yes, government interviews suck — but here’s how you can do well in them anyway

I complain with some frequency here about how awful most government interviews are: They often stick to a pre-set list of questions that they ask all candidates, don’t deviate from the list at all (which is crazy, because some of the most useful information comes from digging in with follow-up questions about a candidate’s answers), refuse to allow themselves to consider information about the candidate outside the formal interview process and application, and otherwise insist on treating everyone the same to a degree that hamstrings them in making good hiring decisions.

A regular reader who frequently sits on government hiring panels decided to shed some light on these practices. She writes:

I’ve been a fan of your blog for quite a while, and a couple years ago you were kind enough to answer my question about my fiance (now husband) getting hired by my employer. So, I’m hoping I can give back. I work for a government entity that does those terrible panel interviews, and as a hiring manager forced to use this system and a not-infrequent panel member, I thought I could offer some tips that you may find useful for your readers.

First, here’s a bit about how my municipal government does interviews:

* All interviews are done by a panel. The hiring manager is on the panel but at least two members of the panel have to be in different areas of the organization than the hiring manager. I am an attorney and have recently sat on panels for engineers and heavy equipment operators.

* Each applicant for a position has to be asked the same questions, and the panelists must rank each answer on the same numerical scale. The panelists will have a cheat sheet of suggested answers to compare the applicants’ answers to. Applicants may not be hired if they score below a 70 out of 100, even if the hiring manager scored them much better than the rest of the panel. (This is to fight the corrupt hiring practices from many years ago – “good ol’ boys network” doesn’t even begin to cover it – but at this point it goes way too far.)

* Technically, we are not allowed to deviate from the script at all, but enforcement of this is dependent upon the HR person in the room, and personally I ask all sorts of follow-up questions as long as I can get away with it.

Here are some tips for people who find themselves in this sort of interview.

1. See if you can find out ahead of time whether this will be your interview format. If you’re interviewing with a government entity, odds are pretty good that some version of this is what’s going to happen. When HR is scheduling the interview, ask about the format so you’re less thrown if you walk into it.

2. Don’t shut down! A panel of people with weird job titles can be totally intimidating. Do your best to maintain the pleasant, professional demeanor you would in any other interview.

3. If you can get in other comments about your relevant experience, DO IT. If the question is “Do you have experience in Microsoft Excel?” tell us how you’ve used Excel extensively for three years and can do pivot tables, but ALSO tell us about how you used Excel to analyze a massive amount of data and solve a critical problem at your current job. The risk here is that a checked-out panel member will mark you down for talking too much, but I think that risk is definitely outweighed by the potential benefit of being able to communicate important information about your abilities that will likely be appreciated by the hiring manager and anyone else on the panel who is invested in the process.

4. Do your best to read the room. When you are introduced to the panel, remember who the hiring manager is and pay the most attention to the vibes you’re getting from that person. If everyone else seems to be picking up what you’re putting down, but you’re only getting angry stares from the hiring manager, you could end up in a position where your future boss was forced to hire you when she didn’t want to. Do your best to bring her around during the interview. At the same time, don’t get discouraged if you seem to be losing one of the non-hiring panel members. A lot of times after the candidate leaves the room, the panelists will ask the hiring manager how close an applicant was to the “ideal” answer if they lack the expertise to judge a given answer.

5. Ask questions at the end! Even though this is a highly formalized process, that does not mean that you should leave without gathering the information YOU need to determine if the position is right for you. Even though there might not be a formal way for the panelists to score you on this, I will go back to my scores and adjust upwards if someone asks good, intelligent questions that show interest and motivation at the end of the interview.

6. Send a thank you note to the HR rep. It will have absolutely no impact on whether or not you get the job, but the person who scheduled your interview is probably the gatekeeper to how quickly you get information about the hiring decision and it might improve your chances of getting timely responses to any follow-up questions you need to ask.

7. Do not try to guess how it went or whether you got the job based on the interview. Alison advises against over-analysis of comments made during or after an interview and I cannot stress that enough in these situations. In addition to the numerical scores given on the interview itself (which you will never be able to see, don’t even try asking), there are likely additional scores based on your resume and weighting factors like military service and prior experience with the government entity. I have been on a panel where all the panel members ranked one candidate the highest (and I’m sure he could tell that we were really happy with his answers) but another candidate got the position due to the other weighting factors.

A couple other thoughts…

Does this process suck? Yes. Totally. Completely. It sucks for the candidates, it sucks for the panelists and it really sucks for the hiring managers. As a hiring manager it can be wholly infuriating. It takes forever, and at the end you don’t really know that you got the best candidate for the job.

Does anyone actually think this process is good? As far as I can tell, in the government I work for, no. But there is a fear of returning to the bad old days of croneyism or looking like you want to return to the bad old days of cronyism.

Should this interview process turn you off from government work? NO! If there’s a job that sounds like a good fit, stick it out! This hiring process is not necessarily a reflection on the organization you’re interviewing with or the manager you would be working for. But this is why it is especially important to ask questions since it will be hard for you to pick up cues about fit from the interview. Also, if you’re still not sure about fit at the offer stage, don’t hesitate to ask the person extending the offer (usually HR) if you can speak to the hiring manager directly. You might just get a phone call with them, but a short meeting might not be out of the question depending on their schedule. Before you make a decision, get as much information as possible about whether the job is a good fit for you.

{ 135 comments… read them below }

  1. De Minimis*

    I want to add too that it can totally vary. I’m a federal employee and my interview was just a regular interview. But I’ve interviewed for county government jobs and also quasi-governmental agencies that were a mix between ultra-structured interviews and the more traditional kind.

    Preparation is key for any interview, but I think especially for these. If things start not going well it can be really difficult to get things back on track due to the structure. I’ve been in that situation and I hate to say it but they were probably among my worst interview experiences.

    And now I’m looking at a lot of these type jobs again, so this post is really timely for me!

    1. Stephanie*

      I was hired under FCIP (which I think no longer exists) as a fed and also had a pretty straightforward set of interviews (all via phone since I was a long-distance candidate).

      1. De Minimis*

        I think they have something else now called Pathways….not sure how it works, other than I don’t qualify for any of them since I graduated too long ago.

      2. Clever Name*

        Yeah, the only two interviews I’ve had with the federal government were for the FCIP program. All of my other applications went into the black hole of USAJobs.

        My interviews with state government jobs were definitely a panel with set questions. It was actually pretty intimidating.

        My interview for my first job, for a city government, was probably a panel interview, but the hiring manager, my then future boss, was probably so good at making the questions seem less stuffy and standardized that it felt like a normal interview.

    2. JC*

      Yes, +1 to this. The world of government in the US (federal, state, and local) is enormous, and experiences can vary widely, even for people who work in the same government agency. I used to be a federal employee and my husband currently is, and we both had “normal” interviews for our jobs without a preset list of questions. But even then, there were differences in our processes. For example, he did not have to apply for his job through USAjobs and could send in a regular resume and cover letter, and got paid travel to the (non-local) interview; I had the more “traditional” experience of having to fill out a questionnaire and write answers to questions on USAjobs, and my interview travel was not paid.

    3. Rindle*

      Yep. I’m a federal employee. My first position included an interview process identical to what I’ve experienced in the private sector. My second position (promotion) was a three-person panel with many of the characteristics described above. There were six questions, no back and forth, no follow up questions – awkward, awful, stilted, ridiculous. (And I knew 2 of the 3 interviewers well!)

