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Skills-Based Hiring Toolkit

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has adopted a skills-based hiring approach to recruiting and retaining the people it needs to provide vital services to state residents. Skills-based hiring focuses on the full set of skills and experiences of job seekers, rather than placing an unnecessary premium on educational credentials. Skills-based hiring is critical to ensuring a diverse and inclusive workplace, where all current and future employees feel respected, valued, and empowered to serve the people of Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth’s Human Resources Division (HRD) shares this toolkit to provide tips, tools, and best practices to help agencies deploy skill-based hiring in their recruitment efforts.

Table of Contents

Executive Order 627: Instituting Skills-Based Hiring Practices

The Commonwealth has used objective standards to evaluate a job candidate’s capabilities for decades. More than 90% of positions within the executive departments do not have an education requirement to qualify for consideration of that role; and position descriptions are regularly reviewed to determine whether educational requirements are truly necessary.

The recent passage of Executive Order 627, “Instituting Skills-Based Hiring Practices” requires executive departments to follow skills-based hiring during the recruiting and hiring process. Hiring managers will identify the skills needed for a position, and then review a candidate’s overall experience relevant to those necessary skills, without the sole focus on education.

What is Skills-Based Hiring?

Skills-based hiring focuses on the "whole applicant," with a comprehensive review of an applicant’s full set of relevant skills, knowledge, and abilities.

How is Skills-Based Hiring Different?

A skills-based hiring approach begins with a focus on reducing factors that may unfairly influence or bias your recruitment and evaluation of applicants, and re-focusing on the necessary skills and experience, as a whole, that will enable your candidate to be successful in their role. It reduces a dependency on education as a sole factor for qualifying or selecting candidates.

Skills-based hiring can help job candidates tear through the "paper ceiling", what has been described as a barrier for otherwise qualified job candidates, based on educational requirements that may not be necessary for the performance of their roles.

Identifying and Reducing Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is a significant barrier in ensuring a diverse and inclusive workforce. According to a study by LinkedIn in 2023, “people from historically marginalized groups are less likely to have a college degree and more likely to be excluded from certain industries and roles."

A skills-based hiring strategy recognizes that relevant competencies are acquired through a myriad of sources. Skills-based hiring aims to mitigate unconscious biases and ensures all candidates are able to access equal employment opportunities. Increased awareness can reduce bias in the recruiting and hiring process, and increase the likelihood of getting a qualified, diverse applicant pool and hiring the best candidate. If you’re an executive department employee, you can learn about managing unconscious bias in the hiring process here: Unconscious Bias Training – Recruitment, Hiring & Best Practices (in MassAchieve) 

Learn about the different types of bias that exist, and how to mitigate bias in your hiring process.

Executive department agency or secretariat Diversity Officers are strategic partners during the recruiting and hiring process. Ask your Diversity Officer to: 

  • Help review your job posting
  • Assist in sourcing qualified and diverse candidates
  • Inform you of the diversity in your candidate pool
  • Develop interview questions to reduce unconscious bias
  • Review any organizational affirmative action of diversity goals and how recruitment and hiring decisions can impact achieving diversity goals  
  • Serve as an advisor in your hiring process
  • Assist with the interview process or participate in your interview panel

Explore the Commonwealth's Employee Diversity Dashboard here.

Writing Your Job Description

A “job description” is a written description of the duties, responsibilities, and qualifications required of an individual position. Job descriptions are tools for supervisors to use to communicate to employees the requirements of their individual jobs and highlight their most important job duties. 

A critical first step in the hiring process is to prepare a job description. The job description should be clear on what a job entails, so that the necessary and desired qualifications of the candidate can be determined. Job descriptions are key in creating the "job posting," developing screening criteria, preparing interview questions, and finally in the selection process. At the Commonwealth, “job descriptions” are different than “job postings.”  See links here for the Commonwealth's management form ("MQ") for job descriptions and the form for bargaining unit positions ("Form 30").

Crafting Your Job Posting

In today’s competitive labor market, understanding how to write an enticing "job posting" is imperative. An effective posting should pique the interest of prospective candidates and shed a positive light on their future at the Commonwealth. Your job posting is what will be uploaded and available online on the Commonwealth's career site, MassCareers.

Within your job posting, there is a “Job Description” section, where the applicant should find a list of the primary duties of the job, as well as any preferred or other qualifications. Make a list of the experience, skills, characteristics, and subject matter knowledge required of a person entering the job. This list could include leadership qualities, management skills, computer expertise, interpersonal skills, ability to work under pressure, amount of supervision needed, and more.

