Smarter Hiring

By Emily Long

May 1, 2011

Agencies are slashing the time it takes to bring on new employees, but it will take more than that to keep top talent from slipping through the cracks.

A year ago, human resources officials began a complex overhaul effort of long-standing policies that have bogged down federal agencies' efforts to hire new talent. Many complain that bureaucratic hoops and hurdles drive away candidates with critical skills who simply can't wait an average of five months or more for a government job offer.

But in the slow march to reform, agencies are navigating some rough terrain that includes tight budgets, negative public perception and pay freezes. They are pushing ahead and beginning to fill open jobs more quickly, but a bigger challenge remains-making government an employer of choice for quality candidates and putting people with the right skills in the right positions.

President Obama in May 2010 directed agencies to implement changes that would allow them to hire faster and smarter. Reforms include dropping the much-maligned knowledge, skills and abilities essays in favor of resumes and cover letters. Critics say KSAs, which have long been a cornerstone of the federal application process, require cumbersome detail and drive away talented candidates who might not be well-versed in bureaucratese. In addition, hiring managers are being given more authority to identify workforce requirements and the skills needed for specific jobs, and to recruit and interview candidates. To keep quality applicants from moving on during the lengthy hiring process, agencies are shooting for 80 days from start to finish as the primary marker of success.

According to Angela Bailey, deputy associate director of recruitment and diversity at the Office of Personnel Management, agencies have made great progress on a number of reforms. The average time to hire, for example, has dropped from 160 days to 105, and nearly 90 percent of job announcements are three to five pages long versus up to 35. Agencies also have made significant strides toward eliminating KSAs and posting information about open positions in plain language, steps designed to improve the applicant's experience, she adds.

To ease the process for hiring managers, OPM has designed and delivered a three-day training course to boost their involvement in the recruitment process. Officials at 10 agencies are piloting a new assessment tool that tests applicant skills against job competencies. OPM also is focusing on constant communication with human resources offices to make sure no agencies are left behind.

Agencies are breaking down the hiring process into its component parts to determine what steps are necessary to bring on new employees and the time required for each hire, says Jeff Pon, former chief human capital officer for the Energy Department and now a principal at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

"It's not just about the speed of hire, it's about the ease of hire," he says. "Many agencies are now realizing what overall processes and tools they have that either make sense or don't make sense . . . We're trying to speed things up, but the whole process between [human resources] specialists and hiring managers is becoming more streamlined because there is greater focus and practice in actually performing the hiring process."

Agencies already are making headway, Bailey says, but she notes some friendly competition could reduce hiring times even further and eventually below the 80-day mark. "If the goal is to try to get somebody on board as quickly as possible because time is money for them, I think what you'll find is not a reevaluation but instead an actual push because success breeds success," she says. "Because they have seen the results of what happens when you're successful, they'll keep striving and pushing themselves to get better and better."

A Question of Quality

Observers caution that government officials should take care not to focus solely on shorter hiring times. It's not about getting more applications and processing them faster, but rather placing the right candidates in specific jobs, they say. "Speed is always very good," says Jon Desenberg, senior policy director at the Performance Institute, a think tank devoted to government workforce issues. "Isn't quality more important? Talk to a real hiring manager and they'll tell you we're hiring quickly but often the wrong people. There are so many bigger issues than the 80-day issue."

Bailey says agencies must focus first on fixing the processes before broader reforms can fall into place. Streamlining applications to ease the burden on job candidates, improving manager involvement and building new assessment tools are important steps to building an efficient hiring system that attracts the most qualified candidates, she notes.

"We don't apologize for this," says Bailey. "It's not just about opening up floodgates and letting everyone and their brother apply, it's really more about making sure that we put tools in place that get these managers out on the front lines of recruiting so that they are working to attract the kinds of skills we need, and then we have a system and process in place that's not so painful . . . that we then turn around and turn everyone off in the process."

Retention Readiness

Particularly during an era of budget cuts and salary freezes, observers agree quality applicants should be a high priority. When resources are limited and employee compensation is less attractive, it's even more challenging to attract the best and the brightest to public service, they say.

Federal employees already are in the midst of a two-year hold on pay raises, and a hiring freeze "may be a very big reality when budgets are going to stay the same or even shrink a little bit," says Pon. "It's even more important to communicate that the federal government is still hiring . . . There will be fewer people doing a greater amount of jobs, and they're going to need to redesign some of the jobs within the organization and hire for those jobs."

