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The Search Stops Here: Recruiting and Hiring Professional Staff

By Joanne Goldwater,
Assistant Dean for Residential Life
St. Mary's College of Maryland

One of the keys to managing a good program is finding the right staff. What is meant by the "right staff?" You have to find the person who will have the right "fit" for the position, your institution, and your student culture. To be effective, you have to find the right people and assign them to the right job. Not all candidates who apply for your position will "fit." Many housing operations people do not handle counseling students very well. Likewise, many residence life programmers don't know a thing about managing facilities. So, how does a supervisor fill the staff vacancies? Planning, researching, recruiting, and interviewing are all part of the process to find that elusive "right person" for the job you have available.

First Step: Planning

The keys to any good search process are to know what position you are filling and what characteristics you want in a new employee. This may sound easier than it really is. When staff vacancies occur, many supervisors must first justify to their superiors why they need to refill that position. This is also a time to consider reorganizing or realigning positions. Instead of an area coordinator for programming, perhaps your department would run more effectively with a new area coordinator for staff development. What worked two or three years ago may not be what you need now. This is the time to look at your department with a critical eye and determine what your current staffing needs are and what you think you will need in the future.

If you do not have a current job description for the position, you will need to take the time to either create or review and revise one. Make sure it outlines the tasks and responsibilities that the employee will have. Required and preferred qualifications should be listed. You will want to include the reporting structure as well.

Once you receive the authorization to move ahead with filling the vacancy, take some time to think about the characteristics that your ideal candidate should possess. Make a list. Make sure that you note which qualities the perfect candidate will possess and which ones would be "nice to have." "Use job descriptions, current people in the position, coworkers, and employee input to help create the list." (Grant & Pontarelli, 1997). Think about the following:

  • Education requirements
  • Computer skills
  • Flexibility with work schedule
  • Strengths & weaknesses of other staff members (you will want the new employee to fill a niche and blend in well with the other staff members)
  • Diversity balance of the staff (gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.)
  • Prior experience, skills, and knowledge (what should the ideal candidate already know in order to fill the position?)
  • Personal characteristics (e.g. extroverted, introspective, sense of humor, laid-back, reliable, respectful, honest, etc.)

Put the list away for a day or so and come back to it. Did you forget something on the list? If your supervisor is a "hands on" type of supervisor, ask him or her to give you information for the list. Once you have the list of characteristics put together, you will have a better idea of the type of person you want to hire for your vacancy. You can start your search process with confidence.

Another part of planning is to establish a time frame for your search. When do you want the person to start? Work backwards from there. Remember that if the ideal candidate is already employed somewhere, he or she will have to submit a resignation. While many places only require a two-week notification, others require a month. Plan accordingly.

Sample Timeline:
Start date: July 1
Send hire letter/contract: May 30
Make offer: May 26
Conduct reference check: May 22 - 26
On-campus interviews: May 1 - 19
Review resumes: April 17 - 28
Start accepting resumes: March 20
Place ads March 13, 20

Keep in mind what your budget for the search process will be. Consider the following:

  • Cost of ad(s)
  • Travel costs for bringing candidates to campus
  • Meal costs for candidates, people involved with the interview
  • Lodging costs for candidates

Some institutions will cover the lodging, travel, and meal costs for candidates only if the candidate is offered the job and accepts it. Others cover the costs no matter what. Make sure you know what your institutional policies are for reimbursing the candidates.

Researching & Recruiting

Take a look at The Chronicle of Higher Education on any given week and you will see a number of jobs posted that are probably pretty similar to the one you intend to post. Somehow, you have to make your ad stand out from the rest. What are the selling points for your institution? Why do students want to attend? Make sure you highlight these points early in the advertisement.

Be sure to include all the information in the ad that will be of interest to someone scanning it. This information should include: brief position description, required and preferred qualifications, remuneration and benefits information, and contact information. Although some schools refrain from listing the salary range, you may save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run by putting the salary range in your ad. Otherwise, you may get lots of people applying for the position who are only interested in a salary range higher than what you are offering. Unfortunately, if you do not include the salary range in the ad, oftentimes you will go through the trouble of reviewing resumes and conducting interviews only to find out that your candidates are not willing to come down to your salary level.