In your posting, you should also include primary duties and responsibilities, supervisory responsibilities and expectations, communication requirements, specific subject matter expertise or experience that is required to do the work, a description of the work environment and culture, core organizational values, and no more than 5-7 asset questions, if needed, to distinguish your candidates.

Please be sure the qualifications you are presenting are necessary to the performance of the position and consistent with the HRD classification specification. The qualifications should notreflect the credentials of the person who left the position. Instead, they should reflect the minimum qualifications for the person to perform the job. 

Tips for Bringing Your Job Posting to Life

  • Transform your job posting with our job posting template.
  • Write an inclusive job posting.
  • Why they want the job. Describe the role as attractively as you can, and as you might to a friend or family member.
  • Headlines and bullets. Consider a short, bold and attention-getting headline, and then use bullets to describe core functions of the role.
  • Minimize acronyms and jargon. Using internal acronyms can be exclusionary and confusing to candidates. Use language a friend outside the Commonwealth would understand.
  • Describe success. When desired outcomes are outlined in a job posting, it sets the stage for attracting the most qualified candidates.
  • Be brief. Candidates may take just a few seconds to scan your posting before they decide whether they will read on. If your posting is boring to you, start over!

Commonwealth executive department employees can visit the MassCareers Knowledge Center site for more information, or log into MassCareers.

Creating Your Recruitment Plan

Strategic, thoughtful, and creative recruitment plans are key to productive hiring experiences. Here are a few considerations when you are putting your plan in place.

  • Plan time in advance. Block time on your calendar for resume reviews, screening calls, interview scheduling, interview panels, and meetings with relevant partners.
  • Identify places where your prospective candidates may be. Consider where your prospective candidate may spend time job seeking and promote your job posting there.
  • Promote internally and externally through colleagues and your networks. The power of employee testimonials can’t be underestimated, and by sharing your posting with colleagues, you can ensure that you’re reaching valuable internal candidates. 
  • Competitive postings. Do an online search for similar roles to see how (and where) other organizations are promoting their positions.
  • For Commonwealth executive department agencies and secretariats: Reach out to HRD’s Strategic Workforce Planning/Recruiting team. This team can be a resource to Commonwealth hiring managers or teams for tips on attracting candidates, assisting in a large searches, helping write job postings, advising on social media and online recruiting tools, and more, at recruiting@mass.gov.

Promote your job posting:

  • Tell a Friend. Share with colleagues, friends, family, neighbors, professional contacts, and other groups you participate with.
  • Get Social. LinkedIn, other social media that you use.
  • Get Local. Bulletin boards and job placement offices at technical schools, high schools, colleges, universities, and other educational institutions, community centers and libraries.
  • Find Groups. Local and national professional organizations such as the chamber of commerce, women’s groups, trade organizations, and multicultural, disability, and affinity organizations.
  • MassHire. Check out services from the MassHire Career Centers.

Screening Candidates 101

So you’ve written your job description, created your job posting, outlined your recruitment plan, posted your position on MassCareers, shared and networked to promote your job posting, and your candidates are applying. Congratulations! The screening process is next, and this is how you qualify or filter down your most qualified pool of applicants. 

As you begin your screening process, remember to think about bias and skills-based hiring during this phase.  

  • Do not screen out candidates based on education alone.
  • Do not screen applicants based on personal information including name, address, etc.
  • Screen all applicants using the exact same criteria.
  • Keep in mind the Commonwealth’s commitment to establishing a diverse, highly talented workforce.
  • Screen on the essential skills and subject matter knowledge an individual must possess to successfully do the job.
  • Ensure that all screeners are reviewing applications, resumes, cover letters, and asset questions using the same standards and criteria.
  • Review each applicant’s materials with an open mind and be aware of any conscious or unconscious biases that may creep in.

The size of your interview pool should be related to the size of your applicant pool and number of vacancies. A proportional pool provides a good basis for comparison without requiring an unreasonable time commitment for conducting interviews. For example, if you have 3 vacancies and 500 applicants, 10 interviews are rarely enough. Alternatively, if you have one vacancy and 20 applicants, 18 interviews are usually too many.

The Structured Interview Process

Now that you’ve screened the resumes and cover letters of your screened candidates, and determined your qualified candidate pool, your next step is to manage the interview process to equitably and efficiently fill the position.

