Filling Vacancies

How Do I Fill a Vacancy?  

Typical Scenario: 

One of your employees leaves, and you need to fill the position in a short time frame with a highly qualified person to avoid a workload crisis. 


Managers have flexibility in filling vacancies, but they must exercise that flexibility within budget constraints, laws, and regulations designed to ensure that all placement decisions are made on the basis of merit. 

Where Do I Start? 

After you have checked to be sure that funds (or FTE) are available to fill the position, call your servicing human resources office (SHRO) and explain your interest in recruitment. 

Rules and Flexibilities: 

As a Federal manager, you usually have several choices in filling vacancies. These include: promoting an internal candidate; hiring from outside the Government; reassigning a current employee at the same grade level who qualifies for your job; filling the job on a temporary basis through a detail or temporary promotion of a current employee, or the temporary appointment of someone from outside the Government; transfer of a qualified employee from another part of your agency or another Government agency; reinstatement of a prior career civil service employee; or use of a special placement program such as the Persons with Disabilities Appointment Program. Additionally, you have choices such as length of time to advertise a position, recruitment sources, recruitment methods, what grades to recruit for, and use of monetary and non-monetary incentives to attract candidates. Regardless of how you choose to fill the job, you must follow the merit staffing rules established in regulations and any applicable labor agreement. Your responsibilities in filling jobs include: matching the job with the best candidates available; ensuring that the Merit System Principles are observed; and making sound and defensible selections. The rules also require that you may have to give selection priority to applicants who have veterans' preference or who are covered by a Career Transition Assistance Plan or other programs designed to assist employees who have been terminated or downgraded because of reduction-in-force. See Career Transition Assistance Plan, Priority Placement Program, and Reemployment Priority List in the "Glossary." By law, agencies must also have recruitment plans to increase the pool of minority and women applicants in underrepresented occupations. 

Check with your SHRO to determine when the situation requires the posting of a vacancy announcement. Depending on factors such as the work to be performed, duration of the job, or special recruitment considerations, several programs offer options for making noncompetitive appointments. The following are some examples:   

  • Presidential Management Interns: Students completing master's or doctoral programs who are nominated by their colleges or universities, and selected as finalists through a rigorous screening process conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), may be chosen for "excepted service" positions starting at the GS-9 level. (See Career Service Appointments and Excepted Service Appointments in the "Glossary.") This is a two-year program and requires that Interns attend various training activities sponsored by OPM. Your organization is expected to pay the cost of the training, which may range from $3,500 to $5,000 over the two years, depending on the number of Interns hired Government-wide. After completion of the program, Interns are converted to regular permanent competitive positions.

  • Assignments under the InterGovernmental Personnel Act: Assignments to or from Sate and local government offices, institutions of higher education, Indian tribal governments and other eligible organizations are intended to facilitate cooperation between the Federal Government and the non-Federal entity through the temporary assignment of skilled personnel. These assignments allow civilian employees of Federal agencies to serve with eligible non-Federal organizations for a limited period without loss of employee rights and benefits. Employees of State and local government offices, Indian tribal governments, institutions of higher education and other eligible organizations may serve in Federal agencies for similar periods. Each assignment must provide a mutual benefit to the parent organization and the host government agency. A written agreement is required to spell out terms and conditions, including financial considerations. Appointments under a variety of other special hiring authorities: Appointments may be made to eligible veterans, students, persons with disabilities, experts and consultants, etc.

Issues to Consider: 

The following issues should be resolved in coordination and consultation with your SHRO once your budget contact has confirmed that funds are available: 

  • First, make certain that you have an accurate position description for the position you plan to fill. 

  • Determine whether the position will be filled on a permanent or temporary basis. 

  • Devise your strategy on grade level(s) to be advertised (e.g., if the grade range of the position is GS 5-12, it can be advertised at GS-5/7/9/11/12 or any of those grades concurrently). 

  • Consult with your SHRO to determine the appropriate position sensitivity. Sensitivity level will determine the type and timing of any required background investigation. 

  • Determine the area of recruitment from a variety of options (i.e., from within the Agency, within USDA, Government-wide, or outside the Government) and how long the vacancy will be announced. The open period is flexible, depending on the kind of position to be filled and the anticipated response to the announcement. Generally, announcements should be open for at least 15 work days. 

  • Decide recruitment resources to target (e.g., colleges and professional organizations) and recruitment methods to be used in addition to the vacancy announcement (e.g., job fairs, paid advertisements, Internet, and/or commercial firms to perform applicant search). By law, competitive service positions for which applications from individuals outside the agency will be accepted must be posted on the USAJOBS web-site. This is a vacancy information system administered by OPM. The system provides job information through a variety of electronic means, including the Internet, and the telephone. 

  • If the position is very difficult to fill because of special skills requirements, consideration can be given to offering financial incentives such as travel for interviews, relocation costs, recruitment and relocation bonuses, higher step in grade based on superior qualifications, or credit toward annual leave accrual based on related work experience in private industry. 

