A Playbook for User-Centered Hiring

A new analysis of government hiring found the “very people they need to make government more responsive to the public are the people driven away by the poor user experience.” …  Hiring managers routinely complain about the lack of qualified candidates for positions. Code for America saw this as a problem because in order for governments to serve the American public in the 21st century, the nonprofit believes governments need to be able to recruit 21st century talent. So, in the fall of 2016, Code for America started investigating ways governments could meet that challenge, by launching a talent initiative to study roadblocks governments face when trying to recruit the best talent for these positions. By interviewing 28 people in all parts of the job seeking process, from those who have a job in government to those considering a job in government, the study identified some common themes preventing good people from applying and getting jobs in government. For more, click here.

Do any of the common themes identified in this article prevent good people from applying and getting in your agency or organization? Would using a user-centered, data-driven approach to hiring help your agency better hire the employees it needs to accomplish its mission? If you were CHCO, how would you apply the information in this article to your organization’s hiring policies?

Government Warms to Continuous Monitoring of Personnel with Clearances

Days after Navy contractor Aaron Alexis murdered 12 people during a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16, 2013, Pentagon officials acknowledged they had neglected to follow up on a Rhode Island police report the previous month showing that Alexis, who died in a shootout with police, had complained of hearing voices. That turned out to be just one of many red flags in Alexis’ background that Navy officials and security clearance investigators were not aware of prior to the tragedy. Since then, officials have worked to significantly strengthen the way clearances are granted and managed. For more, click here.

What do you think about using of software programs to more thoroughly vet employees and contractors? What about continuously monitoring those who hold security clearances using social media? Are the such risks to privacy justified by the results?

Probationary Periods: A Missed Opportunity to Address Poor Performance

In its recently released report on poor performers in Government, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended more effective use of the probationary period to identify and remove individuals who are unlikely to be good performers. GAO recommended that agencies consider doing more to ensure that supervisors have the opportunity to intercede before an individual completes a probationary period and that OPM and possibly Congress consider whether longer probationary periods might be appropriate for some positions[1].

MSPB’s extensive research over the past decade supports these recommendations. In a 2009 survey, we asked proposing and deciding officials for adverse actions whether the individual in question demonstrated during the probationary period that he or she was a good employee. Only 56% of those with knowledge of the individual during that period agreed the individual had shown good signs at that time. Thus, it appears that some of these adverse actions could have been avoided by better use of the probationary period.

We also conducted a survey of supervisors of probationary employees, discussed in our 2005 report, The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity. Of those supervisors who admitted that they would not select the person again if they could do it over, ….

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The Federal Civil Service Hiring System Is Out of Balance

There is widespread dissatisfaction with the system for hiring into the Federal civil service. Perhaps it is worth examining how well the Government is living up to what I call the four core values of that system. They are:

  1. Hiring must be merit-based, with selection “determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge, and skills.”
  2. There must be “fair and open competition” for Federal jobs “which assures that all receive equal opportunity.”
  3. The Government should “endeavor to achieve a workforce from all segments of society.”
  4. Military veterans shall receive preference for Federal jobs[1].

Few would argue with the wisdom of these values in the abstract, but in practice, the first three values appear underemphasized.

Before looking at outcomes in federal hiring, however, it is worthwhile to recount how the environment for Federal hiring has changed in recent decades. Key changes include: …..

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Federal Employee Retention: If We Hire Them, Can We Keep Them?

Many observers wonder whether the Federal Government will be able to recruit the people needed to replace retiring employees and fill new roles and positions. However, recruitment is only one battle in the war for talent. A well-written job announcement, a rigorous assessment program, and a timely job offer do little good if a new hire does not stay to make a measurable contribution. This article offers some suggestions for agencies seeking to retain and engage new employees, based on a look at new hires in 2011 and 2012.

  • There is reason for optimism—but not complacency. As shown in the table below, most new Federal employees appear willing to give the Federal Government a chance to make its case as an employer—at least for the short term. Among the more than 300,000 new hires appointed in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, 91% were on the rolls one year after appointment…..

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What do you think? Do you agree with the suggestions this article provides for agencies?

Reference Checking: Moving from Good to Better

Reference checking best practices can help agencies improve applicant assessment.

