Federal managers: Forget everything you think you know about hiring

Tuesday - 2/18/2014, 4:19pm EST

John Ford, senior research psychologist, Merit Systems Protection Board

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Sam Davis, vice president, AMA Enterprise Government Solutions

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Want to hire the best candidate for an open slot at your agency?

Many federal hiring managers start reaching for the resumes and college transcripts and begin tallying up years of service and the number of training classes a job seeker has under his or her belt.

But a recent report from the Merit Systems Protection Board reveals that these cursory assessments of training and experience are often unreliable indicators of how employees will actually fare on the job.

"Simply a list of things a person has done in the past or the amount of time they spent doing it are not good measures" for evaluating job candidates, said John Ford, one of the authors of the MSPB report, in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

The MSPB report, published last month, examined the factors hiring managers take into account when evaluating job applicants. The report found an overreliance on relatively simple methods, such as calculating years of experience or the number of training classes attended.

"These measures are weak proxies for true assessment of an individual's capabilities, or present proficiencies, and should be avoided for hiring decisions," the report stated.

Using ineffective methods to fill openings at agencies can have real consequences, according to the report. Just one bad hire can cost agencies thousands — MSPB previously estimated it at as much as three times the employee's salary — and drag down overall employee morale.

Still, looking mostly at training and experience remains a common practice at federal agencies. Previous MSPB research indicated that about 60 percent of agencies evaluate potential hires through simple assessments of education and experience. The method also remains "highly preferred" for hiring federal supervisors.

Stop asking for writing samples

So what can hiring managers do?

Directly assess applicants for the job at hand, Ford said.

"If we were looking at a job for which writing ability was important, we could sit down and have them write something for us and evaluate it," he said. "On the other hand, if we're looking at their training and experience, we're only looking at things they've done in the past."

Another effective tool is the occupational questionnaire, which provides job seekers with a list of specific tasks and asks them to rate their experience performing them.

"If a hiring official sits down and thinks through the key tasks that are important to do on the job and has a questionnaire that asks people how well they do them, that gives them a standardized measure of what can be done" by the applicant, Ford said.

Despite pushing for more nuanced evaluations of applicants, MSPB says simple resumes likely aren't going anywhere.

"It's very common to have a resume from someone, and we're not going to stop using those," Ford said. "But, if we you simply get a resume and believe everything that's listed on it, that's a poor procedure. Whereas if you take that and use some sort of verification, then it becomes a good tool to help you know if the person has done what they claim."

Ford said hiring managers are not checking references early enough in the hiring process or with enough depth.

Obama directs agencies to review hiring practices

More flexibility in the hiring process is welcome news for federal applicants who are part of the millions of long-term unemployed Americans.

Last month, President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling on agencies to consider hiring those who have been out of work for an extended period of time.

"I think one of the critical components that will ensure success from a government perspective is the ability for HR professionals and managers to be well-versed in terms of what they really should be looking for," Sam Davis, vice president of AMA Enterprise Government Solutions, told the Federal Drive. "You've got people that are very experienced, people that can be an asset, but I think there is also a need for these HR professionals to understand how to ask open-ended questions, to understand the concept of critical thinking."

The executive order says agencies can take applicants' job history into account but unemployed job seekers shouldn't face "undue obstacles" because of theirs. The order also calls on agencies to review recruiting and hiring practices that "intentionally or inadvertently" disadvantage unemployed applicants.

What the executive order does "is allow interviewers to have a little better understanding of why people are where they are," Davis said. "And let's face it: We've had some very tough times in the last four, five, six years."

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