Hiring Better: Search Advocates

A group of men sit on the floor if a room, drinking. There are framed images on the wall behind them, which they have been judging.
Image: Society of Artists’ Selection Committee, Sydney, 1907 / Henry King. From the State Library of New South Wales via Flickr commons

The first run of Hiring Librarians was pretty eye-opening. I learned that there is no secret to hiring and that people who hire library workers have all sorts of contradictory opinions and practices. And I saw that many of those opinions and practices are rooted in internal bias. I am very grateful to the readers who took the time to point out problematic answers, and the problematic questions I was asking. 

In the Return to Hiring Librarians, I’ve been looking for ways to help mitigate harm, both in the posting and in the practice.  So I was really intrigued to read Larry Eames’ survey, because he talks about his work and training as a Search Advocate.  I asked him:

Will you tell me a little more about your experience as a Search Advocate?

I found it a really effective training to equip participants with skills to both diversify hiring and push back against bias in the process. Because it’s designed for a higher ed setting, I found it broadly applicable to library hiring. But even beyond higher ed the tools and skills the program teaches are useful and easily tweaked to be locally specific. Once you’ve been through the program, you remain a member of the Canvas Course so you can return to the materials you develop and discuss during the foundations series, which is definitely something I’ve found myself doing especially during my first search as a committee chair.

He said that the training had been conducted by Anne Gillies, who runs the Oregon State University program. Her program has trained somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 people nationally and she is a go-to contact for many institutions looking to start their own program.

Anne graciously met with me for an hour on a Friday night so that I could ask her some more questions:

Do you have any “getting started” recommendations for organizations looking to reduce bias in hiring?

One of the things that we know is a big problem for search and selection is that we are in a hurry. To improve search and selection, we have to slow down. The only way to change the processes is to approach them more slowly and thoughtfully, and really pay attention. 

If an institution were launching a program like [Search Advocates] themselves, I would say they should start by pulling together a team of key people (administration and faculty and so on) that could be involved in piloting. They should be people who will be honest and who also have the respect of the community. The pilot is to see whether you’ve got it right or whether it’s really not quite what’s needed yet. You need to show that you’re learning from the pilot experience, continuing to change and grow and evolve to address your particular institutional context. 

They also need to bring a focus on being facilitative learning partners and flexible thinking. To do this work, we don’t see the world in binaries, we see nuance, and that’s a hard thing for people to do – we’re conditioned to do the opposite. It’s hard for people to use neutral, non judgmental, objective language, we are a culture of judgment and judgment words are what flow freely from people’s mouths. It’s very hard to interrupt.

There’s this thirst for tools. I have a question in my survey that asks, “What does your organization do to reduce bias in hiring? What are the contexts in which discrimination still exists in this process?” Some folks have great answers, some have cursory answers like, “we have a diverse search committee,” and a lot of folks say things like, “I don’t know what to do about this” or “I would like to do something, but my boss doesn’t want to do anything.”

It’s so hard to create change. If the administration is not a champion of the process, it won’t work. We were fortunate that, when we started, our President said, “this shall be.” I would imagine that this program might not launch in quite the same way today; our circumstances are different. Our former President put us on the map by launching the program ahead of its time, so now to some extent we’re the go-to place. And so if we hadn’t been positioned that way, OSU wouldn’t now be taking the lead. Another institution would have.  I think this kind of program was inevitable. Part of the reason our program has remained sustainable is that we developed it at OSU, for OSU, attending to our particular context and challenges. A “one size fits all” kind of approach isn’t terribly popular in this environment.

It’s a big undertaking. And it’s an especially big undertaking in higher education; the way that the so-called merit and reward systems are structured in higher education really does not acknowledge the importance of this kind of work. Equity work may be recognized as service, but the kind of university service that doesn’t count very much compared to other kinds of service to the discipline. So for faculty the P&T systems can serve as incentives not to engage in this work. For this reason OSU changed our promotion and tenure guidelines to recognize the importance of equity work in teaching, research, and service back in 2016. Most recently institutions like UIUC (University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign) are setting new standards by mandating that equity work be included as a separate category in faculty position descriptions and be evaluated separately as another component of faculty work (in addition to teaching, research, and service).

