For better or worse, I've spent nearly my entire career working under merit systems. For the uninitiated, these systems were created many years ago to combat employment decisions based on favoritism, familial relation, or other similarly non-job related factors. For example, California's civil service system was originally created in 1913 (and strengthened in 1934) to combat the "spoils" system, whereby hiring and promotion was too often based on political affiliation and patronage.
Part of most merit systems is the idea of minimum qualifications, or MQs. Ideally, MQs are true minimum amount of experience and/or education (along with any licenses/certifications) required for a job. They set the requirement to participate in civil service exams, and scale up depending on the level (or "classification"). For an entry-level attorney, for example, one would need to have a Bar license. For a journey-level attorney, you might be required to have several years of experience before being allowed to examine and be appointed. The idea is that MQs force hiring and promotion decisions to be based on job-related qualifications rather than who you know or what political party you belong to. Makes sense, right?
But recently, I've had the opportunity to be involved in a task force looking at minimum qualifications and it spurred a lot of discussion and thought. I'd like to spend just a moment digging into the concept a bit more and asking: are they still the right approach?
This task force was formed because of a recent control agency decision that places increased importance on applicants meeting MQs and reduces the ability of employees to obtain positions by simply transferring from one classification to another based on similarity in level, salary, etc. Because this will result in fewer options for employees--and hiring supervisors--the discussion around this decision has been rigorous, and at times heated, but without a doubt intellectually stimulating.
As part of my participation in this task force, I reached out to my colleagues in IPAC for their thoughts, and got a ton of thoughtful responses. While there were arguments for and against MQs, the overall sense seemed to be that they are a necessary evil. Perhaps most importantly, though, I was reminded how important they are and thus the amount of attention that should be paid while establishing them.
So where does this lead me? To play my hand, over time I've become less and less of a fan of MQs, and my participation on this task force has cemented some of the reasons why, however well intentioned:
- They are overly rigid and inflexible. If an MQ states you must have 2 years as an Underwater Basketweaver, it doesn't matter than you have 1 year and 11 months and you just attended the Basketweaver Olympics, sorry, you don't qualify to test for the next level.
- They are often difficult to apply, resulting in inconsistencies. What exactly is a four-year degree in "Accounting"? What is "clerical" work? If someone worked overtime, does that count as additional experience? How shall we consider education from other countries? And what about fake degrees and candidates who, shall we say, elaborate their experience?
- They serve as barriers to talented individuals. This results in fewer opportunities for people as well as a smaller talent pool for supervisors to draw from (ironically actually cannibalizing the very concept of the merit system).
- They serve as barriers to groups that have a history of discrimination, such as women and ethnic minorities. Take a look at any census study of education, for example, and look at the graduation rates of different groups. Implication? Any job requiring a college degree has discrimination built into the selection process.
- Most were likely not developed as rigorously as they should have been. Like any other selection mechanism, MQs are subject to laws and rules (e.g., the Civil Rights Act and the Uniform Guidelines in the U.S.) that require them to be based on job analytic information and set based on data, not hunches or guesses.
- Without a process to update them quickly, they rapidly become outdated, becoming less and less relevant. Many classification in the California state system, for example, haven't been effectively updated in thirty years (or longer). This becomes particularly painful in jobs like IT, where educational paths and terminology change constantly.
- They require an enormous amount of resources to administer. At some point someone, somewhere, needs to validate that the applicant has the qualifications required to take the exam. You can imagine what this looks like for an exam involving hundreds (sometimes thousands) of applicants--and the costs associated with this work.
- From an assessment perspective, MQs are a very blunt instrument--and not a particularly good one at that. As we know, experience and education are poor predictors of job performance. Experience predicts best at low levels but quickly becomes irrelevant. Education typically shows very small correlations with performance. As anyone that has experience hiring knows, a college degree doth not an outstanding employee make. So basically what you're doing is front-loading your "select out" decisions with a tool that has very low validity. Sound good?
- The ultimate result of all this is employers with MQs systems are often unable to attract, hire, and promote the most qualified candidates, while spending an enormous amount of time and energy administering a system that does little to identify top talent. This becomes particularly problematic for public sector employers as defined benefit plans are reduced or eliminated and salaries fail to keep pace, resulting in these organizations becoming less and less attractive.
Recognizing these limitations, some merit systems (the State of Washington comes to mind) have recently moved away from MQs, instead evolving into things like desirable or preferred qualifications. This presumably still outlines the approximate experience and education that should prepare someone for the position, but relies on other types of assessments to determine someone's true qualifications, abilities, and competitiveness. I like this idea in concept as long as an effective system is put in place to deal with the likely resulting increase in applications to sift through.
The private sector, of course, does not operate under merit system rules, and have had to deal with the challenges--as well as reaping the benefits--associated with of a lack of rigid MQs. They do this through increased use of technology and, frankly, significantly more expenditure on HR to support the recruitment and assessment function (particularly larger employers). Of course some private sector employers adhere to strict MQs as a matter of course, and they would do well to think about the challenges I outlined above.
So where does this leave us? Do MQs still serve a valuable perhaps? Perhaps. They hypothetically prevent more patronage, although anyone that has worked in a merit system can tell you this still happens. Perhaps the strongest argument is that as more employers move to online training and experience measures (another example of an assessment device with little validity but quick, and cheap), MQs serve as a check, presumably helping to ensure that at least some of the folks that end up on employment lists are qualified.
But I would argue that any system that still employs MQs is basically fooling itself, doing little to control favoritism and ultimately contributing to the inability of hiring supervisors to get the best person--which is what a system of merit is ultimately about. Particularly with what we know about the effectiveness of a properly administered system of internet testing, MQs are an antiquity, serving as a barrier to more job-related assessments and simply not worth the time we spend on them. If we don't reform these systems in some way to modernize the selection process, we will wake up some day and wonder why fewer and fewer people are applying for jobs in the public sector, and why the candidate pools seem less and less qualified. That day may already be here and we just haven't realized it.