What questions and issues should I raise at a federal interview?
November 8, 2015 9:40 PM   Subscribe

I recently had a phone interview for a federal GS-11 paralegal specialist position that went well. They’ve offered to fly me out for an in-person interview at their location. I’ve never worked for the federal government, but have roughly 10 years of experience working in various law firms. If this were a law firm, I'd know what questions to ask, and what the red flags would be. However, when it comes to the federal government, I'm really clueless about everything. If you transitioned from a career in the private sector to the federal government, what do you wish you had asked before you started?

-It's one of these large agencies with +15,000 employees.
-The position is to replace someone who's retiring at the end of 2015.
-My current salary is approximately 4.4% higher than the lowest number of the salary range listed on the job announcement.
-The agency is located in an expensive area with high COL.
-The agency and I are on opposite coasts. They are paying for my flight/hotel/rental car for the interview, but will not pay for relocation.
-The agency is located in an area with a high applicant pool. If I turn down their initial offer, will they just go to the next candidate in line?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Ask each interview if they had experience in the private sector and what differences they personally found. And about any transition issues.
posted by sammyo at 4:44 AM on November 9, 2015

I would also compare total compensation vs salary. I know my total compensation is about 1.2x my salary which actually brought it pretty close in line to my prior private sector job. Still less but not quite so ahoxking.

I would ask about professional development. My agency, which does not have high scores according to your linked website, IS terrible at this. But I have heard that from other government employees as well.
posted by emkelley at 4:52 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was seriously considering that 'ahoxking' was a word I was simply unfamiliar with. I believe that's supposed to read 'shocking', for anyone else similarly confused...
posted by lock sock and barrel at 6:25 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Things to be aware of, though I don't know who/how you would ask about them:

-- salary: Is this a flat GS-11 position or is there promotion potential? The listing would typically state this. If you can move up to GS-12 or GS-13 at some point, that would be great (you are usually eligible to do this after a year if you make your case for it).

--also salary: can you start at a higher step in the grade? This would probably be a question to negotiate with HR, but you have to get the timing right.

-- Are you allowed to telework? (a lot of agencies are skewing toward letting employees do this, this is great for work/life balance, and would also give you more flexibility on where to live...maybe somewhere cheaper?).
posted by aaanastasia at 6:39 AM on November 9, 2015

You need to be ok with everything taking a million years from here on out. Don't be surprised if your first day isn't until sometime this spring. Federal hiring is really hard to do.
posted by rockindata at 6:43 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can call the HR person who posted the listing and ask any questions about potential compensation or promotion potential.

They will not automatically go to the next in line if you try to negotiate, but for a GS 11 your first offer is probably going to be the best they can do. This varies by agency, but the hiring manager often doesn't have a great amount of control. You can likely come in at the next step above whatever your current private sector salary is. Do look at total compensation and step progression timelines (hint: unless you totally bomb, step progression is pretty much guaranteed).

What kind of hours do people in Hiring Department tend to work?
Is the workflow pretty steady, or tied to fiscal year or some other calendar?
Is Hiring Department affected by changes in administration (President), or generally insulated?
Straight up ask how the particular work environment in Hiring Department is different from the private sector. The government is not uniform, so there's no blanket answer.
posted by zennie at 6:44 AM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Especially if you're 'older,' ask about the retirement system. You'll need to be putting as much savings as possible and as allowed into the Thrift Savings Plan (the government does match your contributions). Under Reagan, the old retirement system was revised to allow employees to participate in Social Security, so that that is the mainstay of retirement under FERS now. So your pension will be SS + pittance from FERS + whatever you get from TSP.
posted by mmiddle at 7:05 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

-The agency is located in an area with a high applicant pool. If I turn down their initial offer, will they just go to the next candidate in line?

Yes. Federal agencies have very little ability to modify the terms of offers, so it is a safe assumption that if you pass up an initial offer, there won't be a follow up offer.

The questions aaanastasia brought up are relevant. The position you are hired into will either have: non-competitive, scheduled grade increases; opportunities for competitive grade increases; or no opportunities for grade increases. The first two options are obviously desirable.

Step increases are raises in pay within a GS grade. GS-11 Step 1, GS-11 Step 2, and so on... ask if step increases are given out regularly and typically how often. This will also give you an indication of what your earning potential will be regardless of grade mobility. When you move up a grade level, you obviously at least keep the same pay or increase it slightly; so if you are a GS-11 Step 8 making $81,439 and get promoted to a GS-12, you would go in at least a GS-12 Step 2 at $81,784 and then be eligible for step increases once more in that new grade.
posted by incolorinred at 7:50 AM on November 9, 2015

I am a new Federal employee for a different agency, and I don't really know how to answer most of your question, but be prepared for EXTREME delays. Like, once they decide to hire you you may not actually get put on the payroll for another 5-6 months. If there's any potential for you to have a scary income gap that would be hard to manage, this could be a real concern. The level of bureaucracy really knocked my socks off.
posted by Cygnet at 8:11 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Everything takes longer with the federal government. EVERYTHING. You must accept that going in, or you will be in for a lifetime of frustration.

You might want to ask about the secondary type of benefits that can come with federal service. For instance: telework, flexible schedule (such as compressed work schedules), health club, transit assistance, etc.

Ask about the hours people work. My current office basically shuts down at 5 or 5:30; but a former coworker changed jobs to another agency, and she says everyone there works much longer hours. The agency culture definitely matters.

Ask about the computer system: how up to date is it? And expect it to be positively paleolithic compared to what you have been using in the private sector.

Will you need a special government ID? If so, how long will it take them to get you one? Will you need an ID to get into the office, and if you don't have an ID what happens? (Contractors in my office have to take off their shoes and go through the metal detector every day.)

What kind of training is available? Is there standard training on government systems available and how can you access it? How much mandated training is required?

Will your computer account be set up for you before you start, so you don't spend the first two weeks reading hard copies of office procedure manuals?

How long do they expect the hiring process to take, based on recent experience?

Is there someone in the office who knows how to manage the bureaucracy, and can help you with it when you start?

Every federal agency I know is struggling with dealing with the Sequester, so that might be something to research so you can talk about it going in.
posted by suelac at 11:25 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The good news is that by getting interviewed, you are past what is by far the most difficult part of seeking Federal employment: making the cert. This is the process by which the candidate lists are generated. Basically, HR narrows the pool of hundreds of applicants to a "cert" containing a small number of qualified candidates, and the hiring manager has to either hire one of those people, or hire none of them and start the lengthy process over.

It is definitely doable to salary-match within grade (so if you currently make more than a GS-11 step 1, it is usually not too much of a stretch to get them to bring you in at the higher step). But do not underestimate the value of the (truly excellent) Federal employee benefits when doing your comparison shopping.

Also, there is a location allowance that goes on top of the base pay. You can look up online exactly how much money that is for where you would be living.

If the job is a GS-11, the salary range in the ad will be the range for a GS-11 employee. What STEP you are brought in as is somewhat negotiable; what GRADE you are is not. Even if the job is listed as, say, an 11/12, and they might hire at either grade? You can only receive the job at the grade that you qualified for ("made the cert").
posted by oblique red at 1:48 PM on November 12, 2015

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