In new batch of federal hiring advice, OPM urges agencies to review how they assess job candidates

Chief human capital officers probably have enough pages of federal hiring advice from the Office of Personnel Management at this point to paper the walls — and ceiling — of their offices.

OPM on Friday added more guidance to the pile. The new recommendations, which Margaret Weichert described in perhaps one of her last policy directives as acting OPM director, may look familiar to chief human capital officers.

The new guidance doesn’t describe a complete overhaul to the federal hiring process, but it does, like past OPM policy directives on this topic, encourage agencies to stretch within the bounds of the current procedures and find creative ways to better screen job candidates.

Specifically, OPM wants agencies to review all the existing ways they assess candidates for a federal jobs, find new ways — other than having applicants self-certify — to evaluate qualifications, and involve subject matter experts early on in the process of reviewing resumes and skills.

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“OPM’s employee services and merit systems accountability and compliance divisions and OMB are collaborating with agencies to examine broader reforms to the hiring process,” Weichert said. “This guidance offers currently available options that agencies can use immediately to improve outcomes in federal hiring.”

The guidance, for example, instructs agencies to step up their game in measuring and ensuring candidates meet minimum qualification requirements for a particular job.

“Screening an applicant for minimum qualifications is not the same as assessing applicants against the competencies and proficiency levels necessary to perform the job,” the OPM guidance reads.

OPM is also encouraging agencies to cut back on the use of self-rated questionnaires to assess a candidates’ skills and abilities. Roughly 20 percent of hiring managers who took a 2015 OPM survey rated self questionnaires and assessment tools to measure candidates’ proficiency as “poor.”

“Given the possible response distortion or applicant inflation when using self-rated occupational questionnaires, it is difficult to use this assessment tool solely to determine who can actually perform the duties of the position, or, further, to make meaningful distinctions among candidates.”

OPM goes on to describe a promising practice from the agency’s USA Hire program, which deploys certain assessments to measure a candidate’s competencies that are needed for the job. Agencies should consider adding a “cut score” to their job announcements, OPM said.

The idea is that only the applicants who score at specific proficiency level will get referred to an agency hiring manager.

In addition, OPM also urged agencies to involve subject matter experts in determining whether applicants are initially qualified.

“Subject matter experts and HR can partner to identify and refer only the applicants demonstrating the required competencies and proficiency levels, screening out the candidates who do not possess them,” the guidance reads.

This recommendation was a signature part of OPM’s Hiring Excellence campaign, which the agency launched back in 2016 in an effort to better educate human resources specialists about existing flexibilities and tools.

This time though, OPM has a few relatively new but tested pilot programs to better illustrate how exactly agencies might approach these recommendations.

OPM and the U.S. Digital Service, for example, launched a pilot to bring subject matter experts earlier into the process to help rank and place the most qualified applicants on a selection certificate.

The departments of Health and Human Services, and Interior were the first agencies to use the pilot, called the Technical Subject Matter Expert Hurdled Assessment. Subject matter experts at HHS and Interior used the assessment to review resumes and conduct initial interviews before applying veterans preference and setting qualification for certain technical positions at GS-12 or above.

OPM said it will issue more guidance on the subject matter expert assessment, but agencies are free to use it now.

It’s no secret agencies, and the federal community in general, have been frustrated with the hiring process over the years. Just 42% of respondents on last year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey said their work units could hire the right people with the right skills.

Hiring top talent was one of the most common challenges that came up during OPM’s human capital strategic review meetings with agencies this year, Weichert said.

Shortening the hiring process is one of several initiatives outlined in the President’s Management Agenda.

According to a June update on Performance.gov, agencies have in fact cut down on their time-to-hire. Average time-to-hire clocked in a 98.2 days in fiscal 2018, compared with 106 days in 2017.

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