The new system would give hiring managers a larger pool of applicants to choose among.

The new system would give hiring managers a larger pool of applicants to choose among. SunnyVMD / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Agencies would have more flexibility in the hiring process, under new OPM rules

Regulations implementing a provision of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act would give hiring managers more information—and options—as they evaluate job applicants.

The Office of Personnel Management on Friday proposed new regulations aimed at granting federal agencies greater flexibility in selecting new federal employees during the hiring process.

During the late 20th century, when a federal agency went through the hiring process for a position, the final selection process was known as the “rule of three,” because the agency would review a list of the three most qualified candidates ranked by numerical score, while taking into account policies like veterans’ preference. But, especially as federal jobs became more complex, that method eventually lost favor, with hiring managers frequently passing on all three candidates in favor of a new hiring solicitation.

So, in 2004, OPM provided a new option, called category rating, in which groups of qualified applicants would be placed into three categories, such as good, better and best. This allowed federal agencies to target more specific skillsets and choose from a broader array of candidates, but made it harder to compare applicants rated within the same category.

In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers eliminated the “rule of three” and asked OPM to come up with a way to retain its numerical scoring system while allowing hiring managers to select from a list of more than three candidates. And in proposed regulations published Friday in the Federal Register, that new system aims to combine the granularity of the “rule of three” with the expanded talent pool of category ranking and hopefully leave the downsides behind.

“The proposed rule, called the ‘rule of many,’ encompasses the advantages of both ‘rule of three’ and category ranking procedures, allowing the hiring agency to make finer distinctions among applicants based on their relative qualifications for the position being filled, while at the same time expanding the range of candidates from which a hiring manager may make a selection,” OPM wrote. “Under the rule of many, a hiring manager is not limited to choosing from among only the three highest applicants to fill each vacancy.”

Veterans’ preference is retained in the "rule of many" system, akin to how it works in the "rule of three," with veterans essentially getting bonus points tacked onto their score and their veteran status serving as  a potential tiebreaker. The primary difference between the "rule of three" and the new "rule of many" is that at the outset of the hiring process, a federal agency must choose from between four methods for determining the final list of qualified candidates.

First, agencies may set a minimum “cut-off score,” where all applicants who exceed the minimum score are eligible to receive a job offer. Such a mechanism is particularly useful when job applicants are required to take a test to prove their skills and aptitude for a position.

Alternatively, the agency could elect to set a cut-off score “based on business necessity,” in which the minimum score is applied earlier in the hiring process and can be used to determine which candidates advance to the interview stage of the hiring process.

“[This method could] keep the number of applicants manageable for costly or labor-intensive assessments such as structured interviews,” OPM wrote. “This way of referring applicants . . . results in identifying an appropriate number of applicants to move forward in the hiring process based on the business needs of the agency, taking into consideration the resources available. This mechanism is also useful when test measurement expertise is not available.”

Agencies also may choose to pick from a set number of the highest ranked applicants, or a percentage of the highest ranked applicants. In those scenarios, the list could expand in cases where there is a tie for the final spot.

“When using a set number of applicants or top percentage of eligible applicants, all applicants with the same score as the last applicant in the cut will also be referred,” the regulations state. “For example, if using the top 10 eligible participants and the 10th applicant has a score of 96.0, then all applicants scoring 96.0 will be referred.”

Plans for a new system of identifying top job applicants come amid a wave of reforms aimed at making the federal hiring process quicker and less cumbersome, both for agency hiring managers and job applicants. Efforts that began during the Trump administration sought to deemphasize educational attainment in favor of skills-based job assessments, while the Biden administration introduced new measures to recruit young people, including expanding the availability of paid internships and making it easier for agencies to hire interns and recent college graduates into full time positions.

OPM is seeking comments on its proposal between now and Sept. 19.