UNDERSTANDING CATEGORY RATING SYSTEMS
As we have said before, category rating is brimming with opportunities for agency HR and managers to abuse the process. There are very few rules, and MSPB has consistently looked the other way so that there is no public hard data about just what agencies are doing. For those unfamiliar with Category Rating, it replaces ranking candidates by their numerical score in favor of putting them in one of two broadly defined qualification categories. Once they are placed, management has the ability to select anyone in the category, although veterans in the category usually must be considered before others in the category. Consequently, an applicant who might have otherwise been rated ten points below other candidates can get selected over them because there are no numerical scores. Given MSPB’s cowering, it falls to unions to challenge category rating selections when their members are passed over. OPM has posted some information about the concept in its archives. The FedSoup people also have a decent explanation of what category rating is about. And the law firm of Passman & Kaplan have posted material which could help union reps. But before you put together a plan, be sure to read a journal article published by Xavier University that looks beyond all the OPM PR blather about how great this is to reveal its fundamental flaws. Here are some things we would build into our plan:
1. Ask the agency to give the union a list of which selection actions in the last six months used category rating and the results of the action, e.g., was a non-unit person selected over a unit employee.
2. Where a nonunit person was selected over a unit applicant, the union should probe deeper, e.g., ask to see the application and rating documents to see how they compared.as well as any regulations, advice, etc. If a passed over unit employee was plainly superior to the selectee, then consider attacking the category rating process used, e.g., does it comply with the requirements of 5 CFR 300,which demands an underlying job analysis supporting the validity of the category definitions chosen, the evidence considered proof of meeting a category definition, etc.
3. Even if a unit employee was selected you can ask to see how applicants did by race, gender, national origin, age, etc. If you can find that the category rating process had a substantially more adverse impact on a protected class of applicants you might have a systemic disparate treatment or disparate impact case.
Expect the agencies to resist disclosing any details about a category rating system. Be prepared to deal with them just like you would a request to see a crediting plan.