If you send out "Dear Colleague" letters, attach a job description to a brief letter and consider putting the letter on bright paper, to make it stand out. Many CHOs get lots of these types of letters. Those that do not end up in the trash may be circulated to the staff. You will need some sort of attention-grabber to make sure your information is read.

Most people in our field know that the prime time to search for new, entry-level personnel is in the spring, as many soon-to-be-graduates will be on the market. While spring is a good time to conduct a search, it is not the only time. What happens if you have a vacancy in September? Keep in mind that there are quite a few mid-year (December) graduates who will be looking for positions. There are also others who are willing to take positions if they are close to completing their course work, if you are willing to work with them. We recently found a May 2000 graduate at an institution about three hours from our campus who was the perfect person to fill a vacancy we had in January 2000. She made arrangements to finish her classwork at her university during the spring semester while being employed full-time with us.

Questions to consider at this point are:

  • Can you wait until the spring to conduct your search?
  • What tasks can you put on the "back burner" until a new person is hired?
  • Can someone already on staff fill the position (perhaps an internal promotion)?

What if the vacancy is not an entry-level position? There are always seasoned professionals looking to change positions when the right job comes along. The higher up the ladder, the more likely you will find positions open throughout the year.

Be sure to remember the "domino effect." Many supervisors find out in May or during the summer (after the first part of the recruiting season is over) that they have a vacancy to fill. Be prepared for this possibility. While fewer in number, there are usually plenty of candidates still on the market during the summer.

Where should you spend your time and money recruiting? Many people use The Chronicle of Higher Education to post job vacancies. Be aware that advertising in the Chronicle and other similar resources is not inexpensive (average cost: $650 - $1000 per issue). The same is true for advertising in most major metropolitan newspapers (e.g. The Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, etc.) If you live in or near a large city, advertising in one of the local newspapers may make sense if there are several colleges or universities in the area. However, if you are in a rural area, advertising for a professional staff position in your local newspaper may not bring in a large number of qualified applicants.

Make use of your e-mail resources. Send out position announcements to regional and national listserves (e.g. Discuss@housing.msstate.edu). Use your own networking connections. Send out "Dear Colleague" letters to directors at regional institutions and graduate school placement centers. Don't forget to send letters to HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and University) institutions!

Consider using the placement services offered at conferences (e.g. ACPA for spring recruiting, ACUHO-I for summer recruiting). Several regions also offer placement services (e.g. Mid-Atlantic College and University Placement Service, SACSA or Oshkosh). Using some of these placement centers can be difficult. Some people never leave the placement area. They just sit and interview candidate after candidate. Before too long, it is impossible to remember one candidate from another. Be careful to pace yourself.

Diversity issues are important to consider when hiring new employees. Virtually all institutions include the tag line "EEO/AA employer" ("Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action") somewhere on their job postings. Are those just words you put on the bottom of the page or do you really mean what you say? You will want to have a nice balance on your staff, if for no other reason, to have appropriate role models for your students. Having a diverse staff can be enlightening for everyone. Programming and educational opportunities abound. It is important to create an atmosphere free of discrimination.

Be sure when you are hiring that you adhere to the law. There are many questions that cannot be asked during an interview. Do you know them? The following examples are illegal questions:

  1. Are you married?
  2. How old are you?
  3. What will your wife/husband think about you working nights?
  4. Were you born in this country?
  5. How much do you weigh?

Other areas to avoid asking questions about include:

  • Race, color, religion, sex
  • Children and child care arrangements
  • Arrests
  • Type of military discharge
  • Economic status
  • Medical conditions
  • Physical or mental disability
  • English language skill

Make sure everyone who will come in contact with the candidate is aware of what questions they may ask. If you use a search committee, invite a representative from your human resources or personnel office to attend one of the early committee meetings to go over the EEO/AA guidelines.

The Search Process

You are now at the point where you have to start thinking about the resumes you will be receiving. Some schools have a search committee structure for selecting candidates. Others do not. You will need to determine how you will conduct your search.

