[IPAC-List] Identifying the inflection point in time

Mark Hammer Mark.Hammer at psc-cfp.gc.ca
Mon Oct 4 12:30:56 EDT 2010

Some typos, now corrected. Hopefully more readable.

>>> "Mark Hammer" <Mark.Hammer at psc-cfp.gc.ca> 2010/10/04 11:58 AM >>>

A decade back, when we were all wrapped up in the "meshugass" (as my
grandmother would put it; = craziness) of "the war for talent", the
it took to staff a position was a big deal, if not THE big deal. It
all about getting a fish on the line as fast as possible, reeling it
and netting it quickly. In the private sector, snagging a high value
hire by making a "compelling offer" with lightening speed meant that
only did YOU get them but that your competitors DIDN'T. Of course,
we tended to neglect was that, in the public sector, we didn't really
HAVE "competitors". I mean, yes, great hires could conceivably go to
work elsewhere, if we didn't give them a reason to work for us, in a
timely fashion, but it's not like a federal employer would take a hit
because someone chose to work for either another federal employer or a
state/provincial/regional government. Moreover, the sorts of hires
formed the basis of the war for talent mentality were assumed to come
with special intellectual property assets. That is, you had to hire
them right away because they were unique as individuals and
possessed/created information that your organization did not currently
have, and certainly didn't want your competitors to have.

In any event, in the intervening years, we continue to beat ourselves
up about the time it takes to offer someone a job at the federal
and strive to find ways of truncating that time. A conversation I had
with a former manager in my own agency (now retired) brought me to
enlightenment about the topic. He noted that there were several
perspectives to consider when it came to the time to staff:

1) The applicant's perspective: The applicant views the time taken
largely from a decision standpoint. They have decisions to make about
where life will take them next, and they want feedback about their
future as fast as possible. In some instances, they also want a
ASAP, but in the preponderance of cases, federal staffing consists of
people moving from one position to another, and getting *into*
government (or moving from unemployment to employment) accounts for a
minority of cases. Here, the "time" taken is the period between when
they applied, and when the matter was resolved, one way or the other.
The applicant does not see the time the manager needed to prepare for
sticking the ad up (classifying the job, getting budgetary approval,
deciding on how to advertise). In our own surveys, we asked
how many other irons they had in the fire while waiting to hear on
job/process X, and how acceptable they found the wait for process X.
Interestingly, those with more concurrent applications tended to be
impatient about how long it was taking. One interpretation was that
people who have to decide among more options want feedback sooner, to
assist in decision-making. Another was that multiple applications
more often a characteristic of those early in their careers, and more
eager to move on. Some of those, I imagine, were young people who
going from an unstable income to a steady one, and had wallpapered the
world with their resumé, and couldn't afford to wait the way that
further along in their career (who often apply to fewer things, and
more selective) could.

2) The manager's perspective: The manager views the time it takes
in terms of the gap in optimal organizational functionality, and in
terms of the requisite bureaucratic steps that are piled on top of
other full-time job they have. They seem to want faster staffing, not
just because it means they'll have people to do the work that they are
held accountable for getting done but because faster implies less work
on their part. In their comments submitted with survey replies, I've
had managers convey this in no uncertain terms "Even though I have
whole other job, sometimes it seems like my job IS staffing.". So,
I doubt many managers would be content if staffing implied
submitting a request to HR, not lifting another finger, and then 9
later the ideal candidate would show up at their door. But certainly,
their mind, longer time to staff equates to yet another annoying step
and source of delay. We DO have managers say "It
took so long that the candidate I offered the job to had already
accepted another offer", but these are managers telling us about
instances where the candidate might have had to wait an additional 6
months to receive the higher security clearance needed for the
being offered, and they didn't feel like being in limbo all that time.

In other words, the sorts of delays that frustrate managers when it
comes to snagging "top talent", are not the blindingly fast hire-times
we associate with the Monster.com crowd, where Intel loses out because
AMD made an offer within 48hrs.

