Pay & Benefits Watch Pay & Benefits WatchPay & Benefits Watch
Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

Help Wanted


The government's complicated hiring process, which includes essay questions requiring detailed answers, is often a deterrent to potential job applicants. Pending legislation and the Obama administration's vow to streamline the hiring system suggest that the days of filling out the dreaded knowledge, skills and abilities section on federal job forms, however, could be numbered. But what would replace it?

While paper résumés are still the critical ingredient for most organizations seeking new hires, the federal government likely is too large and complex for a solution that easy. A report released in July by Tacoma, Wash.-based Avue Technologies Corp., claimed that simply emulating private sector hiring practices is not the answer for Uncle Sam. In fact, Avue concluded that no company's hiring process is a suitable match for the government's Byzantine structure.

It's hard to argue Avue's point because the federal government is a different kind of animal. But there are some companies that deal with the same issues, such as a large pool of applicants, specialized qualifications and requirements, and established rules on hiring preferences and objectivity. And according to business specialists, companies have developed sophisticated processes to meet those demands.

For instance, some companies now use computer software that can select certain words from a résumé to determine whether the candidate meets the job qualifications, said Brooks Holtom, an associate professor of business at Georgetown University. With a few keystrokes, a hiring official can eliminate candidates who aren't qualified and then rank the remaining applicants.

"It is quite possible, in fact probable, that some résumés that are dropped from these organizations are never seen by humans," he said.

Holtom noted that, in the business world, it is considered more efficient to begin with inexpensive ways to narrow a pool of potential hires, such as using an online application, and then move on to job interviews considered by companies to be a more expensive practice. Few companies use essay questions, although they still can be a valuable tool, he added.

"These essays can capture a number of job predictive elements, and to the extent that the essays are tailored to a specific job, or job family, they may have high predictive validity," Holtom said. "To the extent that they're very general questions, they're not as highly predictive of a person's performance, but they may be tapping into more general skills, like intelligence and/or writing ability."

Although a computer search of applicants could seem too subjective, Holtom said companies ensure that they are complying with equal employment opportunity laws and affirmative action policies by closely monitoring the applicant pool at the human resources level.

Still, private companies have some advantages that the federal government likely never will without significant reform.

"People have a different [higher] expectation of a public employer than a private employer," said Daniel Mitchell, professor of business at the University of California, Los Angeles, referring to the government's merit system principles. He also noted that large companies can be more decentralized so hiring policies could vary, based on the position and the specific office.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said while private business practices are not always better than those in the public sector, there are still lessons to be learned from industry. He cited General Electric, McKinsey & Co., as well as the nonprofit Teach for America as organizations with sound practices for identifying and sorting through talent. The key is to make sure the entire office is involved in the hiring process, and hiring managers are aware of the type of candidate that program managers are seeking. He said when the Partnership examined the hiring processes at some federal agencies, they found that criteria used to begin the candidate search weren't always in sync with what the office was looking for. It doesn't matter how simple or complex the hiring process is, Stier said, the crucial element is how the agency assesses its candidates.

The government's civil service system was once a model of efficiency for private businesses. When it was first developed in the late 19th century, companies had no established hiring processes to speak of. As universities began to develop business schools and companies began to formalize their structures and missions, the federal approach became a fashionable model for corporations looking to add objectivity to their hiring systems, according to Mitchell.

"If you really go back in time, the government was sort of a pioneer in formality of employment practices," he said.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec