Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hiring and legal issues

I was intrigued by the discussion about hiring committees and legal issues going on at Dean Dad's blog, Confessions of a Community College Dean. I am especially bothered by the comments about (1) restricting the ability of the committee to gather information and (2) monitoring or guiding their deliberations throughout the process.

I am adamantly opposed to outsiders (i.e., people from HR, EEO, or legal counsel) making decisions about how candidates should be evaluated. The job of HR or EEO staff is to advise on the rules of the process, which are fairly straightforward: have a documented process that you actually follow, no jobs just handed out without a true evaluation of all applicants, no ignoring an application because you have a bias against a person's identity characteristics, and no illegal questions (marital status, race, age, etc.). That is the real extent of what we HAVE to do. The rest of the strictures are legalistic bullshit--good from the perspective of legal counsel, but not necessary or important for the sake of legality or good practice from an HR perspective. Our last HR training (preparing for the next search) really helped me understand this.

For example, the committee does have to ask each candidate the same general questions in a telephone or in-person interview. However, the committee can ask clarifying or follow-up questions of the candidates to better understand who they are. Acting like an interview guide lists the only things a committee can actually say out loud to the candidate is just silly. No one in HR believes this; but life is just easier for legal counsel if we keep everything exactly the same. But if you press legal counsel, they would acknowledge the silliness of the stricture--and quite likely admit that they don't follow it themselves in hiring.

It is also important to recognize that we have many different agendas shaping the hiring process. At our R1s, we tend to need new assistant professors who can (a) teach in one or more of our preferred areas; (b) demonstrate teaching competence; (c) demonstrate research competence and potential for funding; (d) show that they care about the students; (e) have the required degree in hand or will get it before hire; and (f) demonstrate that they can write and publish. We also have some other expectations related to the discipline... Now, not everyone has everything they do listed clearly, nor do they all have every base covered. So, there is a good deal of judgement here. Where do we draw the line? What if they have a grant but no pubs? What if they are a master researcher, but have no teaching experience at all? It is about nuance, folks.

Plus, we need to consider how each will contribute differently to the program--Do we have too many people working on "complexification studies" (to borrow a phrase from Profgrrrrl), or can we build a disciplinary strength by hiring another person who specializes in that area? Someone from the outside cannot deal with these issues.

In our first pass through applications at most schools where I have worked, we usually create a template for scoring apps, based on our job ad and basic interests noted above. We then compare scores and identify who makes it through to the interview level. This has a feeling of being more objective, and thus pleases HR and legal counsel alike, but a closer look will see that (a) some people miss important info on resumes that may result in a lower than deserved score; (b) some people just can't read all the files, so everyone is not scored by all committee members; and (c) some candidates may score lower but still be impressive enough that people want to include them in the interview pool. Nonetheless, it has worked well for us, and we usually have come to consensus as a group.

Another question raised in the DD post was whether one can include outside information (other than from the interview) in candidate deliberations. I think the best answer for this is to include in your documented hiring process a step that gathers information about a candidate from all relevent sources. If we consider experiences we have had with an internal candidate, we also consider experiences others have had with another external candidate. (I would also say that we treat these with a grain of salt. Just because Jane Professor felt disrespected by Candidate A doesn't mean A is dismissed immediately; nor does Juan Professor's great research experience with Candidate B mean that B is on our short list.)

Put simply, I want to follow the law when it comes to hiring, but I don't want to be a slave to concerns of legal counsel that are not legal requirements. I do not serve on the hiring committee to make legal counsel's job easier. I serve on the committee to help my department find and hire the best candidates we can.


Doctor Disillusioned of the UNIVERSITY OF MARS. said...

In the pre-selection phase my own university has taken to conducting a secret Internet profile of all applicants. We've rejected many applicants for academic positions on the basis of what has been found in their Facebook sites, websites and blogs. Of course, the irony here is that our own pro-VC would today fail his own scrutiny tests following a recent scandal casued by him acidently sending a racist email to the whole college.

Doctor Disillusioned of the UNIVERSITY OF MARS. said...

My own university has adopted an informal (but institutional-wide) policy of vetting all potential interviewees for academic positions by conducting a dirt-digging virtual-archaeology of anything they have ever written or had written (or any pictures of them) on the Internet. This includes websites, Facebook and blogsites!

Re the delicious irony here where our own Pro-Vice Chancellor has recently been involved in a racist email scandal (see: