04 February 2016

Public sector recruitment: 'cutting red tape' is not necessarily an improvement

Late last year the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet made a massive change to its recruitment policies. Out went the traditional ‘selection criteria’ approach to recruitment, including advertising the pay grade of the position, and in came a ‘one page pitch’.
 
The Age reported:
 
The head of PM&C's corporate services division, Ben Neal, said the main reason the department ditched criteria was that "we don't want to let the recruitment process drive who applies for our jobs".
 
"We think that model, which is very much understood by public servants but maligned by non-public servants, limits the pool of available talent we have," Mr Neal said.
 
"We want to reach much more widely into the private sector and the not-for-profit sector ... instead of just getting public servants in Canberra applying for jobs."
 
The department says prospective staff will instead "submit a resume and a 'one-page pitch' telling us why you are the best person for the job".

No doubt any person who has been on any side of government recruitment; as a hiring manager, government recruiter/HR, applicant, or agency recruiter, will have their own views on this move, coloured by their own experience(s).
 
A couple of Fairfax Media contributors have opined in the negative.
 
From reading about the PM&C’s decision and the accompanying feedback, it looks to me like there is more a problem with the construction and execution of the recruitment process, rather than the concept of addressing selection criteria.
 
The concept of submitting a resume (very easy and not illegal to fudge) and a one-page pitch (dangerously favouring the assertive, confident candidate) does not, to me, seem any improvement on the current way to ensure the best candidates, from the widest pool of suitable candidates, are selected for interview. Unless your interviews are with the widest selection of the best talent, you are compromising your likelihood of hiring the best possible candidate.
 
In the vein of the current Federal Government’s liking for ‘cutting red tape’ and ‘increasing the flexibility of the public sector workforce’, there seems to be a very real risk that sound principles, although subject to inconsistent or poor execution, are to being jettisoned for a more subjective approach.
 
My view is that the problem is not with the concept of having ‘selection criteria’, it is with the over-complication of its use, and/or misunderstanding of what a selection criteria should contain (and not contain).
 
From 27 years spent researching recruitment, training recruiters and recruiting thousands of people, I know the following three major things about selection criteria:

1. The ideal number of selection criteria is four to six separate criteria. Adding additional selection criteria almost always reduces the pool of suitable candidates and reduces the quality.
 
2. Selection criteria should be stated as competency-specific, rather than as a broad behavior, a piece of knowledge or a generic skill.
 
For example: ‘Leadership capability’ is an almost useless selection criteria. In the same category are; ‘respected leader’, ‘innovative leader’, ‘inspiring leader’ and any other ‘type’ of leader you care to name. An example of competency-specific leadership criteria is: ‘Demonstrated capability in significantly improving the performance of a business-to-business sales team’.
 
An easy way to identify whether the criteria is competency-specific is to construct an interview question (or selection criteria to be addressed in writing) that will enable the candidate to know exactly what example from their background will be relevant to use to effectively address the question/criteria. If you are gaining irrelevant answers to your interview questions (or selection criteria), don’t blame the candidate, improve your criteria/question(s).
 
3. Non-competency selection criteria are still common, and are still just as ineffective at identifying highly suitable candidates. For example, when a selection criteria states a certain amount of experience (eg 10 years’ experience) there is no guarantee that a candidate with ’10 years’ experience’ can deliver the results that the jobs requires. Just as specific industry experience guarantees no particular level of competency, just as a certain gender guarantees no particular level of competency and just as ‘Australian experience’ guarantees no particular level of competency.

Recruitment will always be undertaken using both subjective and objective criteria. The personal views, feelings and biases of recruiters and hiring managers will ensure that this is the case until the end of time.
 
The new approach to recruitment in the PM&C doesn’t, on the surface at least, seem to provide any evidence that the department’s senior decision makers understand how an effective recruitment process is undertaken, and, using more than ‘gut instinct’ where their current processes fall short.
 
I’ll watch with interest how the new world of PM&C recruitment unfolds across 2016.

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