Posted tagged ‘employment selection’

The mysteries of academic recruitment

September 11, 2017

I have no idea on how many occasions I have set on university selection panels to fill academic or other vacancies, both in the various universities in which I have worked and in other institutions. Nor, to be honest, am I sure how often I personally got the decision right or wrong. And yet, these decisions change people’s lives and the destiny of institutions.

There are two key elements in staff recruitment. The first relates to the job specification – i.e. the particulars that are published describing the post and the attributes of the ideal candidate. The second is the selection process, including shortlisting and interviews. Both of these are critical: they contain a vision of the institution and of people who can help it to thrive, but that vision may be faulty, may be affected or undermined by bias or prejudice, and may be applied without proper expertise by those making the selection.

Mostly those taking part in faculty and staff recruitment do so with great care and with a real intention to be objective and fair. But that may not always be enough. Research in the United States has looked at some common criteria used in recruitment and assessed whether they are as helpful as people often believe; and has suggested that at least the early stages of selection (like shortlisting) might be conducted ‘blind’ – i.e. without knowledge of the candidate’s’ names, background and previous educational or institutional affiliations.

For those (like me, as I must admit) who have not tried this approach it may be worth a go. Selection for a university (or any other) job will never be a perfect process in all circumstances, but it should be as fair, transparent and objective as possible.

Checking up

August 4, 2009

Every so often someone asks me to write a reference for them, and almost invariably I agree to do it.  And then, sometimes, I find myself struggling to think what I could possibly write. Very often the person asking me might be someone I knew (taught, perhaps) many years ago. Sometimes it can even be someone I don’t really know at all (though when that happens, I usually decline, as politely as possible). But if I have agreed to do it, I am faced with the need to be true to the person who has asked me while also being honest to the person who will read it.

And of course, quite often I find myself reading the references written by others when I am involved in appointing to a post. And almost immediately I recognise that others have the same dilemmas when they are writing references. Some referees have perfected the art of praising someone in glowing terms while saying absolutely nothing. They praise their manner and character, and assure me that Joe or Anna will be a credit to whatever institution decides to employ them; but when you look for any details at all about their experience or track record you don’t find anything.

No doubt this is not unique to higher education institutions, but I cannot remember when I last read a reference that made even a minor difference to my perception of a candidate for a job. When I did once get to read a reference that went into great detail and described a candidate who fitted the job requirements perfectly, I later found that the candidate had made up both the referee and the reference – and nobody realised it until quite some time afterwards.

The advent of freedom of information has added another dimension to the overpowering blandness of  references, with referees concerned that the candidate will see what they have written. In addition, professional services have sprung up that make money from assistance with drafting references, or checking the reliability of references. The emergence of these industries does not instil confidence in the integrity of the system.

For all that, for those who are good at reading between the lines some information can still be gleaned from references. But not often. And it’s not consistent enough to make me feel that the whole exercise has a purpose. We do need to make informed recruitment decisions, while observing fairness and avoiding prejudice and bias. How we can still make the traditional practice of providing references work in that context I do not know. Maybe we need to re-think the whole framework of selection for employment.


PS: TCD senior law lecturer Eoin O’Dell has, since this post was written, also blogged on this topic, and adds some interesting legal material. You can read his piece here.

The art of interviewing

May 25, 2009

It is now many years ago since I was first interviewed as a job applicant. The interview took place in the office of the manager of the particular place of employment, and the only people attending were the manager in question and me. As I recall, it lasted for about five minutes. I don’t actually remember the questions he asked me, but I do remember that as I left the office I wondered what benefit he could possibly gain from the encounter, as none of the questions seemed to me to be particularly relevant to anything. Maybe one of the reasons why my memory is dimmed is because, just after the interview began, I developed this overwhelming urge to sneeze. Not wanting to blow germs all over the office, I tried (successfully) to suppress the urge, and it is this struggle with the sneeze rather than the substance of the questioning that I remember most vividly.

A few years later I was interviewed for the first time for a university job. This time I faced an interview panel, but was rather put off by the fact that one of them, an elderly professor, was visibly asleep throughout the entire occasion. I was asked rather general questions by the first two panel members, and amazingly detailed ones by the third – so detailed that at the end of each question I was totally at a loss to work out what exactly he wanted to know. I didn’t get the job.

I am now a very old hand at interviewing. Apart from the interviews that did or didn’t get me jobs, promotions or other benefits, I have been a panel member at countless interviews, and more recently the panel chair at many more. And over that period of time the process of interviewing has become much more formal, and much more process-driven. There are rules and regulations, and guidelines and handbooks. The casual unpredictability of interviews has now largely gone from the system, as has (on the whole) the risk of negligent discrimination in the process. Gone are the days, thankfully, when anyone would even think of asking female candidates about their family responsibilities.

But while we have swept away many of the misuses of interviews, I’m not sure that we really know what we want interviews to deliver or how they can be genuine tools for finding the right answers to our recruitment, promotion and similar questions. A little while ago I was asked to attend an interview panel in another (non-university) organisation. As the panel met, we were given a list of questions that were to be distributed amongst the panelists. We were told to ask the questions verbatim as written down and to ask no follow-ups. We then had to mark the answers according to set criteria and marking schemes. And finally we were told that the successful candidate would be the one with the highest marks, and that this could not be set aside. While in some ways I admired the clarity of the process, I could not see how it provided the panel with any real sense of who would be the best candidate, but more particularly I could not see why the panel was needed at all, since almost everything here was automated. The event took an absurd twist when the first candidate was visibly flustered, and when asked a gentle question by the panel chair he revealed he had been in a minor car accident on the way to the interview. He was put at ease, but before the second candidate was ushered in the panel chair made my jaw drop to the floor when he suggested that all candidates would now need to be asked about their experience in travelling to the interview, for consistency and fairness.

I have moments when I doubt the value of interviews. However much we standardise them, many panelists will find it hard not to be influenced in the end by their superficial impressions of the candidate’s personality, and interview outcomes can be quite arbitrary as a result. On the other hand, I don’t know of any selection method which is both fairer and reveals information that really matters. And so in the end what matters is that interviews are conducted intelligently and sensitively, that interviewers are trained in the process, and most crucially that candidates are put at ease. These guidelines used by Loughborough University in the UK seem to me to be sensible. My own practices in chairing interviews is to attempt to ensure that we are fair, that we are friendly, that we are on time (it is unacceptable, I believe, to keep candidates waiting for long periods), that we stick to relevant questions, and that we allow the candidate to talk (i.e. no long questions or monologues by interviewers).

I must admit that I am much less persuaded that it is a good idea to standardise all the questions and to remove any possibility for individuality or spontaneity, as is suggested by these guidelines. There must be  a middle way between the reckless abuse of the process that might have been more common once, and the one-size-fits-all standardisation that some now propose. In universities in particular an interview – like other processes – should not be stripped of its intellectual potential.