      1. De Minimis*

        We had a person in our department move to a different position with the same department when a vacancy came up. She had to interview with her current managers. She got the job, but I know they interviewed others and I think it might have gone to someone else if she hadn’t done well.

        I still don’t know what criteria decides which interview format is used….though it seems like the higher the position, the more likely they will go with the panel format. But it seems like the really hard to fill positions for which they actively recruit people seem to go the other way….very relaxed, and almost a case of the tables being turned to where they are hoping to impress the applicant into agreeing to work there.

  2. fposte*

    I’ll note that in my state university the actual supervisor *cannot* be on the hiring committee–finalists have a separate meeting with the manager.

    1. BRR*

      What?!?! Some of the crazy rules I don’t agree with but at least I understand why people would suggest them.

      Does the manager get any say in who is hired?

      1. fposte*

        Yes, the hiring committee officially makes a recommendation to the manager, who is free to reject that recommendation.

        I think it’s another thing that’s supposed to limit cronyism. Basically, attempts at cronyism will be punished with massive paperwork.

        1. LBK*

          What sucks, though, is that some of my “friends” are people I grew to like because I worked with them and they kicked ass at their jobs. I suppose in theory that means they would crush even this ridiculous interview process and be hirable anyway, but the idea that I would have to jump through a ton of hoops to hire someone whose job performance I actually have firsthand experience with makes me shudder.

          1. fposte*

            In practice, personal experience with a candidate is seriously relevant information, and internal candidates often are hired. In theory, this makes it harder to hire friends instead of, say, more qualified minorities. I don’t know whether it really does that or not, but I sure hope so–it’s a lot of work to go through if it doesn’t have the desired result.

            1. Student*

              I was at a large state university without any such process.

              I can tell you that the professors did, in fact, hire primarily through cronyism. They also promoted through cronyism. It was very novel to work in the middle of the midwest in a place where you had to speak fluent German to get the top promotions. There were no American professors. The Asian professors only hired other Asians, primarily from their home country and from recommendations of their buddies. The German professors hired mostly Germans, a scattering of other western Europeans, and occasional Americans, at the recommendation of their buddies. They all hired men for any important position, with occasional spousal hires for women in middle-management or lower positions to keep HR from bothering them. Women who weren’t spousal hires were extremely rare and all at the low end of the career ladder.

              Lots of times they didn’t even bother with an interview, even though most of the positions were publicly posted. They just hired the people they knew, or people who’d worked with their friends, directly with no questions. And, to add insult to injury, all of these jobs were paid for through American tax dollars from grants through government agencies.

              1. AVP*

                I’m not at a state university, but you’ve just described 100% my boss’s chosen process for hiring people. Thank goodness (after a series of truly terrible hiring decisions) the ability to hire was wrestled away from him years ago and we follow the normal process now, with very limited input from him.

              2. fposte*

                It sounds like you might be talking about student hiring. Most student positions aren’t subject to the state requirements at my university either.

                1. Student*

                  Nope. I’m talking primarily about positions paying $100k -$250k. Post-docs on the low end at ~$60k, but also professors, lab directors, business managers. The guy spending $1B taxpayer dollars to build a new facility over the next few years, and all his attendant full time staff (~>100 of them). The only part of this division of the university that I worked for with a decent number of Americans and women was the student labor, because they couldn’t pay relocation fees or get visas for cronies/children of cronies as easily.

                  They got at least a few cronies that I know of sweet jobs that they didn’t even need to show up to most of the time. Middle-management positions on a remote basis. They fly in (paid for by the job) once every few months to say hi to their buddies, pull a >$100k salary, then fly back to their homes (and full-time primary jobs!) in California. Talking extensively to their “direct reports”, these guys didn’t do squat. Didn’t manage their teams, didn’t know what projects were happening, didn’t talk to direct reports for months at a time. They were just yes-men to “approve” decisions by the guy who’d hired them.

                2. fposte*

                  Now you’ve got me intrigued. Is it that you’re in a state with no state hiring guidelines, or that the university only goes through the motions or finds loopholes? Is this a current situation?

                3. Student*

                  The state has rules, and parts of the university seem to follow the rules. The department that I spent ~10 years in didn’t. They eventually made a shadow HR department so that they could more easily circumvent inconvenient rules. Shadow HR has people who report directly to and were hired by one of the crony-favoring folks at the top of the department. Shadow HR stands between anything this department does and the “real” central HR. I have no idea why the university central HR would allow them to do that, but they did.

                  They actually settled a lawsuit about the “can’t get a promotion here if you don’t speak German” complaint.

                  They actively violate general university rules on the number of levels of management that need to stand between two closely related people, like spouses or children. In addition to all their other violations, non-Asian minorities need not apply; blacks were less than 1% of the department, with 3 at most employed at one time, and Hispanics got similar numbers (Hispanics never made it past janitor and receptionist on the career hierarchy).

                  I’ve been gone for two years now, but they certainly didn’t look like they were going to change anything when I was headed out the door. The university is as unlikely to challenge their behavior as they are to start scrutinizing the football team’s behavior – too big to fail! There were so many management levels between anyone who cared and objected and someone outside the department’s influence that it’d be hard to get anyone to listen – you’d need the university president’s ear to even begin to fix the cultural problems there.

  3. Rowan*

    This sounds basically identical to the hiring process for support staff at every university at which I’ve worked as well. It’s terrible. I wonder how on earth they manage to hire some of the excellent people I work with!

  4. Sascha*

    This is really great advice! I work for a state university, which follows a lot of the same rules as state government. I am frequently on interview panels, and we have a similar, though less strict, format. I second all of this advice. Also, my experience with hiring at a state institution, and applying at other state institutions, is that the process is very, very slow. There are a lot of regulations to ensure fairness to all candidates, and that usually means the entire process takes a long time – like job postings have to be open for 30 days, we have to interview at least 3 people (and sometimes we don’t even get 3 applicants, so we have to wait until we do!), and HR vetting that is bureaucratic and tedious. So if you apply for a government job and don’t hear anything for at least a month, that’s not necessarily because you were rejected.

  5. Katie the Fed*

    This is a good list – but like De Minimis said this isn’t universally true for government hiring and it can vary a lot. There are also a lot of things that people *think* are required (even within the organization) that aren’t, like we will typically have a woman and/or minority person on the panel, but it’s not required.

    One thing that probably is universal, and I can’t stress this enough – answer the question. Don’t use the question as a chance to explain something else you want to say. Answer what they asked. If it’s a three part question, write it down and make sure you answer all three parts. I swear at least half of interviewees fail to answer the questions we’re asking.

    1. Gene*

      I have to agree with ATFQ!

      I work for a municipality and was recently part of a panel put together to review supplemental questionnaires. This was for a promotional position and it was fairly easy to figure out who the applicants were. The person who would probably have been the best choice was eliminated from the running because he just didn’t answer the asked questions; the header of the questionnaire stated “Answer each question in detail as to how you meet the requirements.” It was evident that he probably did meet the minimum qualifications, but he never came right out and said something like, “I am available to work all shifts”; instead saying (paraphrasing), “I have worked multiple shifts all my working life” when the question was, “Are you available to work all shifts?”

      Of the 8 or so questions, at least 6 were simple yes/no answers with explanation of the answer. Only one of those did he actually answer, the rest were like the example.

    2. AVP*

      I am genuinely curious here – what do you mean by “a three part question?” Do you read them three related questions at the same time, and then they have to answer all three parts, and then the panel moves onto the next one?

      1. Katie the Fed*

        For example:

        What do you think are the top three factors affecting Japan’s economy, and what policies would you recommend to fix them.

        1. De Minimis*

          I interviewed for the IRS a couple of times and they had some tricky ones—the type that didn’t have a technical right answer, but were asked to see how you prioritized competing tasks/issues that were occurring all at once with a lot of constraints. Stuff like you need to catch up on messages after you get back from vacation, this is your only day in the office this week before a training, you have 2 appointments for the afternoon but suddenly a taxpayer shows up with a representative to talk to you about his case, and you know a meeting will require 3-4 hours. What do you do?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            So I’m totally curious. It seems like the right answer should be to nicely tell the person they need to make an appointment – does the IRS consider that the right answer or do they prefer chaos?

            1. De Minimis*

              I never got an offer from them, so I guess my answer was always wrong!

              It was as a few years ago, so I don’t know if I am accurate in how I remember it….there may have been something in the question that discouraged you from taking that option…something like it was someone you’d been trying to meet with for some time and this was probably going to be your best opportunity to close their case. I think my answer basically involved putting off training and focusing on the tasks that directly involved closing cases. Apparently it wasn’t the right one. The question may have had the training taking up the remainder of the day instead of having appointments scheduled. There was something that made me decide to not do the training.

              A lot of their questions seemed to focus on time management. I think the few times I interviewed they always had one where you’d been working with a taxpayer for a while, you were reasonably sure you had maybe 60-70% of what you needed and you felt they had been completely honest and cooperative–how did you proceed? The right answer there seemed to be to start to wind things up and move to the next one.

          2. Katie the Fed*

            I’ve had a variation of this question in interviews. Like:

            You have a task from the Assistant Secretary, a question for the record from Congress, and one of your employees is having a crisis. What do you do?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              All of these seem so context dependent. What kind of crisis? How urgent is the request? What guidance have you had in the past about how to prioritize? Someone could get the right answer with 5 minutes of training but have a different answer in the interview.

              1. Katie the Fed*

                That’s kind of my answer – I think in this case they just want to know you understand how to prioritize, and there’s not really a right or wrong answer.

                Like, Congress would usually come first (they pay the bills) but I also want make sure that if my employee is having a crisis they’re being taken care of.

                So, I would check in with the employee, see what the issue is, refer them to the Employee Assistance Program if it’s not something I could help with right then, then the congressional task, then the assistant secretary, unless it’s supporting a policy meeting that afternoon, in which case I switch those. Or something.

                Or, you know – delegate and take the day off.

                1. anon for this*

                  My agency uses also uses questions where there really isn’t a right answer – although there may be wrong ones.

                  One example that I’ve seen used for a supervisory position
                  You and another supervisor are at the office. Your manager is gone for the day and has left you in charge. It is 6 pm. The waiting room is full of parolees and you have a prisoner in custody. The receptionist runs over to you, saying that she just received a phone call stating that there is a bomb in a box in the waiting room. What do you do and in which order? ( the unstated background is that this is the day parolees check in and therefore about 12 officers are present in addition to you, the other supervisor and the receptionist)
                  What’s the right answer? There are lots of right answers. There are plenty of wrong answers , too but the three worst answers I heard all went wrong on step 1 –
                  Call the manager
                  Figure out why the waiting room is full at 6pm
                  Open the box

                  I don’t think anyone was able to recover from those answers.

            2. Noelle*

              As someone who works for Congress, I’m guessing answering the question for the record does NOT take priority.

                1. Noelle*

                  Oh, believe me we know. I’m an oversight staffer too so I apologize for all of the extra work I have probably caused you!

    3. Waiting Patiently*

      After my first interview with a state agency for an investigative type job (fraud/child support and resources) –I knew I didn’t answer all 3 parts to one question. The whole process was just too stuffy and i felt like I was being interrogated. It felt like good cop and bad cop scenario. One guy said very little and the other guy was really chipper. I couldn’t get out there fast enough.
      But it was just that agency. The other two agency panel interview wasn’t that bad.

  6. Anonymous Govt Employee*

    This is annoying to government employees as well, but there is some greater service in mind too.

    Despite what many taxpayers believe, government entities are not really out there trying to find the best, most efficient employees or doing their job in the least expensive manner. They’re trying to find the best employee and do their job as cheaply as possible within the constraints of the law, rules, and regulations which often have a greater good in mind – like assisting veterans and disabled people to find good jobs, assisting small businesses, veteran, woman, minority-owned businesses get aheadby favoring them for goverment contracts, or revitalizing downtrodden areas. This does leave the government entities and employees hamstrung a lot of the times though. I believe that most try to do their best within the rules they have to operate under.

    1. KJ*

      That is a great point. I would also like to add that, as frustrating as it may be, government entities are not corporations. We answer to an entirely different set of stake-holders, e.g. all tax-payers, and have a much greater set of obligations for transparency, fairness, oversight, and other social goals that inform everything we do including hiring. Because of these factors, a government entity will never, and probably should never, run like a corporation.

      1. BRR*

        I work at a nonprofit which has similar obligations (my tax dollars are being spent on what, my donation is being spent on what) and know someone who works at the corporate office of a large retailer. She was complaining about how cheap the company was for not paying for some extravagant perk and I wanted to just throw out a, “If they pay for your chocolate teapots I will have to pay more for clothes” just to be on the giving end for a change.

      2. Dan*

        My first job out of grad school was with a for-profit federal contractor. I now work for a federally funded non-profit supporting the same agency and doing the same technical work.

        I can tell you from experience that based on the way government contracts are currently structured, the mere fact the work got contracted out to a for-profit corporation is no guarantee that the work got done well. A bad for-profit is just in it to make money, and the with the current system in place, it’s easy to make money without doing a good job.

        At my last job, we were financially struggling, and hired someone high up from a well-known government agency to be a senior VP of something or other. He hired two of his former buddies (at comp+benefits of about $200k+ each) early in his tenure. We really had no need to bring those people in on the payroll at that point. His justification? “What’s the point of being a VP if I can’t hire who I want?” He really had this attitude of “I’m going to do what I want, and y’all will clean up my mess.” Thanks dude!

        So yeah. Anybody who wants the government to run like a business, be careful what you wish for.

        1. Artemesia*

          The Chicago public schools are learning that about janitors. Instead of Mr. Friendly who cares about the building and reports to the principal and can be directed to do a better job cleaning up the boys room, it is contracted out to some cronies. The for profit makes more money of course if they take all the money and do as little as possible and the employees are not supervised by the principal — so the schools are filthy.

          Outsourcing public service jobs is a guarantee that the work will be more expensive and probably done less well. Outsourcing the toll roads for example meant money out of the pocket of the state to pay bills and into the pockets of private owners who then don’t keep the roads in good repair. Outsourcing parking means tripling of the cost of parking while all that money goes to some company in the far east instead of into the government budget to help pay for pensions and roads. Outsourcing water in one state meant that the water was seriously contaminated for days before it was noticed to be unsafe because the company made more money by not closely monitoring water quality. Outsourcing is a grift designed to put the private hand into the public pocket to the detriment of the public most of the time.

          1. Clever Name*

            Yes! And I agree even though I’m a consultant who works on a lot of government contracts. Although, I really believe that my (small) company does work with our clients’ best interests at heart. The owner of my company is probably one of the most ethical and honorable people I know.

          2. AcademicAnon*

            Yep my state is learning the same lesson the hard way with the current toll road leaser going bankrupt.

      3. MT*

        The reason why people scrutinize govt spending vs private spending, you don’t have a choice but to give the government money. At least when you choose to spending money on a private business you get a direct benefit versus indirect benefits that may or may not exist from certain government spending.

        1. Marcy*

          Do you buy insurance from a private business? Do you get a direct benefit? It is the same with taxes. You hope you never need what you are paying for (home insurance from private insurance vs. police protection from taxes as an example) but you want it to be there in case you do end up needing it.
          And you always have a choice. Believe it or not, there are place with no taxes or significantly lower taxes. I wouldn’t want to live in any of them, but then I don’t complain about paying taxes- I consider it my dues for being a citizen.

    2. Mike C.*

      I was thinking the same way. There are a lot more things that government/public entities that to take into account that just simply “make the most money we can in the shortest possible time frame”.

      1. Dan*

        Yes. I work for a non-profit supporting a particular federal agency, having come from a for-profit supporting the same agency.

        I have to tell you, while a lot of the work is similar, the mentality of not having to slave to the corporate gods in an effort of making the almighty dollar is very refreshing. (I’m that cynical because on time and materials contracts, we get paid based on me showing up to work, not what I actually do, so if we’re not making any money, there’s not a whole lot I can do.)

        So if the government is supposed to run like a business, the idea of them making a profit makes my stomach churn.

  7. Adam*

    “Does anyone actually think this process is good? As far as I can tell, in the government I work for, no. But there is a fear of returning to the bad old days of croneyism or looking like you want to return to the bad old days of cronyism.”

    I have often wondered if the rigidness of government interviews/hiring practices was for precisely this reason. I can only imagine that if a government entity could be accused of violating any sort of anti-discrimination based employment laws the sort of madness that would ensue. Essentially: they play by the book because they’re terrified of the alternative.

    1. fposte*

      To give some context, I’m in Illinois. Cronyism has a long history of being SOP here. While there’s some irony in who bears the brunt of the work to avoid it vs. where it’s likeliest to exist, it’s not just a theoretical concern.

      1. Dan*

        At my last job (a fed contractor), croneyism was rampant. We liked to hire former high ranking positions from the agency we supported. On top of that, we hired a former big wig from a very large defense contractor to run our much smaller business. *ALL* of senior management soon became former colleagues (er, cronies) from said big contracting firm.

        Nobody “from the inside” got promoted into high ranking positions, and heck they started squeezing out low level managers who had been with the company for a long time. If you were hired as an analyst, the best you could ever hope to achieve is “project lead” which isn’t a “real” position (at least on the org chart.) Org chart spots went to the boss’s friends.

        There’s no guarantee that the “private sector does it right” and I think it’s particularly bad at government contractors, which are technically private sector, but don’t function like one.

        1. Stephanie*

          Yeah, cronyism got so bad at my Dad’s former workplace (a defense contractor) that they banned any direct referrals (entire families were working at his particular office). You couldn’t have Mike in Accounting refer you to an Accounting I opening; Mike in Accounting would have had to refer you in a roundabount way AND you’d need to apply online. That policy sort of seemed like throwing the baby out with the bath water, but I understood the intent.

            1. fposte*

              Oh, sorry, Kerner’s included in the 4. So there’s 4 who have been in prison, but only 1 still there since the other 2 got released. So that’s an improvement, right?

        1. Student*

          Illinois doesn’t really view crime like the rest of the country.

          We expect our government officials to be criminals. However, we also expect them to be good at it. The guy who’s best at vote-rigging and bribery wins the office because he deserves it more. If they’re dumb enough to get caught, we gleefully send them to prison and look for a better criminal to vote in.

          The governor in Illinois is now basically an official fall guy for the Chicago mayor. The mayor runs the state. The state government got all upset when one of the recent governors essentially made that official by keeping residence in Chicago instead of the state capitol (which is a LONG drive away from Chicago).

          1. The IT Manager*

            Lousiana is similar. The voting public seems to prefer the elected be entertaining rather than honest.

            See: Edwin Edwards, The A&E TV series The Governer’s Wife, and this little gem: “Supporters lobbied President Barack Obama for a pardon for Edwards so he might run in the 2011 Louisiana gubernatorial election.[8] ” from wikipedia. This was after he served 8 years in jail for racketeering related to corruption during his governships and now he apparently he plans to congress because his jail time not preventing him from doing that.

            Sometime its embarrassing the be from LA.

            1. Stephanie*

              Eh, Marion Barry used to be my council member. (For the Netflix folks, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry is absolutely fascinating.)

              Where I currently live, we keep electing America’s Toughest Sheriff, DOJ lawsuits be damned.

          2. Adam*

            I’ve never been to Illinois, but after this thread I half expect to be eyed by guys with Tommy-guns as I leave the airport if I ever do.

            1. Student*

              We’ve gotten more subtle. We’ll have your pocket picked by a professional who won’t bother or frighten you before taking your money.

              In all seriousness, crime that scares away tourists is frown upon. Most of the crime is against those in serious poverty or the government itself. We tend to restrict crime against the working stiff to casinos and construction projects. It’s far better to have crime that recruits the working stiff in a pivotal role – harder to involve the police or other official scrutiny. So, there are lots of shipping scams, lots of get-money-quick scams, and lots of drug-related scams, but not much that targets the tourists trying to have a good time.

    1. Dan*

      I actually got to the point in the hiring process with a federal government agency where the hiring manager actually called me.

      1. *Be Qualified.* You will not get an interview if you are not qualified. For federal government hiring, almost all of the agencies have to go through the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, DC, no matter where the agency is located. An HR staffer there (who probably has no expertise in your field) will compare your resume to the job description.

      2. Speaking of your resume… it’s not a traditional one. This resume reads more like a narrative (yes, it’s essay format) and must mimic the wording the in the vacancy announcement. If it says in the announcement, “FIVE YEARS CHOCOLATE TEAPOT EXPERIENCE REQUIRED” your resume better have a paragraph with the title “FIVE YEARS CHOCOLATE TEAPOT EXPERIENCE”. While this isn’t true for every qualification listed, there are some that say “if you rate yourself as excellent in this category, your resume must back up your reasoning for this rating.” That means you better talk about it in your resume.

      3. Be generous on your self assessment. If you’ve done it before, you’re an expert. (Advice given to me from a former GS-15 at OPM who now runs a consulting firm helping people get fed jobs.)

      4. It does help if you have pre-existing relationships with the agency you are trying to work for, i.e., you’ve previously been a contractor and know people.

      1. Aunt Vixen*

        I’ve heard that #3 advice before as well, but it’s hard to reconcile “be qualified” with “be generous on your self assessment.” If you think you’re qualified based on the title and job description, but your honest answers to the particular questions are 3’s and 4’s (experienced, can do the task without supervision) instead of 5’s (expert, routinely asked to teach or advise others on this type of task), you’re not going to get through–though you might be more qualified than someone who plugged in all 5’s. What is to be done?

