Normally when I write about HR, I do so as a public servant talking to other public servants on how to prepare for competitions. I might draw on my own experiences competing or running processes from the other side of the table. But rarely do I write as simply a manager talking about my job. Today, I’m frustrated with the tools available to me as a manager for a specific type of non-advertised appointment process. I apologize for the upfront context, but it takes a bit to get us to where the problem comes up. If you already know all about non-advertised appointments, you can skip to the “But what if…” heading below.
Most managers know that all PS staffing, maybe even all of HR outside of leave and benefits, is about “demonstrating merit”. Performance measurement, documentation, competitions i.e., selection processes, it almost all comes down to how we demonstrate merit.
In staffing, we generally have a matrix combining the elements to be demonstrated down the vertical axis while across we have a box for the lines of evidence. In most processes, we have:
- Basic eligibility for status and location of work (i.e., some jobs are restricted to internal candidates only or regional areas)
- Personal Suitability;
- Expanded eligibility for security and language profile; and.
- Organizational Needs.
Everyone in the federal government system knows those elements, there’s nothing “new” there. But every one of those elements has different lines of evidence available for it, and it depends heavily on whether we are talking about an advertised process or a non-advertised process.
This is the presumed default in government. If we want to run a staffing process, we theoretically will advertise the job, post its availability, welcome applicants who feel they can meet the Statement of Merit Criteria that addresses the eight general areas mentioned above, and then test them.
If I’m running a full process, basic eligibility is determined by the application filling in certain details in the application portal followed by verification by the internal Government system that tracks where you work, etc. You can’t “fake” your way past this, the system will check to make sure you’re working in Vancouver if that’s the regional limit and that you’re indeterminate. If you’re term and in Calgary? You’re out. Simple proof, easily checked. Some of it manual, some of it automated.
For Education, we ask for proof (a) that you have a degree that you claim to and (b) it covers the discipline you said it did. How do we get this? We ask you to provide it — a letter confirming your graduation issued by the university, a copy of your diploma, something formal.
For Experience, we ask you to write how you meet every criterion we ask about and the ONUS is on YOU to prove you meet that element. If you don’t “prove” it well enough, you’re out. If you don’t meet it, you’re out. We won’t chase you for more details. One attempt and done. (Well, unless there’s confusion about something, we may ask.)
Knowledge is a pain in the butt to “test” directly, so many positions are starting to limit heavily the knowledge component in certain job categories. But if they’re there, we test you. How you do = whether you pass.
For abilities and personal suitability, again, we have to test you. We can do that directly through written tests or interviews, or indirectly through references. How you do = whether you pass.
For security, we do a security check; for language, we do language testing. Again, if you pass the tests, you pass that element. If you fail, you’re out.
Organizational needs are often more about prioritizing between candidates for inclusion or overtime, but again, the lines are pretty clear.
Are you seeing what I’m saying here? All of the “evidence” for demonstration of merit is generated directly by the competition. Nothing else is required. You were tested, you passed, you demonstrated your “merit” on the criteria, you can be appointed. We don’t have to demonstrate that you are better than everyone else out there, just that you were tested and you met all the elements. After that, we choose the one that is the best fit from the list.
For a NA process, it means I didn’t run a full competition/selection process. Which means that I didn’t generate all those lines of evidence to say you are qualified. Instead, I have to show how you meet each of those elements individually. Because I’m using my discretionary authority to appoint someone without advertising the position to everyone out there, I have to demonstrate that you meet the requirements and that my approach is reasonable. This is the flexibility that was granted back in 2005 to stop having to run long processes to pick the best candidate possible in a laboriously ranked order.
Now, let’s go back to the same elements as the Advertised process.
For basic eligibility, it’s not quite as relevant. Instead of limiting the process to people who are already in government or in my area of work, the rationale is more about the individual. Still, whatever is decided, the lines of evidence are clear. I pull them from the system or the person. I don’t have to call their mother to find out if it’s true, I accept the system’s information as to their status and their CV as their address, I don’t have to become a forensic detective or go interview your neighbours.
For education, I do the same as for advertised appointments. I ask you for proof of education in the form of a university letter/printout or a copy of your degree. That is sufficient. I do not call your university, talk to your professors and grill them on whether you really should have passed third-year macroeconomics. I trust that the institution adequately assessed you, I don’t need to repeat that assessment.
I’m going to jump ahead and dispense with Security and Language Profile as they are the exact same for any position. The security office does the clearance, the PSC tests your language. I don’t repeat those assessments myself as hiring manager, I accept that those other government institutions are doing their job properly and that is sufficient evidence if they say “Yes to Secret clearance” and “Yes to BBB language profile”.
For organizational needs, I trust the system to determine if you meet the self-assessment commitments. If you say you’re willing to work occasional overtime, I do not as a manager call up your spouse and kids to see if that’s true. I don’t go on your social media profiles to see if you’re involved in 20 volunteer activities at night that will prevent you from working OT. I trust the system, I take what comes out of it.
Which means that, if I’m trying to appoint someone under my authority as manager, I generally rely on the system for the above criteria but I need to demonstrate myself that the proposed appointee meets the merit criteria for Experience, Knowledge, Abilities and Personal Suitability. Those are for you to prove to me and for me to document / justify that you do, in fact, meet the requirements.
How do I do that? First and foremost, if the person was in an advertised pool that I can reference, I jump back to the other section and just pull directly from that pool. If my branch ran a pool, even if I wasn’t involved, I can likely pull directly from it. But those pools are limited as to who can pull from them, and has to be set when the process starts. I can’t pull directly from it if I’m not part of the original scope; their authority, their pool, their process. If I wasn’t part of it, I end up here in non-advertised.
Second, if I can’t pull from a pool, I have to rely on other lines of evidence to prove merit. What are my best sources to prove a candidate can do the job?
The first option is actually a trick, as it is not really considered a true non-advertised appointment. If you are indeterminate and working as a PM-02 at Agriculture Canada, for example, the system says I don’t have to “justify” appointing you to a PM-02 position at Health Canada, I can just deploy you. The “evidence” of your abilities is that you are ALREADY a PM-02 and already at-level. Someone else already tested you to appoint you there and I don’t have to repeat that justification process. I do a basic rationale for “why you” and how you generally match the profile of what I’m looking for, but it’s a “light touch” for justification. I even have options to deploy across categories, although that isn’t quite as light, so long as it isn’t a promotion. My evidence is that you were doing an “equivalent” job and I don’t have to go ask your old colleagues if that job was a real job, or interrogate your boss to see if they knew what they were doing when they appointed you to that other category in the first place. Two specific examples where this shows up is in a workforce adjustment situation i.e., you were declared surplus somewhere else but are an equivalent level, or are a former public servant who was previously active at the same level. The evidence was already provided when you were appointed to that level, I don’t have to repeat it, I just have to reference it (often with a copy of your previous appointment letter).
After that, the second category is basically “already demonstrated in the job“. What better evidence could I have that you can do the job than if you are already doing it? If you are a term employee or you were acting in the position, that’s pretty solid ground. I’ll have to document everything based on my own observation of your abilities, which is not a small paper process, but I don’t need to “re-test” you, my previous observation is enough. My bosses will need to agree, and maybe a workforce management committee, so I can’t just go crazy and do whatever I want, but I don’t have to put the candidates through a separate process or re-test them or investigate their past. The work experience in the job is the evidence. In the same boat, if you were doing a job that grew, say dealing with finances and it expands over the course of 3-4 years, HR may reclassify the job from an AS-02 to an AS-03 on the basis that the job grew. If you were in the job and did the new duties, you may be reclassified too since you’ve demonstrated the ability to do it. No other testing and investigation required. Doing the job is the main proof.
The third category is somewhat similar dealing with demonstrated capacity. Suppose for example that you are in a developmental program. You’ve been a PM-02 for 2 years, was given some additional responsibilities, someone looked at your abilities as part of the training program, already completed a performance assessment of you, and agreed you are ready to move up to a PM-03. Talent management programs can be used the same way. Past performance says you’re ready to assume more responsibilities. I don’t have to re-test you, you’ve already been assessed. I just have to point to their findings.
A fourth category is a bit of a catchall for exceptions. Sometimes the government runs a speed recruitment event where graduates (for example) are milling about and get interviewed by managers. It’s not quite a full process, so it’s considered non-advertised, but special recruitment campaigns sometimes have special rules to demonstrate merit with a lighter touch. Often to recruit candidates with specific profiles who are hard to reach.
Alternatively, there is a quirk within the federal government. All of our staffing is generally done by government departments that are, for all intents and purposes, the same. And we can move from one to the other easily, as we all have the same rules with TBS as our employer. These departments are called “core public administration”. But then there are Schedule V departments like the National Capital Commission. They are government, yes, but they have their own special legislation and authorities, and their own HR rules, so we can’t deploy someone from there directly using a normal “exemption” method. Instead, I can use a non-advertised approach, demonstrate merit, and while I hesitate to call it a lighter touch, it isn’t so much about demonstrating they individually are qualified as much as saying, “Look, here’s Jane. She works at NCC. She’s a finance officer, fully qualified, and if we could deploy her directly, she’d be an AS-03. But because NCC is on Schedule V, we can’t deploy her direct. So we’re appointing her to the same level and pay, it’s not a promotion, it’s a lateral across formal departmental lines”, and we reference her old appointment status. We still have to demonstrate that they meet the requirements, but they’re less risk since they’re already “at-level”, so to speak.
So let’s assume I’ve found a candidate and I’m ready to appoint them, either based on one of the four categories above or they are just awesome and I feel I can justify it directly. I need to write my rationale and I haven’t given them a formal test of every element since it wasn’t a full competition / selection process. Instead, I have to refer to:
- Direct observation if they already worked for me;
- Anything we discussed while interviewing them (informally) or from reference checks;
- What was in their CV;
- Writing or work samples we may have requested;
- What was in their training results or performance agreements (if they were part of developmental program or talent management, for example);
- Evidence from a special project they might have been part of to demonstrate their abilities;
The farther they are from the job I’m appointing them to, the more work I have to do to justify it. If they were in a full developmental program, I might have all the evidence I need from that to point to easily. If I’m just interviewing them and doing reference checks, I have to craft a more detailed narrative to show how they demonstrated merit. I have to justify why I am appointing them using a non-advertised process since they weren’t fully tested through an open competition.
But what if they WERE tested, just not by me?
I said at the top that there were more or less two buckets — advertised and non-advertised. But that isn’t exactly accurate. There is another sub-category within the non-advertised. Instead of two buckets, there are three:
- Advertised appointment where the candidate was fully tested by me
- A non-advertised process where I am crafting a full narrative to demonstrate merit
- A non-advertised process where the candidate was fully tested by someone else but I can’t appoint from it like #1 because I don’t have direct authority/access to the process.
This third category comes up all the time. Another department runs a competitive selection process, the candidate makes the pool, and yet the other department has perhaps 3 jobs, and 15 people made the pool. That means 12 people were found completely qualified in the pool, by another branch of government, they’ve been FULLY tested and assessed, but I can’t pull directly from the pool.
Which is fine, that I can’t pull from it, but most departments recognize that the person made that other pool, and ask in the appointment process at this department, “Did the person qualify in another process? AND did that process assess all the elements in the Statement of Merit that match the new job”? In other words, if they qualified in a job at Agriculture Canada, were the requirements of that job substantively the same as the one you want to appoint them to at Health?
The point of asking that question is clear. The person is not “John or Jane Doe” off the street, we have another department that has fully assessed them. They are deemed to be qualified. I check the SOMC, find out that almost all of the main elements are the same, and as a manager, I’m thinking, “That’s pretty dang good evidence.”
So I go to write my narrative to say, “Look, Jane participated in a full process at Agriculture, they didn’t select her after she made the pool, the criteria are substantively the same”. My evidence is that she received a letter from the other department confirming she qualified in the pool. Just like a university letter confirms the person has a degree. I don’t grill professors to see if they were a good student, I don’t write my rationale about how they did in each course they took trying to pull info from the professor about their best essay, I rely on that existing evaluation to say, “Look, they’re qualified.”
Most departments use these other pools and in the narrative say:
Experience in providing advice –> Demonstrated in a staffing process –> Process #xxxxxxxxx at Agriculture, see letter on file.
That is it. That’s your evidence. Another department with the same rules, same experience you were requiring for your job, easy peasy lemon squeezy. You don’t need to re-assess it. Perhaps, if you’re feeling expansive, you might add a line or two to say “Acquired at dept X and Y, 2017-2019, as per CV.” if you want a second line of evidence. But that is all they do.
If they come to an element that WASN’T tested by the other process, such as “experience in representing the department at academic conferences”, then as a manager, I’m going to have to write a longer narrative for that element. I’m going to have to say what other evidence I have from interviews, reference checks, etc. All of the lines I mentioned above. But I should NOT have to reassess elements that were already tested by another department. I trust that they did their job properly and I should be able to directly reference the process. A “lighter” touch by a factor of ten. And much faster than retesting every element myself.
So why am I frustrated?
Because my department doesn’t do that. Yes, they ask me if the candidate made another pool. Yes, they ask me if the other pool had the same requirements. In the instance I’m frustrated with, the requirements are not just similar, they are IDENTICAL. So I wrote my rationale and said what other departments say, noted above. “Qualified in pool X that assessed this element, letter of proof on file.”
Nope, that was insufficient. Instead, I have had to write an entire appointment rationale as if the person NEVER qualified in that other pool. I can’t reference it as evidence of anything. Sure, they asked me if they qualified and was the pool the same, but the “proof” I have to provide? It’s the same whether they did or not.
Instead of using the work that the other department already did, I have had to write about 5000 words to justify the appointment, despite the fact that the person has ALREADY been tested on EVERY element. I have had to spend hours crafting the narrative, lifting examples from their CV, original cover letter, interview with them, and their reference checks, as if that other qualification was completely irrelevant.
Instead of letting me fast-track someone who has already been tested and therefore already demonstrated their merit on every criterion, I throw them in the same slush pile as John or Jane Doe off the street.
The power to do a non-advertised appointment of someone is not insignificant. It has to be wielded with care, and used with due sense of responsibility and oversight. But it shouldn’t be bogged down in bureaucratic nonsense to re-evaluate elements that have already been tested through a formal process. Ironically, if I was pulling directly from the pool, I wouldn’t even be allowed to reassess anything. The original test was sufficient and I would be BLOCKED from attempting further assessment.
But, hey, it’s only a manager’s time to write and everyone else’s time to read? Why would I want us to do it efficiently when we can instead repeat the work that another department already did? Maybe we should go further and ask all people with economics degrees to retake an economics test in case their university didn’t do a good enough job teaching them. Or that their elementary school didn’t teach them to read. Or that their parents didn’t teach them to tie their shoes.
If I didn’t need the person, I’d be tempted to dig in my heels and fight the process tooth and nail. It is broken and needs to be fixed by someone. Unfortunately, I have other fires burning right now and I can’t take this fight on.
And I think that is what frustrates me most. To see a clear problem with a clear solution, to have to fight to implement it, and not have the time to do it when other priorities loom.