While the size of the federal workforce has been declining because of budget reductions, job freezes and retirements, hiring is still taking place for many critical government positions.

Given the current fiscal climate and an ever-increasing workload, it is imperative that as a federal manager you make smart hiring decisions. While this should be the norm even during ordinary times, it is not always an easy task to get the best talent given the obstacle-laden nature of the federal hiring process.

Managers often view hiring as an HR function, but the truth is that it is a leadership issue. HR is there to help, advise and enable, but you need to take ownership of the talent acquisition process to get the right people on your team who are capable of performing at a high level.

As you engage in the search to fill important positions in your agency, consider these ideas:

Focus the job announcement to meet your true needs. Don’t simply dust off the old job description of the person who is leaving and repost it. Determine the type of individual you need to perform the work now and into the future. No one understands those needs better than you as the manager of your work area. Also be sure that the announcement includes an accurate and interesting description of the position, the job requirements, the qualifications needed, the career progression, an explanation of how candidates will be evaluated, and, of course, how to apply.

Pay attention to passive candidates. Target your recruitment efforts to the highly qualified talent you want to reach. Yes, you may be required to post your job on, but don’t take a “post and pray” approach. Be proactive. Targeted outreach is crucial to ensuring a diverse applicant pool and to attracting highly qualified individuals who may not necessarily be looking for a job but who, if contacted, might be interested in making the switch to government.

Use your staff as a resource. Some of your best recruiters are other employees, including the peers of the position to be filled. Ask employees for their help in identifying potential candidates and, if possible, offer some small incentives for those who bring in a great individual who is hired.

Go beyond college career offices. If doing college recruiting, don’t just work with the career services offices. Instead, develop relationships with the professors in academic areas producing the talent you need. Also be sure to make use of internships and fellowships to strengthen your talent pipelines. Your best opportunity  to evaluate a person’s skills, attitude and growth potential is when they work as interns or fellows in your organization.

The process doesn’t stop once you’ve hired. Create a robust onboarding program. You don’t want to lose the talent you just worked so hard to get. At the same time, make good use of the probationary period. Not every single hire is going to work out, and the probationary period is basically an extension of the hiring process and, in essence, the final assessment. If it turns out the fit isn’t there, do yourself and the employee a favor and remove the employee.

With your many pressing daily obligations, hiring new employees can be a time-consuming and challenging task, but expending the energy to build the most capable team possible will pay big dividends in the long run.

The bottom line is that hiring is a leadership responsibility and the basis for developing a high-performing workforce. If you have suggestions about how to handle this often difficult process, or some stories of pitfalls to avoid, please share your strategies by posting your ideas below. You can also email me at

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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