New Paradigm for Hiring in Higher Education

Traditional higher education searches are not working at all levels. Hiring authorities are panicking, and candidates are frustrated. The old way of doing things is no longer working, and a new paradigm is needed.

In my role consulting and coaching higher education leaders, I get to be in conversation with folks from many different campuses. Recently, I have learned a lot about challenges folks have trouble filling roles.

I shared these learnings on Twitter, which got a noticeable response. So, I shared it on LinkedIn, where it caught fire.

The folks who responded shared themes of horrible experiences candidates had and general frustration with outdated approaches that are overly complex and lacking in basic human decency. A hard reset is needed, not just small changes around the edges. As one colleague shared, “Who will open these buildings in the fall? Keith, who is going to run these campuses in five years?”

We need a new paradigm. Here are a few recommendations.

Stop with the Obstacle Course Mindset

Many folks resonated with my metaphor of running people through the obstacle course. This metaphor reflects overly cumbersome and complex processes with too many hurdles, too many interviews, and too many people. It reflects an elitist paradigm that the candidates will be judged and evaluated and will feel lucky if they get an offer on the other side.

Create Processes Aimed at a Mutually Beneficial Outcome

If these processes are successful, they result in matches between candidates and roles that are mutually beneficial. Candidates evaluate the institution, organization, location, compensation, supervisor, peers, and more. Candidates are deciding if the job is the right thing for them, not just as employees but as people – and often for their families. These processes need to reflect this mutually beneficial intended outcome. Offering and accepting an offer is a mutual decision; does your process reflect this mutuality?

From Candidate Evaluation to Candidate Recruitment

These processes should be just as much or more about recruitment than evaluating candidates. Are you operating from a paradigm of candidate evaluation or recruiting people to join your organization so that they feel welcome, seen, heard, informed, and valued?

Simplify Overly Complicated Processes

Often these cumbersome processes were designed with good intentions to make them more fair and equitable, and in many cases, they have come to have the opposite effect. Folks on LinkedIn shared many stories of processes they had been through as candidates and ran as hiring authorities. These included cumbersome application processes including references, letters of recommendation, resume, cover letter, and application – all submitted to both the hiring department and Human Resources through separate portals.

One former student affairs professional confessed to having once proudly worked with his team to run candidates through three-day interviews that ran from 8 am – to 10 pm with dinners and cocktail events that left every candidate literally sick at the end of the process. Your process might not be that bad, but is it too long, too many rounds, too many interviews, or involve too many people? Could simplifying your process be better for the candidates and the people on your team? One person observed that some processes might be overly complex because the person responsible for them needs them to be complex to justify their role and own sense of self. We can’t be creating obstacle courses that don’t serve anyone to make one person feel important.

Bring Humanity and Decency Into the Processes

By far, candidates were most frustrated about not being communicated about the outcome. They felt that someone might tell them about the result after two Zoom interviews and a full day on-campus interview meeting with nearly a hundred people. They felt this was basic kindness, decency, and manners. Folks shared finding out that they didn’t get the job by seeing a colleague’s social media post, seeing it on the campus website, or presidential candidates reading the Board of Trustees report to find out that they did not get the role. One colleague shared that every finalist should get a 30-minute phone call and feedback conversation with the search chair. This seems like a great practice. Unfortunately, it looks like many of us would settle for a form email. While departments blame HR and HR blames the department, candidates feel disrespected.

Keep Your People

Searches are costly in terms of dollars and collective time for staff and candidates. Retaining your current people is a significant investment. You know them, and they know you. No costs for job ads, flights, hotels, and more. No time spent on unnecessary interviews or conference cattle calls. A few suggestions folks have shared:

  • Pay them, promote them, and offer them ladders within or across the organization.
  • Don’t regularly ask people to fill in for their peers or supervisees when those roles are vacant. If you regularly need to do this, you are structurally understaffed.
  • Don’t let someone be interim in a leadership role for multiple years.
  • If you are going to promote from within, don’t do a national search and waste everyone’s time.
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