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Why a California department almost laid off 22 state workers it just hired

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The 22 state engineers who received scary notices last month indicating they might be fired because their employer made a mistake in how it hired them can finally rest easy.

All of them can keep their jobs, according to the state Human Resources Department.

Their positions briefly were in jeopardy because an audit by the enforcer of state hiring practices discovered that some of them were asked leading questions during job interviews that gave them an unfair advantage against other candidates, according to a report released this week by the State Personnel Board.

But the safety engineers themselves did not do anything wrong in answering those questions when they applied for jobs at the Department of Industrial Relations. That’s why the state backed off its initial move to dismiss them less than a year after it hired them.

“We put two attorneys on it and started asking questions because that’s what we do in a situation like this,” said Jon Ortiz, research director for their union, Professional Engineers in California Government. “And then we heard that the folks’ jobs were going to be saved.”

The State Personnel Board released its audit of hiring practices at the Department of Industrial Relations this week.

Aside from the leading questions, the audit also found that the department did not adhere to record-keeping requirements, and it recommended that the Department of Industrial Relations replace an outdated system for processing job applications with a standard online tool favored by other branches of state government.

Department of Industrial Relations Acting Director Andre Schoorl agreed with the audit’s recommendations: “I take these findings very seriously and I am committed to revising DIR’s processes and procedures to ensure future DIR exams are administered in accordance with the all civil service laws, rules and regulations.”

A 2015 complaint from a job candidate sparked the review. It initially found some irregularities and led Cal HR to take a greater role in overseeing hiring practices at the Department of Industrial Relations, according to the audit

The department solicited applications for openings in late 2016 and gave hiring exams — usually a series of questions — to 65 candidates. The candidates were supposed to answer six structured questions.

In eight cases, a manager asked additional questions that resulted in some candidates receiving a higher ranking on the hiring list than they otherwise would have. Their higher scores pushed 42 other candidates into a lower hiring rank.

The State Personnel Board found that the “improper probing” had a “material effect” on the hiring pool. The board recommended that the Department of Industrial Relations lay off anyone who was hired among that group of applicants, according to letters that the engineers received in June.

The Sacramento Bee wrote about the letters on June 26. On July 5, the same engineers received letters telling them that their jobs were safe.

“The State Personnel Board has made a final determination not to void your appointment,” the letter read.