Issue Briefs

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Following is the portion of a recent MSPB white paper on how to improve job fit in the federal workforce, which it says has benefits including higher job satisfaction, increased engagement of employees with their work, improved performance and lower likelihood of leaving.

Job Design

Previous MSPB research found that good job design—structuring jobs to maximize desirable characteristics—supports organizational efficiency and effectiveness. This is because job characteristics can influence employee motivation, a necessary ingredient for higher levels of employee engagement. Good job design may also influence at least needs-supplies job fit as organizations have the opportunity to include characteristics such as autonomy, skill and task variety, the ability to complete whole pieces of work or projects, responsibility, and accountability.

Position descriptions—documents that describe the key duties, responsibilities and requirements of Federal jobs—are the basis of good job design. They are also the foundation of a number of important human resources documents and processes such as vacancy announcements, training

needs assessment, and performance management. When we think about job fit, we also have to think about position descriptions. After all, what is a major aspect against which we are measuring the employee’s fit? The job. And what should tell the employee exactly what the job is? The position description. It would follow then that it would be difficult to fit a job where the position description is incorrect or outdated. How can one even know if one has the ability to perform a job if one is not sure exactly what the job is?


There are a number of steps hiring officials, human resources staff, and even job applicants can take during the hiring process to encourage a good fit between the selected individual and the vacant job. Our previous research has touched on three such areas: vacancy announcements, applicant assessment, and the probationary period.

Vacancy Announcements. Vacancy announcements are a key piece to any recruiting strategy as they are the main, and often only, source that applicants have to make an informed decision about whether the open job would be a good fit for them. However, the way vacancy announcements are often written does not help the Government’s recruiting efforts. Our previous research found that at least half of vacancy announcements are poorly written and that they make little or no attempt to sell the Government, the agency, or the position to be filled. Since that time, the quality of vacancy announcements has received more attention from agencies and OPM has attempted to work with agencies to improve announcements. However, anecdotal information indicates that Federal job announcements are still a barrier to good hiring and fail to consistently convey the type of information applicants need to decide whether they would be a good fit for the open job.

Applicant Assessment. The Federal Government has spent extensive time and resources trying to reform the overall competitive hiring process. However, not enough attention has been paid specifically to how agencies assess their applicants. Past MSPB research indicates that agencies often use assessment tools that are not the best predictors of future performance. In addition, recent hiring reforms have made it easier for applicants to apply, increasing the volume of applicants. MSPB has long recommended that agencies improve their applicant assessment processes and that Congress appropriate funding for Governmentwide assessments. More rigorous applicant assessment can only improve the chances that the individual hired is a good fit for the vacant job. Among the assessments that MSPB has studied and reported on are: job simulations,40 reference checks, employment interviews, and evaluating applicant training and experience.

Our previous employee engagement research noted two specific strategies organizations can use to give applicants insight into what the job will entail so they can determine whether it would be a good fit for them. The first strategy is to involve current employees in the recruitment and assessment processes. That way, employees can explain what it is like to work in the organization and answer questions from job applicants about the work. This exchange of information between current employees and applicants helps both parties determine whether there is an appropriate fit based on the abilities and needs of the applicant compared to what the job has to offer. The second strategy is using a work sample assessment. That gives the applicant insight into what it is like to do the job they are applying for and gives the hiring organization a product they can assess.

The Probationary Period. Perhaps the most important assessment is the probationary period. The probationary period can be a highly effective tool to evaluate a new hire’s potential to be an asset to the Government before an appointment becomes final. The probationary period is effective, however, only if agencies use it to assess their probationary employees and act upon those assessments. Our previous research on the probationary period found that agencies were too often unwilling to assess probationary employees, or to act upon an assessment, preventing the probationary period from being as effective as it should be. An assessment lasting an extended period of time where supervisors can monitor probationers should give an indication of whether probationers at least possess the ability (demand-abilities fit) to perform the job. If not, active decisions need to be made if the probationers can be trained or mentored to an acceptable level or whether they should be separated.

Employee Training and Development

Formal training is an important part of developing employees so they can successfully perform their jobs. It is also central to establishing and maintaining demand-abilities job fit. Our previous research into this area has shown, however, that some competencies needed by Federal employees are more responsive to training than others. This is important for any discussion of job fit for two reasons. First, when filling vacant positions, organizations need to be aware that if some candidates lack certain kinds of competencies, the newly-hired employee may not be able to acquire them through training. Second, MSPB survey data show that a significant number of employees may either avoid training that would help them or seek training that might prove to be frustrating and unsuccessful because of misperceptions about the trainability of various competencies. Both of these issues could limit employees’ attaining demand-abilities job fit.

We note that short-term training alone might not be sufficient when an organization seeks to transform a function or segment of its workforce. An example of such a conversion is the ongoing effort to adapt Federal human resources offices and staff from a focus on transactional and processing work to one on consulting, strategy, and problem-solving. Such change may require extended and sophisticated training simply to achieve sufficient demand-abilities fit. Also such transformation can have far-reaching and lasting implications for needs-supply and self-concept fit. A job that primarily requires an employee to be an authoritative technical expert, independently applying professional judgment and providing the “right” or “best” answer, is much different from a job that requires engaging with clients to understand their needs, where success is gauged in terms of customer satisfaction and organizational outcomes. Even if those two jobs have many skills and competencies in common, they will feel much different, day to day. An individual who has the skills to do either job might nevertheless find one rewarding and the other frustrating. Considering the different types of job fit in this scenario can help organizations make better decisions about workforce planning and development, and help employees make better decisions about their own careers.

Performance Management

Semi-annual (or more frequent) reviews of employee performance should include assessments of each employee’s strengths as well as what their development needs may be. Development opportunities should be explored for all employees, including both specific training needed for the current job and wider skill development. Skill delivery mechanisms range from free and low-cost development opportunities to formal training sessions. Such reviews and assessments are critical for developing and maintaining demand-abilities job fit, and hopefully will reduce the number of employees who believe they are not given an opportunity to improve their skills.

Agency leadership should continually highlight the importance of the agency’s mission—in employee orientation sessions and throughout the performance management process. Supervisors should use their agency’s performance management processes to establish a clear line of sight from the employee and his or her role to the agency’s mission and how it is fulfilled. A strong psychological tie to the organization or mission improves needs-supplies job fit. Employees forming a higher impression of themselves because they perceive a stronger link to the value their agency brings the American people elevates self-concept job fit. The benefit of clearly showing how employees personally contribute to the larger agency mission accrues to the individual, and ultimately, the organization.

The employee performance management process is too-often viewed as something that happens to employees. Employees should, instead, take an active role in managing their own performance. If employees need more guidance, direction, or feedback than they are receiving, they should ask for it. Employees should reflect frequently on their own performance and consider how they can improve it. High levels of demand-ability job fit can be encouraged by employees adopting a continuous learning mindset. Employees should work with their supervisors to create and implement a focused development plan with clear objectives that include both enhancing strengths and overcoming problem areas.49 Supervisors and agency leadership need to create an environment where employees feel they are encouraged to undertake these activities.

Previous MSPB research has also shown that positive aspects of the performance management process and good job design are most powerful and beneficial in combination. By providing feedback that is timely and constructive, offering the right degree of autonomy, and helping employees to see the meaning in their work, supervisors and managers can increase the potential that employees will engage in desirable performance behaviors. Such behaviors can also improve the chances that employees will exhibit high fit across the three components of job fit we have discussed.

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