        I would also add 5. Be a veteran. I don’t know how many agencies it pervades, but around here I’m told there’s been a non-veteran hiring freeze on for quite a while now. I am all in favor of vets getting jobs!, but it’s frustrating out here as a civilian that veteran’s preference can make up for deficits in qualification and professional experience. Sigh.

        1. Dan*

          I hate self-assessments in general. Us overly analytic types are our harshest critics… to our own detriments. No, ask me the friggin’ questions that you want answers to, and hire me based on how I respond to you. Don’t hire me because I told you I’m an expert at everything and you took my word for it. This goes beyond fed KSA’s — I’m talking about general technical self assessments. TBH, it’s better to lie and get your foot in the door than it is to not tell the “truth” and get excluded.

          While I’m not a veteran, I will have to be honest and say that I benefit from a different federal preference program, although it’s never discussed as such. Feds won’t allow contractors to hire H1Bs on many contracts, and as a US citizen in the STEM field, it cuts down on my competition (and therefore drives up wages) greatly.

          But yeah… I tend to agree with you on veterans preference points. The thing is, since we have a volunteer military, that means the people in it merely volunteered to go — and they earned a paycheck while there. This is certainly very much their job, and it was never clear to me why that occupation deserves any preference for civilian fed jobs. Particularly when, as you say, being non-military can completely shut you out.

          1. De Minimis*

            It seemed like during the worst of the recession it was to where not only did you need to be a vet you needed to have some type of service connected disability.

    2. JMegan*

      Same idea as for the interview itself. Make sure that your cover letter explains, in great detail, exactly how your skills, experience, and qualifications match up with those in the job ad. Spell it out as literally as you can. Your application materials form part of the overall recruitment package, and the hiring committee will need to be able to demonstrate why they called you in over all the other candidates.

      As for locating the job ads in the first place, the good news is that there is no “hidden job market” in government, as they are required to post all positions publicly. So keep an eye on the postings for whatever gov’t you want to work for to see what’s available.

      1. OP*

        JMegan is spot on here at least when it comes to the government I work for. I would even go so far as to tailor your resume and cover letter based on what looks like key words in the job posting. Where I work, candidates can not be called in for an interview if their application materials do not demonstrate the specified amount of time working in the specified area. So if the listing says “3 years of chocolate teapot design” and you had some experience with that at Company A where you worked for 2 years and some at Company B where you worked for 2 years, make sure the entries for both companies on your resume say “chocolate teapot design.” If you only spell it out for one 2 year job, you may not be able to be called in for an interview.

      2. Xay*

        “As for locating the job ads in the first place, the good news is that there is no “hidden job market” in government, as they are required to post all positions publicly.”

        This is not exactly true.

        All positions are posted publicly, however, there are often pipelines to jobs that are not publicly known. For example, in federal government, there are certain entry level positions that are basically internal hire only because they are pre-designated for people who have completed certain fellowships, internships or Peace Corps. Also, some positions are prewritten with the intent to hire certain staff – sometimes for legitimate reasons such as if a staff member is moving from one status to another, but keeping the same job – and sometimes because the department would prefer to hire a contractor that they are already working with. Networking is always important.

        1. VintageLydia USA*

          Though the latter situation can backfire. A friend of mine was working for a defense contractor and government managers wanted to bring him on. However, since it was a DoD position, those who were veterans got much higher preference. By the time it went through OPM he wasn’t even granted an interview because enough people who applied had prior military experience.

          1. Xay*

            I was trying to decide how/if to talk about veterans preference, but I just left it out. It’s a big factor in non-DoD agency hiring as well.

            1. De Minimis*

              In my years of applying for various federal jobs I’ve been told numerous times that there were enough applications for qualified veterans that they did not anticipate contacting anyone else. This wasn’t just for agencies that were veteran or military related either.

              OTOH, with the IRS I know it did come into play at some point, probably toward the end, but they didn’t seem to apply it before the interview stage. I used to hang out on the Federal Soup message board and people would set up a spreadsheet tracking who got offers for the various announcements, and non-vets did get hired on occasion.

    3. MaryMary*

      I also was going to ask for tips on the government application process. I only tried once, a few years ago, and was baffled by the application. There was a long list of qualifications, and I had to check a box listing how much experience I had (none, 1-3 years, 3-5, etc). Some of the questions were an alphabet soup of government systems and procedures. I haven’t worked with the government before, so I didn’t have experience with any of the specific systems/process/procedures. Some, I couldn’t even figure out what they were, but others I had tons of experience with the civilian equivalent. It was very confusing, and I didn’t get an interview (which, of course, could have been for multiple reasons).

    4. Gene*

      If there is a supplemental questionnaire, answer all the questions and make sure your answer actually, you know, answers the question that was asked. (see my reply above)

      Many times the resume is totally superfluous, what matters is the application and any supplemental questionnaire or statement of qualifications. Do not put “See attached resume.” in there anywhere.

    5. Gene*

      Oh yeah, keep trying. I got my first non-military government job in the height of the Reagan Recession and it took at least 30 applications to at least 5 different governmental entities before I got an interview.

      We typically get at least a thousand applications for entry level jobs posted. Of those at least a third won’t even get to the Civil Service test because they didn’t complete the application.

    6. Rindle*

      1. Include so much information on your resume that you’re basically embarrassed you’ve created the document. Like, go back to your college jobs and include actual details. There’s much less emphasis on listing accomplishments vs. job duties. The accomplishments are still good, but list duties if you did something that doesn’t make for a good accomplishment. Copy/paste from the job description where applicable; that will help you “make the cert,” which you have to do to be considered for an interview. My federal resume is 7+ pages.

      2. Getting your first federal job is the hardest. Once you’re in, it’s much easier to navigate. If you really want a career with the feds, you should take just about anything you can get for that first job, even if you think it’s beneath your level. (Related: the federal government does NOT offer some kind of amazing benefits. That is a myth. I get less vacation than most friends at my level, fewer holidays, average healthcare, etc.)

      3. The job descriptions on USAJobs are often templates that don’t speak to the actual position at all, especially for lower-level positions (e.g., GS-7-11 in DC). Don’t overthink whether to apply. Just apply.

      4. Sometimes they share “certs.” So you can get called to interview for a job you didn’t actually apply for, if it’s the same classification and level. Half the time you won’t realize that happened because the job descriptions are so bad. But just another reason to apply for everything.

      1. De Minimis*

        Being able to relocate [especially on your own dime] also can help. Jobs in less desirable locations can sometimes be hard to fill. One word of warning, though, it can be tough to move into better jobs, depending on your agency.

        I agree, the benefits aren’t nearly as good as a lot of other government jobs. I think it’s more a case of the benefits being so poor in so many other jobs that federal benefits seem good by comparison.

    7. Waiting Patiently*

      No job yet–but I’ve been called for interviews (state agencies) a few times. Make sure you meet the requirement, (they usually spell it out) and address that in your cover letter and do whatever they ask as far as submitting materials.

