Hiring Policies for Federal Government Jobs

The most-used method for getting hired into federal government jobs is through the competitive examining process. The Office of Personnel Management has delegated authority to agencies to examine for all positions although in some cases agencies use OPM services under contract. In addition, OPM maintains standing registers of applicants in certain common occupations from which agencies may select candidates. (Note: Until mid-2018, OPM conducted competitive assessments and maintained a register of qualified administrative law judge candidates, from which agencies with vacancies would choose. However, agencies now hire for those positions through excepted service procedures, subject to general qualifications rules set by OPM.)

Jobs announced under this process are open to all. However, there are also numerous other hiring authorities, which are called “appointing” authorities, since technically speaking federal employees are appointed into jobs, not hired into them.

These are the main categories of career positions:

  • Career: Appointments are made through a government-wide or “all sources” merit staffing (competitive) process, including recruitment through a published announcement, rating and ranking of eligible candidates, and establishment of OPM-created or -approved qualification standards.
  • Career-conditional: Appointments are for permanent positions in the competitive service and are generally the initial positions for new hires. Appointees must complete a one-year probationary period and a total of three years of creditable service in total (note: until a policy change in 2016, the three years had to be continuous) under a permanent appointment to attain a career appointment. Gaining career status provides certain advantages over career-conditional status in reductions in force and in reinstatement rights for those involuntarily separated through no fault of their own.
  • Career excepted service (non-Schedule C): Appointments involve agency positions that are not subject to competitive hiring examination. Agencies have authority to establish their own hiring procedures to fill excepted service vacancies. Such procedures must comply with statutory requirements such as merit systems principles and veteran’s preference, when applicable.
  • Career Senior Executive Service. See Senior Executive Service Qualifications & Pay.

Former career and career-conditional employees may be appointed by reinstatement, but time limits may apply. Transfer and reinstatement eligibles may be required to compete under a merit promotion program.

Whether the candidate pool is limited to only current and former employees or whether it is open to outsiders as well, candidate assessment is normally carried out in a series of steps, the early stages of which center on the human resources functions and the latter stages of which focus on managers and supervisors.

The government’s central point of contact for job vacancies and applications is www.usajobs.gov, although many individual agencies post vacancies and accept applications through their own sites and in paper format.

The first candidate assessment step, done by an agency “delegated examining unit” or by an OPM service center, involves determining whether an applicant meets the basic qualification standards for the job. Certain other reviews also usually occur at this stage but sometimes are conducted later in the process.

Each examining unit or service center is responsible for threshold assessment decisions: how to assess candidates and what tools to use for that purpose. These include reviews of medical or physical examinations and reviews of background or personal history information that may bear on an individual’s eligibility, suitability, or fitness for federal employment. (Note: All relevant experience, including as a volunteer with national service programs or with other organizations, is considered in determining qualifications. Agencies are to make this clear in their vacancy announcements. Candidates are then ranked and referred to the hiring official, typically the manager of the function with the vacancy.

For federal government jobs, category rating is key

Under the category rating process for federal government jobs, the agency assesses candidates against job-related criteria and then places candidates into two or more pre-defined categories. The categories must be distinct from one another and clearly differentiate between the relative qualities of candidates in each. For example, an agency could adopt a two-category system in which the higher category is used for those candidates who meet minimum qualifications and are highly proficient in all the requirements of the job, while the lower category is reserved for those candidates who meet the minimum qualifications and are proficient in some, but not all, of the requirements of the job.

The category rating process provides for selections to be made from the highest category or, if fewer than three candidates have been assigned to the highest quality category, in a merged category consisting of the highest and the second-highest quality categories. If a preference eligible veteran is in the category, an agency may not select a non-preference eligible unless the agency requests to pass over the preference eligible, and its request is approved.

A candidate in the highest group who is not selected can be considered for a similar job anywhere else within the department.

In addition to this standard competitive hiring process, there are numerous special hiring authorities that may be used in certain situations.

Under a Presidential memo of January 31, 2014, agencies may not place applicants, including internal government applicants, at an undue disadvantage because the applicant is experiencing financial difficulty through no fault of the applicant (such as an extended period of unemployment), if the applicant has made a good-faith effort to meet his or her financial obligations.

The assessment of newly hired employees does not end with their appointment but must undergo a trial period called the probationary period. The standard probationary period is one year, although in some cases it can be longer; at the Defense Department, for example, the standard period is two years. During this time, new employees are subject to firing with very limited appeal rights. At the end of the period they gain a greater range of due process rights. Note: Those newly appointed to supervisory, managerial and senior executive positions must serve an additional probationary period in which their performance in those duties is assessed; those deemed not successful generally would be returned to a position comparable to the one they left, not removed.