Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Smart Hiring: The Quality Imperative


With the emergence of several job sourcing sites like USAJobs, there are more candidates applying for more positions in the federal government than ever before. Each year, agencies post thousands of job vacancy announcements, resulting in many more thousands of applicants. This seems like great news. By creating larger pipelines of applicants, however, agencies have created an even bigger quality and time problem for themselves.

Generating more applicants does not yield better applicants—actually quite the opposite. The most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey reports that only 40 percent of workers believe that their team is capable of attracting the right people with the skills they need for their work unit, a drop of more than five percentage points since 2010. What seems like an advance (more applicants) has spiraled into a significant challenge, and the federal government’s “posting and praying” approach to recruiting isn’t working.

That said, the federal government is not alone in this challenge. In fact, CEB research shows that private sector organizations have experienced a 30 percent jump in the number of applicants per job posting.  Complicating matters more, of the candidates that apply, only 28 percent are considered to be well-qualified. In essence, organizations are building a larger haystack but not necessarily attracting more needles, leaving human resources officials and hiring managers to sort through more applicants and spend more time trying to find the right candidates.

In an effort to overcome recruiting challenges, agencies have focused heavily on shortening the time it takes to fill open roles and close the gaps in the workforce.  This approach results in people moving faster through the process, but it doesn’t necessarily result in better applicants. Instead, agencies need to get smarter about building pipelines of candidates to move more top quality applicants through the process quickly.

The traditional recruiting approach has been to brand an agency as a “great place to work” and build a pipeline of general interest candidates. This strategy shies away from strategic recruiting tactics, which are often thought to be off-limits for government because of merit systems principles. What the best organizations realize, however, is that strategic recruiting practices allow agencies to build a pipeline of well-qualified candidates to move through the competitive process, speeding up the time it takes to fill open positions.

The best organizations focus on these key activities for building a better pipeline of candidates:  

  • Expand the job definition upfront. Clearly identify the requirements of the job at the beginning of the recruiting process to help HR understand what knowledge and skills they need to look for. Often the criteria for a position are ill-defined or too broad, resulting in nonspecific recruitment announcements and general evaluation of potential candidates. Using more time upfront to define specific criteria can pay dividends, resulting in moving higher quality candidates quickly through the process. Having a more effective definition of needs can result in an 11 percent increase in the quality of hire.
  • Actively source for hard-to-fill positions. Use smart sourcing techniques to target candidates for hard-to-fill, priority positions. Posting and praying leaves the pipeline to chance and often results in not actually finding the most qualified person. Organizations that use evidence and expertise to draw applicants into the candidate pool improve the pipeline quality by 22 percent.   

  • Leverage consultative recruiting tactics. Help potential candidates make informed decisions on whether to apply for a position. Instead of selling the organization as a great place to work, use consultative tactics to inform potential applicants of the organization’s culture. Messages that distinguish one organization from another and enable applicants to reflect on whether a job and organization are a good fit can increase the quality of candidates by 17 percent.

Each day hundreds of applicants scan USAJobs for openings in the federal government, creating both an opportunity and a challenge. The goal, of course, is to find the right fit as quickly as possible. By shaping the core needs of the job, proactively sourcing and seeking to inform—not simply attract—candidates, recruiting teams can provide their organizations with the right pool of applicants that can move quickly through the process, meeting the imperative for quality and speed. 

Liz Joyce is principal executive advisor at CEB.

(Image via Cube29/

Close [ x ] More from GovExec