Building Your Team

Tips for Federal Hiring Officials

It's worth the effort to get the right people on the bus.

By Don Jacobson

"...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."
                                        -Jim Collins1

Hiring choices are among the most important decisions you will make as a manager, as they can impact the chemistry and effectiveness of your team for years. Sadly, some managers rush to fill empty seats rather than take the long view. I have made that mistake myself and paid dearly in time lost to addressing performance and conduct problems.

While the hiring process in government can seem cumbersome, you have the power to improve your applicant pool and refine your selection process.

The first and most important step is to embrace your role as the hiring official. HR administers key parts of the hiring process, but you are responsible for the outcome and have the greatest stake in getting the right person on board. Learn your agency's rules regarding the recruiting process and internalize your rights and responsibilities as a hiring official. Numerous hiring flexibilities are available to government agencies; it's in your interest to know which ones are used by your agency.


Invest Time in Developing the Vacancy Announcement

According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), "the job opportunity announcement is the most powerful tool in the recruitment process."2 The vacancy announcement will directly impact the quality of your applicant pool, so taking the time to craft an effective announcement can pay big dividends.

As soon as you know you will have a vacancy, meet with your HR professional to explain the skill sets and attitudes you are seeking and agree on a recruiting strategy. For example, will USAJOBS be your only vehicle to advertise the position, or will you also use social media and other outreach channels to target specific audiences? And have you considered using the flexibilities that make it easy to hire qualified veterans?

Rewrite the vacancy announcement to paint a vivid picture of the position, including its most rewarding--and most challenging--elements. Use plain language, which is actually required by the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Do not simply copy and paste the position description, as they tend to use technical language and government jargon. Announcements for supervisory positions should highlight the leadership elements of the position to reduce the odds you will receive a hiring certificate full of technical experts who have no interest in leading people. A well-crafted announcement can attract highly-qualified candidates and deter those who would be a poor fit.

Prepare for Structured Interviews

OPM strongly recommends that hiring officials use structued interviews. In a structured interview, panel members:

  • use the same questions for all candidates;
  • allot the same amount of time for each interview;
  • share a common understanding of the assessment criteria; and
  • use a scoring matrix to rate each candidate immediately after the interview.

In contrast, unstructured interviews are more free-form; they do not use a consistent set of questions, methodology, or assessment standards. Research has shown that structured interviews are far more reliable, valid, and legally defensible than unstructured interviews.3 My own experience certainly validates that. Early in my career I made two especially bad hiring selections using unstructured interviews. In each case I selected the candidate because I "liked their energy." One proved to be incapable of following instructions and was terminated during the probationary period. I dodged a bullet with the other; she ended up taking a different job and used her position to enage in criminal activity that landed her in jail.

In developing the list of questions for your structured interviews, it's important to use a mix of open-ended questions--including both behavioral and situational4 questions--to assess each candidate's job-specific competencies, interpersonal skills, growth trajectory, record of accomplishment, attitudes, and values. Include follow-up prompts that will enable you to check if there is substance to the accomplishments they claim.

To promote transparency, assemble a diverse hiring panel to conduct the interviews. If possible, include a disinterested manager from another office. If any panel members are unfamiliar with structured interviews, arrange a briefing or send them OPM's training tool "How to Conduct a Successful Interview."

If the position is a merit promotion opportunity, it's worth the effort to interview all qualified internal candidates who make the certificate. Failing to do so can create--or perpetuate--perceptions of favoritism and undermine trust within your team.

Do not hesitate to interview 15-20 candidates to fill one key position. Remember: your hiring decision could impact your work unit for years.

Conducting the Interviews and Selecting the Best Candidate

Start the interview by welcoming the candidate to put them at ease. Explain how the interview will be conducted. Each panel member should have a scoring sheet with the interview questions, a copy of the scoring matrix, and space for notes. It will be important to keep the notes as a record in the event the hiring decision is challenged.

Things to keep in mind during the interview:

  • Don't be deceived by experience or knowledge. You will encounter candidates who have spent years doing work that sounds like perfect preparation for your vacancy but have few accomplishments to show for it. A track record of accomplishment and growth is a much better indicator of future success.

  • Be alert for candidates who seem to be combative, cynical, judgmental, blaming, or manipulative, as these characteristics are usually toxic in the workplace.

  • Trust your instincts. For example, a candidate who leaves you with a nagging suspicion they were not forthcoming about why they left their last job may require extra scrutiny.

Assign each candidate a numerical score right after the interview, based on their responses to the interview questions. This will mitigate the impact of recency bias and provide a fair mechanism to compare the candidates after you have completed all the interviews.

After completing the interviews, carefully check the references of your top candidates; you may be surprised by what you learn.

If you interview all the qualified candidates and none are likely to be a great addition to your team, it's better to re-advertise the position than settle for a candidate with whom you are not satisfied.


The Probationary Period is Part of the Hiring Decision. Use It

We started this discussion with a quotation from Jim Collins, author of the business classic Good to Great. In his follow-up monograph Good to Great for the Social Sectors, Collins acknowledges that it's quite difficult in government to get "the wrong people off the bus." He recommends public sector managers make deliberate use of the probationary period.

Indeed, in a 2005 report the Merit Service Protection Board (MSPB) wrote:

"Agencies—leadership, managers, first line supervisors, human resources staff, team leaders, co-workers, and the probationers themselves—must come to see the probationary period as an extension of the application process. Rather than thinking of the probationer as an employee similar to those with finalized appointments, all involved should consider the probationer as an applicant who has successfully completed several phases of the assessment process and is currently engaged in the most important assessment of all—the extended work sample test/job interview that comprises the probationary period."5

You should, of course, want your probationary candidates to succeed since you and your agency invested significant time and resources to get them on board. As their supervisor, you are responsible for ensuring they get off to a good start, master their job, and stay connected to the mission. Regular performance feedback and mentoring will enhance their chances for success. Before the end of the probationary period, however, it's crucial to dispassionately assess the candidate's long-term potential. If they have had performance or conduct problems that are likely to recur you should remove them. Once they pass the probationary period they will have protections that will make removal vastly more difficult. Don't settle for mediocrity.

1. Jim Collins, "Good to Great," FastCompany, October 2001.

2. "Delegated Examining Operations Handbook: A Guide for Federal Agency Examining Offices," Office of Personnel Management, June 2019, p.3-11.

3. "Structured Interviews: A Practical Guide," Office of Personnel Management, September 2008, pp.3-4.

4. See "Structured Interviews: A Practical Guide," Office of Personnel Management, September 2008, pp.7-8.

5. "The Probationary Period: A Critical Assessment Opportunity." Merit Service Protection Board, August 2005, p.2.

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