Thursday, August 30, 2007

Staffing Under the New PSEA

UPDATE, July 17, 2008:

In April I took part in the poster sessions at the National Managers' Community Forum. Our poster was the object of quite a few jokes during the forum (see picture on the left), but that was part of the intent! An overview of our poster session is available here.

Full version of the document "Staffing Under the New PSEA: Tipcs and Practices" is available to federal public servants on the PSMA Practices and Lessons Learned website.

[Une version française est également disponible pour les fonctionnaires fédéraux.]

It’s Not the System – It’s What People Do With the System
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
– Leo Tolstoy

Back in the fall of 2005, shortly before the coming-into-force of the new PSEA, I wrote an article about the challenges I foresaw with the implementation of the legislation (see my blog [1]). I explained how people would have to unlearn what they knew about staffing under the previous legislation before they could learn how to do staffing under the new PSEA. I expressed my concerns with regards to the risk aversion we could expect from managers and HR professionals, and my fear that the employees would be somewhat forgotten in the change effort.

I recently attended a focus group on the implementation of the new PSEA and I quickly found out that my fears had materialized: the PSEA implementation wasn’t going nearly as smoothly as it was planned. The claims are that staffing takes even longer than it used to, that the appointment process couldn’t possibly be more convoluted, and that the new PSEA is simply not delivering the results it promised.

However, my personal experience with the PSEA has been quite the opposite. In my organization, we have experimented with most types of staffing options available to managers: collective and distinct, advertised and non-advertised, internal and external. We have made 39 internal appointments and 22 external appointments. We have held 50 informal discussions with approximately 25% of the applicants in our internal processes. Our longest (and least creative) staffing process took 5 ½ months to administer while our shortest (and slightly more creative) was completed in 3 weeks. All this took place without any complaint to the PSST.

When I contrast these results with the stories I hear from colleagues, I am bothered. What bothers me is not the PSEA or the system. What bothers me about staffing is that most people don’t question why they do the things they do and how they do them. Indeed, it looks like people are not “prepared for the intensive self-examination that is so often necessary to reach the core of the problem.” [2] Here are a few examples that illustrate my point. They are perhaps the most common myths about staffing in the public service:

1) “It takes too much time to staff a position”: Yes, staffing can take a lot of time: a lot of dead time and even more wasted time! How can a manager take 14 months to staff a position while another in the office next door staffs his in 3 weeks? I have heard people complain about the time it takes to staff positions while I witnessed others postpone an interview four times over a six months period and take another six months to give the result to the applicant. I have seen managers claim that staffing their vacancy was their priority but at the end of each day they would leave the office saying: “I didn’t have enough time today, I’ll do it tomorrow”. Is it a coincidence that those who keep pushing back their staffing actions are often the same who complain about being overworked and not having enough staff to get the work done? It’s a classic chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. In my opinion, if staffing was so important, these managers would make staffing their priority and make the time to complete the appointment process. At least in doing so they would have an extra body to ease their workload.

2) “People are risk averse”: There is indeed a great deal of risk aversion in the public service. But the statement needs to be framed properly. People are risk-averse when it comes to actions that might have negative outcomes in the short-term; people are much less risk averse when it comes to inaction that might have negative consequences in the long-term. It seems that the decision to act imparts a higher level of responsibility than the decision to do nothing. [3] “The primary reason most people don’t want to make decisions is because of fear: fear of criticism, fear of being wrong, fear for their career; fear of failure.” [4] What we don’t realize is that by not taking any risk, we are dumping the consequences on others. Risk mandates responsibility. Calling people risk averse is really just a softer way of saying that they are avoiding personal responsibility and hoping that someone else will carry the burden (anyone but themselves…).

3) “We need to find better ways to assess the applicants”: This comment typically comes from people who still ask applicants: “What is the mission/vision of the Department?”. What does that really tell you about the applicant? That he cares enough about the job to actually take five minutes to memorize by heart the content of the Department’s web page? Nothing wrong with that… if you are assessing memory skills. But wouldn’t it be more useful to determine what the applicant can actually do? (Note: I plead guilty to this last example, as I have done it myself in some of our earlier staffing processes!)