If you utilize a search committee, consider limiting it to five people. It is a good idea to try to get representation from a wide segment of campus, including faculty and students. As a group, the committee will review all applications received, narrow the field down to the number of candidates coming to campus, create the questions for the interviews, conduct the interviews, evaluate the candidates, and make a recommendation to the supervisor. In some cases, the search committee is asked to rank order all of the candidates; in other cases, the committee is charged with selecting the top two candidates. If a search committee is not used, it will likely fall on the supervisor to review all applications and determine who to bring to campus.

When reviewing the applications, look for characteristics, experience, skills that you noted in your "ideal candidate list" that you developed earlier. Check for typos and poor grammar on the cover letter and the resume. If someone does not take the time to properly proof these important papers, will they take the time to proof a memo? Is the candidate actively involved in professional and/or civic organizations? Does the candidate possess any unique or special skills that will be useful to your institution? Are there gaps in the applicant's work history? Find out the reasons for those gaps.

An important part of the search process is developing the questions that will be asked during the interview. The majority of the questions should be open-ended, focusing on the candidate's opinions, past experiences, strengths and weaknesses, and hypothetical situations. Keep the questions simple. Try to avoid two-part questions during interviews (often, two-part questions give away the answer you are looking for.). All candidates should be asked the same questions. Follow-up questions may be asked to clarify an answer if needed. (Grant & Pontarelli, 1997)

Depending on the position for which you are conducting the search, consider developing questions for the following areas:

  • Opening/get to know you
  • Experience
  • Supervision
  • Administration
  • Programming
  • Judicial
  • Crisis management
  • Community development
  • Student development theory
  • Communication/counseling skills
  • Mission/career
  • Human issues skills
  • Facility management experience
  • Decision-making/problem-solving skills
  • Closing questions (Amaro & Miller, 1996)

Another part of the search process is the reference check. Once you have narrowed the field you will want to consider the reference checks. "It is courteous to inform the candidate that you intend to begin checking references. This gives the candidate an opportunity to alert references to expect a call. It is also best to refrain from contacting potential references not listed on an applicant's list of references unless you get specific permission from the applicant. [There are several reasons for this.] First, the applicant may not want certain individuals to know they are engaged in a job search. Second, the applicant may be able to supply you with reasons as to why that individual might not be able to give a favorable recommendation, information that will be helpful to you in deciding how to evaluate what a reference has told you. It certainly is permissible, even wise, to wonder why an obvious person is not listed as [a] reference. Just be sure to get the applicant's permission before contacting that individual." (SMCM, 1999)

Some people prefer to do the reference check before bringing candidates to campus. The advantage to doing the references before campus visits is that you can discuss any concerns or issues raised by the referent directly with the candidate. Others prefer to check references after the candidates have visited. The advantage to doing it this way is that you can raise any questions you had from the on-campus interview with the person doing the reference check. Some people do the reference check on only their top candidate. No matter which way you do the reference checks, remember to take what is said and what is not said into consideration. Typically, only people who can give good references will be listed. Be direct with your questions. For example:

  • How long was the candidate employed for you?
  • Overall, how would you rate the candidate's performance and work habits?
  • In what areas is the candidate challenged (or, in what areas does the candidate need to improve)?
  • How would students describe the candidate?
  • How would staff and/or faculty describe the candidate?
  • How does the candidate respond to constructive criticism?
  • Why do you think we should hire the candidate for our position?
  • Would you rehire this candidate? Why or why not?
  • How interested is the candidate in this position?

Listen for enthusiasm when the person giving the reference is describing the candidate. Are there lots of pauses in his or her responses to your questions? Can the person provide you with several concrete examples of good work performance? Or is it something of a struggle for the person to share information with you?

Bear in mind that some schools have policies that prohibit them from giving any information except dates of employment. If that happens and you still need additional information, go back to the candidate and ask him or her to provide you with another reference.

Remember to leave a good paper trail throughout the process. When you receive an application, send a letter acknowledging that you received the information. Some schools have special search process forms that they use in order to keep track of everything. Do not write on the original application. Write your notes on the separate piece of paper. Avoid using the term, "evaluation forms." Candidates have the right to see these forms if they desire. Instead, refer to your notes as "interview notes." Make sure you get copies of receipts from the candidates (for lodging, meals, travel expenses, etc.). Take good notes during phone interviews and/or or reference checks. Make sure you send notes of appreciation to everyone who assisted with the search process.

The On-Campus Interview

Before a candidate arrives, it is a good idea to provide him or her with a packet of information. This packet should contain directions to the campus, a map, community information, a student handbook, College or University Catalog, a recent copy of the student newspaper, and the job description. Once the candidate is on campus, he or she should be given a written summary of the benefits information and local housing information if living off-campus.

Some institutions use phone interviews to narrow the top 10 list to the top three to five list of candidates to bring to campus. Others schools have stopped doing phone interviews. While they can be somewhat helpful, some people have concerns with phone interviews. These concerns stem from the fact that the people conducting the interview cannot see each other. As many people know, body language conveys a great deal of information. What is said is not always as important as how it is said. Taking away the opportunity to see each other can skew the process.

Before you bring candidates to campus, decide who should be interviewing them. It may be a good idea to have the department head or direct supervisor have breakfast with the candidate, in order to provide an overview of the day ahead. Consider your institution's culture. At some small schools, the Dean of Student Affairs will meet with each candidate, while at larger schools, only the department head will meet with the candidate. Try to have a student lead a campus tour, and if possible, have students meet with the candidate over lunch. Consider having members of your division (e.g. Student Affairs professional staff) meet with the candidates for a Q&A session.

Sample Interview Schedule:
8:45 - 9:30 a.m. Breakfast meeting with Director, overview of the day
9:30 - 10:00 a.m. Meet with Vice President/Dean of Student Affairs
10:15 - 11:00 a.m. Meet with Student Affairs staff members
11:00 - 12:00 p.m. Meet with Office of Residence Life staff members
12:00 - 1:00 p.m. Lunch with students
1:00 - 2:00 p.m. Campus tour (led by a student)
2:00 - 3:00 p.m. Wrap-up session with Director

A well-prepared interviewer will have developed an interview plan and have prepared a written list of questions that are related to the knowledge, skills, and abilities required. The plan will list areas of the applicant's background which need further probing, points needing clarification, or 'red flags' (possible problems) which need investigating. There will be some topics of importance about which nothing is stated on a resume or job application. All points in a plan should be covered; some areas will need more time than others to cover." (SMCM, 1999).

Interviewers should always:

  1. Ask the same general questions and require the same standards for all applicants;
  2. Treat all applicants with fairness, equality, and consistency;
  3. Follow a structured interview plan that will help achieve fairness in interviewing;
  4. Ask questions that are relevant to the job itself;
  5. Be professional and consistent in addressing men and women;
  6. Treat the candidate in a businesslike, yet relaxed way." (SMCM, 1999)

Remember that while you are interviewing the candidate, the candidate is also interviewing you. Allow enough time for the candidate to ask questions. If time is allotted for a campus tour, show the candidate the office space in which he or she will be working if hired. If the person is required to live on-campus, show the candidate the apartment or living space. While you do not want to paint an unnatural picture for the applicant, you also do not want to show open hostility between staff, faculty, and/or students. Be honest about the flaws, but do not focus solely on them.

Before the candidate leaves campus, let him or her know the timeline for completion of the process and whether you will be contacting them by phone or letter. If there is a delay in notification, let the candidates know of the delay and announce a new decision date. (SMCM, 1999)

Be sure to have everyone who comes in contact with the candidate provide you with an assessment of the candidate. Examples of questions to use on the assessment form include:

  • Candidate's strengths for the position.
  • Candidate's potential limitation for the position.
  • How do you think the candidate's style will be perceived?
  • How successful do you think the candidate's interactions will be with:
    • Students?
    • Staff and faculty?
  • List any special concerns you have about the candidate.
  • Additional comments and/or impressions.

