How to Survive the Hiring Freeze

There are ways to optimize the resources you already have.

A hiring freeze is always a difficult thing to deal with. After all, it is hard to get the job done if you don’t have the resources you need.

That said, there are ways to optimize the resources you currently have. In fact, if you adapt some or all of the strategies listed below, you may find that you do not need as many resources as you might think.

Strategies to Explore

A good place to start is to try and measure the productivity and effectiveness of your workforce. This approach works particularly well in organizations that are transactional in nature (e.g. claims processing, tax administration, healthcare, etc.)

For the sake of this discussion, I will define productivity as output per unit of input. Under such a system you might assign a weight for each distinct type of work produced. For example, if a certain type of claim takes on average 3 hours to process (based on a time in motion study), you might assign it a weight of 3.0 standard hours. You then add up all of the work completed and multiply it by the appropriate weight, and then divide the total by the number of paid hours in a given period and that will give you the productivity for a given work unit.

Here is an example of how that might look for one particular unit:

  • 50 simple claims completed X a weight of 1.0 = 50 Standard Hours (SH’s)
  • 200 average claims completed X a weight of 2.0 = 400 SH’s
  • 300 complex claims completed X a weight of 5.0 =1500 SH’s
  • Total SH’s completed during period = 1,950 SH’s
  • Number of paid hours for completing work = 1,950 Paid Hours (PH’s)
  • Productivity = 100% (1,950 Standard Hours/1,950 Paid Hours)

With such a system, you can dig deeper and determine where you could increase efficiency. For example, what is each employee’s relative productivity? Are some employees producing far more than others? How much overhead do you have in the unit? Can you redeploy some of that overhead into direct labor? (Note of caution: do not focus only on end product final producers but on all contributors to the process. Some overhead and support personnel are essential.)

How is your unit’s productivity relative to other units? What can you learn from the top-producing units? Are there best practices that could apply across all units? The point here is to make it a regular practice to analyze how productive you are and find ways to become even more productive.

You could take this even further and measure how much value each work product is worth to your organization and then determine how much value each organizational activity and employee produces. This would be consistent with the approach of Jack Stack, the author of The Great Game of Business, who argues that, “everyone loves a game” but to love a game you need three things, (1) know the rules, (2) know what the score is, and (3) feel like you can win.  For more on this see the book A Team of Leaders.

For this article, I will define effectiveness as output per unit of available input. In other words, it is the ratio of work produced relative to the time people are actually available to do the work. For example, when people are on leave, receiving workers’ compensation, attending meetings, going to training, working on special projects, etc., they are not available to perform direct labor.

Using the above illustration of productivity, assuming that 1,950 SH’s were produced during a period where people were available for say 1,500 hours, the effectiveness would be the following:

  • Total standard hours completed during period = 1,950 SH’s
  • Number of available hours to complete work = 1,500 AH’s
  • Effectiveness = 130% (1,950 SH’s/1,500 AH’s)

This measure of effectiveness can be extremely eye opening when analyzed in conjunction with your productivity, because it highlights how much time is actually being spent on completing the activity’s core mission. As you can see from the above example, 450 out of a possible 1950 paid hours, or 23% is not being devoted to direct labor, which may or may not be a bad thing.

In analyzing your organization’s productivity and effectiveness, I suggest you look at the following areas at a minimum, for clues as to how you can become more efficient:

Leave. How much time is being spent on paid leave, especially sick leave? One organization I consulted with had over 100 long-term employees with less than 100 hours of sick leave. Had they managed this area more carefully, I’m sure they could have had a higher percentage of available hours dedicated to direct labor.

Workers’ Compensation. In my experience, this area rarely gets much attention as organizations often feel they cannot do anything about this. To put this in perspective, in one case, I reviewed an organization that had about 200  employees off from work receiving compensation, which then required them to spend over $100,000 in overtime per pay period to make up the staffing shortfall. Tighter management of this area is essential as is close coordination with the Labor Department.

Meetings. How much time is spent in meetings and how productive are they? Remember, every hour spent in meetings is time that could have been spent on direct labor.

Training. I am a big fan of training if it there is a payback on the investment. However, in my experience training is often given for the sake of training and relatively little effort is made to determine the success of the training.

Labor/employee relations. OPM’s last available official time report found that agencies spent 3.4 million hours on official time in FY 2012. When you couple this with the large amount of time devoted to dealing with grievances, EEO complaints, unfair labor practice charges, disciplinary/adverse actions, etc., you can see this is another area that is ripe for improvement. This is why I am a strong advocate for rebuilding the HR workforce and developing government managers’ skill sets on these subjects.

The point here is that while the hiring freeze can certainly be onerous, most likely there are at least several areas you can turn to where you should be able to at least somewhat offset the effects of the freeze.

Stewart Liff is an HRM, visual performance management and team development expert. He is the President and CEO of Stewart Liff & Associates, Inc. and the author or co-author of seven books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders. He can be reached at