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DEI Goals Make It Imperative to Understand Essential Job Skills

Every job description should be reviewed.

A recent episode of “60 Minutes” featured an eye-opening segment for anyone who works in Human Resources: “Recruiting for Talent on the Autism Spectrum.” The program focused on adults with autism who have been shut out by employers. Rather than “graduating to their parents' sofa”, they are filling important roles and performing at high levels. The theme is especially important today because of the focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, and the difficulty employers are experiencing finding and attracting applicants with the skills needed for the future.

In an interview, Kelly Grier, the Ernst & Young U.S. Chair and Managing Partner, described how the company has hired dozens of employees with autism to work in fields like artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, and cybersecurity. Her key point: “Make no mistake about it, this is absolutely a business imperative, and it makes great sense from a business perspective.” Government should be a model employer on this point.

This is a New Ballgame for HR

A phrase that you never hear now describes staffing not too many years ago: “Old boys network.”   

President Biden’s Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility starts government down a very different track. The EO comes together with the plan announced by OPM in April to conduct a Federal Workforce Competency Initiative Survey. Job-specific knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) along with competencies are needed for workforce planning, recruiting, training and career management. Federal law requires employment practices be based on job analysis. DEI makes it important to rely on validated KSAs, and that requires more than an employee survey.  

Jobs and workers have been permanently impacted by the pandemic and the rise of remote work. That opens to question any job documentation developed in the pre-COVID years, especially the interpersonal skills needed by teams to work remotely. That means every job description should be reviewed. The importance of new skills has also generated a lot of attention.

Working remotely has both empowered workers and also made it more important that they and their manager agree on what they are expected to accomplish. That makes coaching skills far more important. Gallup in a recent course referred to what managers need to undergo in the “boss-to-coach journey.” This is not news to anyone working in an organization. After many months of the pandemic, working relationships have been forced to adapt to the changing work environment.

But it's important to recognize that the pandemic has not had a uniform impact on agencies or their day-to-day operations. The word that appears in every discussion of the new normal is “hybrid” and that can mean quite different work arrangements. Government’s culture of compliance has undoubtedly been weakened over the past year but the impact is no doubt as varied as the many federal work sites. 

Everything that has unfolded leads to a basic conclusion: the historical reliance on centralized, governmentwide practices is now an impediment to improving performance. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Prisons may follow alphabetically but they have completely different human capital issues and operating problems. Even jobs like Civil Engineer that are found in multiple agencies can have significantly different roles, with assignments that require different skills, from soil testing to developing cost estimates to designing hydraulic systems.  

OPM’s announcement emphasized the importance of the governmentwide approach and the “common language for describing work that can provide consistent messaging” but that ignores the differences that affect agency performance. The announcement refers to “general” competencies like “interpersonal skills” and “problem solving” but even those phrases encompass different abilities. Discussions of interpersonal skills, for example, refer to more specific behavioral abilities like teamwork, persuasion, flexibility, leadership, and openness to constructive criticism, to list a few. 

Technical skills are always occupation specific and need to be defined to confirm what’s expected at each career stage.

Managers can have far more productive discussions with their people when competencies are defined using occupation-specific terms. At each stage in a career ladder, the key competencies change as higher level skills are required. Further, when KSAs are used to evaluate performance, it’s important to define what’s expected at three or more performance levels. The Government Accountability Agency’s highest level, “Role Model,” is a good prototype. DEI makes investing to develop valid rating scales important.

A final point on ratings: The purpose of performance ratings is to document how well an employee performed in light of his or her experience and planned performance. The focus should be on results and on growth over the prior year. When the same performance standards are used with employees at different career stages, it's misleading and unfair.  

This is About Improved Talent Management

Federal talent management relies on truly outmoded practices. President Biden is correct in that “the federal government should serve as a model employer.” However, no one would argue that government's practices are in any way similar to companies like Ernst & Young or any of those deemed “great places to work.”  

Job analysis is basic to talent management. Employees have an obvious need to understand what they are expected to do and employers need to understand what they can expect from employees along with the KSAs required to perform the job.  

Somehow, a century ago, efficiency experts and the early personnel specialists decided detailed, multi-page job descriptions were needed. The purpose was control. In government, that mushroomed into thousands of pages of standards to control staffing and job classification. Now, the emerging emphasis on DEI supports expanding recruiting to attract applicants from underrepresented groups. Outdated “standards” are not useful.

The response to the COVID-19 crisis unexpectedly transformed work management. Change has truly become the only constant. Agility and flexibility have become buzzwords. The crisis has suppressed the normal resistance to change. The new normal sets the stage for rethinking the way work and workers will be managed in the future. It also sets the stage for civil service reform.

The new work environment makes job analysis even more important. New skill requirements need to be documented. The goal in recruiting should be to identify the best candidates with the skills needed in the new normal. The validity of hiring and promotion criteria needs to be re-confirmed. Training content needs to be modified to reflect new skills. The new requirements for remote workers also impact the skills needed by supervisors and managers. Documenting performance expectations is essential. This is far larger than anything government’s human capital specialists have had to tackle in the past.

Job information can be documented at several levels, from the traditional analyst interview—“tell me about your job”—to an in-depth analysis of job specific KSAs. Job specific information is needed at each career stage. The investment is required to make personnel actions defensible and to identify the skills needed going forward. 

It’s become clear that traditional job descriptions make little sense in work environments where change is a constant. They are an impediment to tackling new problems. That old line, “it’s not in my job description” should be banned. Shifting the focus to what employees are expected to accomplish—“SMART” goals—is more productive. With knowledge jobs, where the individual and their expertise is the focus, statements of assigned tasks impede problem solving. The goal of talent management should be to build a high performance workforce.  

The pandemic and workforce changes have wiped out much of the job information OPM has developed in the past. The survey undertaken by OPM is only a starting point.  

The good news is government has a proven strategy. Years ago, when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was created, management initiated a reform that rivaled what is needed today. Teams of experience specialists were formed to plan and develop new approaches to improve performance in major job families. The teams continued long after the agency’s creation. That’s a strategy that would work in every organization. Senior specialists are intimately familiar with the changes affecting their craft and have a personal stake in making their work teams successful.  

Teams of specialists are widely used in many fields. With the new focus on DEI goals, they should include specialists from underrepresented groups. The NGA experience confirms employees can develop both technical answers as well as solidly successful HR policies and practices for managing talent.  

Civil Service Reform is Needed

In a recent interview at GovExec’s Future of Work event, Rob Shriver, OPM’s Associate Director for Employee Services, noted that the General Schedule and the locality pay configuration were not designed for the current workforce. He acknowledged that policies that work well in one agency may not be right for other agencies.  

Although not discussed in the interview, the commitment to DEI and the increased importance of individual capabilities for career progress overrides the relevance of seniority. It also should end future career prospects for the “old boys” and it reinforces the argument for merit pay.

In the new world of work, the focus needs to shift to attracting and retaining new graduates entering the workforce. Government’s purpose helps attract applicants but the early turnover problem should be a red flag—government needs to become a better employer.

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