this, it can start small, like implementing non-technical evaluations for a limited number of positions or departments. Then increase complexity, integrate multiple assessments, and get more specific over time,” Kobus suggested. “Small wins snowball into full-scale culture change, and that’s when agencies can begin to integrate more specialized assessments. This gradual build will also give agencies room to socialize these new practices with candidates and manage the change smoothly before launching a full-agency implementation.”

Keep an eye on the big picture

Understanding how assessments fit into the entire workforce ecosystem and what external factors play a role is key to the success of these programs, Kobus stated. For example, an auto manufacturer started using more objective measures to hire more high-quality workers. It went well for a while, but over time, the auto manufacturer felt like it was getting fewer quality applicants, even though the assessments hadn’t changed.

“It turned out they had already hired all the best candidates. The applicant pool was tapped,” Kobus said. “So to get the same hiring rate and quality of applicants, the solution was to expand their recruiting efforts. It’s not always the test, but sometimes other factors that impact the hiring process.”

And even when your agency’s new assessment-based hiring is in full swing, it’s wise to monitor and evaluate the program with a continuous improvement mindset. Are you meeting your hiring goals? What roadblocks have you encountered that you didn’t anticipate? This is where HR can really hone in on optimizing the program to drive results.

“Implementing hiring assessments can be so different for each agency and can produce varying results depending on your hiring goals, which is why it’s so important that agencies take the time to determine the right strategy tailored to their specific needs and be ready to adapt to the changes,” Kobus concluded.

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