You’re making me think of the people who say, “we should run the library like a business.” There’s this focus on the bottom line and it really, really doesn’t have to be that way.

There’s a moral problem with that. It’s like the “business case” for diversity, that diversity is only worth doing if it changes the bottom line. Absolutely not. And libraries, like public institutions of higher education, are about providing access to people who otherwise would not have it. That’s hugely important, especially in a society that’s as stratified with discrimination and barriers as we are in the US. Organizations like libraries are absolutely crucial.

Will you walk us through how it might work in practice for a Search Advocate to be part of the hiring process?

We suggest that the Search Advocate should join the process before the job is ever posted. Together with the search committee, they should review the job description and posting for barriers and for opportunities to make it more inclusive and attractive to a wider range of people. They look for unintended messages about who the committee is looking for and other obstacles that may limit the pool. 

We have a tool called the Criteria Matrix which is our primary debiasing tool, an in-depth, inclusive rubric for screening. The Search Committee works together to broaden their understanding of what it means to meet each qualification, while doing justice to the qualification as written and to the needs of the position. We’re essentially setting up a tool that will screen people in instead of screening people out. It’s also prioritizing the qualifications for which we seek strength as a predictor of better performance (beyond just meeting the qualifications), so people will make decisions based on position needs rather than based on feelings of affinity for particular candidates. Strength isn’t a relevant consideration for every qualification.

Advocates are charged to suggest the committee do personal outreach recruiting with a focus on building a more diverse applicant pool. Personal outreach (or network recruiting) always happens, but happens really informally. When it happens informally, we access our usual networks, and they tend to be very much like us, whoever we are. So it doesn’t really create change. 

The Search Advocate works with the Search Committee throughout the process. They do everything that the search committee does and more. We’ve done a lot of thinking about what the bias risks are at each of the stages of the process. Advocates try to front load information and agreements with the committee to build awareness of these bias risks so the committee can be cognizant and think about ways to head those off. The advocate collaborates with the Search Chair who is responsible for facilitating the search process; if the advocate wants to bring additional tools or discussion to the process, the advocate and chair need to plan time for this. I want advocates to read the applications and ask questions that help committee members test their thinking when they begin the screening process, whether or not they are “voting members.” 

We want the advocate to come from far away from the hiring unit, from a different discipline, and be outside the power dynamics, stakeholder relationships, and other complicated relationships within the hiring unit. The mission of the Advocate is to advance equity, validity and diversity in the search and selection process. If they’re embedded in the unit, they have some sort of a stake in who’s going to be hired, or they’re embedded in the power dynamics, or the practices of the unit, or connected in some way to the unit or its stakeholders, they have another interest besides the Search Advocate role, and that becomes a conflict of interest. 

In screening, the advocate is trying to apply the agreed-upon criteria despite not being experts in the subject area; it’s a good way to test the clarity of the criteria the committee has developed. If it makes sense to somebody who doesn’t know your field, then you’ve probably done a pretty good job of articulating it in an inclusive, clear sort of way. 

I want Search Advocates to be engaged all the way through the process. For every search committee meeting. I want them to be providing tools and resources, but mostly asking a lot of facilitative questions, open ended questions, questions for understanding, and maybe moving into the realm of some more assertive communication, if needed, if they see something that they think is really a problem. Our approach is to use the least power interventions possible. A lot of that starts with things as simple as affirming the things that people are doing well. We want to shape a change in behavior as needed, and we want the advocate to be a resource for the committee. And so far, that’s what we’re hearing, that people are appreciative of what the Advocates bring to the process. That it makes the process better for them; it may not be shorter, but it’s better.

