Change rating system, not `rule of three'

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) recently proposed eliminating its long-standing "rule of three" hiring guidelines in favor of a new process that would allow selection from as large a pool of candidates as possible. This recommendation follows an intensive review of the rule of three and its impact on hiring.

The rule of three gets its name from hiring procedures that require federal managers to select new employees from among the top three available candidates rated and referred to them by an examining office.

This rule holds in most cases but is also subject to veterans preference laws, which move veterans and family members of disabled or deceased veterans to the top of the list.

The MSPB now believes the rule of three should be used as a "floor" to ensure that managers have choices. But otherwise it represents a curb on the number of candidates referred to managers and is not a good hiring policy. In other words, the MSPB believes managers should be able to pick from more than three qualified employees and not be forced to hire from among the top three. The MSPB is backing a more flexible requirement that would allow selection from as large a number of well-qualified candidates as is reasonable and feasible.

I think such a system would create so much chaos that it is not even worth discussing. I don't have any problem with altering the rule of three to a rule of five if that would provide a little bit more flexibility to managers, in acknowledgement of the fact that the rating process is not perfect. I can buy that, but opening up the number of qualified employees referred to the selecting official substantially in excess of the current rule of three would just open up Pandora's box and create more problems than it solves.

The Root of the Problem

If there are problems associated with the rule of three, I believe they stem from the imperfections within the present rating systems used in the register.

If new policy follows the MSPB review, managers will have even larger pools of candidates. But if a manager can drop down to Candidate No. 10 or No. 15, that might mean that the criteria used to rank the eligibility is at fault. If that's the case, improve the rating criteria, but don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

If the rules can allow a manager to dip down to Candidate No. 10 and ignore the other nine above him, it is going to tick off both veterans and nonveterans, and with good reason. My advice would be to evaluate these rating systems and see if they can be improved so that the top-ranked candidates are indeed the ones that are the most likely to perform best on the job.

In the final analysis, that's the only thing that counts: Are you hiring someone who is likely to perform well on the job? If your conclusion is that the top three candidates are not necessarily the best candidates for the job, then there's something wrong with your rating system, not with the law that requires you to select from among the top three. Fix the rating system, and leave the law alone.


Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week and the author of Bureaucratus Moneyline, a personal finance newsletter for federal employees, available by subscription on FCW's Web page at For more information, contact Bureaucratus at


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