The Hiring Process: Moving Away from Consensus

Hiring units often hope to make hiring decisions by consensus. Consensus building has many advantages, including what might seem like unanimous buy-in to the decision.  However, relying on consensus may have some unwanted detriments as well. Decision-making processes that accommodate and even welcome a range of views may increase the likelihood of selecting candidates who expand the demographic and curricular profile of the unit. Paradoxically, a process that takes real account of differences of views within the unit can ultimately lead to a deeper sense of ownership of the decision for everyone. As units move into the hiring season, they are encouraged to discuss in advance how they might create hiring practices that accommodate difference while moving everyone toward a decision.

“Select to Include”

The hiring unit’s goal, of course, is to winnow the field from the initial pool to a single candidate who accepts the unit’s offer.

At each stage of the winnowing process, however, it is important to avoid eliminating promising candidates who could bring something new to the unit, and to create decision-making processes that take seriously the range of experiences, perspectives, and values of the committee.

What follows is a model hiring schedule based on an Interfolio search that begins in the fall and concludes early winter. It outlines practices that can foster the diversity of the applicant pool, in part by exploiting the various interests and concerns of the hiring committee or unit itself. We are by no means promoting a one-size-fits-all hiring model. We offer this as a spur to conversation and invention, and would welcome the expansion of this site with other “good-practice” models.

Stage 1: Winnowing the Initial Pool

Presumed application deadline:  November 1.

  • Before October 25: As completed applications begin to come in, the unit’s administrative assistant can begin to assign them to members of the hiring committee who will serve as first readers. (This can be done through Interfolio.) Depending on the size of the pool and the habits of the unit, two or more “first readers” will be assigned to every dossier, with labor distributed equally among members of the group.
  • By October 25: The Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity will pull the EEO data for the chair of the hiring committee to look over. If the pool does not look sufficiently robust in terms of the its diversity, there is still time to make calls, write emails, and exploit contacts.
  • November 1: official deadline. As dossiers become complete, the administrative assistant continues to assign. The chair of the hiring committee sets a date by which first readings should be completed. The feasibility of the date will depend on the size of the pool — hypothetically, for the sake of the model, November 11.
  • By November 11, each reader (if  first readings are done by single readers) or the chair (if each dossier has two first readers) should decide on a set of dossiers to archive (candidates who do not appear competitive relative to the pool) and a set that should move forward to the next round (Stage 2).

“Select to include” strategies and practices for Stage 1

  • During Stage 1, the unit is becoming educated about the pool and the field. The goal is to narrow the initial pool to a smaller, manageable group of candidates, without prematurely eliminating promising applicants.
  • Strategies for first readers: read a number of dossiers before starting to rank; circulate to the whole committee dossiers that seem to stand out, which will help the whole committee arrive more rapidly to a collective sense of the range in the pool and of the range of interests in the committee.
  • Adopt rules about reopening the archives if advisable.
    1. After the archive is formed, the chair of the hiring committee should submit the list of candidates remaining in the pool to the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, which will again pull EEO data.  If the new pool is less diverse than the initial pool, the chair may want to go back and review the archive, sending promising dossiers to an additional reader.
    2. Adopt a policy by which anyone can go back into the archive and “rescue” a candidate, without explanation and without insult taken.  There are many reasons why this might happen  (a colleague from another institution brings someone to a committee member’s attention; the only social scientist on the search committee wants to make sure no one interesting got away; the Chair hears about an especially fine program and looks back at those graduate students, etc.). Agree in advance that rescuing a candidate does not imply disrespect for the first reader(s) and does not even need discussion.

    These strategies are highly unlikely to result in a vast expansion of the pool that moves forward.

Stage 2: Second Round

The administrative assistant or chair counts the dossiers moving forward to the second round, and assigns each member of the committee or unit a number to read by x date — say, November 24.

By the end of this second round of readings, some candidates will have risen to the top of the pool, with strong rankings from all readers. Other candidates may have scores that are interestingly split between mediocre and superlative grades. (Use 5s sparingly, so they will stand out as indicating real enthusiasm on someone’s part.)