Basic Steps: 

Once the basic questions are answered, use the following steps to do the actual recruitment and make the selection:  

  • Submit a Request for Personnel Action (SF-52) and a copy of the position description to your SHRO (See Section "How Do I Establish a New Position?"). Work with your SHRO to establish the assessment tools [known as job related questions (JRQs) or knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs)] for successful job performance that applicants must address when submitting application papers, and how you will credit applicant experience and expertise to rank candidates against the assessment tools.
  • If you wish, check the vacancy announcement to be certain it is accurate and thorough prior to its distribution by your SHRO.
  • After the announcement closes, your SHRO screens applicants for basic eligibility, arranges for or provides the rating of applications (you may be asked to provide subject-matter experts to assist with the process), and refers a list ("certificate") of candidates to the selecting official. The time frame for receipt of the "certificate" from SHRO varies, depending on such factors as the complexity of the position, the number of candidates, and the process to be used for rating and ranking the candidates. HRD's goal is to provide this in 14 work days. 
  • You should be aware that the list may contain notations about veterans' preference as well as priority placement programs such as the Career Transition Assistance Plan or the Reemployment Priority List (see "Glossary"). You need to discuss with your SHRO the specifics of how these programs affect your selection. 
  • Interview applicants and conduct reference checks as you determine appropriate and as required by Agency policy and/or bargaining unit agreement. You should only ask job-related questions sufficient to elicit information to determine the candidate's qualifications. Questions such as the candidate's religion, age, family status (e.g., number of children, child-care arrangements), or national origin are not job related, and must be avoided. 
  • Make your selection, sign the list, and return the package to your SHRO. 
  • Before the employee can be cleared to report for work, the sensitivity designation of the position may require the completion of certain procedures, such as a fingerprint check or confirmation of a prior investigation, review of completed security forms, or a drug test. These actions are initiated by your SHRO. 

After completion, your SHRO makes the offer and notifies the manager when a reporting date has been arranged. This is generally two weeks from the date the offer is accepted, but can be longer depending on factors such as the new employee's need to relocate to a different geographic area, or whether he/she needs to remain at the prior job to complete a project. 

Time Frames:

Filling a vacancy can take from several weeks to several months depending on the method of hiring. HRD’s goal is to make tentative job offers in 45 or less work days from the vacancy announcement closing date. This time period includes the selecting officials' time to consider and interview applicants and make selections. 

Good Management Practices:  
  • Initiate an SF-52 as soon as you know a vacancy will occur. 
  • Work closely with your SHRO at all stages of the recruitment process to ensure that your needs and expectations are articulated accurately. 
  • You are not required to interview all applicants or to interview them all the same way (phone or face-to-face), but it is a good idea to be consistent where possible. It is important (should any complaints arise) that interview questions be documented, and job-related, and that the same core questions are asked of each interviewee. You may need to interview all candidates on the certificate from which the selection is made. 
  • You can conduct reference checks with former or current supervisors (some candidates request that you notify them before contacting his/her current supervisor), and any other sources you think will provide information. Reference check questions must be work-related and you should be aware that information you receive may be requested by the applicant. Be mindful of the privacy rights of applicants, and be careful about repeating your findings or conclusions to any persons not involved in the selection process. 
  • You can request writing or work samples, but you cannot administer a formalized test to the applicant. 
  • You should not discuss a candidate's rating, qualifications or your selection except as necessary to complete the process. It is a good idea to refer questions asked by applicants to your SHRO. 
  • Remember that not acting quickly on a certificate of candidates may cause you to lose a good candidate. Try to make your selection within 30 days of receiving the list of candidates. 


  • Funding available 
  • Position description drafted 
  • Request for Personnel Action (SF-52) 
  • Position description cover sheet 
  • Assessment Tools ( JRQs or KSAs established) 
  • SHRO announces vacancy 
  • Candidates are rated and ranked 
  • Interview and selection 

A NOTE ON SES . . .    

  • Management may choose to fill an SES vacancy by various means, such as reassigning a current SES employee, transferring an SES employee from another agency, reinstating a former SES employee, or appointing someone to the SES for the first time. 
  • All requests to fill SES vacancies must be cleared in advance by the Department. The normal procedure for requesting all executive personnel actions is to send them through the Department's Director of the Office of Human Capital Management. 
  • Once you are authorized to fill the vacancy, your SHRO can advise you regarding specific options and requirements. When a vacancy announcement is issued for an SES position, it must be posted at least Government-wide and must be open for a minimum of 21 work days. 
  • The hiring process is also a bit different for SES. For initial (first-time) career SES appointments, an OPM Qualifications Review Board (QRB) must certify that the selectee meets certain mandatory Executive Core Qualifications ECQs): Leading Change, Leading People, Results Driven, Business Acumen, and building Coalitions/Communication. Your SHRO can advise you of special requirements and will handle the submission of your case to OPM. 
  • The law requires that the executive qualifications of each new career SES appointee be certified by an independent QRB based on criteria established by the Office of Personnel Management. These five ECQs were designed to assess executive experience and potential - not technical expertise - of the appointees.