Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Still much to do to improve hiring

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About one year ago, President Obama ordered improvements to federal recruitment and hiring processes. So how much progress have agencies made?

First, some good news:

• Many agencies have eliminated those odious KSA (knowledge, skills and abilities) essay questions from job applications.

• Agencies now hire 42 percent of new employees within the 80-day time limit imposed by Obama.

• Many agencies are posting shorter and clearer job applications.

• A program for increasing the hiring of veterans was created.

Now, some bad news: Much room for improvement remains, say many current job-seekers.

Obama’s May 11, 2010, memo directed hiring managers to become more involved in hiring processes. It would benefit hiring managers, other senior managers and the Office of Personnel Management to address these deficiencies.

What’s more, a bad hire may ultimately cost the hiring agency hundreds of thousands of dollars — in addition to intangibles, like resulting damage to office morale. The better screening processes are, the more likely they are to produce successful hires.

A sample of remaining problems in hiring practices:

Pre-selection. This practice perpetuates the perception that it is useless to apply for federal jobs because hiring decisions are rigged.

Pre-selection could be addressed by:

• Building more promotion potential into jobs. This improvement would enable a manager to promote a worthy employee above his current promotion potential without falsely advertising his current job — as is commonly done solely to satisfy advertising requirements.

• Requiring hiring decisions to be reviewed by independent panels that have no stake in the outcomes of such decisions.

* Requiring OPM to review openings that are pulled before they are filled and then re-advertised, or that specify unnecessary requirements that could only be fulfilled by one or two people.

Inaccurate job descriptions: Many vacancy announcements contain job descriptions that don’t match job responsibilities. Hiring managers should be required to take the time to realistically define the requirements for openings instead of recycling used job descriptions.

Technical glitches: These include the corruption or disappearance of attachments required of applicants after these documents are electronically sent to hiring agencies.

A current job-seeker described to me another common glitch: “After spending three days meticulously rewriting my résumé for USAJobs and then submitting it for an opening, USAJobs threw hot grease in my face. No matter what I did, the system still did not show that I had submitted my résumé — even though I correctly attempted to submit it almost 200 times.”

What’s more, many applications contain contradictory directions about required attachments. For example, a single application may state, in one place, that applicants must submit documents, such as college transcripts, and then elsewhere state that no attachments are required.

Electronic moats that block access to substantive application questions: In many cases, simply to view application questions about credentials demanded by an opening — so that applicants can determine whether it is worthwhile for them to apply for the opening — applicants must answer pages and pages of irrelevant questions, such as their contact information, veterans preference and employment histories.

This could be addressed by requiring hiring managers to fill out applications themselves to eliminate unnecessary obstacles that may discourage qualified professionals from applying.

Unreasonable character limits: Many vacancy announcements require applicants to address dozens of qualifications. But they impose character limits on résumés that are too restrictive to possibly accommodate descriptions of all required credentials.

Faulty contact information: Many announcements exclude reference to a contact person who can answer questions, provide contact information for unreachable people, or provide information phone numbers that are connected to anonymous voice mail systems that are never answered by people and never lead to return calls.

Promotions possible, even with tight budgets

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Even though federal pay scales will remain frozen at least through the end of next year, you may still climb the federal career ladder or gain the qualifications to do so.

Some strategies for moving up:

• Despite the pay-scale freeze, you are still eligible for step increases that are typically awarded to successful feds every one, two or three years, depending on their current step.

• If you are in good standing, ask your boss for a merit-based quality step increase. If he denies your request, ask him what you would have to do to earn such a promotion. Then try to fulfill those requirements, and ask again. Click here to learn more about within-grade increases.

• If you have been in your current job for at least one year, and your current job has promotion potential, request a grade increase. Alternatively, apply for jobs that would give you a grade increase.

Contrary to popular belief, if you receive a grade increase, you won’t automatically be promoted to Step 1 of the grade immediately above your current grade. Instead, your promotion would probably follow the two-step rule (click here for details).

To find your salary according to the two-step rule, go to the salary tables here.

Go to the step that covers your current job; find your current step and grade on that table; and then find the step that is two steps above your current step at your current grade. Next, at the grade that is immediately above your current grade, find the salary that is equal to, or immediately above, your two-step salary — and that step will be your promotion destination.

So if, for example, you are currently a Grade 13, Step 6, in Washington, you earn $103,872. The salary two steps higher at Grade 13, Step 8, is $109,807. A grade increase would take you to a Grade 14, Step 3, which is $112,224.

• One of the best-kept secrets in government is that agencies in the excepted service tend to pay more than agencies in the competitive service. I know feds who landed pay increases of tens of thousands of dollars without even negotiating, merely by moving from the competitive to the excepted service. For a list of excepted-service agencies, click here.

• If a position is created for you, ask your hiring manager to build promotion potential into it.

• Work to get into the Senior Executive Service. Remember that some SES positions are open to GS-14s in addition to GS-15s. In addition, the Senior Executive Association accepts GS-14s in addition to GS-15s for membership.

Review the criteria for SES membership by clicking here, and discuss those criteria and your background with current senior executives. Then, design a plan for closing your gaps. Also, consider training that helps feds qualify for the SES at the Federal Executive Institute, the Graduate School, Harvard’s Kennedy School, some federal agencies and the Office of Personnel Management.

If you already qualify for the SES, consider applying for SES jobs now. Remember that agencies that have certified SES performance appraisal systems pay higher SES salaries than agencies without such systems.

• If your current job does not offer the kind of experience you need to advance, consider seeking a detail or lateral position that would offer such experience, even if it wouldn’t offer a promotion. In many cases, you may be moved into any equivalent position within your current or another agency without competition. That is, a hiring manager may hire you without considering any other applicants.

• Explore training options by clicking here. Also, your agency’s training budget may cover the tuition of university courses leading to a degree.