6 strategies for transforming federal hiring practices

Federal agencies need to hire 200,000 employees in the next two years. But workforce experts say agencies now have the hiring flexibility to meet that challenge.

Carl DeMaio, president and founder of the Performance Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on government accountability, said agencies must still overcome self-imposed bureaucratic rules to take advantage of the hiring flexibilities and market-based tools that are available.

Federal agencies can reduce the number of steps for reviewing and evaluating candidates, make quicker hiring decisions, offer bonuses and relocation packages, and set performance-based pay scales. "All of these things are effective in not just filling seats but getting the right person for the job," DeMaio said.

"Agencies have everything that they need," he added. "But now it's come down to implementation, and that's a tougher challenge."

DeMaio suggested several change management strategies that agencies can use to encourage employees to accept and even embrace new hiring practices. Several workforce experts echoed DeMaio's recommendations and offered some of their own.

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Communicate changes

Before introducing a major change in hiring practices, everyone involved deserves to know why change is necessary, DeMaio said. The reasons for changing hiring practices now are, first, a large wave of upcoming federal retirements and, second, growing gaps in skills. "That's the reality," DeMaio said. "The old way of hiring federal employees will no longer suffice. And if hiring managers truly understand that, they'll get on board."

Managers should communicate the reasons for change often, said Miguel Torrado, associate director of human resources at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "Otherwise, the message isn't going to get out."

The FDIC has institutionalized communication through its Human Resources Committee. Composed of senior-level executives from every division in the organization, the committee meets Friday mornings for three hours to discuss organizational issues and the role of HR employees in resolving them.

The committee has helped transform the agency's hiring practices, Torrado said. "The biggest benefit of the [committee] is the integration that exists between HR and the business side of the corporation," he said. "Nothing happens in the corporation without the involvement of HR, and nothing happens in HR without the involvement of the rest of the corporation."

Before FDIC introduces any HR changes, the committee discusses and analyzes them. The committee's involvement "doesn't necessarily do away with employee resistance to the change, but it shortens the time required for eventual acceptance," Torrado said.

Fred Glueckstein, director of human capital planning at the Social Security Administration, said he agreed that communication is critical. That's why SSA launched a major internal marketing campaign when it introduced new recruitment practices four years ago. The agency posted information about recruitment activities on its intranet. It also developed a national recruitment guide that explains the new practices and made it available to SSA employees.

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Push back on the rules

The federal government has long had a reputation for onerous hiring practices. But many bureaucratic procedures are self-imposed, and agencies could change them if they wanted to, DeMaio said. "Hiring managers will complain that, even now, they don't have the flexibility to implement a lot of the new tools at their disposal," he added. But in almost all cases, the only barriers are bureaucratic procedures dictated by the agency.

DeMaio said a critical step in change management is removing such barriers to change. In hiring, for example, cut the red tape and respond to applicants faster. "Today's job applicant wants to hear back quickly," he said. "If they don't, they'll see bureaucracy in the hiring process and conclude that there will be bureaucracy if they go to work for that agency."

When HR employees are unsure about a rule — where it came from and whether they can change it or go around it — they should seek clarification from the Office of Personnel Management, DeMaio said. They also should request exemptions from OPM when necessary.

Torrado said he often suggests new ideas to OPM officials to solve hiring problems. In doing so, he has received a three-year delegation of authority to give early-outs to pending retirees and five-year authority to hire back retired bank inspectors if needed in an emergency.

"You have to be persistent," Torrado said. But many times when he has gone to OPM, he has received help.

Agencies should frequently review internal policies, just as they would for any major change, said Katie Malague, a program manager at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that recently sponsored an Extreme Hiring Makeover project to help federal agencies attract younger workers.

Agencies should review their hiring procedures at least once a year, Malague said. "As with physical fitness, the initial weight loss is one thing," she said. "Maintaining a healthy weight requires continued diet and exercise."

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Go get the person you need

Using buzzwords such as "market-oriented" and "performance-based," DeMaio said changing federal hiring practices requires an entrepreneurial mind-set. That involves actively recruiting top employees instead of posting a typical job announcement and then waiting for the applicants to come to you.

Malague suggested that agencies learn commercial techniques for marketing federal job openings.

In addition, hiring officials should develop an employment brand for their agencies, DeMaio said. A brand gives job applicants an easy-to-grasp image of the agency and a slogan that encapsulates the agency's mission and showcases the benefits of working for the agency.

SSA officials said they have had success using a branding strategy to bring new employees into the agency. In the past three years, the agency has hired more than 9,000 new workers, Glueckstein said.

Another agency example is the Department of Veterans Affairs, which created a "One VA" employment brand and sought nontraditional media outlets to recruit employees for hard-to-fill nursing positions.

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Track your results

HR employees will feel a greater sense of satisfaction with new hiring practices if they see evidence that they are working, DeMaio said. He suggested that others follow the VA's example of measuring the effect of bonuses and relocation allowances on retaining new employees. Agencies can also measure the effectiveness of a particular marketing technique on recruiting.

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Put some money behind your plans

One of the best strategies for influencing change is positive reinforcement, DeMaio said. He suggested that agencies offer HR employees a variety of monetary and other rewards for successful hiring practices. Rewards can be as simple as verbal recognition and extra time off. End-of-month bonuses and a monthly top-recruiter award system can also be effective, he added.

In addition, agencies should encourage innovation by offering incentives to foster new hiring concepts, Malague said.

Positive reinforcement can be effective no matter how often it is given. Glueckstein said he keeps his recruiters enthusiastic through continuous feedback from hiring and other management officials about the quality of their hiring pools, applicants and new hires.

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Try, learn, share, repeat

People are motivated by success, DeMaio said. Hearing about a strategy that worked and how it worked can do wonders to motivate people.

Blake Shaw, a consultant at the Change and Innovations Agency, which specializes in change management, said that sharing lessons learned — positive and negative — is an essential step in managing change.

"Without regular review and feedback about how the new strategy is working, we slowly revert to the way things were done before," he said.

Lessons learned are often learned from failures, Malague said. "Some things will work, others will not," she said. People learn "just as much, if not more, from failure." n

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Clifford, Va.

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