Is Classification Still Important?

In discussing classification training with a client recently, she asked me why her staff should have in-depth training in classification – in other words, what is the value-add proposition to her HR operations if her staff are trained in classification.  In responding, I was able to provide her with some “off the cuff” answers – but the question also led me to consider the issue in more depth.

So – is classification still important?  There are many reasons to consider – and to ensure your staff are effectively trained in classification.

Classification is the “heart” of the Federal HR system.  It can also be considered the “starting point” of all HR decisions, influencing all other HR determinations, from qualifications to compensation, performance to training.  From a very basic perspective, classification needs to be understood since there is no other system in place to determine compensation for most government jobs – and while there have been many fits and starts to change government compensation systems, the classification system is currently the government’s compensation system.

To some, it might make sense to only develop and apply a minimal knowledge level of the current classification system.   While you may not deem an in-depth knowledge of the Federal classification system important,  you are short-changing staff (and potentially your own) development if they aren’t learning how to analyze and evaluate work by applying the current standards to determine appropriate classification and compensation levels.  If a new Federal compensation system is developed, there will be standards to apply, and a requirement to assess the knowledge and complexity of the work, and establishing the appropriate compensation.

Understanding classification is also critical in understanding its with other HR functions!  In other words, it is important to understand the impacts of classification determinations on HR programs, policies and processes, as well as the HR organization.  Each element of a classification decision specifically impacts other HR functions – and not always in a positive manner.  For example, classifiers are responsible for assigning titles that are prescribed by OPM in the position classification standards or guides.  However, when discussing the classification titling with the agency recruiters, they may ask for other titling that, they may feel, will better support recruitment efforts, and need a position titled using an industry standard that will allow for the identification and acquisition of top-notch candidates in a certain field.    As an alternative, you may consider the use of an organizational title that will assist in recruitment and retention; however, the position, for record-keeping purposes, is officially classified by the approved OPM titling.

As you consider the importance of classification knowledge and the impacts of classification decisions on other HR functions, let’s examine, more closely, the relationships and impacts of classification on these various programs.

Classification and Compensation

Failure to recognize the distinction between classification and pay often leads to pressure to classify positions improperly in attempts to resolve compensation problems.  Basic principles of both classification and pay demand that classification problems be solved within the framework of the classification plan, and that pay problems be resolved within the framework of the pay plan.  Congress has mandated within Chapter 51, 5 U.S. Code, that each position be placed in its proper grade and “class” as determined by the classification standards developed by the Office of Personnel Management.

Classification should not be the avenue of choice to address pay or compensation issues.  Over the years, OPM has designed a series of compensation tools and strategies that allow for increased pay without impacting the actual classification of any position.  Known as the “3 Rs” – for recruitment, retention, and relocation, these tools can assist management in addressing a variety of recruitment challenges without impacting the agency’s classification program.

Knowledge of classification, and its complementing programs of position management and compensation, is critical for management and other HR specialists.  As described in this and following chapters, classification is the foundation of all HR decisions. It is important that non-classifiers learn the basic principles, structure and operation of the federal position classification process.  Within that context, let’s review the various elements of classification and the impact on other HR functions.

Recruitment/Placement:  Work that involves recruiting, examining, selecting and placing employees; performing job analysis, workforce planning and analysis; and advising management in identifying, attracting, and retaining a high-quality and diverse workforce that is capable of accomplishing the organization’s mission.

Functional Impact – As position management and compensation are complementary programs to classification, staffing and placement can be considered as equally complementary.  No other HR program element is as impacted by classification determinations as staffing.  Remember that classification determinations of title, series and grade will result in establishing the OPM minimum qualification standards.  Classifiers and staffers should consider collaborating on classification determinations – the title, series and grade determination will influence recruitment and retention – especially for hard-to fill positions.    

Employee Relations: Work that involves providing advice and assistance to employees and managers, program administration, research, and case management in matters related to conduct, performance, attendance, and dispute resolution.

Functional Impact – With its emphasis on performance management, classification and employee relations work are deeply connected through the position description.  The PD is the basis of establishing performance standards (most PDs are written at the “satisfactory or meets” level).  Using the PD to assist management in creating and implementing performance management plans can be critical to an organization’s and individual’s success.

Performance Management:  Work that involves assisting managers and supervisors in establishing, maintaining, and monitoring effective performance management programs to plan, monitor, develop, rate, and reward employee performance, and services that support formal and informal award programs to provide employee incentives and recognition.

Functional Impact – see Employee Relations.

Labor Relations:  Work that involves establishing and maintaining effective relationships – including the use of non-traditional collaborative approaches – with labor organizations that represent Federal employees; negotiating and administering labor agreements; and providing guidance and consultation to management on a variety of labor relations matters.

Functional Impact – The connection between labor relations and classification can be measured in many ways – the most important of which is determining the Bargaining Unit Status (BUS) code.  This determines whether a position is included in a specific bargaining unit and is used to determine whether the position and the person in it can be or are covered by a negotiated agreement.  An error in BUS code determination can affect an employee’s rights in a variety of settings, collection and payment of union dues, and ability to hold union office.  BUS code errors also can create significant relationship issues between unions and management.

Employee Development: Work that involves planning, administering, or evaluating programs designed to develop employees and manage learning in the organization.

Functional Impact – As with recruitment and placement, the classification of a position will determine the qualifications of a position, as well as training and development needs and requirements.

Developing a knowledge of classification, and its analysis and evaluation elements can be extremely important to your career.  If you need assistance, here are some resources for you:

1)  “Managing the Maze – Position Classification in the General Schedule”
June 3-7, 2013, Washington DC

2)  “Managing the Maze – Your Guide to Position Classification and Position Management” – available for purchase at the following links:
Hard Copy:

3)  Join the Classifiers’ Consortium:

Questions regarding this blog should be referred to Susan Custard, Principal, Custard Consulting, LLC, at