[IPAC-List] Question re: MQs

Mark Hammer Mark.Hammer at psc-cfp.gc.ca
Fri Jan 24 11:00:15 EST 2014

I heard my name mentioned. I don't know that I can speak on behalf of
my jurisdiction, but will do my best to reflect what the legislation

We have switched, as of Dec 31, 2005, from a relative merit system, to
one based on individual merit. Merit still applies, and always must be
demonstrated, but it is not defined in terms of "top down". Rather,
hiring managers must demonstrate that the appointee is "qualified", and
then present a defensible argument for why that particular qualified
individual is a good or best fit for the position and organization.
This "fit" can involve additional merit criteria, such as operational
requirements (e.g., available for travel, can do shift work),
anticipated organizational needs (e.g., we need people who can be
auditors, or I.T. managers, eventually), or "asset qualifications" (it
isn't critical, but would be good to have someone at the service counter
who spoke Mandarin). Other candidates may well score higher on any
tests used, but the appointee scored high enough to be considered
qualified, and is an excellent choice in this particular context. I'll
set aside all the suspicions and arguments about how open this is to
abuse, and simply assume it is all done in good faith.

But min-quals still apply...if only because they reduce the workload
for taking a close-enough look at a shorter list of people to be able to
see who really IS a good fit.

As min-quals for federal positions move ever upward, though, there is a
degree of non-standardization and drift that has become a challenge
everywhere for their assessment and use. If the job requires a
high-school diploma, that's relatively easy. You have it or you don't,
and most domestic secondary programs are going to be roughly equivalent.
But post-secondary programs have drifted as post-secondary institutions
tailor and use them to establish their brand or market niche. The
programs may differ from school to school (or decade to decade within
the same school) or even when they are identical, they may be called
something different. And the hapless HR folks, or managers, that have
to go through the files to sift out the non-contenders are faced with
the task of being able to reliably identify those who do and don't meet
the min-quals, on the basis of what their training happens to be called,
and what their previous job duties and roles happened to be called. And
as bright and au courant as those HR folks and managers try to be, they
aren't omniscient.

This is where one of the quirks of our legislation comes in extremely
handy. We have what is referred to as the "informal discussion"
mechanism - good mechanism, lousy name. If one is screened out or
eliminated from consideration at any point in a competition, you can ask
for the hiring manager to explain why you were eliminated from
consideration. If there is something that can be rectified so as to
bring the candidate back into consideration, it can be caught before
things have gone past the point of no return. This option only applies
to internal candidates, since it would be unreasonable to expect a
manager to justify to thousands of external applicants - they DO have
their actual job to do, after all.

Where this can come in particularly handy is when a junior or otherwise
under-informed HR person, tasked with applying min-quals screens someone
out because they didn't know that training in X was called such-and-such
at these schools, or contained a fair amount of training in a particular
area. Case in point: one of my co-workers can do circles around me,
statistics-wise. However, she graduated from a program in measurement
and evaluation administered by the faculty of education at her alma
mater. I had to twist our manager's arm (he's an economist) to give her
file a second look because his assumption was that "education degree"
did not equal stats chops. It was mere chance that the head of the
program she graduated from was the ex-husband of a former grad-school
classmate, and I knew what her training had included. She has been a
great hire and great colleague.

So, while not explicitly intended to address only that sort of
oversight, the informal discussion mechanism provides a useful mechanism
for addressing the challenge posed by min-quals drift, and naming
difficulties. Equally important, it allows the applicant to have these
things attended to in timely fashion. In the "good old days", under the
previous legislation, candidates would launch appeals after the offer of
appointment was announced/posted, and no appointment could be finalized
until the appeal had concluded, which could take months and months.

One of the many things we try to look at with our annual survey of
staffing activities is this informal discussion thing. And one of the
more pleasing outcomes is that a reasonable share of employees tell us
they were able to get screened back in as a result, and a share of those
ended up getting hired. The proportion is not so big that one starts to
wonder about the quality of pre-screening for min-quals, and not so low
as to make one wonder whether it is doing any good at all. I should
emphasize that we don't know on what basis they were screened out or
brought back in, but it is relatively safe to assume that if they tell
us this all happened towards the start of the process, that some minor
errors had been made in assessing min-quals for a bunch of those, and
the oversight was quickly rectified without too much inconvenience for
all stakeholders.

In sum, then, as min-quals get increased for many newer "knowledge
work" jobs, diversity of program names and forms of relevant training
and experience make it harder to reliably identify that min-quals are
met. One can always make the min-quals less stringent/fussy, but then
one forfeits the very purpose of min-quals. If complemented by a
mechanism to address errors in assessing min-quals, that drift/diversity
becomes less of a problem.

Mark Hammer


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