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Is the federal hiring system due for an overhaul?

On Behalf of | Mar 16, 2022 | Employee Discrimination

Applying for federal jobs can be a chore. USAJOBS cites ten steps to the federal application process. And, of course, you have the exhausting work of updating and tailoring your resume to address the skills and experience the position demands.

But what happens after you do the work of updating your resume and submit it? Most of the time you answer a series of questions designed to measure your eligibility. Sometimes, you may even take a skills test. These are two steps federal agencies often use to screen for qualified candidates. However, they may not be the best.

A new federal hiring process exceeds expectations

The standard methods the federal government uses to measure candidates’ qualifications may not be working as well as they should. This is one of the takeaways from a recent GSA report, as well as from the State Department’s experience with a new, streamlined hiring process.

According to the GSA’s report, the federal application process often overlooks highly qualified candidates. Instead, it tends to place too much emphasis on self-assessments and a specific, “federal” style of resume. How much do agencies rely on self-assessments? The GSA noted several points:

  • 97% of all competitive job posts that were open to the public used only a self-assessment, along with the application, to determine candidates’ eligibility
  • In roughly 45% of these cases, hiring managers did not select candidates to move forward

In contrast, the State Department’s recent test of a new system led to a 100% selection rate. In this system, the State Department relied on a Subject-Matter Expert Qualification Assessment (SME-QA). This is a new HR process gaining traction across the federal government, and it brings in expert employees to help vet qualified candidates.

As Federal News Network reports, some HR experts note the process offers several advantages:

  • Reduces the impact of applications and assessments on which candidates stretch the truth
  • Uses multiple review stages to determine candidates’ experience and skill levels
  • Enables the federal government to identify and hire more qualified candidates with a single hiring action
  • Certifies qualified candidates for consideration in other, related positions

All told, HR officials said it takes longer to create an SME-QA job posting, but the process cuts down on the back-end delays. Hiring managers can look at the pool of qualified candidates before deciding they need to post a job.

How might this process affect federal job seekers?

Federal job applicants, including current employees, want agencies to consider their applications based on their qualifications, not anything else. On its face, the SME-QA process appears to provide agencies a better measure of candidates’ skills and experience. However, it may introduce a new pathway for discriminatory hires and promotions.

  • The SME-QA process limits the ability for candidates to cheat the self-assessment by overstating their qualifications.
  • In exchange, it relies on human assessment. That means there’s a possibility experts may scan applications with an eye for certain signals.

Currently, the State Department hopes to use the process to increase diversity, but there’s a chance that could lead to reverse discrimination. And the fact that the SME-QA process allows hiring managers to fill multiple positions from one batch of certified applicants means that candidates who don’t fit into that initial batch may lose out on multiple opportunities.

In the end, the SME-QA process looks like it should be a net positive. But it’s still important to keep your eyes open. One HR specialist noted that the State Department reached out to different organizations, including diversity and affinity groups. This helped them develop a more diverse pool of certified applicants. The important thing is to make sure it doesn’t overlook qualified applicants outside that pool.


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