3) The citizen's perspective: This was the special contribution of my
former colleague. He noted to me that citizens expect that there will
be someone to do the work that they pay taxes to have done. When it
takes longer to fill a position, that can imply that the work is
there longer not being done; i.e., someone NOT inspecting a site for
environmental degradation, or getting my tax return back to me, or
working out the details of a plan for social housing or an economic
stimulus, or checking up on children at risk. Recently, I decided to
ask our managers how much warning they had of the impending departure
an incumbent, and how long the position lay there fallow until they
filled it with a live body again. While not entirely surprising, it
still discouraging to see how many (about half) of the several
who reported that their vacancy-driven staffing was a consequence of
someone giving them a month's notice...or less, and that, in the
scramble, it often meant the position was vacant for 3-6 months or
longer. As I hasten to remind folks here, if I tell my manager I've
decided to retire 11 months from now, and it takes my manager 9 months
of form-filling and waiting to fill the position...starting from today
(which means there are still 2 months for the hire to shadow me and
learn the job), that has LESS impact on maintaining organizational
functionality than if I give 2 weeks notice of my departure, and it
takes my manager 3 months to fill my position. On paper, 3 months
much better than 9, but if you ask "How long does the job end up
there with no one in it?", your opinion changes.

This is clearly the short list of considerations, but gives some idea
of how vast they are. I'll add one more consideration to the list:
assumption that shorter times-to-offer (again, distinguished from the
overall time it takes to prepare for a process, and finalize it with a
warm body in the seat) necessarily get you your first choice, and that
having your first choice *matters*. I think this latter point often
gets short shrift. If we apply our very best efforts at recruitment,
and assessment, is the difference between our "top" choice, and the
choice really THAT big? Given how often it can take a year or two, or
more, to grow into a federal job, and dovetail with an organization,
unless top-down forces you to move down the list until you reach the
psychopaths, is the difference between top choice and next best, once
they have jumped through all the artfully-crafted hoops, really going
amount to much in terms of impact on organizational functionality?
Though the scale employed was not particularly sensitive, I looked at
how satisfied managers told us they were with the quality of hire, and
managers who said their first choice turned them down, were not
noticeably LESS satisfied (94% happy vs 97% happy) than were those who
didn't indicate being turned down.

So if taking more time gets you a short list of people who are pretty
much all going to work out nicely, even if the one or ones you had a
good feeling about had to say "Sorry, but I've accepted another
should you be concerned about taking more time. Certainly one of the
things I've never seen explored is whether taking a bit longer to hire
gets you people who stick around longer. Our thinking about
time-to-staff and utility is too often preoccupied with the point of
entry, and not with the longer-term implications for the organization,
such as churn and "revolving doors" in staffing. We ask whether the
hire was good, but we don't come back 3 years later and ask if they're
still with your work unit, and whether the time you invested was
ultimately worth it.

And THAT's what I meant by the inflection point. What is the amount
time it takes to conduct a staffing process where one has crossed a
boundary between those that permit the organization to maintain
functionality, and those that detract from functionality? In a
world, one could fill a public-sector position in 48 hrs, as if it was
Wendy's cash position. But if it takes longer than that, and HAS to,
because of all the approval and quality control steps built in, what
sorts of times should we beat ourselves up over? What sorts of
times-to-staff should give us reason to worry? How do we identify
inflection point where applicant, manager, and citizen perspectives
all optimized? Insomuch as the citizen perspective (jobs being
for lengthier periods because of "surprises") is partly a result of
incumbents keeping their cards close to their chest until the last
moment, how do we encourage a culture of being more open about
departure such that managers can prepare earlier in the sequence?
Insomuch as the contemporary landscape of website-based staffing means
that there is always the possibility that someone else could make an
offer to your first choice yesterday, but your 2nd and 3rd choices are
pretty darn good too, is speed of strategic concern, or simply a
nuisance with no great impact?

Okay, that's a lot to swallow. Especially for a Monday morning. How
much does time matter to you? What sorts of hiring turnaround times
others experience, and how do you know when you've drifted to the
side of some identifiable target time?

Mark Hammer


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