MSPB has repeatedly encouraged agencies to identify and adopt valid selection tools. The use of such tools supports merit in hiring by helping to identify the best candidates for each job opening. The MSPB report, The Federal Selection Interview: Unrealized Potential, observed that structuring employment interviews according to research-based principles improves the validity of this oft-used hiring hurdle. The MSPB report, Reference Checking in Federal Hiring: Making the Call, takes a similar approach by highlighting best practices for another frequently-used hiring tool.

The Merit Principles Survey found that 77 percent of supervisors use reference checking in their selection decisions. However, Making the Call reveals wide variation in the quality and consistency of reference checks. Unfortunately, formal measurement validity research has not yet incorporated a distinction between high-quality, structured reference checking and less formal, ad hoc discussions with an applicant’s former employers. As this distinction is recognized, the value of carefully conducted reference checks will become more apparent.

Increased standardization of reference checking and effective training in its implementation are needed to realize the full potential of this assessment tool. A survey of mostly private sector organizations found that 81 percent of those that do reference checking employ standardized questions. While this level of standardization is commendable, this data also means that one-fifth of these organizations do not have a structured questioning process. Without standardizing core reference checking questions, it becomes a more difficult and more subjective task to compare information obtained from different reference providers. The value of this information is thereby reduced.

Of greater concern is that only half of the surveyed organizations offer reference checkers training in best practices. Under conditions of low standardization and training, reference checkers are less likely to obtain useful information that contributes to effective hiring, and the potential of reference checking is then not fully realized.

In a self-fulfilling, downward spiral, this low information yield can lead to reference checking becoming a low priority. As this occurs, reference checking is even more likely to be done in a perfunctory and ineffective manner. Unfortunately, increasingly unstructured, inconsistent, and unreflective reference checks are even less likely to produce useful information. To practitioners unfamiliar with best practices, this poor result may seem intrinsic to reference checking as an assessment tool, rather than simply the result of poor implementation. This downward spiral is partially responsible for differences in reference checking practice and for some employer dissatisfaction with information obtained from reference checking.

The solution requires addressing the root problem—many reference checks are not conducted consistently or effectively. Increased standardization and training can have two important effects. First, the overall quality of information obtained from reference checking should increase. Second, hiring professionals should become more attuned to the distinction between well-designed reference checks and casual, informally conducted reference checks. This understanding can foster more useful discussion of the strengths and potential of reference checking as an assessment. ¯

Excerpted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.


Supervisors and Favoritism: Guilty, Innocent, or Something in Between?

According to results from MSPB’s 2011 Federal Merit Systems Survey, employees frequently suspect that supervisors “play favorites” and base their decisions on factors other than work-related criteria.1 So why does this happen? Do supervisors disregard their responsibilities under the Merit System Principles (MSPs) and provide unfair advantages for favored employees? Or do employees sometimes make incorrect assumptions?

Our research indicates that several factors frequently contribute to employee perceptions of favoritism:

  • Intentional favoritism. A supervisor knowingly provides an advantage to an applicant or employee based on inappropriate non-merit factors;
  • Unintentional favoritism. A supervisor takes an ill-advised action or makes a flawed decision absent intentional wrongdoing; and
  • Misinterpretation or misinformation. Employees or other observers may perceive favoritism even when a decision is truly merit-based, perhaps due to a lack of transparency or when the presence of a legitimate professional relationship leads to suspicion that a supervisor was influenced by non-merit factors.

Most Federal employees (59 percent) believe favoritism involves an intentional decision, motivated by the supervisor’s desire to value friendship or loyalty over competence. Intentional favoritism can occur when a supervisor rewards employees based on close, personal relationships or similarity to the supervisor or an employee’s ingratiation efforts.

Although cited less frequently than intentional favoritism, employees also noted the existence of factors that could lead to unintentional favoritism. Specifically, employees thought unintentional favoritism could be caused by a supervisor’s lack of knowledge or understanding (38 percent) or lack of good decision-making tools (32 percent). Unintentional favoritism can also occur through a mechanism similar to intentional bias but without the supervisor’s awareness. For example, a supervisor may demonstrate unconscious bias by unintentionally favoring employees with whom the supervisor feels a higher comfort level due to similarity in terms of factors such as culture, class, background, and experiences.

