Researcher’s Corner: One of Us: Social Performance in Academic Library Hiring

I’m pleased to be able to share this post by Xan Arch and Isaac Gilman, which looks at an important and under-researched aspect of hiring: the social aspect. Arch and Gilman highlight the ways in which meals and other unstructured social activities create opportunities for unexamined bias to contaminate search processes, and provide recommendations for rethinking and retooling.  

I think you will find this post very interesting. If you’d like to read more, you can find the original article at:

Arch, X., & Gilman, I. (2021). “One of Us: Social Performance in Academic Library Hiring.” In Proceedings of the 2021 Association of College and Research Libraries Conference. https://alair.ala.org/handle/11213/17561 


Context

A recent advice column in The Chronicle of Higher Education declares definitively that “Meals Matter” in the context of academic hiring processes—and goes on to provide advice on how candidates can behave appropriately during meals and similar social activities that are part of their interview day. “Appropriately,” of course, implies that there is a set of socio-cultural norms at every institution that candidates should be mindful not to violate, lest they be deemed not to fit in with their potential colleagues.

This expectation of appropriate social performance is found in academic library hiring processes as well. As recently as 2015, the following advice appeared in an article on maximizing success for library job-seekers: “Your behavior during the meal gives the hiring committee an indication of how you interact socially with others. […] Remember you are being evaluated not only on your qualifications but also to see if you would be a good fit in the library’s culture.”

As academic libraries have become more conscious of potential sources of bias in their hiring processes, many libraries have implemented more structured hiring processes that are intended to ensure candidates are evaluated not on the ill-defined—and un-job-related—idea of “fit,” but rather on the specific skills and knowledge that will make them successful in a position. However, at the same time that the formal criteria on which candidates are evaluated have become more rigorous, the social performance elements of the final interview day—things like meals, meet-n-greets, and even candidate presentations—have been largely left unquestioned, even though they represent the highest risk for introducing both implicit and explicit bias into the hiring process.

As library leaders with a shared goal of making our hiring processes more equitable, and of ensuring that we hire people based on the unique strengths and experiences they bring,, we wanted to explore the ways in which social performance elements might work against those goals and develop recommendations as to how these elements could be designed (or even eliminated) in order to reduce bias and aspirations of ‘fit’ in library hiring.

The Study

Our own experience as hiring managers has shown us that feedback based on candidates’ performance during meals, meet-n-greets, and presentations often includes comments more closely related to candidate self-presentation (affect, style, personality, etc.) than their qualifications related to specific position requirements—and as such, has been more problematic than useful in making hiring decisions. However, we found no critical discussion of this issue in library literature—and little in higher education literature in general—and so before making changes to our local practices, we wanted to understand whether there was value in these social performance elements that we were missing.

To gather information about the function and potential issues with these pieces of the interview day, we sent a brief survey out in February 2021 through two listservs for academic library deans and directors. In the 61 responses we received, we found that social elements like meals were widely used as part of evaluating candidates and that, as expected/feared, the primary purpose was to determine a candidate’s “fit” with the organization. 

Leaders responded that meals in particular would not necessarily be valuable in assessing a candidate’s professional competence, but more so in determining what they were like as people: for example, one respondent stated that the meal “may also encourage the candidates to be more ‘revealing’ of themselves. Sometimes they come prepared for the formal parts, but reveal their ‘truer’ selves in the informal settings.” 

Responses  about the role of job talks or presentations, and the ways in which they contributed to candidate evaluation, were less explicitly focused on the idea of “fit,” but most respondents felt that the purpose of this element was to see how candidates handled communicating in a public forum, emphasized in one response: “The Q&A session is invaluable for observing comfort with the unexpected.”

In general, library leaders who responded to the survey felt that social performance elements are valuable in finding the best candidate for a position. However, if—as our survey seems to indicate—the purpose of these parts of the interview day is to allow potential colleagues and supervisors to provide feedback on how well candidates conform to expected social norms—whether that is in the way they eat or the way they faux-teach—it will inevitably lead to bias against candidates with minoritized identities, candidates who are neurodivergent, and candidates with diverse forms of self-presentation.

Recommendations

While every position and every search are different, we feel confident in saying that every library should review and rethink the ways that social performance elements are incorporated into their hiring processes if they want to create truly equitable, candidate-friendly processes. The following are some general recommendations—described in more detail in our article—for where libraries can start:

1) Educate: Ensure that anyone who is participating in search processes, even people who are attending a presentation or a meal, are educated both about implicit bias and about the scope of candidate feedback that is necessary and appropriate).

2) Structure: The less structured an interview element is in terms of how candidates and other participants are able to participate and provide feedback, the more likely it is that inappropriate, biased evaluations of candidates will be introduced into the search process. There are two general strategies for introducing structure. The first is to add internal structure to an element; for example, establish topics that are on/off limits for meal attendees to discuss with a candidate, or provide structured rubrics through which presentation attendees can provide candidate feedback, rather than open-ended questions. The second strategy is to structurally separate an interview element from candidate evaluation; for example, do not request/allow candidate feedback to be submitted from people who attend a candidate meal.

3) Rethink: While incorporating participant education and carefully structuring social performance elements of an interview process can help mitigate bias risks, the ideal strategy is for libraries to reconsider whether these elements are even necessary at all—and to be very intentional and transparent about when they are or are not using them. For example, our survey respondents shared that part of the reason for social elements is to give candidates a chance to meet future colleagues. While this is important, there are ways of achieving this that don’t simultaneously risk penalizing otherwise well-qualified candidates for being themselves.

Ultimately, we believe that the goal should be for candidates to be evaluated only on requirements clearly articulated in a position description, and not on an implicit set of expectations for how a library worker should fit in with their potential colleagues. Removing or radically rethinking the elements of interviews that require unnecessary social performance will get us closer to that goal.


Xan Arch is Dean of the Clark Library, University of Portland. Xan’s ongoing research interests extend this article’s focus on mitigating bias in academic hiring processes to consider how power and identity function within search committees, as well as the potential role of  search/equity advocates in mediating the influence of individual committee members’ biases in deliberations and decision-making.  


Isaac Gilman is Dean of University Libraries, Pacific University. In that role, Isaac is working to create both more equitable and inclusive staffing structures and service models in academic libraries. Isaac is also currently researching faculty promotion and tenure standards and the ways in which existing standards reinforce white privilege, establish white cultural expectations as the norm, and both directly and indirectly marginalize and harm faculty and students of color.  

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