By November 25 the committee or unit should to come up with a “baggy shortlist,” out of which the interview pool will come.

“Select to Include” strategies and practices for Stage 2

Obviously, the baggy shortlist will include all candidates around whom there is consensus about their merit. It could also include candidates about whom just one reader is very enthusiastic.  If the pool is not huge, the chair can make a baggy shortlist comprised of top candidates and candidates who have at least one enthusiastic reader.  (If the unit plans to conduct 10-12 initial interviews, the baggy list might aim to be 20 or fewer candidates.) If the chair cannot easily construct this list the committee could meet and/or send relevant dossiers around for an adjudicating extra reading. The key here is to build the list of those to include from the inside out, i.e., based on the ratings of the Search Committee members, not from the outside in, with an abstract number in mind for the shorter list.

Again, in consultation with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, the chair should again measure the emerging baggy list against the EEO information—has the diversity of the original pool been retained or even increased? If not, can adjustments be made?

At this point the chair circulates the baggy list and all members of the committee or unit read all the dossiers, including writing samples if these have not already been read.

Stage 3: The First Interview List

After reading all dossiers from the “baggy list,” the unit or committee meets to make up the first interview list. A potentially efficient model for the meeting:

Everyone’s assignment is to come to the meeting with 1) a “dream list” of ten top interview candidates from the baggy short list; and 2) a list of her/his top three candidates on this list, ranked, with a short account of their strengths. (Each member of the committee should think about the diversity and balance of the slate while making up the “dream list.”)

At the meeting, each member of the unit states her/his top ten list. A scribe for the group records names that come up and puts marks next to names that show up on multiple lists.  In a second round, each person names her/ his top three candidates, giving brief reasons. These rankings are also noted, in a separate column next to the names.

The group will probably end up with a lot of consensus, and some outliers—candidates who showed up in someone’s top three but had less general support.

From these results the committee will need to make the first interview list.

“Select to include” strategies for Stage 3

Obviously, the first interview list will include all of the candidates around whom there is a lot of consensus and enthusiasm.

It should also demonstrate diversity according to different measures deemed important by the committee (demographic, but also in terms of field and/or methodology, if relevant).

As the committee works to build a diverse slate, it will draw from the remaining names on the composite list it just made. Instead of just going down through candidates in “consensus” order, the group might think about including some candidates who have less consensus but strong enthusiasm from one or two people—some candidates who might be a bit more divisive. Agree to do this in a way that keeps the process from feeling divisive — if a member of the group feels strongly that x should be on the list, s/he should advocate for x; but if x gets added it’s time to defer to someone who is advocating for y.

Stage 4: The On-Campus Interview and the Final Vote

A version of this process can work when the unit chooses candidates to bring to campus and again when it votes on making an offer.

Afterthoughts

It is important to keep in mind throughout the process that hiring outcomes cannot be predicted far in advance: there are often discrepancies between how candidates look on paper and how they perform in an interview situation, and therefore members of the committee and the unit itself can undergo shifts of view.  Whenever possible, advocate in positive terms; concerns about the merits of candidates can be expressed in language no one will blush to remember if that person becomes a colleague.  Search processes can bring into view the different visions members of the unit have of the future of the unit and the field.  But the search process can also serve as a positive opportunity to build the collegial and discursive environment into which a new faculty member will arrive.  The goal is to make an appointment about which the unit can feel celebratory: finding ways to have free, open discussions that are at the same respectful of all candidates and the views of other committee members can help achieve this end.

“Search to include” means that the committee or unit may end up devoting attention to somewhat increased numbers of candidates: for example, for the sake of the diversity of the pool a committee may decide to interview 12 people in the first round instead of the traditional 10; it may bring 4 candidates to campus instead of the normal 3.  Putting in a little extra time, however, can also save costs if the resulting pool is more robust and if members of the group come to feel that their diverse perspectives have been welcome in the search.