Hiring Freeze, Not HR 'Down Time'

A 90-day federal hiring freeze gives HR leaders an opportunity to focus on long-range missions, including succession planning, experts say.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017
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The Trump administration's 90-day hiring freeze for United States federal employees is just the beginning of a sea change in Washington, as the freeze is slated to be replaced after it expires by a long-term workforce reduction plan to be developed by the Office of Personnel Management.

The order bans hiring contractors to fill positions that would otherwise be filled by employees. The hiring freeze does not affect military personnel and those deemed essential for security, but the details of implementation rules have been clarified over time with multiple sets of guidance listing exceptions.

But even with a federal hiring freeze, HR staff must stay "positive about what they can do" in staffing and other arenas, according to Matisha Montgomery, lead personnel research psychologist for HR Solutions at the Office of Personnel Management.

One area where agencies might want to focus on is increasing the use of job rotations -- both formal rotational assignments and informal arrangements that allow agencies to quickly move personnel to areas where staffing shortages exist, Montgomery said during a meeting sponsored by the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council.

Erika Dinnie, director of organizational development and management services in the General Services Administration's IT office, said GSA IT is "investing in our existing resources" through a variety of strategies. One was a tweak to the exit interview process to find out why good people were leaving after only a year or two. The results showed that employees"weren't able to see their way out of their current position." So, the agency created a new job rotation program, which helps the agency meet organizational needs while creating learning opportunities that give employees a chance to test out new job skills.

As a result, retention has improved since the program began, said GSA's Allison Peterman.

According to OPM guidance, agencies can reallocate personnel during the hiring freeze, which includes certain internal placement actions, such as non-competitive reassignments, details, and temporary promotions of 120 days or fewer, so long as they are "necessary to meet the highest priority needs of the agency or to ensure that essential services are not interrupted."

Montgomery told cyberFEDS® that managers have to understand that these types of programs can produce a variety of responses. In some cases, employees will be excited to learn new skills or perform new duties. But "sometimes, they'll tell you that they'll be okay for a short time, but then want to move back . . . and sometimes they'll just say 'that's not my job.' " Managers need to be ready for these responses, and look for ways to address concerns.

GSA also used the ability to telework, not just as a hiring incentive but also as a retention tool. "GSA is a very mobile organization," Dinnie said, and the "virtual workplace" has been used to retain existing staff, particularly those who want to move to a less expensive state or community as they begin to have families.

Don't forget about succession planning

Montgomery said agencies should use the "down time" during the hiring freeze to focus on succession planning. This can help prioritize their most important needs and skills, she said, so they are ready to hire once the freeze ends. It's also a good time to look at applicant flow data, to see if certain populations, including Hispanics and women, are underrepresented.

There are also programs agencies can use now to bring new staff onboard -- with or without a hiring freeze -- including the:

* Presidential Management Fellows program.
* Pathways Intern Programs, except for the recent graduate program.
* CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program, which is run jointly by the National Science Foundation and OPM, and gives agencies direct hire authority to temporarily bring on IT experts. However, the position itself must be exempt.

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In addition, most agencies are still able to fill certain positions, especially in the area of IT. One key to hiring cyber experts, speakers agreed, is being able to speed up the hiring process so agencies can more realistically compete with the private sector.

Gwen Yandall, executive director for human capital policy and programs at the Department of Homeland Security, discussed a cyber and tech job fair the department held last year, which brought together hiring managers from all DHS components for the first-ever two-day event aimed at filling mission-critical positions. Several thousand people attended this innovative hiring event, which marked the first time eligible candidates could interview for a job, receive a tentative job offer, and initiate the security process -- all on the spot. DHS was able to expedite the hiring process, interview hundreds of potential candidates, and immediately extend tentative job offers. DHS employees also hosted an exhibition hall, where visitors were able to learn about how cyber and tech professionals support the DHS mission. In addition to the exhibition hall, the department held several "Find and Apply" and "Improving your Federal Resume" sessions. Each session provided a great opportunity for participants to learn more about the federal hiring process. DHS interviewed more than 840 candidates over the two days, and to date has issued 436 tentative job offers; more than 300 have cleared security, of which 284 have received a final job offer, and 290 candidates have entered on duty. DHS plans to hold another such job fair for veterans in the near future.

Several attendees and speakers discussed the need for those in IT -- including managers and employees -- to become part of the effort to "brand" the agency, including efforts to spread the word on social media, such as message boards, professional blogs, and job sites, on why working for the agency is rewarding. However, such efforts must not offer specific positions, or indicate they are accepting applications. Instead, they should simply allow for expressions of interest from both sides.

The key, said one participant, is for agencies to realize "we are not looking for the person who's going to stick around for 30 years anymore, but the best and the brightest."

Dave Kittross writes for cyberFEDS® Washington bureau. Send questions or comments about this story to


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