On other occasions, there may be a misperception by employees. Professional relationships may exist that do not conflict with the merit systems or a supervisor may justly provide more opportunities to those who demonstrate the ability and motivation to take on new roles. When asked to identify critical factors in their career advancement,2 85 percent of Federal employees identified “A supportive supervisor to encourage my development and advancement” and a “Senior person/mentor (other than my supervisor) looking out for my interests” as the two factors with the most positive impact on their career advancement. The fifth most popular response, which was expressed by 78 percent of the respondents, involved “Contacts who knew the selecting official and recommended me.” As a result, three of the top five reported influences on career advancement involved professional relationships between employees and another party who provided individualized attention and assistance. While the presence of supportive professional relationships does not necessarily indicate favoritism, supervisors should be aware of possible misperceptions regarding the fairness of their decisions after dealing with applicants who are known to them through personal or professional networks or when distributing scarce resources among employees.

A supervisor’s actions can be perceived as: 1) intentional favoritism; 2) unintentional favoritism; 3) reflecting both merit and favoritism, particularly when there is an existing professional or personal connection; or 4) simply merit-based. It is critical, therefore, for supervisors and observers to strive for a shared perspective that conforms to the high expectations of the merit system principles.


  1. Fifty-three percent of employees suspected supervisors in their organization demonstrated favoritism, while 28 percent thought their own supervisor was guilty of this.
  2. U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Fair and Equitable Treatment: Progress Made and Challenges Remaining, 2009, pp. 47-50


Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board

Managers — Work with HR to Make Decisions in the Hiring Process

When you look at an overview of the typical Federal hiring process1, it is easy to understand why some view the process to be overly complex and lengthy. However, each of the steps is in place to achieve three goals:

  • to support the merit system principles, such as selecting on the basis of merit after fair and open competition;
  • to avoid the commission of prohibited personnel practices; and
  • to give selecting officials flexibilities and options.

In order to help ensure these goals are met—and that managers are satisfied with the hiring process (and outcomes)—hiring managers and HR should collaborate throughout each step of the hiring process.

The competitive examining process provides numerous opportunities for customization to fill a vacancy. These decisions must be made before issuing the vacancy announcement to avoid perceptions of “gaming the system” to provide an advantage to certain candidates. While HR has the responsibility for educating managers regarding their options and the implications of each choice, managers must understand that hiring a well-qualified employee requires an investment of their time and energy. Although working through the entire process may strike some hiring managers as “doing HR’s work for them,” managers should realize that this collaboration enables them to exercise their discretion throughout the hiring process, rather than have important decisions made for them.

Step 1: The selecting official should identify the knowledge, skills, abilities, and competencies that are needed to perform the work. These job requirements can be determined by reviewing current job analyses, classification standards, and past vacancy announcements, as well as by consulting with current job incumbents. Any new responsibilities of the position should also be considered. This information should be discussed with HR, who can assist in determining minimum qualifications and any selective placement factors as well as the number and criteria for the rating levels when category rating is used.

Step 2: The hiring manager should work with HR to develop an assessment strategy for the position2. This will be evaluated as well as methods for best assessing candidates on these criteria. One factor to consider in determining which competencies to evaluate is whether proficiency in such competencies is required to start the job or can be developed while on the job strategy should include determining which competencies The rigor, costs, time, and sequencing of the potential assessment methods also should be considered. A multiple hurdle assessment process is frequently used. Here, low-resource assessments (e.g., self-report questionnaires on an applicant’s training and experience3) typically come first and eliminate less-qualified applicants. Then, more labor-intensive procedures, such as the structured interview4, are applied only to the top candidates5.

Step 3: HR should advise the manager regarding the range of recruitment and hiring flexibilities that may be used. These may be widely accessible (e.g., veterans hiring authorities) or used only when meeting certain criteria (e.g., direct hire and recruitment incentives). HR and managers also should discuss administrative issues, such as how long to leave the vacancy announcement open. Many of these decisions will rely on past experience and success in attracting a highly qualified pool of applicants.

