8 Ways for Search Committees to Be Inclusive

By Amy Crutchfield

Not long ago, I worked on a couple of executive searches that were fraught with controversy. Yet the two hiring committees went about their work quite differently:

  • The first committee was dominated by a few outspoken members. They talked over others and bulldozed their way through decisions. Rarely was a dissenting view heard, until the end when some participants lamented the process.
  • The second committee also had some strong voices, but they didn’t do all the talking. The committee made space for everyone to speak. Members asked one another questions and were careful to name and discuss problems as they arose. The inclusive way they behaved toward one another extended to their interactions with job candidates. 

Why is that important? Because how search-committee members interact with one another, and with candidates, directly influences the success of a hiring process. Candidates in the first search picked up on the tensions and even questioned if they were still interested in the job — and some decided they were not. With the second committee, candidates — even those who didn’t get the job — spoke highly of the search process. 

Inclusive hiring is one of those hot topics that everyone in higher education talks about but rarely with any specifics attached. People on search committees say they aim to be “more inclusive” in the hiring process but don’t quite know what that means in practice when it comes to working with one another and interacting with candidates.

As a search consultant, I’ve been working to help colleges and universities run a hiring process that keeps diversity, equity, and inclusion at the forefront of selecting a great candidate. For committee members, an inclusive process means they each have a voice and a measure of control during the search. For candidates, it means striving to create a process in which they feel welcomed, respected, and fairly treated. 

Here are 8 tips for how committees (including those for faculty searches) can work inclusively and achieve the ultimate goal of hiring more diverse candidates.

Build rapport and trust within the committee.

During the first committee meeting, don’t underestimate the importance of those getting-to-know-you exercises, however awkward they might seem. When everyone goes around the room (real or virtual) to introduce themselves, ask them to share something more than their name and title. Encourage personal insights that connect to the work of the committee. For example, ask everyone to describe why they are committed to supporting the search and how their experience relates to the position under consideration. 

People who know and trust one another are more likely to engage in open and honest discussion — something that is critical to making wise hiring decisions. Nowadays, committee members may be trying to get to know one another via video conference. It is possible to bond via Zoom, so if you’re running the meeting, get people chatting before it starts or during breaks. 

In an inclusive search process, the pace of the search makes sense to everyone. Ultimately, a committee should take the time to make a decision that all the members feel good about. Or at least they should feel good about the process. I have worked with committees that want to hold multiple meetings over many days to make a final recommendation and with others that favor expediency above all, even to the detriment of a deliberative process. Somewhere between the two is typically right. 

Early on, establish rules for how decisions will be made.

It is typical to agree on majority rule, as unanimity is out of reach for most committees. Here’s one best practice: In selecting candidates to interview, ask the committee to review all of the candidate files and come to the meeting prepared to talk about their top candidates. That way, everyone gets a chance to form their own point of view about each candidate before being influenced by groupthink.

Additionally, it’s helpful to establish expectations and parameters for how people will interact on the committee. I worked recently with a committee that created a Community Agreement — a document that outlines committee behavior, such as listening, being respectful, and not talking over other people. Such agreements can set the stage for an inclusive search and be referred to throughout the process if the discussion seems to be veering into uncivil territory.

Committee members need to know it’s OK to disagree — respectfully. In tense situations, trust comes into play. If committee members have formed a relationship and trust one another’s good intentions, they will feel more secure in offering an alternative or unpopular viewpoint. It’s easy for people to get discouraged if their ideas are shot down too quickly or go unacknowledged. And then they stop offering new ideas. Committee chairs need to make sure every idea is acknowledged as helpful and appreciated, even if it isn’t adopted.

Provide training and resources on inclusive hiring practices.

Most often, that training comes via the institution’s HR office or head of diversity. It usually focuses on why and how the institution values diversity and provides advice on best practices (such as the types of interview questions that are — and are not — appropriate). Because committee members are entering the search process with varying levels of experience with inclusive-hiring practices, the training helps to get everyone on the same page.

