By Mark Eaton
Alexandria’s city government and ACPS are the products of hiring decisions. Voters make hiring decisions in elections and administrators make hiring decisions for staff positions. These decisions cumulatively, and sometimes indi- vidually, are extremely important to the city’s quality of life.
For example, anyone candid about education will admit that, despite serial romantic attach- ments to fads and new programs, the best route to success is to hire great people and empower them in every way possible.
Here, for easy reference, are common myths and delusions about public sector hiring:
Myth #1: The search scope guarantees a quality applicant pool. The much-discussed “national search” – one Alexandrian refers to it as “the intergalactic search” – is no assurance that the applicant pool will be deep or qualified. Macroeconomic forces, specifically the degree of competition for, and difficulty of filling, a position outweigh the scope of the search process in affecting applicant pool quality. The “national search” is mostly a buzzword for highly compensated recruitment consultants.
Myth #2: Alexandria can pay below mar- ket rates and expect above average job performance because “everybody wants to live here.” Alexandria is an attractive community even with its sticker shock housing prices. However, the city is not the only attractive place to live in the United States or even in Northern Virginia. Civic pride will never offset hiring economics. It may finally be time to rethink the city’s desire to be “middle of the pack” in employee compensation.
Myth #3: Nobody who works here is good enough to be promoted. This myth arises when a person who has worked his or her way up in the city or ACPS administration becomes a candidate for a top position. It can be easy to discount the advantage of familiarity with the problem landscape and to focus on issues of personal style. The best organizations succeed in part because they find ways to accommodate excellent people who may be impolitic, eccentric or even difficult.
Myth #4: If we can hire a great person who knows nothing about our problems, they would all be solved. This delusion, often called the “The person on a white horse syndrome,” assumes that total unfamiliarity with Alexandria and its problems guarantees successful job performance. Unfortunately, this myth often combines with impatience about the time necessary to master a new position’s learning curve, which results in disappointment on all sides.
Myth #5: Alexandria hires against other municipalities. This is partially true. The larger truth is that Alexandria also competes against the private sector, a ruthlessly efficient system for individual gratification, for the best people. Public sector employee churn can result from younger employees gaining valuable experience and leveraging it into attractive positions with other public and private employers.
Some positions simply have more extensive turnover rates. For example, Education Week says school superintendents have departed at a 25% rate the past two years. In other words, free agency rules.
Myth #6: We can objectively perfect our hiring processes to materially improve the quality of the workforce. Hiring should be thorough, efficient and courteous. No call or message should be unreturned. But while human resources personnel and processes are important, hiring decisions always include a subjective element. The more people who will work with a job candidate have opportunities to meet the candidate, and to exchange views on how the candidate will fit the proposed position, the better the hiring outcomes will be.
Myth #7: An interim appointee should not be a candidate for the permanent position. Why not? The ideal interim appointment is someone who tries out successfully for the permanent job.
Myth #8: Interviewing job applicants is a time-consuming annoyance for non-human resources personnel. This may be the most destructive delusion of all. The opportunity to interview employment candidates is not a workday intrusion, it is an opportunity to create a legacy.
A note to qualified and motivated people who want to work in Alexandria: You’re hired.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006 and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at [email protected] and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/.