Designing the actual vacancy announcement with HR then can serve as a reality check to ensure that all of the essential decision points have been discussed since the vacancy announcement should include information such as a description of the duties, required qualifications, and the assessment process. Although this article focuses on a few of the most critical steps in the hiring process, there are many more decision points. Thus, we encourage managers to take advantage of the expertise of their HR and program support staff, to guide them through this journey to select the best prospective employees within the Federal merit systems.


1 U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Delegated Examining Unit Handbook, May 2007, p. 9, available at: http://www.opm. gov/policy-data-oversight/hiring-authorities/competitive-hiring/ deo_handbook.pdf.

2 U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Job Simulations: Trying out for a Federal Job, pp. 25-38, September 2009.

3 U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Making the Right Connections: Targeting the Best Competencies for Training, February 2011.

4 U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Evaluating Job Applicants: The Role of Training and Experience in Hiring, January 2014.

5 U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, The Federal Selection Interview: Unrealized Potential, February 2003.


Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board

How You Hire and Who You Hire: The Implications of the Appointing Authority

The first merit principle states that “recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a workforce from all segments of society…which assures all receive equal opportunity.” 1 This idea of fair and open competition for filling jobs is fundamental to Federal merit systems. The methods that agencies choose to hire new employees (that is, which hiring authorities they use) can affect the extent to which this merit principle is made a reality. These choices may have far-reaching consequences for the future composition of the Federal workforce.

As part of their upcoming report on fair and open competition, MSPB reviewed hiring data from the Central Personnel Data File (CPDF). The review revealed a trend that needed to be brought to the attention of Federal agencies and hiring managers. In 2000, 43% of the employees newly hired into the Federal government were female. By 2012, the proportion of newly hired employees who were female had dropped to 37%—a 6 percentage point decrease in new female hires.

Many factors affect the proportion of women in the applicant pool and, ultimately, the representation of women among new hires. As discussed in our 2011 report Women in the Federal Government: Ambitions and Achievements, there are many occupations in the American labor force in which men or women predominate. This is evident in competitive examining and student hiring, where males represented most of the new hires into the information technology, engineering, and police officer occupations (males accounted for 80%, 83%, and 92% of the new hires into these occupations, respectively).3 It is also evident in the direct hire authority, where women were hired more frequently into nursing occupations.

However, occupation does not explain everything. Choice of appointing authority matters, too, as illustrated in the figure below. Most of the methods used to hire new employees in 2012 resulted in a greater proportion of males than females entering the Federal workforce. This disparity is most notable for the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act (VEOA) and Veterans’ Recruitment Appointment (VRA) authorities, which is not surprising given that the active duty military is over 80% male.4 Our research shows that as use of veterans hiring authorities increased, the percentage of female new hires decreased. In addition, we found over 35% of those hired under competitive examining were veterans.

Gender of New Hires by Appointing Authority 2012

An over-reliance on too few hiring authorities may not be healthy for an organization’s culture, as those authorities may not result in a workforce that is representative of society. Agencies should take care when hiring the majority of their employees through just one or two authorities that limit eligibility to a particular segment of society. Our upcoming report on fair and open competition will discuss in depth the implications of appointing authorities for open competition and workforce diversity.

Reprinted from Issues of Merit, a publication of the Office of Policy and Evaluation, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board

Good Customer Service or Pre-Selection?

In a recent fedsmith.com article, Steve Oppermann discusses the Office of Special Counsel’s  successful prosecution of two HR specialists who were accused of engaging in a prohibited personnel practice (PPP) by attempting to help agency management pre-select a candidate for a vacancy. Mr. Oppermann discusses the fine line HR professionals walk line between providing good customer service and abetting management’s efforts to commit a PPP, adding that that it is hard to fault a manager for wanting to consider an employee who has done an excellent job for her/him.  In this fine article, Mr. Oppermann provides analysis of the decision and points out issues that HR specialists should be aware of as they perform their responsibilities as the day-to-day “gate-keepers” of Title V with their role as management consultants.

Office of Special Counsel Prosecutes HR Specialist for Allegedly Helping Agency Management Pre-Select a Candidate

What do you think?

P.S.  A followup article was also published regarding this Office of Special Counsel decision.

Office of Special Counsel Prosecutes HR Specialist for Allegedly Helping AGency Management Pre-Select a Candidate: The Sequel