If we want to create a culture change, then we don’t want advocates to be communicating with people in a way that produces defensiveness or anger. We want them to be collaborative, and to facilitate awareness of the unintended impacts of the practices they’ve used in the past. I want advocates involved in the interviews; they should introduce themselves to the candidates as the search advocate. They should be involved in asking questions like everybody else, because otherwise they become a weird looming presence sort of sitting off on the side – everybody thinks that’s creepy. 

I also want them involved in planning for equity considerations for site visits. Sometimes public presentations, etc. can become problematic if people just ask whatever comes into their heads, whether or not it’s actually related to the job.  Being expected to field inappropriate questions is a nightmare for candidates. Advocates can help the hiring unit prepare these events such that this is less likely to happen. I suggest that the advocate or moderator say at the very beginning, “we’re all here because we’re interested in getting to know this person and their ability to do the job. The focus is on their ability to do the job. But in our desire to make a deeper connection sometimes we ask questions that segue into the personal and we actually can’t be doing that. If that happens, it’s understandable, but I’m just going to interrupt and ask the candidate not to answer and then move on to a different question.” We set it up in such a way that they know what the parameters are and we also aren’t shaming them for asking those questions. Because once you shame people, they get defensive. And people often forget that there are so many limits defining appropriate and inappropriate questions at the interview stage.

After the interviews the search practices vary between units and disciplines. Some search committees are involved in reference checking, some are not. Some submit a written report to the hiring manager, some provide a verbal report, and some just forward a list or recommendation. It’s kind of all over the map at that point. 

What I want is for the advocate to be there and paying attention to equity measures all the way through. The equity focus of advocates is both equity for candidates in the process and equity for committee members, because committee members can sometimes be silenced or their perspectives overlooked. Part of what advocates are charged to do is to make sure that all those voices are heard, and that the strengths that people bring to the process are being leveraged. Advocates are not rigid, inflexible compliance enforcers; they’re not the HR police. They have to recognize nuance, they have to be flexible, they have to be strategic, they have to pick the most important things and not go to the mat for everything, or they lose their audience. And they must be committed to equity and inclusion.

Do you know how many libraries use the program?

Orbis Cascade Alliance is having a workshop series that’s actually coming up next week. Beyond that, I think most of the librarians I’ve seen either participate when their institutions have contracted a workshop with OSU, or when the librarians have registered to attend the OSU series individually as our guests. I’ve seen a real upswing in university librarians, and others who work in libraries. And I’ve seen that at our institution as well, that there’s a real push for and focus on social justice and inclusion that wasn’t as clear 10 years ago. 

When I first got in touch with you, you suggested that I take the workshop and I would like to, but I’m just trying to figure out where I could fit it in with my life.

Actually, all the workshops I have published right now are full. The next ones I’ll be posting start in July. In the fall I’ll be trying a different way of scheduling. Usually I schedule them every other day (MWF or Tues/Thurs) to accommodate teaching schedules. But in the fall we will try spreading some of them out over four weeks, every Friday or every Tuesday, to give people a little bit more rest, recovery, and processing time between. We’ll see how that goes – It’s just a trial run. Non-OSU organizations can send two people to our workshop series for free; after that limit has been met the cost is only $200/person for the whole four-part 16 hour series. If we do it for another institution, they can invite up to 40 people for $3,000. This rate is low because we’re about access. As a land grant employee I also see this as one small way to start giving back by addressing our history of structural racism. Land grant institutions derived tremendous financial benefits because the federal government granted non-ceded (stolen) indigenous lands to us as endowments. 

If you’re interested learning more, signing up for a workshop, or bringing Anne to do a training for your organization, visit searchadvocate.oregonstate.edu She currently has a waitlist of institutions wanting workshops, but is scheduling for 2023.

As always, we’re interested in your thoughts! Consider commenting below or on Twitter.

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