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Employee Selection Case Study: The U.S. Executive Branch

As I continue to develop my knowledge of industrial/organizational psychology and continue to follow the goings-on of the U.S. government, I can't help but find ways to combine these two interests. You've seen this already with my posts about the toxic work environment in the Trump White House as well as within Congress (and "cancel culture"). Now, I take on another issue - employee selection.

Specifically, I look at the "selection" process by which members of the President's cabinet are chosen, vetted, and ultimately "hired" for their positions.

Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states:

...he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The intent of the framers of the Constitution was to provide Congress with a "check" on the President's power to appoint officers, to ensure that the right people were properly and thoroughly vetted to ensure they were the best candidates.

But unlike a hiring process for a regular executive position, the appointment and confirmation of cabinet officials has become highly politicized, especially in recent years, with senators voting for or against candidates solely based on their political party and/or their like or dislike of the president. The hypocrisy is noticeable when you compare how senators voted for or against cabinet appointments in 2017 (for Donald Trump) and now in 2021 for Joe Biden.

There are 15 cabinet secretaries, and perhaps another 5-10 major appointments requiring Senate confirmation. In any given cycle, there are going to be candidates for positions who are highly qualified and those who are not. Case in point, I look at four specific cabinet secretaries whose 2017 and 2021 appointments are night and day: State, Treasury, Education, and Transportation.

In 2017, Donald Trump appointed Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil to be Secretary of State. Here is someone with no experience in foreign affairs, or even government, who worked for ExxonMobil for over 40 years, working his way to the top from an engineer position. Yet he was confirmed 56-43, with all Republicans voting "yea". Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin received a similar vote, 53-47, despite having a career mostly as an investment banker. And finally, there is Betsy DeVos, with no education experience, getting a 51-50 confirmation vote (with VP Mike Pence breaking a tie).

In 2021, Joe Biden nominated Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state, former national security adviser to Biden when he was VP, and former deputy national security adviser to Barack Obama. Highly qualified, but yet 22 Republicans, many of whom had voted to confirm Tillerson, voted against Blinken's confirmation. Likewise, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellin received 15 Republican "no" votes for Secretary of Treasury, while Miguel Cardona, a former commissioner of schools, got 33 Republican votes against.

It goes the other way, too. In 2017, Trump nominated Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation. She was a former deputy secretary of transportation, secretary of labor, chair and commissioner of the Federal Maritime Commission, and director of the Peace Corps. Highly qualified, but received six votes against (all from Democrats, who probably were worried about conflict of interest of her being married to Mitch McConnell, though that didn't matter for her previous appointments). Four years later, enter Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and...and...I got nothing. He got 86 votes, including from all Democrats, some of whom voted against Chao four years earlier.


I'm not trying to knock Pete Buttigieg, but I find it hard to understand his qualifications for the position. I guess he has some interest in transportation and infrastructure, but saying that "I like infrastructure, so maybe I should be the Secretary of Transportation" is a lot like George Costanza saying "I like sports, maybe I could be the general manager of a baseball team" (though he did get a lower position with the Yankees later). If it was that easy, I could submit an application to be the CEO of a company. Yeah, right - they would laugh in my face.

It makes one wonder if perhaps the process should be changed (although that's unlikely to happen as it would require a constitutional amendment). Either way, the last two Cabinet appointment series have exposed a huge flaw in the process, mainly that politics takes preference over common sense (although to be fair, that happens in corporations, too).

Anyway, be healthy!

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