  8. Treena Kravm*

    Even though this process is a little sucky, it is much better than a certain east coast city I used to live in. Every municipal job went to a friend of the mayor, whether or not they were qualified (they were never qualified). In the Public Health Dept, they were brazen about taking bribes from restaurants so they wouldn’t shut them down for health code violations. This is not some big secret, all in the papers, and nothing changes. Sickening.

    I’m so glad I moved to the west coast.

  9. JMegan*

    The Ontario Government has some really good information on their hiring process here:

    Obviously all the points will not be applicable to every government hiring process,. But it’s a really good overview of the best way to get yourself selected for an interview, and what happens after that.

  10. ZSD*

    Thanks for this great post! And yes, this sounds about like what I went through to get my current position at a state university. One of the people who interviewed me I’ve never seen again!

  11. LBK*

    It’s really scary and disheartening to realize that this process is basically built around the lowest common denominator of hiring problems – bad managers and litigious candidates. There isn’t really anything to do about the latter since that’s so built into US culture at this point, but the former could be remedied so much better by just getting good managers in the door in the first place. Instead of building a ridiculous process that potentially shoots yourself in the foot in order to make sure a manager doesn’t hire their friends, how about we hire good managers who won’t do that and then fire the ones that get away with it?

    Once again, the dearth of basic managerial skills among the US workforce leads me to very sad conclusions.

    1. fposte*

      Don’t forget that these jobs intersect with the elected and the appointed. The process can’t rely on the citizens to elect good managers or their electees to appoint them; it can only control what happens after that.

    2. Student*

      The federal government is kind of a sucker’s job from a traditional US philosophical standpoint. Pay is lower than the private sector, but job security and benefits are usually better. Promotions are scant, and pay raises are irregular. Less risk, less reward, lesser candidates.

      It doesn’t attract the best candidates. It shouldn’t be a surprise you don’t get the best managers when their ability to manage (and compensation for doing so) are so constrained compared to the private sector. It’s getting to be a problem even among federal contractors, especially with hijinks like the fiscal cliff thing last year causing all sorts of problems (furloughs among people who just don’t do that kind of thing, hiring freezes, pay freezes). Anything where the feds have a significant influence on the fiscal year is just painful to deal with. It didn’t used to be this way, but now the feds (specifically, Congress) don’t feel like they have an obligation to pay people in a timely fashion and do feel like they have the right to impose austerity measures and bizarre time limits from their untouchable towers in DC on people whose jobs and qualifications they don’t understand.

      It’s hard to keep smart people from going into finance, where they can game some computers to siphon millions off financial transactions, when the alternative is pay freezes at comparatively low salaries to help the country out.

      1. Stephanie*

        Eh, it depends on the agency. Some things, like the DOJ Honors program, are pretty competitive and attract top candidates.

        1. De Minimis*

          You also have to be competitive in order to move up, or to be able to relocate to more desirable locations.

          Pay isn’t lower than the private sector in many locations, at least for some of the jobs. It probably is if you’re talking about higher-salaried jobs in the private sector, but I think it’s a competitive wage if you’re looking at middle-income type positions especially if it’s in a more typical cost of living area in the US.

          1. Stephanie*

            When I was a new grad in DC, the federal government positions were some of the better-paying ones for my cohort, just because DC had a ton of low-paying (or no-paying in the case of internships) low-level jobs at nonprofits. Getting hired as a GS-7 at an agency guaranteed an ok salary with decent benefits and at least a guaranteed cost-of-living adjustment in salary every year.

            That being said, Student does make some good points. The higher you get, the salary doesn’t always match up with what you could make in the private sector. And the really ambitious tended to leave for jobs where they could advance quicker and make more of an impact.

            1. Stephanie*

              I’ll add this: it probably does depend on your agency. A friend worked in a niche group at the Census and did all kinds of interesting work. Another friend worked in some DoD agency as an engineer where her work actually mirrored all the engineering work STEM advocacy advertises. My agency, you could have been doing the same job in year 20 as in year 2 of your career, so it was very common for the really ambitious to leave for the private sector to find more varied and interesting work.

              1. De Minimis*

                I recently got access to the payroll report system [only one person at a facility is allowed to have it for whatever reason] and can now see everyone’s pay in my region, included the higher level people–it’s public info anyway but it’s different when you see everything listed together….I agree, those people probably don’t make what they could for an equivalent job in the private sector. I think it’s the people at the middle and lower levels who tend to do better, at least if it’s in certain parts of the country.

                Medical providers of course are taking a huge pay cut working for us, although at least for our clinics the advantage is a 40 hour week [more or less], weekends/holidays off, and the big benefit of us paying for their malpractice coverage.

        2. Xay*

          Agreed. I think that the problem right now is getting top candidates to stay in government for their careers. A lot of the best and brightest come in through very competitive fellowship programs, work for a few years as fellows, then contractors and leave for more lucrative positions when even they can’t get permanent positions due to the lengthy hiring process.

          Contracting is the worst though. And that’s because of the feds AND private industry.

      2. J.B.*

        I have worked with some truly excellent employees in gov’t and some truly unimpressive ones. The excellent individual contributors tend to get promoted. They are not necessarily (or maybe not even often) decent managers and don’t get trained. Ad infinitum.

  12. JMegan*

    I also work for government, and I also complain quite frequently about the hiring process. :) Some other points from my own experience:

    You can’t talk too much. The interview panel has a list of (for example) six bullet points that they are looking for in your response to each question, and if you hit all six of them you will get higher marks than the person who only got five. Keep talking until you’re sure you have given them as many bullet points as possible. And as Katie the Fed said, you need to answer the question exactly as asked – no spinning it or twisting it to match your needs. If they ask about your experience in spout design, talk about your experience in spout design.

    They will almost always give you a pad and paper to organize your thoughts before each question. Use them, and take as many notes as you need to. (You will most likely be asked to leave these notes behind after the interview, to reduce the chances of your sharing information about the questions.)

    It’s okay to repeat yourself. If question 1 asks about your experience in Teapot Policy, and question 3 asks about Teapot Analysis, you can use the same experience for both. They can’t mark what you don’t specifically say for each question, so it’s better to repeat your first answer word for word than to assume they already have that information.

    The interviewers often won’t make a lot of eye contact, as they will be frantically trying to write down every word you say. This can be a bit unsettling, but it’s normal. Relatedly – speak slowly, and give them lots of time to make their notes. You don’t want them to miss something important and therefore be unable to score it.

    Finally, even though the process is set up to be as machine-like as possible, remember that the hiring panel is actually made up of real human beings. You can tell a lot about a person by their own response to the process. If the manager seems to agree that this is a fair and reasonable way to hire people, that tells you something; on the other hand if they seem to think that the process is ridiculous but they’re required to follow it anyway, that also tells you something.

  13. City Govt Employee*

    One thing I did in my last interview was to be curious about those other random people sitting on the panel. What are their jobs? How to they contribute to advancing the mission of the organization? They were excited to talk about their roles and I got a better sense of a part of the organization I didn’t know about before.

