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When Bad Hires Happen to Good People
August 21, 2012 - 7:27pm

The conversations and presentations at this year's Boise Confab were cerebrally exhilarating. One particular session really piqued my interest. Jeremiah Shinn, Director for the Student Involvement & Leadership Center at Boise State University, gave an extremely honest presentation about how we conduct hirings in student affairs. Whether you agree with Shinn, disagree, and/or take umbrage, I bet you have an opinion. Here's a quick Q and A where he discusses his thoughts about "bad hires" and "good people":

You recently led a discussion on "When Bad Hires Happen to Good People." What do you consider a "bad hire?"

For the purpose of this conversation, my assertion is that any hire that isn’t the best possible hire, given the circumstance, is a bad hire. That’s admittedly a bit hyperbolic, but I’m sticking with it.

So, do you believe that student affairs professionals are prone to making bad hires?

I do. Again, it’s about processes that fail to yield the best possible hire, given the circumstances. I believe the culture of student affairs is such that we don’t typically believe we can make “bad hires” because we tend to believe that all candidates are good. There’s certainly an element of fit to be considered, but I still believe that “top talent” exists in our field. In any field, there are going to be those who are at the top of their game. For example, the NFL Hall of Fame has enshrined as many former first-round picks as those chosen in all other rounds combined. I’m not implying that student affairs is comparable to the NFL, but it’s true that in most professions, the level at which you begin is at least a logical predictor of where you’ll be throughout your career. We can’t always hire first-round picks…but if we make a practice of consistently hiring 7th round picks because we don’t have an intentional process, I think it begins to show up in the quality of our work.

Why do you believe student affairs professionals are prone to making bad hires?

One of the flawed assumptions student affairs professionals tend to make is that we exist in a “buyers market”. There are more candidates than positions, so automatically, we’re in the driver’s seat. While it’s true that the number of available entry-level professionals has been greater than the number of available positions in recent years, I believe that when we are in the game of attracting “top talent” to our campus, the mindset has to that of a “sellers market”. The top talent in any field will always have options. I always want to hire people who have other options.

What do you see as the most common errors in the hiring process?

When I talk to colleagues, graduate students and others in the field, I notice three errors in the hiring process that potentially limit our ability to attract top talent. First, I believe we focus far too much of our process on the “What” and the “How”. Simon Sinek points out: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. I think it’s important to build our hiring process around our “Why”. If a department/division isn’t engaged in the “Why” conversation, that’s probably the first step. You have to have a story and a purpose before you can share it. For those already engaged in the “Why” conversation, it’s vital to design their hiring process around telling your story. At the end of the day, I believe that candidates are more likely to choose a position that “feels” right, rather than one that looks great on paper. Focusing on the “Why” is our opportunity to assess whether or not the things we believe about our work match with what a candidate believes.

Secondly, I think we tend to ask too many predictable questions, which in turn yield predictable and rehearsed answers that are of limited use as we decide among great candidates. Any candidate worth their salt will have well-rehearsed answers to the 10 or so questions that they know we’re going to answer. Our goal is always to design the interview and its associated questions in a manner that requires the candidate to go off script. We want to assess a candidate’s ability to think and be authentic rather than their ability to anticipate questions. We even designed a board game for candidates that tells us more about the potential fit than any of the typical questions ever could. Whatever you do and however you do it, it’s important to be mindful of the information you’re attempting to gather…and to look for creative ways to gather it.

Lastly, I think that we leave too many things to chance during the interview process. We have a finite number of interactions with a potential candidate, so it’s important that we intentionally design each interaction to communicate precisely what we’re trying to communicate…about the job, about the department, about the campus, about the city or all of the above. Every correspondence, every phone call and every piece of information needs to be intentionally constructed around communicating something to the candidate. If we are recruiting a young professional to Boise, it makes sense to have them stay downtown with a view of the foothills, instead of at the airport. It makes sense to take them to a young, hip breakfast spot instead of a place where retirees are enjoying coffee and waffles. In terms of the interview itself, it makes sense to have them meet only with those whose opinions carry weight in the decision-making process and who can clearly articulate our “Why”. While the student affairs open interview session makes sense for hiring a VP, it makes no sense in hiring an entry-level professional. The likelihood of insightful questions is minimal and that hour generally does very little to further recruit the candidate.

Whatever you do…it just needs to be the best and most intentional thing you can do in that particular time/space.

What is the one thing that can make the most difference in changing the way we hire?

I think it’s important to be aware of our “target” in the hiring process. When our department goes to NASPA TPE, our target is never to hire someone. Instead, our target is for every candidate’s experience with Boise State University to be the most relaxed, fun, honest and memorable one they’ll have during their process. If we are able to achieve that, hiring a great candidate is likely to be a desirable byproduct of our efforts. When we just seek to hire someone, we tend to take short cuts by doing only what it takes to hire someone. When we seek to create a positive and memorable experience for every single person with whom we interact, it requires us to measure every part of our process against that target. We have to be at the top of our game.

What do you think? Should we redirect our hiring focus to the candidate experience versus just solely looking at hiring someone? If yes, how has it worked out for you?

 

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