Veterans preference in federal hiring: Is it too strong?

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Seal of the United States Department of Justice. Facing allegations it manipulated the veterans' employment preference, the Justice Department has been ordered not to hire a nonveteran. The position is on hold during an Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigation. Wikicommons
Seal of the United States Department of Justice. Facing allegations it manipulated the veterans' employment preference, the Justice Department has been ordered not to hire a nonveteran. The position is on hold during an Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigation. Wikicommons

Veterans preference in federal hiring: Is it too strong?

by: Joe Davidson | .
The Washington Post | .
published: October 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — Facing allegations it manipulated the veterans' employment preference, the Justice Department has been ordered not to hire a nonveteran. The position is on hold during an Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigation.

Acting on an OSC request, the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency that reviews federal personnel matters, prohibited the hiring for 45 days with the order issued Sept. 30.

Although this concerns allegations that Justice essentially cheated two veterans out of assistant director positions, it also highlights the debate over whether the preference is too great and conflicts with other goals such as more diversity in federal employment. The Senate has voted to limit the preference, though chances for that provision now seem dim.

In the current case, the OSC contends Justice Department managers granted "advantage to their preferred nonveteran candidate when they attempted to manipulate the hiring process," according to the MSPB order. Both veterans were rated "best qualified." The nonveteran candidate, however, was the highest ranking applicant.

OSC, an independent agency that investigates prohibited personnel practice allegations, said Justice officials told the veterans "the highest-ranked candidate was a nonveteran who could not be hired unless Veteran A and Veteran B withdrew from competition," according to MSPB.

They refused.

Department officials tried to hire the nonveteran anyway, but the human resources office stopped it. The officials then canceled the job opening without hiring anyone. This June, the department reposted the positions, but with a change. This announcement made command level law enforcement experience a minimum qualification instead one of a number of factors, as was the situation with the first posting.

No vets were found qualified under the rewritten qualifications. OSC then asked MSPB to block hiring for the positions until OSC had time to investigate. "This is the first time that OSC has sought a stay for a non-retaliation-related prohibited personnel practice case," according to an agency statement.

Justice had no comment.

Although the nonveteran was the highest-ranking candidate, under "category hiring" agencies can select anyone in the best qualified category "except that any veteran in that category gets first consideration and must be hired before a nonveteran," said John Palguta, a federal civil service expert and a former government personnel official.

"Bottom line," he added, "this case is another illustration of a broken federal hiring system in which following the process can become more important than whether or not the person who is best able to do the job gets hired."

OSC is focused on vets allegedly being treated unfairly, but the circumstances also point to complaints that the preference as structured can discriminate against the best person for the job.

The belief that veterans should have some preference is strong, bipartisan and widespread. How much is the question. Should it be limited more than it is now?

"The VFW supports keeping the current veterans preference program intact," said Joe Davis, Veterans of Foreign War's communications director.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, heard veterans' organizations and backed off a measure to limit the preference to the first time a veteran is hired by the government, my colleague Lisa Rein reported last week. Now the preference applies no matter how many different federal jobs a veteran seeks during the course of a career.

In June, McCain, one of the nation's best known veterans, said the government must balance the advantage for veterans with the need to "hire the best talent for a variety of important national security jobs."

One of the main arguments for limiting the preference is the negative impact it can have on federal workplace diversity, particularly for women. The military is overwhelmingly male, so veterans are too.

While praising the preference and veterans "who have made a great sacrifice serving our country, "the fact remains, that woman are disproportionately represented, not only in military, but also in senior level positions that are within the federal government," said Wanda Killingsworth, president of Federally Employed Women. "The veteran's preference has the potential to leave out a segment of highly qualified individuals during the selection process."

A 2014 survey of federal personnel officials found some who think the preference, in certain situations, "can result in the exclusion of all nonveterans without regard to their relative qualifications." The consensus among the officials was "it would be useful to take a fresh look at the issue," according to the report by the Partnership for Public Service and the Grant Thornton consulting firm.

Max Stier, the Partnership's president and chief executive, thinks limiting the preference to the first time hired is a good idea, but trying to fix it in isolation is not.

"You can't pull that one thread," he said. "The whole hiring system is failing to give the government the best talent in real time."

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