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Home > Consultation and Training > Trieschman Center for Consultation & Training > Workforce Development Initiative


2001 Finding Better Ways Conference Presentation Recap

Innovations in Child Protective Services Recruitment and Selection: Improving Staff Performance and Retention

Michelle I. Graef
Megan E. Potter
Center on Children, Families and the Law
University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Our recent informal survey of 53 child protective services (CPS) agencies regarding their hiring practices suggests that many jurisdictions make a very minimal investment in the recruitment and selection of new CPS staff, yet expect new worker training programs to achieve exceptional outcomes in terms of staff performance. This approach is shortsighted, in that research demonstrates that effective recruitment and selection is essential to achieving successful training outcomes, high levels of staff performance and increased retention. Drawing upon cutting-edge methods of personnel selection used in private sector businesses, we are developing and validating competency assessments to inform CPS selection decision-making, with a focus on improving the fit between the needs of individual applicants and the needs of the agency. This paper provides an overview of the process we are using to develop and implement a comprehensive CPS selection system in Nebraska, starting from job analysis through the development and validation of a variety of competency assessments designed to predict job performance and retention. Our objective is to develop strategies for optimizing the fit between job applicants and the organization; that is, to identify candidates who will be most likely to be satisfactory job performers and least likely to leave the agency.

The Importance of Job Analysis

The foundation for the selection and training system used in Nebraska is in a fundamental human resource practice known as job analysis. As the name implies, job analysis is a process for analyzing or dissecting the job. This detailed analysis of job tasks informs an organization about what knowledge, skills, and abilities (otherwise known as KSAs) are required in order to successfully perform the essential behaviors of the job. Job analysis serves as the basis for a number of important personnel decisions and is regarded by the legal system as a necessary component of any personnel system.


In an effort to manage some of the preventable instances and subsequent costs of turnover, we developed what is known as a "Realistic Job Preview" (RJP; Wanous, 1992). The goal of an RJP is to reduce unnecessary costs incurred by hiring ill-informed applicants who quit when the reality of the job hits. Applicants are presented the realistic demands of the job and allowed to self-select out of the hiring process at an early stage, thereby limiting both applicant and agency investment.

In our case, we developed a 25-minute RJP videotape that presents the realistic demands and benefits of CPS work in Nebraska. Through extensive research with current CPS workers and supervisors, we identified a balanced sample of positive, negative and neutral incidents that frequently occur on the job. These incidents are illustrated through unscripted, but guided, interviews with actual staff and by actors portraying typical CPS activities. Our preliminary research has revealed that watching the video results in significant increases in job knowledge. Moreover, interested people become more interested in the job and disinterested people become less interested in the job. All applicants for CPS positions in Nebraska are now required to view this video early in the selection process, prior to the employment interview. The tape has been distributed widely across the state (e.g., Nebraska Job Services offices, local Job Fairs, all schools of social work, public libraries), and agency staff use the tape when giving community relations talks.


Using the job analysis information as our foundation, we have identified a number of KSA dimensions to be assessed as part of the CPS selection process. While some of these KSAs are knowledge-based, and thus appropriate to be assessed via written paper and pencil (or computer-based) testing, others are primarily skill-based (such as oral communication skills, or time management skills) and are more appropriately targeted via alternative methods. Thus, our strategy is to develop a means to assess each of the KSA dimensions to form a potential assessment battery. As these tools are developed and validated for our selection purposes, they will be available as additions to the hiring process. Two of these tools are currently being implemented statewide: a self-assessment questionnaire and a structured hiring interview. Both are research-based and focus on specific job competencies.

The applicant self-assessment questionnaire, called the "Supplemental Application Form," was developed in conjunction with Human Resource Managers from the Nebraska Health and Human Services System. This form is used for application screening following the initial screening for minimum qualifications required by the state. The focus is on documentation of areas of training and experience in an applicant's background in relation to important job-related task areas, rather than on specific degrees or job titles. Interestingly, some applicants self-select out of the process at this point due to the perceived burden to complete this rather short form. Applicants who meet established guidelines on this assessment may be invited to participate in an interview.

The standardized, structured hiring interview focuses on the assessment of an applicant's level of competence, using behavior description and situational question formats. Applicant responses are scored using behavioral rating forms. Trained interviewing teams consisting of CPS Supervisors and Human Resource Managers conduct these interviews. In order to ensure consistency and standardization across interviews, the training program utilizes a variety of interactive, experiential activities, such as discussion and viewing and rating videotapes of simulated applicants.

Test Validation Study

We are developing and validating several other highly innovative tools for CPS selection: measures of personality, general cognitive abilities, situational judgment, critical thinking skills, and fundamental job knowledge. These tools are briefly described below.

Our "Situational Judgment Test" is a written, low-fidelity simulation designed to assess judgment and decision-making skills, using realistic situations taken from child protection work and relevant everyday life events. To assess the usefulness of personality measures for CPS selection, we are using a standardized, commercially available measure to assess core dimensions of normal personality, which may be predictive of future work behavior. We are also utilizing an alternative, biodata-based measure of the personality dimension referred to as conscientiousness. Our test battery also includes a standardized measure of critical thinking skills, as well as a standardized measure of general verbal aptitude. Other measures currently in development include: a written measure of general knowledge relevant to child protection work, such as knowledge of child maltreatment, human behavior and family dynamics, and juvenile delinquency; and an in-basket exercise, drawing upon our successful experiences developing an in-basket competency assessment used in our Intake training unit.

The validation study seeks to assess the effectiveness of each of these tools for predicting CPS worker job performance and turnover (length of tenure with the agency). Assessments shown to be valid for this purpose will be considered for inclusion in a final selection battery, taking into account the balance between the costs of the various components of the selection system with the usefulness of information each produces.

Our measure of job performance for this study utilizes supervisory ratings of 43 representative tasks, grouped into 17 dimensions and based upon our extensive job and task analyses of CPS work in Nebraska. The tool includes a section for supervisory self-assessment of participation in new employee development, action planning for performance below minimum standards, behaviorally-based rating anchors, and a section focused on ratings of prosocial organizational behaviors. The evaluations are conducted at 3 and 6 months after completion of pre-service training, during the new worker's probationary period. Extensive training on the use of the tool is provided to all supervisors and administrators.


Procedures used for the recruitment and selection of new human services staff can be a critical determinant of resultant staff performance and retention. By using high quality, scientifically sound, and legally defensible methods of personnel selection, agencies can take a positive first step toward recruiting and retaining a high performing, committed workforce.


Graef, M.I., & Hill, E.L. (2000). Costing child protective services staff turnover. Child Welfare, 79, 517-533.

Wanous, J.P. (1992). Organizational entry: Recruitment, selection, orientation and socialization of newcomers (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Contact Information

Michelle I. Graef, Ph.D.
Center on Children, Families and the Law
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
121 S. 13th Street, Suite 302
Lincoln, NE 68588-0227
Phone: 402.472.3479
Fax: 402.472.8412

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