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Thoughtless Hiring Hurts Your Team & Your Country

Written by Young Government Leaders on .

It’s almost a cliché to say that, in a knowledge economy, the most important asset is people, but it’s true.  

Ask any high-performing manager in the government what fuels their success and they’ll tell you it’s their team.  The flip side of that reality is that bad, or even hasty, hiring decisions can seal your fate.  This is even more true in the federal workforce, where it’s hard to correct a bad hire, and even harder to do it quickly.  Yet with all that’s riding on hiring decisions, supervisors often treat them like a side job, or try to rush through them as quickly as possible, which is about as effective as a quickie Vegas wedding, and just as costly in the long run.  This is understandable, because often managing people is one of many hats a supervisor wears, but it’s a recipe for failure.  There are a lot of problems a hiring manager needs to avoid, but let’s look at two of them, credentialism and hiring bias.


More and more people have noticed that there’s a large, and growing, gap between those with a college degrees and those without, which affects all aspects of working life, including the experience of searching for a job.  Many have made the argument that a college degree is essentially replacing the high school degree as the basic requirement for getting a job, which is a problem when only about a third of the population has a four-year degree.  One study found that there are numerous fields where the percentage of job postings requiring a degree is much higher than the percentage of people in that job with a degree, indicating that employers are increasing their degree requirement over time.  Another study found that 72% of the jobs created since the 2008 Recession went to people with a four-year degree, and another 25% went to people with some college or an associate’s degree.  The federal workforce is already even more sharply skewed towards college graduates, as the below table demonstrates:

Educational Level

Federal Workforce

American Population

High School or Less



Some College



Technical or Associate’s Degree



Bachelor’s Degree



Advanced Degree



Sources: OPM Data, Census Data

Data also shows that the share of the federal workforce with an advance degree has been rising for the past 25 years, while the share with only a high school education has almost been cut in half.  If the goal is a federal workforce that resembles, and understands, the American population, then that vast difference in educational backgrounds is a huge problem.  The good news is that the composition of the federal workforce is something every hiring manager plays a part in changing. 

So when you make hiring decisions, ask yourself if you are requiring a degree unnecessarily, or if you’re giving a fair review to applicants with the right skills and experience, but who don’t have easily understood credentials.  Hiring is a long and painstaking task, and it can be a huge temptation to let a simple test like a degree—or a few typos in the materials which may be caused by a lack of formal education—to make the job of reviewing applications easier when there’s so much else that you need to get done.  Resist that temptation!  You may find star performers you’ve would’ve overlooked otherwise, who make your life as a manager easier, and you’ll be helping to strengthen the connection between the federal workforce and the people we serve.

Hiring Bias

Hiring someone is an intensely personal decision about who to spend 8+ hours of your day with, amounting to more time together than anyone else but your family.  It’s no surprise, then, that personality and unconscious biases of all sorts can creep in during the hiring process.  Managers, as human beings, tend to prefer to hire people who are like themselves, whether in appearance, personality type, background, or other characteristics, and can make decisions based on stereotypes when they haven’t investigated a candidate fully.  Experts in the field find that hiring managers have to be on guard for a wide array of biases, from making a snap judgment based on their first impression and then looking for evidence to confirm it, to making decisions based on more noticeable factors rather than focusing on the most important ones, or relying too much on their “gut.”  The good news that is that some recent research suggests that unconscious racial bias in hiring is decreasing, while another study found that being aware of the potential for unconscious bias does much to help decrease its effects.

Aside from being aware of bias, what else can hiring managers do to avoid it?  Luckily, there’s a lot of research out there in the private sector to utilize.  Here are some tips synthesized from all of that, giving you all of the advice without any of the reading:

  1. Specific requirements. The more a manager can define the skills, behaviors, attitudes, and experiences someone needs to do the job, and especially to be amazing at it, the more they can tailor your hiring process to find those things.  These requirements can be based on the top performers already in the role.  This includes deciding in advance how important likability really is to the role.  Doing that will also serve as something objective to ensure all decisions are justified by something relevant, not an unconscious bias.  General PDs are hard to use to accomplish this because they are so broadly written.  Also consider reviewing job descriptions and job postings to see if they come across as if they’re written for, or excluding, certain categories of people.
  2. Diversify beyond the interview. Writing samples, tasks to demonstrate skills, and even pre-employment tests (something to discuss with HR far in advance) not only provide concrete evidence that a candidate can do the job.  They are also a way to focus on abilities, not personalities.
  3. Standardized processes. The more that the candidate review and interviews use the same people, process, and materials, the easier it will be to separate what makes a candidate special from the influence of anything unconscious.  Hiring panels make this easy to accomplish if used rigorously, so avoid too many one-off changes.  One easy step is to have the names removed during the initial review of applications, so that it’s impossible to be biased.
  4. Broaden the recruiting pool. Consider utilizing networks to spread a job posting to populations of applicants who might not otherwise consider it or using nontraditional hiring channels and authorities.  These are options an HR office can help managers explore so they’re ready to hire when they need to (or when a hiring freeze is lifted).

Hopefully, all of this helps managers avoid a couple of common problems in hiring.  Having the right people means getting the job done, so a manager can focus on other things.  It means fewer performance problems and the potential to accomplish bigger, better things at a time when the American people need their government more than ever.  It’s also a way to ensure that the federal workforce understands the people it serves, and plays its part in sustaining the American Dream.  With all that riding on every hiring decision, federal managers and their leadership owe it to themselves to support the best possible process every time.


Joseph Maltby serves on the National Leadership Team for Young Government Leaders, an association of young leaders across the federal government seeking to educate, inspire, and transform, as well as serve as a coordinated voice, for current and future leaders in government.  Joseph works as an internal consultant for a federal agency and, in his spare time, creates short educational videos on topics in government, law, and politics.

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Posted in Young Gov

Tags: Young Government Leaders, federal hiring