How ‘Ghosting’ Afflicts Public Sector Recruitment


COMMENTARY | Too often, that perfect candidate just disappears.

In the dating world, they call it “ghosting.” That’s the painful circumstance in which one person in a relationship loses interest and stops calling or texting. They don’t even give the courtesy of saying, ‘That was a nice dinner.’ They just disappear.

But the term ghosting isn’t just about dating anymore, as many leaders in state and local human resource management are learning. “What was once a dating term is now everyday recruiting lingo,” says Anna Forsberg, manager of talent acquisition for the city and county of Denver.

The human resource issue, we’re told by Forsberg and other public sector personnel executives, is that too many job applicants drop out in the weeks or months after they’ve applied. By the time a decision is made to offer a job—poof—the applicant has disappeared.

For some states and local governments, a lengthy hiring process is a major contributing factor. Data from NEOGOV, a software company that provides application services in about half the states, shows an average time-to-hire of 104 days for public sector hiring in the states and 180 days for local governments. That compares to 36 days in the private sector, according to a December 2017 report from the Society for Human Resource Management.

Denver does way better than the average and has  reduced hiring time from 84 days in 2015 to 45 days in 2017, a level it has maintained.  

But with unemployment at under 3% in the city, there is still intense competition with the speedier private sector to attract the best and brightest.

Forsberg took an informal poll of her 16-person staff to help us better understand Denver’s “ghosting” experiences. Her team reported that the problem is less severe for professional positions, where no-shows are generally less than 5% and worse for entry-level jobs, manual labor positions or trades, where as many as 40% of applicants may disappear along the way.

One headache for recruiters are interviewees who fail to appear for their appointments. For an open painter position in the Denver Department of General Services, nine candidates were recently scheduled for interviews and only two showed up.

Other personnel executives mention a variety of factors that dissuade candidates from continuing to pursue an application. These include the need for extensive background checks for many public sector jobs and, in many places, an impersonal hiring process.

What’s more, the yield of employees from the total number of applicants has been pushed downward by technology improvements. “You can click and apply to fifty jobs at one time,” says Ira S. Wolfe, a hiring and recruitment marketing consultant who has been advising both companies and public sector entities on recruiting and hiring for 25 years. “There’s no commitment as a candidate,” he says.

There’s more. Written civil service tests, while less common than in the past, are still required for many jobs in places that adhere to strict score-oriented civil service selection. For example, while some of the 400 job categories in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, require structured interviews or the submission of writing samples, many demands that job seekers show up for civil service tests. “One of our big issues is civil service test attendance,” says George Vaughan, the manager of employee testing.

The number of individuals who fail to show up for exams has become more troublesome since applications in general have fallen. In 2017, the county received 22,600 applications. In 2018, that dropped to 15,800 and in 2019 there were 12,800. Attendance rates for tests in the county range from 45% to 60%.  According to Vaughan, other entities he’s talked to report similar no-show rates for tests.

When the county sent emails to applicants to find out why they failed to take the required test, it received a 20% response rate. Of those who answered, 50% said they had a work schedule conflict; 14% said they had an emergency; 11% said they had found other employment; 6% cited a family illness and 5% said they were no longer interested in the position. Another 30% had a variety of other answers.

Elizabeth Reed, the executive assistant director of the civil service commission in Columbus, Ohio, did a small study to find out why people who applied to be police didn’t follow the process to the end. “People who have never experienced a government application process didn’t know that they were getting email notifications about test dates. They didn’t realize they needed to look for that,” she says.

An analysis of police recruiting troubles in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pinpointed the lengthy and complex background form as one reason that the city had only filled 17 out of 30 slots in its police academy class. Last year when we were working on our new book about performance management, finance director James Wagner told us, “We had plenty of applicants, but they didn’t fill out the form.”

The city’s solution was to have police department leaders call applicants whose background forms were missing and encourage them to fill them out. This personal touch replaced an auto-generated email and Tulsa was able to fill 28 out of its 30 police academy seats.

In Denver, Forsberg now makes sure candidates know how to get in touch with her and may even invite them to come in for a tour. “We have to take this to a different level,” she says. “We have to connect with them and engage on a human level.”

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

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