The problem that the federal public service is facing with the implementation of the new PSEA is not one of spirit, intent, or good faith. I genuinely believe that everyone (managers, HR professionals, employees, union) is acting with good intentions in mind. We are simply still operating the way we always have despite the opportunity to do things differently.

“We’re very comfortable with what we already believe and know. Change, even of our opinions or thinking processes, has become the great anxiety for most people.” [5] Consequently, the behavioral change required to find new ways of doing staffing hasn’t occurred. The culture of staffing has remained the same.
I was working for the PSMA Implementation Secretariat at PSHRMAC (now the Canada Public Service Agency) in the year prior to the coming-into-force of the new PSEA. I was involved in the top-down change management effort that the Agency was leading and I still believe it was one of the strengths of the PSMA implementation. What hasn’t followed was the bottom-up change effort – the one stemming from individual managers and HR professionals.
The purpose of this document is not to point fingers at anyone. But it must be clear that apart from a few glitches here and there, the new PSEA and the system are not to blame for the inefficiency of staffing. If we are looking for the guilty, we need only to look into a mirror!

Robert Quinn, author of “Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within” (1996), writes: “We cannot easily recognize that the problem is part of the system in which we play an active role. Our first inclination is always from a perspective that minimizes the problem, keeps it somewhere out there. Because the problem is out there, it is always others who need to change.” Denial and avoidance of personal responsibility are common dysfunctions of many organizations, and the public service is no exception.

I don’t expect to please everyone with this document. Firstly, for every person that will wholeheartedly agree with the ideas presented here, there will likely be a few others who will be irritated. Secondly, there will be plenty of people who will remind me that I can’t say certain things because they’re not politically correct [6], or who will try to show that what I am suggesting can’t be done. Thirdly – and most importantly – those looking for a painless fix to their staffing headaches will be disappointed because the problem is not out there but inside each of us.

The biggest criticism about the old staffing system was that it was excessively rules-based and cumbersome. Yet, we are too busy talking about the limits of the new PSEA and what we can’t do, to give any serious consideration to the possibilities and what we could do. We must break with the culture and ways of thinking that have become institutionalized and caused the problems in the first place. As long as our thinking is governed by the habit of looking at what can’t be done, we will be re-creating a staffing system that is limiting, constraining, restrictive. We must step out of our narrow risk-free comfort zone, otherwise it’s precisely where we’ll end up again!

Robert Quinn sums up our collective challenge better that I could ever do it:

“Deep change requires more than the identification of the problem and the call for action. It requires looking beyond the scope of the problem and finding the actual source of the trouble. The real problem is frequently located where we would least expect to find it, inside ourselves. Deep change requires an evaluation of the ideologies behind the organizational culture. This process happens only when someone cares enough to exercise the courage to uncover the issue no one dare to recognize or confront. It means someone must be enormously secure and courageous. Culture change starts with personal change.” [7]

I have experimented with staffing under the new PSEA through trials and errors. In hindsight, there are things that I would do differently. The key is to learn the lessons and try something else the next time around. There is no excuse for leaving unchanged the things that don’t make sense. It’s people – not the institution – who will solve the problems and fix the system.

Red Flag: Questionable Staffing Practices

“Before we can change things we must call them by their real name.”– Confucius

I should probably warn everyone about two staffing practices that worry me – and I am not talking about abuse of authority[8] or favouritism[9]! The practices that concern me have to do with how the application of merit and the informal discussions may come in the way of truth and learning if they are not done properly by the manager. Indeed, they may be used as a mean to:
- Avoid disappointing the unsuccessful applicants / excessively protect their self-esteem;
- Avoid difficult conversations with the unsuccessful applicants, which may cause stress on the manager and the applicants, and potentially degenerate in a conflict.