Making the Offer

After all of the candidates have completed their on-campus interviews, you will need to select one to whom you will make an offer. "Review the minimum qualifications, position description, and other items quoted in your advertisement for the position to determine once again the applicant who best matches the position. The use of a 'best match' concept is replacing the 'best qualified' for a position since several candidates may have equal qualifications. An all important caveat is to be sure candidates are evaluated only against selection criteria." (SMCM, 1999)

Once you have determined who your top candidate is, make the call! Be prepared to tell the person the starting salary and any included benefits (e.g. furnished apartment, full meal plan, free parking, etc.), preferred start date of employment, etc. Let the candidate know if the salary is non-negotiable. Be prepared to give the candidate some time to think about the offer (in fact, encourage them to do so). If the candidate accepts the position, follow-up with a letter of understanding outlining everything you stated in the phone call offering the position. Be sure to send out any contracts, payroll forms, insurance information, etc. as soon as possible in order to get the bureaucratic paper trail started and to help the new employee feel "ownership" for his or her decision to join your staff. Start preparing your orientation/training schedule for your new employee. A nice touch is to provide a plant or fruit basket in the employee's apartment or office upon their arrival. If appropriate at your institution, announce the hiring of the new employee.

Once the selection process is complete, [all] unsuccessful candidates [including those who were not selected for on-campus interviews] should be informed in writing that they have not been selected." (SMCM, 1999)

Do's and Don'ts

  • Do encourage current staff members to keep you informed of their pending job search plans so you can prepare accordingly. This will require that you not hold this information against them (as in, feeling they are being disloyal if they tell you that they have applied for a new position).
  • Do encourage new staff members to look through The Chronicle of Higher Education in search of their next, ideal position. Review the ad together and determine what skills and experience the staff member will need to have in order to be considered for that type of position in the future. Supervisors should always be training their subordinates to be able to move on.
  • Do make the search process a priority once you decide the time is right to undertake the task.
  • Do be truthful and honest about the position, the institution and its faults, and the surrounding community. If you do not provide an accurate picture of the job, campus, and community, it will not take long for the new employee to figure things out. This can cause resentment and an unhappy employee.
  • Do have someone from the human resources (personnel) office provide you with current EEO/AA guidelines. Share this information with anyone who may be meeting with the candidates. Don't ask illegal questions! Be familiar with what questions you may and may not ask a candidate. If you are in an interview setting and someone else asks an illegal question, jump in before the candidate responds and state that the candidate should not answer the question. Afterwards, speak with the individual who asked the question and point out what was inappropriate.
  • Don't delegate the search process to another staff member unless you are absolutely sure he or she has the time to devote to it, has the ability to manage it, and knows what you are looking for in a new employee.
  • Don't make a hiring decision without first talking with your supervisor.
  • Don't put on a rosy picture for a candidate.
  • Don't be bombarded by dozens of candidates at conference placement centers. It is easy to be overwhelmed. Take frequent breaks from interviewing.

If you are lucky and have done your planning, recruiting, and interviewing properly, you will find a top-notch candidate who will fit into your department and institution. Do not become discouraged if you are not successful on your first attempt (or second attempt!) to fill a vacancy. Be patient and persistent and the right person will come along. It is well worth the wait.

Acknowledgements and Resources

Online Resources/Information Concerning Diversity in Higher Education:

Human Resources Staff Affirmative Action:

"Mapping the Recruitment Course" by Manny Amaro and Carolyn "Waz" Miller. ACUHO-I presentation, Providence, RI, 1996

"Hiring: Building Your Department's Future Success Today!" by Fred Grant and Kathi Pontarelli. ACPA presentation, Chicago, IL, 1997

"Affirmative Action Guidelines for Staff and Administrative Staff Searches." St. Mary's College of Maryland, Personnel Office, 1999

About the Author

Joanne Goldwater is currently Assistant Dean for Residence Life at St. Mary's College. She has over 13 years professional experience working in Higher Education. Joanne served as MACUHO President, and chaired the New Professional Committee. Her service to MACUHO led to her receipt of the Ann Webster New Professional Award, the Outstanding Service Award, and the Distinguished Service Award. Joanne also served in the role of ACUHO-I Eastern District Representative, and has also served as a Foundation Board Trustee and Chair of the Small College Task Force.