Topics

Eliminating Alibis

Eliza C. Bettinger describes how diversifying an applicant pool starts with writing a better job ad.

May 10, 2022
 
 
A man with dark hair with his back to the camera looks at a résumé.
XiXinXing/istock/getty images

“People of color just don’t apply.” “The problem is the pipeline.” “Well, it’s a small town, so of course it’s hard to recruit Black and Latinx staff—there’s nothing we can do about that.” If you’ve sat on a university hiring committee, you’ve probably heard one of those statements. They’re meant to provide an alibi, explaining the inevitability of a primarily white applicant pool.

But what if search committees began planning for a diverse pool of applicants right from the very beginning—first and most importantly when they’re designing the job itself—and then when they’re writing the job posting? This brief guide to writing a job advertisement for positions in higher education is meant to help eliminate alibis on hiring committees. It is informed in part by April Hathcock’s analysis of academic employers who recruit for whiteness, as well as Angela Galvan’s recommendations for interrogating whiteness in the recruiting process. It’s an attempt to put into practical action some of those writers’ incisive critiques.

Let’s start with the goals of the job ad. They are to:

  • Intrigue qualified people. Remember, it’s an ad! You want your ideal candidates to read it and then think, “Hmm, that sounds like an exciting job, where I’ll be working with smart, supportive people who have conceived of my role in a thoughtful way.” Think about a highly qualified person who is looking around and doesn’t necessarily need a job. Write the ad imagining what might make the job sound appealing to them.
  • Ensure that interested candidates can discern whether or not their knowledge, skills and experience are a good match for the job. Highly competent people might evaluate their skills as less than they actually are, and less competent people often have an inflated sense of their abilities. So, ironically, you can sometimes attract more highly qualified candidates by keeping your qualifications very focused and not throwing in everything you can think of.
  • Let potential candidates who have identities underrepresented in your organization know that they are not only welcome to apply but, in fact, sought after for the job. You can’t do that just saying that you require “a commitment to diversity” and then pasting boilerplate language about equal opportunity hiring at the bottom of the ad. Instead, identify specific competencies related to diversity, inclusion and equity that are important for doing the job well, and make those required qualifications—not nice-to-haves.

How do you best meet those goals for the job ad? Here are some key steps.

Step 1: Intrigue potential candidates. Use the first few paragraphs of the posting to interest the reader and pull them in. This section describes the job and the type of person you’re looking for, but it is not the official job description. Some advice:

  • Keep it short. Bored readers stop reading. You don’t want to lose them before the qualifications kick in.
  • Explain what is most interesting, fulfilling or exciting about the job. Why—on a level of values or emotions—might someone want this job? What makes it different from other similar jobs?
  • Start strong. What is absolutely the most important or interesting thing for potential candidates to know about the job? Put that first.
  • Don’t include everything. A résumé isn’t a deposition; neither is a job ad. Both are marketing documents. Of course, your ad must be truthful and accurate, but it should also be a readable, interesting, high-level view—not a paste of the official job description that is written in HR bureaucratese.

Write a few short paragraphs, perhaps followed by a thoughtful list of big-picture job responsibilities. That’s it. For examples of what these ads might look like, Samantha McLaren at LinkedIn has a helpful post.

Step 2: Consider carefully the knowledge, skills and abilities that make a good match. This list of sought-after qualifications is the most important part of the ad, because it guides the entire search from start to finish. On one end, it heavily influences who will apply for the job—potential applicants will use it to decide if they have a shot. On the other end, you will use it to determine which of your candidates should move forward at each stage of the process.