The first danger consists in lowering the standard against which applicants are assessed (merit) to the point where it is so dumbed-down that it becomes meaningless because everyone meets the criteria. This can happen in a number of ways, i.e.:
- Intentionally limiting the essential qualifications to criteria that are met by just about everyone;
- Leaving under the essential qualifications non-critical qualifications and moving the more critical ones under the asset qualifications;
- Diluting the credibility and the meaningfulness of the essential qualifications’ assessment process, either by asking questions that don’t really assess the capacity of the applicants (such as the “mission/vision” question that I discussed earlier) or by setting pass marks that are so low that even the weak performers get screened-in.

The scenarios above all seek to achieve the same objective: screen-in all the applicants under the essential qualifications, and ultimately appoint the successful person based on the asset qualifications. The logic behind this is that it is easier to tell unsuccessful applicants that they didn’t meet some asset qualifications – which by definition can reflect relatively high standards – than tell them that they didn’t even meet the minimum requirements for the position. By pretending that everyone is good enough to be appointed, the manager avoids the delicate (and sometimes difficult) task of telling the unsuccessful applicants that they’re not qualified and why.[10] But the staffing value of accessibility doesn’t mean everybody must get screened-in!
The second risk consists in bailing out applicants when they perform poorly during the assessment process or don’t meet the expectations for the position. When I hear managers tell me stories of informal discussion they held with unsuccessful applicants, I am sometimes troubled. What troubles me is that the well-meant emphasis on helping the unsuccessful applicants to develop (through training, mentoring, acting experience, etc.) seems to be used in some cases as a means to avoid telling the applicants that they just didn’t cut it.

I get the sense that many managers escape their responsibility by embellishing or even disguising the truth to the extent where the applicants leave the informal discussion with an inflated sense of self. Could it be that our parenting-style – which dictates that parents should protect the self-esteem of their kids at all cost – has made its way into the workplace? Is it right to protect the self-esteem of employees by providing feedback with little basis in reality?

The informal discussion – just like the performance appraisal – is a time for a reality check with the applicant, and no matter how hard it may be, truth must be told.

If I am so concerned, it is because these practices are already widespread in the public service; we have simply known them under different names. We see the symptoms in offices where the poor performance of some employees is left unaddressed by managers. We see the consequences whenever a supervisor has to entirely rewrite a memo drafted by a subordinate because it is of such bad quality. By shutting our eyes in front of poor performance – or even by simply failing to call it for what it really is – we are actually telling the employee: “This is fine work”.[11]

Similarly, by giving false feedback to an unsuccessful applicant whose performance is not up to par, we are actually telling him: “You did pretty good, so keep on doing what you are doing.” Before long, the employee will truly believe that he is that good. How exactly will that help the manager the day he needs to inform the employee that his performance is not up to expectations and he is not delivering results? The manager who doesn’t tell an unsuccessful applicant why he was really eliminated, for fear of disappointing him or to avoid a conflict situation, is in fact planting the seeds of a serious (and much more painful) confrontation down the line.

The solution is actually quite simple – yet extremely difficult: it takes courage. “The overwhelming majority of us don’t want to think of ourselves as cowardly. [But] under pressure, some good people silently choose inaction and tolerate the unheroic long-term destructive consequence of fear. […] Courage improves relationships as surely as cowardice degrades them. Courage is the lever of leadership, while cowardice invites its collapse.” [12]

The key task of a manager is to manage performance and it must start on day one, with staffing.

Key Principles That Should Drive Your Staffing Process
“Truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”
– H. Norman Schwarzkopf

1. Involve your HR professionals, all the hiring managers (in the case of a collective staffing process) and the union, throughout the process. They are key stakeholders in the process. Keep in mind the spirit of the Public Service Modernization Act and involve the union in a meaningful way. Don’t make decisions for the managers or constrain them to the extent where they feel like they are not equipped to make the right appointment decision. After all, they are the ones with the delegation of authority in staffing!