It is important to keep in mind any requirements in the collective bargaining agreement for the position to be filled. The requirements within the collective bargaining agreement will supersede any conflicting guidance in this guide.  

Phone Screens

  • The interview process begins with a pre-screening telephone call with your initial group of qualified candidates, as a way to determine who will advance to your interviews. Consider discussing salary expectations to ensure both parties are of the same understanding before moving forward. Please note that you cannot ask a candidate to disclose their current salary as this violates the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act; however, you can inquire about their salary expectations. For example, “What salary or salary range did you have in mind?” or, “The hiring range for this position is X. Does that work for you?” Effective phone screening ensures you are putting effort into interviewing candidates who are good potential fits for your role.  

Structured Interviews

  • Interviews are a means to learn more about the suitability of the candidate under consideration for a particular job.
  • A structured interview is the standardizing of the development, administration, scoring, and interpretation of an applicant’s score.
  • A structured interview provides more objectivity to the interview process through interview panels, prepared questions based on the job description, the same order and presentation of interview questions, and consistent and objective rating forms.
  • A structured interview supports an equitable hiring process by requiring that all interviewed applicants are asked the same questions in the same order. This type of interview reduces the likelihood of other conversation which can lead to unconscious bias and subjectivity.
  • Additionally, be sure to leave room for questions from the candidate at the end. One way to invite questions from candidates at the end of the panel, is to ask, “Is there anything we have not asked you that you feel you would like us to know?” 
  • Interview panel members should have the same understanding and a consistent practice for rating candidates on the interview evaluation forms.

Browse our interview questions library featuring over 300 options to choose from!

Assemble Your Interview Panel

One member of the team will be identified as the team leader. The team leader will be responsible for conducting the flow of the interview, including introductions, explanations of the entire interview and selection process, additional information about the position, initial questioning, control of the interview, follow-up questions, and the conclusion of the process. After the interview process is complete, the leader will prepare a summary of the results of the applicants interviewed.

  • The use of an interview team of at least 3 interviewers is the preferred approach for conducting interviews.
  • Having a team that consists of culturally diverse members will increase the richness of the perspective that the panel can provide.
  • Ideally, the same team should be used for all interviews for a given position, and all team members should be present for each interview. At least one panel member should be in a supervisory capacity.
  • Some collective bargaining contracts may require that only supervisors, and not peers, be used as interviewers. Please review the collective bargaining agreement for the position to be filled to ensure that you are following proper protocols.
  • Additionally, it may be beneficial to include a representative from your agency’s Diversity Office.    

The interview panel team leader will need to convene the panel before interviews begin to: 

  • Share the job posting.
  • Share the resumes and cover letters of qualified applicants selected for interviews.
  • Review the length of the panel interview and what the interview rounds will consist of.
  • Review and gain agreement on the interview questions and format of the panel.
  • Review the evaluation and selecting process.
  • Assign questions to team members.
  • Practice the interview.

Selecting your Candidate

Based on the outcome of the scores from the interviews, any criteria required to be considered by a collective bargaining agreement, and the information gathered from the reference check, the final candidate should be selected and recommended for hire. 

As a reminder, please close the loop with candidates in MassCareers and work with your agency’s HR department to ensure candidates are apprised of whether they were chosen as a finalist or not. Follow the notice of non-selection process in any collective bargaining agreement.

Timely and respectful communication could make the difference between a candidate feeling valued or dismissed. A lack of communication may negatively alter one’s perception of working for the Commonwealth, a result we should work to avoid.

Reference Check Overview

  • The hiring manager or your agency’s HR department should conduct reference checks.
  • Please note: The same reference check form must be used for each finalist if you have more than one. Moreover, you cannot ask questions to one reference and not to the other, even if for the same candidate (for example, if one candidate has three references, you must ask the same questions to each.) 
  • It is recommended that the reference check commence by obtaining factual information such as employment history and practical experience, where applicable.
  • From there, the reference check can proceed to more detailed information regarding the applicant’s communication skills, satisfaction of co-workers, supervisor’s satisfaction with performance, ability to meet demands of the job, etc.
  • Reference checks may disclose potential problems in applicants, especially when there are conflicting statements between the applicant and the reference.  

Refer to this sample reference check form as a guide. Please note, it’s best practice to check in with your agency or secretariat's HR department first as they may already have a reference check process in place.

Skills-Based Hiring Policy

View the Human Resources Division's Skills-Based Hiring Policy

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