  • Recognize it’s a minimum-qualifications list, not a kitchen-sink wish list. Ad writers tend to throw lots of nice-to-haves into the qualifications list. But this mistake is similar to using an “and” Boolean search rather than “or.” Highly qualified candidates are likely to read the list and remove themselves from applying when they see just one or two items on the list that they don’t feel is a perfect reflection of them. So think carefully and critically about what qualifications are truly necessary for the job.
  • Identify your narrow doors and your wide doors. As you write your qualifications list, get specific about which of your qualifications should be wide doors (broad qualifications with many different ways to meet them), and which should be narrow doors (limited, specific ways to meet the qualifications). For example, do you need someone with experience teaching college students in a classroom setting? Or do you need someone who is capable of connecting with learners and helping them gain new skills—someone who might have experience in teaching, mentorship, tutoring or other experiences? One of those doors is narrow and will eliminate some potential applicants from applying; the other is wider and allows more applicants to see themselves in the job. Either qualification is reasonable, depending on what you need. Just be sure that you’re deliberately choosing which kind of door you’re building, so you don’t block out candidates you’d love to have before they’ve even applied.
  • Unpack clichés, jargon and assumptions. What sorts of “equivalent experience” might be acceptable? Does “a year of experience” mean a year in a full-time professional position? How about as an intern or doing classwork? What do “excellent communication skills” or “strong leadership skills” look like, specifically, for this job? If you’re not sure, your candidates will be less so. Moreover, if you’re not sure, then evaluating candidates at later stages will be much more difficult.
  • Drop “preferred qualifications” if at all possible. This suggestion comes from the HR department at my workplace, and it’s great advice. Usually, “preferred qualifications” serve only to close doors to potential applicants—not to entice the highly qualified to apply. Candidates don’t distinguish much between “required” and “preferred” qualifications, so they are likely to self-select out if they don’t meet the preferred qualifications. And if you’ve done a good job of describing the job and your required minimum qualifications, then some percentage of interested applicants will have those preferred qualifications anyway.
  • Consider the salary. Make sure that your required qualifications are reasonable, given the rank and salary. If you’re advertising for an entry-level staff person, for example, then most of your minimum qualifications should be broader doors. You should be looking for interested people willing to learn particular skills (which might be demonstrated through coursework or extracurriculars), rather than extensive on-the-job experience.

Step 3: Require specific qualifications related to diversity, inclusion and equity. What’s the most important part of creating an ad that has the best chance of attracting a diverse pool of qualified applicants? Making clear that the job requires some type of specific knowledge or experiences related to diversity or equity by ensuring one or more of the qualifications reflects that. Although I’ve listed this step last, you must consider it early in the process, around the time that you design the job itself.

For example, Emory University recently hired a cluster of science faculty, and every job (in multiple departments) required that each successful candidate have experience mentoring underrepresented students in the sciences. The hiring committees didn’t treat that experience as a nice-to-have. It was the first thing they looked at. If the candidate didn’t have it—no matter what other qualifications they had—they weren’t considered. Top scientists who had a track record of promoting equity in science education knew that their experience, background and perspectives were actively welcomed, and that work that mattered to them would be valued in these positions.

Related Stories

In my own experience, for the data- and digital-scholarship librarian search that I chaired last year, we wrote this qualification: “Knowledge of ways that minoritized groups have been marginalized in tech education and the tech industry. You have some ideas about how best to create a just and inclusive technical learning environment, and a sensitivity for ways that racism and sexism can appear in data collection and analysis, and in the impact of algorithms.” As scholar Jennifer deWinter explained in a Twitter thread in January about recruiting faculty members, “Everyone says women and BIPOC are encouraged to apply. Whatever. This sentence does not diversify the pool of candidates. Do you know what does? Creating a job ad that speaks to the research areas of BIPOC and female candidates.”

The key is to think carefully and critically about the job you have at hand—and what types of expertise or other qualifications are needed for that job.

In conclusion, antiracist workplace changes in higher education are often made out to be difficult and complicated. Committees are constituted, consultants and trainers are hired, workshops take place. But rarely do such efforts produce any meaningful redistribution of resources or power. The three most effective things that colleges and universities can do to advance diversity, equity and inclusion are to:

  • Hire Black, Indigenous and Latinx candidates, as well as other minoritized people;
  • Pay them appropriately; and
  • Create spaces and support to empower them to accomplish their visions.

I hope this essay will help you a bit in accomplishing the first task.

Bio

Eliza C. Bettinger is lead librarian for digital scholarship at the Cornell University Library.

Read more by

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

 
Back to Top