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate (in a proactive, timely and sustained manner). The applicants should be at the centre of the entire staffing process. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it is like to apply on your process. Are you being clear enough? Are you addressing their concerns? Make the applicants accountable by giving them all the information they need so that they will take responsibility and ownership for their results. Remember: “All problems are due fundamentally to either a breakdown in communications or making the wrong assumptions; the key to success is to manage expectations.” [13]

3. Be upfront about everything. Don’t assume that the applicants understand what your intents and expectations are. What exactly is it that you are looking for? What are the rules of engagement for the applicants who take part in the staffing process? Treat the applicants the way you would like to be treated. Keep in mind that what people don’t know, they will make it up. Stop the rumor mill before it even starts.

4. Be honest and tell it like it is. Don’t hide, delay, soften or sugarcoat the bad news. If an applicant did poorly in the staffing process, don’t make him believe that he did well – he didn’t. Don’t relieve the applicant’s personal responsibility for his results. Straight talk accomplishes miracles, even if at first the truth may upset some people. “We need to grow a culture of honesty in which people can face reality together, dig deeper than was their habit, and commit themselves to facing reality, even when it's hard and uncomfortable to do so.” [14]

5. Do everything possible to avoid losing the applicants to the process rather than merit. Recognize that subjectivity and biases are an inherent part of staffing and overcome this challenge through accessibility, fairness and transparency in order to find the right fit. Don’t seek objectivity to the point where you will lose some good applicants for the wrong reasons. The first step toward having a bias-free process is still to have everyone involved acknowledge their own personal bias; only then can we have an open and honest dialogue. To quote Charles P. Curtis: “There are only two ways to be unprejudiced and impartial. One is to be completely ignorant. The other is to be completely indifferent. Bias and prejudice are attitudes to be kept in hand, not attitudes to be avoided.”

Notes:[1] Laliberté, Etienne. “Contrarian Thinking”. .
[2] Farson Richard. “Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership”. 1997.
[3] Gilovich, Thomas and Gary Belsky. “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes”. 2001.
[4] Edwards, Robert G. “Project Management: Welcome Opportunity or Awesome Burden”. 2002.
[5] LeGault, Michael R. “Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t be Made in the Blink of an Eye”. 2006.
[6] Mark Stevens defines political correctness as the “triumph of sensitivity over truth” (“Your Management Sucks”, 2006). Michael R. LeGault adds: “Political correctness asks, demands, that we put our critical thinking and questioning on hold in favor of preapproved, safe stances and opinions.” (“Think!”, 2006)
[7] Quinn, Robert. “Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within”. 1996.
[8] Whenever I’m told that the new PSEA opens up the door to abuse of authority, I don’t try to deny the fact. It’s actually quite reassuring to know that abuse of authority is on everyone’s radar. It reminds the managers that they are accountable for their actions and it keeps the others around alert to signs of abuse. I would be much more concerned if people would believe that the new PSEA is so great that there’s absolutely no risk of abuse of authority.
[9] Favouritism should not be confused with “two people who have a history of working well together and delivering results”. Unfortunately, favouritism is often used to overshadow the actual merit of the successful applicant by falsely pretending that the relationship with the manager got the applicant appointed in spite of merit.
[10] This seems to be similar to the current trend observed in school, colleges and universities, where more and more students get A’s, even when their performance doesn’t justify it. (For an interesting perspective on the matter, see:
[11] This is why I don’t believe it is necessarily a good idea to call a weakness an area of improvement. Area of improvement almost makes it sound like the employee should deserve an award for his sub-performance! It is also impersonal, as if the performance was entirely beyond the employee’s control. Identifying areas of improvement gives the wrong impression that 1) a minimal increment in performance will be sufficient, and 2) the employee doesn’t really have to do anything about it – the manager will. At least a weakness requires ownership!
[12] Lee, Gus. “Courage: The Backbone of Leadership”. 2006.
[13] For a good example, you may consult the document entitled “Beyond the Staffing Values: Communicating with Applicants and Managing Expectations Under the New Public Service Employment Act” available at (accessible through the government intranet only). The appendix contains all the key communications of my organization’s first collective staffing process.
[14] Bodaken, Bruce and Robert Fritz. “The Managerial Moment of Truth: The Essential Step in Helping People Improve Performance”. 2006