Losing a key staff member can be quite distressing for a manager, especially in these times of budgetary and hiring constraints.

We’ve all been there, managing a fully staffed team only to learn that a valued employee has accepted a position with another organization. After overcoming the shock, attention must quickly be shifted to filling the position if you have the leeway to do so.

This was exactly the experience I had a few weeks ago at my nonprofit when a major contributor announced she was leaving. Her departure didn’t simply mean an “open seat” or “opportunity,” it created a significant gap in the ability of my team to achieve its mission.

For the past year, there has been a sustained effort to improve the federal hiring process. In the Partnership for Public Service‘s work with federal agencies, the themes I hear most frequently (and loudest) are the need to reduce the time-to-hire and shorten the job announcement. But, as one chief human capital officer stated, “quick and bad is not the solution.” Instead, he said the real need should be on ensuring that agencies attract and hire high quality talent.

That starts and ends with knowing what you need.

As a federal manager, you are most familiar with the work that will be done by a prospective new employee, and you are the best evaluator of the talent, skills and abilities needed for the job. You also have the greatest stake in making sure the best person is matched with the job that needs to be filled.

Regardless of the level of the departing employee’s contributions, the next set of actions is the lynch pin for future success for you, the new employee and your agency.

Take the time to define what skills and characteristics a new employee must have to be successful. Don’t assume that the replacement has to “fill the shoes” of their predecessor. Circumstances and environment may have changed. If you don’t get this right, don’t expect right candidates.

Craft a job announcement that’s clear – in language, responsibilities and qualifications – and compelling. Too often, I hear job seekers say they don’t understand what an agency is looking for while agencies say the wrong people are applying. Any connection?

Actively engage in outreach and recruitment activities. Don’t just post your announcement and pray you’ll reach the right candidates. Be proactive! Collaborate with human resources and employees to reach high potential talent sources.

Follow through in a timely manner with the review and interviewing of referred applicants. While timing isn’t everything, dragging the process out will undoubtedly result in losing top applicants to other employers even if these tough economic times.

If you’ve done your job well, you will know your needs before any staff opening occurs, and have a better chance to make a quality hire when the unexpected opening occurs. More than ever, in light of hiring freezes and reduced budgets, you cannot afford to make a mistake.

Federal managers, have you recently hired a new employee? What is your agency doing to insure you’re attracting and hiring high quality talent? Please share your hiring tips and stories below, or email me at TimMcManus@ourpublicservice.org.

Tim McManus is Vice President, Education and Outreach at the Partnership for Public Service.