Successful hiring also requires agencies to retain quality employees, and smart HR officials and hiring managers will pay attention both to choosing good talent and to keeping employees who are critical to the organization, observers say.

"The fact of the matter is that the hiring process has historically always been viewed as an HR issue rather than the understanding that talent should be a leadership priority," says Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "We still suffer from all too few agency leaders making this a priority. Talk to any organization that is well-run and the priority for that leadership is to bring in the right talent, develop that talent and retain that talent."

Turnover is inevitable in government, but even at a low rate that amounts to replacing nearly 100,000 people each year, says Adam Cole, director of the government practice at the Corporate Executive Board. Even if federal employment is flat or slightly down, there are going to be roles that are difficult to fill, such as positions in cybersecurity, health care and information technology.

While overall attrition remains low, agencies still are facing problems retaining workers in mission-critical and executive positions, as well as new employees. According to a Partnership report released in November 2010, nearly a quarter of workers hired between fiscal 2006 and 2008 left their jobs within two years. Impending retirements also could leave government with a significant knowledge gap as more than 48 percent of the workforce, including 67 percent of supervisors, will be eligible to retire by 2015, the report found. Attrition of senior leadership continues to be troubling-13 percent of Senior Executive Service members retired between 2008 and 2009.

"There's no question that hiring reform is more important now than ever," says Stier. "In a resource constrained environment, you don't have the option to make the wrong choice. You should be doubling down on making sure we fix the hiring process-not only faster, but so that the end result is getting better talent."

Hiring How-To

In the year since the president issued his executive order, progress has centered on revamping specific hiring processes and giving them a luster that didn't exist before, says Cole. Now agencies should work on "hiring reform 2.0," he says, pointing to branding and communication, coordination between recruiters and managers to improve job descriptions and candidate vetting, and the onboarding process.

"This is the time in which you cement commitment to the organization and also the time in which you can potentially dilute it," Cole says. "It's pretty critical to capitalize on the honeymoon period."

Good onboarding programs, for example, will teach new hires how their jobs relate to the overall organizational strategy, connect them with colleagues and mentors, and provide early informal feedback well before the standard six- or 12-month review period. According to Cole, this isn't happening at most agencies because efforts were focused on fixing inefficiencies in the process.

Retaining new hires is as important as holding on to senior executives, Pon notes. Providing educational opportunities and other professional development at the beginning and middle of employees' careers rather than simply awarding retention bonuses for top officials will benefit workers at all levels, as well as the federal government as an employer, he says.

"It's the basic things we often do not focus in on," Pon says. "Most people in the federal government turn over not in the retirement tsunami, but actually in the first couple of years of service. Onboarding will reduce the amount of turnover within first couple of years because we can better define roles and relevance and coach them through what they need to do in order to be successful."

Another key piece of the onboarding puzzle is holding employees accountable for their work from the get-go, says Desenberg. It's not just a question of hiring new workers quickly, but also of fast-tracking them into a system that shows a connection between performance and career development. The first two months provide an opportunity to set expectations and place new hires on a rigorous performance plan, he says.

OPM Director John Berry has said he wants to improve the personnel evaluation system by developing more specific performance standards and offering workers more frequent feedback. But Desenberg expressed concern that little is being done to make this a reality.

"It seemed to me that [performance accountability] was important, and OPM could only do one thing at a time, but to me getting the performance appraisal process better is long overdue," he says. "I'm a little worried they don't have enough time left in this administration to handle it."

Observers also say thoughtful workforce management is critical to making faster hiring practices effective. Having succession plans in place can ensure that recruiters have the right people in the pipeline to fill positions before they become available, they say. Even where the workforce is experienced and capable, agencies must look ahead to future staffing needs, says Bailey.

"If we wait until someone gives notice, then we've lost potentially three months of productivity if the process takes at best 80 days," says Cole. "There is a three- to six-month span in which there's nobody in the role and serious consequences to potential mission failure."

As agencies are being asked to do more with less, HR reform comes down to hiring both faster and smarter.

"We're at an interesting point in history where we're facing a lot of potential cuts to the budget, and human capital professionals actually have a big role to play in that, which is how do you plan your people out," says Pon. "At the end of the day, money doesn't do the work-it's people and how you allocate them."


By Emily Long

May 1, 2011

http://www.govexec.com/magazine/features/2011/05/smarter-hiring/33878/