What it would take to create real hiring reform

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

This post is the third and final in a series of three posts on hiring reform. My March 28 post outlined what I believe are the six most critical problems with federal hiring. The April 12 post addressed solutions to the first three problems. Today I am covering the remaining issues, as well as what it would take to implement these recommendations.

Hiring Manager Engagement

The problem: As HR began to use automation and recycled applicant questionnaires, and based those on generic job descriptions, hiring managers were gradually eased out of the nuts and bolts of the hiring process. Some hiring managers want to be involved, but are told they cannot be. Others believe the hiring process is HR’s job and that hiring managers do not need to be engaged. Hiring managers have to own the hiring process. Even if we simplify the rules and move to a more rational approach to hiring, managers who stay out of the process will continue to get bad results.

The solution: Make “hiring manager” a certification that has to be earned, then hold hiring managers accountable for getting good talent. Most hiring managers have the authority to make selections based upon the position they hold. If you are the director of the XYZ Division, you get to make selections for your division. Hiring talent is one of the most critical functions in an organization. If you have the right people, you can succeed. If not, you are almost guaranteed to fail. But, the people who make hiring decisions need to be trained. They must understand the MSPs and PPPs. They must understand the agency’s priorities, its performance objectives and what kind of talent the agency needs to accomplish them. They need to spend time on talent management, including being involved in the hiring process. And they need to be held accountable if they commit a PPP. The responsibility for hiring should rest primarily with hiring managers rather than with HR, with HR advising and assisting, but not driving the process. Does that mean selecting the right people to be hiring managers will be more important? Absolutely. Does that mean some current managers will never be hiring officials? Absolutely.

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What the naysayers may say: Managers are too busy and do not have time to do HR’s work. Managers will corrupt the process and hire their friends/family/cronies. I am always surprised when managers tell me they do not have time to get involved until there are only a handful of applicants for them to review. Everything you do requires the right talent. Every successful leader says the same thing — talent management is the most important role of a leader. Nothing is more important or should take more of your time. As for the hiring family/friends/cronies argument, that is the reason for enforcing the PPPs and making violation of them a mandatory removal offense. It is also the reason for going beyond removal and barring offenders from government employment or contracting. I have always been amazed that we trust managers to run agencies and spend billions of dollars, but we do not trust them to select people. We assume that, because a few people are corrupt, every other federal manager, employee and applicant should be forced to endure a process that we all know does not work. Rather than building a process that treats every manager as corrupt or inept, we should build processes that expect them to do their jobs and do them well, and throw the few corrupt managers out of government.

Rating Processes

The problem: Neither category rating nor the old “rule of three” work. The current processes do little to separate good candidates from bad. They encourage lying on applications, are too complicated, and damage the credibility of the process.

The solution: Simplify the rating process and change its intent. This one requires the rethinking of intent that I described above. Rather than pretending to look for the non-existent “best qualified” applicant, the process should be intended to separate well qualified from not well qualified applicants and no more. We should eliminate the qualifications questions (and eliminate the qualified/not qualified distinction) where applicants declare themselves to be qualified, and eliminate the questionnaires entirely. One or more SMEs should read the resumés and compare them to a concise description of what constitutes a well qualified applicant. Every well qualified applicant should be referred to the hiring manager.

What the naysayers may say: That takes too much time. Hiring managers may get a hundred resumés to read. “Well qualified” and “not well qualified” are not enough categories. One hundred resumés? As a hiring manager, I would trade 100 resumés of well qualified applicants for a dozen resumés from unqualified or not very well qualified applicants any day. There are some changes that would need to accompany the simplified rating process. For one, agencies would have to get rid of “interview one, interview” all policies. For jobs that might produce thousands of applicants, the agency may need to describe “well qualified” narrowly so only exceptional candidates would fit the definition. But what would be more useful would be to change the law to allow agencies to narrow the scope of competition. Most people do not realize it, but every competitive job vacancy (those that are not merit promotion announcements) is open to every U.S. citizen. Those rules were written when job announcements were posted on bulletin boards and in state employment offices. Now that every announcement is posted on the Internet and 300 million people are free to apply, agencies should have the ability to limit the scope of competition. For example, restricting applicants to people in the geographic area where the vacancy is located. Agencies currently have the ability to put a limit on the number of applications they will accept, and they should use that flexibility when the number of applicants is expected to be extreme. Some combination of those approaches would allow agencies to manage applicant flow in a reasonable way. If we get to a point where the biggest complaint from hiring managers is “Wow, we have too many well qualified applicants” I think we can live with that.

Veteran Preference

The problem: The approach to veteran preference in recent decades has relied upon running a process that is supposed to be designed to separate qualified from unqualified candidates, determining the relative qualifications of the qualified folks, then, whether it is with extra points or moving preference candidates to the top of a rating category, putting a thumb on the scale to change the outcome. This approach does several things. First, it does offer a benefit to veterans. Second, it harms the credibility of the process because we define merit one way — who has the best job-related skills and qualifications — then we insert veteran status as the more critical measure of merit. Third, it adds a level of complexity to the rating process that makes it completely unintelligible to almost everyone. Some veterans believe they are denied preference. Some non-veterans believe veterans get every job. No one believes the hiring process works as intended (even though most folks have no idea how it was intended to work anyway). A 2014 MSPB Report — Veteran Hiring in the Civil Service — takes a good look at the issue.

The solution: Replace the existing “thumb on the scale” approach to veteran preference with a new type of hiring preference for veterans. I recommend that Congress pass a law that grants every agency direct hire authority for any veteran for any position for which s/he is qualified. Rather than a collection of hiring authorities that are confusing and not always well known, this approach makes it simple. If you have served honorably in the armed forces, you can be hired by an agency without competition. Period. That is a far less complex approach and is likely to result in significant numbers of veterans being hired, particularly in places like Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security. Veteran preference would be eliminated from the competitive hiring process. That makes the regular competitive hiring process far more transparent and driven by job-related qualifications.

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What the naysayers may say: It destroys veteran preference. It is too generous to veterans. Some agencies will not hire veterans if they do not have to. This clearly does not get rid of veteran preference. It replaces it with a different preference. Whether it is too generous is a legitimate question, but we have created millions of veterans who had the promise of some sort of preference in federal hiring. If Congress wants to do away with it for future veterans they can, but I do not see how we could do away with veteran preference for the folks who have already served. What this approach does is recognize that veteran preference has been part of the civil service from the beginning and is not something we should do away with. This approach to veteran preference uses the holy grail of federal hiring — direct hire authority — as a carrot to get agencies to hire veterans. If we couple direct hire authority with outreach and recruiting programs directed at veterans, we can get excellent results. I do agree that there are some agencies that have a history of not being welcoming to veterans. For those, when there is evidence that they are not hiring veterans, I would suggest enhanced oversight of their hiring practices by OPM until they can show that they are in fact making good-faith efforts to recruit and hire veterans. If they fail to make those efforts, they should lose their appointing authority or have to use the traditional approach to veteran preference until they are doing better.

How Would it Be Implemented?

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) does not have the authority to implement this type of broad approach to hiring reform. It would require legislation, followed by implementing regulations from OPM. Any such legislation should direct OPM to issue the minimum implementing regulations necessary to make it happen. Agency supplementation of those regulations should likewise be limited to the minimum necessary to implement the changes in the agency.

I recognize that these recommendations would totally change federal hiring practices. I also understand that change of this magnitude would not be universally welcomed. It is easy to criticize federal hiring and demand that government do better, but much harder to actually come up with what “better” looks like. This set of proposals is one model that should be considered. I know there are others, and would welcome others to join the debate.


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.