  14. MaryMary*

    In defense of the government (can’t believe I just typed that), at OldJob, a Fortune 500 company, we often hired into our entry level positions in large batches. My hiring class had about 30 people and we came in about two weeks after a group of 60 had started. In boom times the groups could be over 100. It was very rare for the hiring manager to have met the new hire in person. People who were in roles where they could be a hiring manager were eligible for going through training to become an interviewer. Once you were an interviewer, you were randomly assigned to candidates. After the candidate went through a pre-screen, two interviewers would interview each candidate (together, as a mini-panel). We’d give our thumbs up or thumbs down (with comments) to HR, who would decide if we should make an offer. The question process was no where as rigid as these government interview, but unless it was random, none of our new hires had met their hiring manager before the first day on the job. The public sector does not have a monopoly on weird interviewing processes.

    1. Mike C.*

      The public sector does not have a monopoly on weird interviewing processes.

      Yeah, I’ve never heard of a gov’t job ask someone to cater dinner for 40 before!

    2. De Minimis*

      One of my former employers used that system for hiring. We were lucky in that the guy who signed off on hires genuinely enjoyed recruiting and usually did a lot of the first round interviews.

      As an applicant, you could always tell the interviewers who were just involved because they needed to do it for part of their yearly requirements.

  15. Xay*

    The OPs description is very close to my hiring experiences in state government. We did not have suggested answers and our panels generally included staff from different offices within a division.

    I would recommend to please treat a government interview like any other and do your research before you walk into the interview. I used to sit on panel interviews for the state HIV/AIDS program and it bothered me how many people didn’t know the basics about HIV and even answered no to the question “are you comfortable working with people who are living with HIV”.

    1. Nashira*

      Good grief. My first job was at an agency that oversaw treatment programs for alcohol and drug abuse, as an admin. I’m pretty sure I landed it because I flat out said I knew addiction is an illness, and not a moral failing. I’m a little depressed to think that people apply to similar positions and show that much disdain for affected folks.

  16. Labratnomore*

    This article really scared me, because at my mid-sized private company they are trying to go in that direction. They do not have panel interviews (though sometimes there may be to people interviewing together), but they “recommend” that there are a minimum of 5 separate interviewers (so 5 interviews for each candidate, even for entry level roles). The hiring manager and HR are two of them , then they try to get co-workers and internal customers at well. We have several sets of questions that are assigned to each interviewer (you have the same questions for all candidates, but each interviewer would have a different set of questions). Then you score the candidates based on a list of ideal, good and poor examples. I have seen several great candidates not get hired because the people on the panel who were not familiar with the candidates area of expertise so when they scored they based their scores on how well they worded their answers to the questions rather than the content of their answer. It is especially difficult for internal candidates, because even if you have a great track record of success at the company, they only consider your interview answers not your actual performance history at the company. HR claims that they use this format to ensure they have the best candidates, but often highly performing internal candidates get passed over in favor of candidates who come in and do a much worse job. This only leads to the high performing candidate’s frustration causing them to look for employment elsewhere.

    1. JMegan*

      It is especially difficult for internal candidates, because even if you have a great track record of success at the company, they only consider your interview answers not your actual performance history at the company.

      Yup. With this type of interview, you end up screening for a person’s ability to answer interview questions, rather than their ability to actually do the job.

  17. C Average*

    This was really interesting. I love hearing about the inner workings of types of workplaces different than mine. Thanks for the peek into the world of government hiring!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Ditto from me, this has been a very interesting read and discussion. I was not sure if I wanted to read this but I am so glad I did.

  18. Brett*

    One very interesting part about government interviews though…
    The public sector, especially local government, hires minorities are far higher rates than the private sector for similar positions. This is partly a function of scoring bonuses, partly due to pay disparities, but also indicates that the panel process might actually have some success at removing bias, as strange as it is.

    1. Rindle*

      Just to clarify, the federal government doesn’t give scoring bonuses for any minority group except veterans. And the scoring for veterans is hotly contested; see the recent Washington Post article among others. (I know you said “especially local government,” but I wanted to clarify in case anyone was confused.)

      1. De Minimis*

        Two exceptions though….Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are legally required to give absolute preference to American Indians, and it even supersedes Veteran’s Preference.

        These are the only two agencies that do that, though. And if you’re hired under Indian Preference you have a lot of restrictions and a long probationary period before you can be considered a ordinary Federal employee with competitive status.

        1. Kelly*

          I lived in NE South Dakota where there was both an IHS and BIA office. I was friends with someone who worked at the BIA and it was an eye opener. Most of the positions are Native Preference, which means that they have to be filled by that method and it wasn’t unusual to see the same position reposted several times a year. The position could have failed to get the number of minimally qualified applicants needed for an interview pool, a person could have been hired and not made it past their probationary period, etc. This was the same IHS office that was under federal investigation for corruption and mismanagement around 2010, which led to a major house cleaning. The friend was from Minnesota and had relocated to the SD office because she couldn’t find a position in the Minneapolis area at the time due to her low ranking – she had achieved Federal competitive status but was lower than people she had the similar service time to because of Indian Preference. She had only a HS degree, which is common in both agencies. According to her, the SD office was hiring a lot of people from out of state for positions. She wasn’t sure if they were more qualified that local applicants or if the regional director from Colorado was hiring people from their tribe. The first was a possibility – South Dakota’s reservations, especially Pine Ridge, have some of the lowest performing public schools in the US.

    2. Joey*

      True. Private companies will argue to the grave that they don’t have many minorities because they hire the best without regard to race. Govt takes the position that taxpayers will see that as BS.

    3. Marcy*

      I work in state government and there are no scoring bonuses in my state. I’ve worked for three different agencies, did the hiring myself when I had vacancies at two of those agencies and it was no different from the hiring practices I experienced from working in the private sector. No panels required- just a recommendation from HR to have at least one other person present for interviews. No list of questions everyone has to answer. No rankings on answers. I hire who I need to hire to get the job done. Salary is my limiting factor. Very limiting, unfortunately, so we don’t end up with the best people.

      1. Brett*

        With those practices, do you end up with relatively high levels of minority employment still?
        That might give some insight into whether it is more the salaries or the hiring practices that lead to stronger minority hiring.

  19. Stephen*

    I work for the Canadian federal government and most of what was said here applies. The written policy requires everyone to be asked the same questions but it actually encourages interveiwers to ask follow-up and probing questions to get a full answer to them. However, the policy is widely misunderstood by hiring managers and there is rarely an actual HR person on the board, so ninety-five percent of the time you will be interveiwed by people who think they aren’t allowed to ask follow-ups (and can’t believe how stupid the policy is) .

    Also note that there will be a list of very specific merit criteria in the job poster and you will be assessed on each one, without fail. So if it says “intitiative” be prepared to tell about a time you took intitiative to solve a problem. If it says using databases, you will be asked about that… but only once in the process, so if you wrote a test or answered a question on the online application to demonstrate x qualification, it won’t come up again at the interview. If you keep track you will be able to predict exactly what questions will be asked.

    One more thing; when the poster says “essential” it means it. If you can’t make a case that you meet these criteria don’t bother applying because the hiring board doesn’t have the leeway to say halfway though the process, “we thought we needed someone with a degree for this, but maybe the right person with a certificate will be fine.” Items listed as Asset Criteria, on the other hand, are “nice to haves” that are used as tiebreakers or to narrow down candidates if they get a lot.

  20. doreen*

    At my agency, the majority of jobs require passing a civil service test and being ” reachable” – which is a little bit complicated. We canvass the list and publish postings to see which eligibles are interested in a particular position. If it is three or fewer, we interview all three. If there are more than three, we start from the highest score and go down the list until we have three candidates- but it may be many more. Let’s say the highest three scores are one person who scored 100, and one who scored 95. To get to the third person we go down to 85- if 50 interested people scored 85, then all 50 get interviewed along with the 100 and 95. The panels are usually composed of three people, although if there are a number of open positions all of the hiring managers will be on the panel. There is no HR rep present at the interview ( they do the interviews when we hire staff new to the agency who are sent to a training academy).

    We have the standard questions to every candidate with no followup. We don’t have to strictly rank candidates or their answers . The hiring manager mostly has the final say, subject to his or her own supervisor and HR which may reject the candidate due to a disciplinary history.

    However, even though we ask the same questions of every candidate, we are a relatively small program and we tend to know who are the better and worse candidates in our geographic area. We may have worked with or supervised them before , or one of our peers may have let us know that a particular candidate will do well or will be a disaster. We can’t always take our peer’s recommendations at face value ( it’s not unheard of to give a good recommendation to get rid of your own problem ) but if the hiring manager respects the person making the recommendation , it will be given a fair amount of weight.

  21. Civil Servant*

    This is really interesting, I work for the UK government and the hiring practices are very similar. I recently applied for a job as an internal candidate (it was a job within my department) and had to go through the same assessment and panel interview (both graded on set competencies) as external candidates would have, even though the job was only open internally. The panel was the hiring manager, a HR bod, and a random external person.

    My performance reviews (which are scored against the same competencies but done by someone who actually knows my work), my past work/academic experience (including my highly relevant masters degree), and a whole heap of other relevant, easily accessible information was completely excluded from the process. Also, it takes an age. The process from interview offers to person in post took six months and I know of vacancies that have been actively hiring for over a year, just stuck in the rigmorale of the whole process.

  22. K.C.*

    Lots of awesome information! Thank you to all of you government employees and government prospects for chipping in your advice. As someone who would love to work federal, I certainly appreciate it.

    One thing I didn’t see mentioned (or I missed it, but I really tried looking for it) is the timelines the feds give you after an interview. Can anyone weigh in on that?

    I interviewed for an agency and they said it would be either “at least 45-60 days” or “about 45-60 days” (I think it’s me being hopeful that’s unsure whether the words used were “at least” or “about”) before we either get their decision to move forward or a rejection. Middle of Oct will be about 90 days (calendar days, not business days) since my interview (group info session then individual interview) and I’ve received nothing. I emailed the HR person who set up the interview about two weeks ago, but no response. I really got the impression we were supposed to receive something regardless of what the outcome was, that silence was not really a reaction anymore at this stage.

    To make matters worse, if I Google feedback from previous applicants, they’ve all received either a “Let’s move in together! Yay! :)” packet or a rejection letter from this agency. Not a single applicant received just silence, and all of them seemed to hear back around the 60-day mark. All of them were at the same stage in the process. Unfortunately, most posts were from a few years ago.

    Any insight would be greatly appreciated. I REALLY want to work for this agency, and I’m very bummed I haven’t heard something one way or the other so I can at least try and apply for something else with them. My new job is killing me between the 3 hours of commuting per day and some of the stuff I’m being asked to do. :(

    1. De Minimis*

      I hate to say it, but there’s really no way to know. It can vary between agencies, locations, and even between vacancies at the same place. I’ve had federal interviews where I never heard anything, or where it took a long time to finally get an answer. If the announcement has some kind of start date or even a potential one, that can sometimes be a deadline.

      If it’s the type of job that is a nationwide announcement where they’re hiring a lot of people for positions at multiple locations, it can sometimes be easier to know if you still have hope or if it’s time to move on. If it’s just a single vacancy it’s a lot tougher to say. I will say right now tends to be a slow time at a lot of federal agencies, so that could be a factor. I wouldn’t put too much stock into the experiences of people from years ago, I’ve had widely different experiences going for the same jobs at the same agencies year after year. I might try your HR contact again if it’s been a while. One recent job I applied to, after I followed up with them I got the automated rejection letter.

  23. K.C.*

    Thanks so much, De Minimis. I was hesitant to reach out to my HR contact again because I didn’t want to be “that applicant” that’s too pushy and annoying. I admit it surprised me to get no response to my follow-up, though, because she had previously replied to an e-mail she didn’t really need to reply to. Not to mention how this agency has presented themselves as far as communicating with applicants, what they’ve said they will do, and what I’ve heard/read about them. I was a somewhat unlikely candidate, but I still managed to catch their eye for an interview.

    My biggest worry is my former employer caused issues during reference checking, and that put me in a bad spot with this agency. My former manager has become increasingly harassing towards me and has already sabotaged one potential new position (not with the feds) for me that I was almost a shoe-in for. If she knew I applied and interviewed for this agency, she would try even harder to sabotage this one. Not that there’s anything I can do about it, it’s just hard not to worry.

  24. rah*

    Just have to add one positive plug here for government interviews. In every single government interview I’ve been on over the past 8 years, whether for state, county or city agencies, they have provided the questions 15-20 minutes in advance. This is my favorite interview practice because I tend to get nervous being on the spot in an interview setting, and this really takes the edge off. In fact, yesterday I arrived at a city agency interview 15 minutes early to review the questions, as instructed, but was not given the questions after all. The hiring manager began the interview by saying, “So, you’ve had a chance to review the questions we’ll be asking you today,” and I said, “Well, actually I have not seen the questions yet.” She was clearly surprised and apologized profusely for the oversight (her words), gave me the list, led me back to the reception area, and allowed me a full 15 minutes even though it put us off schedule. I had prepared myself to just wing it this time, but so appreciated having the chance to gather my thoughts. Very impressed by their professionalism and treatment of candidates.

  25. Max Weber*

    I think you folks are joking! Even all large private businesses have minority set-asides. If a minority bid is within 10%, for example, they get the job. Pretty sure you folks claiming knowledge of the Fed rules were line managers who maybe hired a few folks but did not know the folks were pre-screened for set-asides and that points are applied. Just my guess based on what I know about private business.

  26. Jon*

    I applied for a job on USAJOBS, as a federal employee already I was not worried. I applied for the job, was told that I qualified for the position rather well. I spent a week and a half waiting for the position to close and then another 3 or 4 days before they called me for the interview (yes!). I took a half day off from work on the day of the interview to prepare and went in an nailed it. I was told to expect a 2nd interview within the week with the Chief of Logistics, the first interview was with the Deputy Chief of Logistics. Excited, I went home, hung up the suit and had my shirt pressed again. 5 days later the phone rang (Human Resources!), ok here we go…

    Me: Yes…
    HR: I’m calling you about the Administrative Officer of Logistics position, you don’t qualify for the position so there will not be an interview.
    Me: I said but they already interviewed me, I did very well and was told to expect a 2nd interview, I sent out thank you letters and follow up questions to the interviews.
    HR: Well we made a mistake and you’re packet is being removed, so don’t concern yourself further with this position.
    Me: But I qualify perfectly for the position, I have the degree, the previous experience, Veteran status and I’m a current employee in good standing.
    HR: Yea but I made a mistake and you will get no further consideration for this position *Click*

    So (furiously) I stomped down to the local Union rep to see what action I could take, because to me this seemed very shady.

    (That’s my story, please ask any questions and please give me any advice you can) THANKS!

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