Hiring the Best People for Your Agency

By Don Jacobson

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Hiring choices are among the most important decisions that managers make. Who you bring onto your team can impact your operation--for better or worse--for decades. Yet many managers rush to fill empty seats rather than ensure they are bringing the right people onto their team. According to Good to Great author Jim Collins:


"...leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances."


To be fair, the hiring rules in government are complicated and managers don't always have as much flexibility as they would like in who they select. But it's worth the effort to get the best people you can.


The following suggestions are intended to help you in making the best hiring decisions within the limitations of your agency's hiring policies.

Step 1: Things to do Before Advertising the Position

  • Decide to take ownership of the hiring process.  HR manages the process, but you as the future supervisor of the employee have the greatest stake in getting the right person on board.

  • Learn your agency's rules regarding the recruiting process to make sure you understand your rights and responsibilities as a hiring official.

  • Sit down with the HR person responsible for recruiting for your work unit to make sure he/she understands what type of skill set and attitude you are looking forward.  Agree on a strategy for recruiting the best candidates possible.

  • Rewrite the job vacancy announcement to make sure it provides a clear and detailed explanation of the job.  The vacancy announcement should give a real flavor of what the position involves, and should describe the good and the bad elements of the job.  Faced with a clear picture of the job, some potential candidates may recognize that they would not be a good fit and choose not to apply. (Note: This is a good thing.  If an applicant doesn't think that they will be a good fit, you can be pretty sure that they won't be.)  Effective job descriptions also enable you to avoid wasting precious time explaining the position during the interview.


Step 2: Advertising the Position and the Pre-Interview Process

  • Advertise the position widely, proactively targeting applicant pools that might be a good source of candidates for the specific job (e.g. colleges for entry level professional positions).

  • Prepare a list of questions to ask all candidates.  Include several different kinds of questions during the interview to determine not just the candidate’s qualifications, but also their interpersonal skills, manageability, attitudes, values, etc.  You should be especially alert for candidates who seem to be combative, cynical, judgmental, blaming or manipulative (to name just a few characteristics that can be poison in the workplace).

  • Analyze each interview candidate’s résumé critically before the interview, and prepare a few open-ended questions about some of the accomplishments described on the résumé to determine if there is real substance to back up their claims. 


Step 3: The Interview and Decision-Making Process

  • Do not hesitate to interview as many as 20 candidates to fill one key position (to the extent your agency's rules permit). Remember: your hiring decision could have implications for the chemistry and effectiveness of your work unit for the next 20-30 years.

  • Trust your instincts.  For example, do you have a nagging suspicion that a very strong candidate was not being completely forthcoming in describing why he left his last job?  If so, there may well be a serious problem with that candidate.

  • Don't be overly impressed by experience.  An individual can spend many years doing a given kind of work without accomplishing anything significant.  A track record of accomplishment and growth is a much better indicator of future success.

  • Assign each candidate a numerical score right after the interview, based on their responses to your previously prepared questions.  This will provide you with a simple mechanism to compare all candidates after you finish with the interviews.

  • Carefully check the references of your top candidates (you may often be surprised by what you learn).

  • If you interview all of the qualified candidates and none of them are up to your high standards, it is better to re-advertise the position than accept a candidate with whom you are not completely satisfied.


Step 4: The Probationary Period

Using the strategies described above will greatly enhance your ability to hire the right people.  No hiring process can predict job performance with 100 percent accuracy, however, so when things do not work out it is crucial that you use the probationary period to weed out new hires who do not make your work unit stronger.  In Good to Great for the Social Sectors, Jim Collins argues that public managers should use the probationary period to  keep only the top performers.  It is not easy to fire employees in government once they have made it past the probationary period, argues Collins, so managers should use the probationary period as a tool to ensure that only the best new employees stay "on the bus."


Hiring the best people is a lot of work.  It is well worth the time invested, however, as your decisions about who to hire--and whether to keep them--are among the most important decisions you will ever make for your work unit.


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