There is also a great deal of literature and articles on this topic, including: “How a Search Committee Can Be the Arbiter of Diversity,” “Gender in the Job Interview,” and “How Search Committees Can See Bias in Themselves.” Sometimes members of a search committee are sent relevant links to short videos (like this one on unconscious bias) in advance of their training. All of these tools can be used throughout the search process. It may be particularly helpful to review key points of the training as the committee prepares to interview candidates.  

Actively counteract structural hierarchies. 

We experience hierarchies in almost every aspect of life, and hiring committees are no exception. Their membership can include anyone from senior administrators to undergraduates — all of whom bring different experiences and strengths. Everyone involved in a search knows that the hiring authority — the board, president, provost, or dean — is the ultimate decision maker when it comes time to make an appointment. But members of the committee should have an equal voice in the process. 

People in positions of power must be aware of the weight of their opinions. Be mindful not to always speak first. Seek participation from committee members who may feel less able to influence the search process. Look for the person who hasn’t spoken during the committee’s deliberations, and ask, “What do you think?”

Remember, every voice matters. All too often, search committees defer to the most senior or presumably expert person in the room. But each committee member has been asked to serve for a reason — each can add value to the process. Beyond hierarchy, personality can influence who is heard the most. If you tend toward extroversion or generally have strong opinions, take a pause before jumping into a discussion. For those who are introverted, quiet, or in a more junior position, it can be hard to know when and how to join the fray. It is the work of everyone on the committee to be mindful of who is — and isn’t — talking, and to make space for the quietest voices. 

You want the work of the committee to happen in committee meetings. However, if someone is especially silent, it’s a good practice for the search chair to reach out and say to that person, “I noticed we did not hear a lot from you in the meeting, and I wanted to check in with you on how you are viewing the decision.”

Recognize biases and beware of “fit.” 

No one is without bias, and every committee member is responsible for counteracting it during the hiring process. Beyond biases related to race, gender, sexual orientation, and class, among others, academe is unique in its institutional classism. Almost every committee favors candidates who come from places that are most similar to the hiring institution. Committees also may be seduced by the prospect of hiring someone from a more elite campus. They chase an elusive sense of “prestige,” sometimes to the detriment of considering highly qualified candidates who lack that pedigree. 

There can also be geographical preferences. I once worked with a search committee at a campus located in a major city. Committee members were convinced that no one from Alaska would be a good “fit” for their institution. Why? Because they had once hired someone from the state who absolutely fizzled. It’s a common refrain: “We hired someone from [insert any type of institution: small, large, public, private, complex, urban, rural] and they didn’t work, so I’m hesitant to go there again.” 

A key principle of an inclusive hiring process: Let each person’s record speak for itself. Don’t automatically group together every candidate from a particular type of institution, a region, or a demographic category. Recognize that “fit” can be interpreted as code for wanting people who look just like you. Instead of fit, an alternative way of thinking that I learned from a client is to consider “culture add” — that is, how do the candidates add to the diversity of the team and the institution.

Finally, committee members absolutely must question if they are judging people of color and women against the same set of standards as white males. If a white male candidate gets a pass for being a job hopper or having a gap on his résumé, so should everyone else.

Screen and interview stretch candidates. 

The search process is about narrowing the pool so, naturally, committees tend to focus on who they don’t want to see. To build a more diverse, inclusive pool, try flipping that approach: Instead of looking for reasons to exclude candidates, look for reasons to include them. A recent search chair described this as “calling people in, not out.”

I almost always encourage committees to interview one or two stretch candidates. Strength on paper doesn’t always transfer to being impressive in an interview setting. Likewise, someone who looks mediocre on paper can really wow you in person. I worked on a search in which a candidate who had barely made it into each stage of the hiring process ended up being the top choice, and not because the institution settled for a subpar leader. Rather, this person’s full talents didn’t truly emerge until the final round. Interviews can be nerve-racking and some people take a while to warm up. 

Assess diversity at every point of the process. 

Ensuring a diverse pool of candidates is an iterative process; it’s not a box that can be checked and then you move on. The stage is set from the very beginning, when a committee writes a job description and search consultants start to think about who to recruit for the pool.

At every point in the process — before a committee reviews candidates; when they are selected for first-round interviews; and when finalists are chosen — the committee should pause and assess the diversity of its pool: Has every effort been made to ensure a diverse pool? Have we overlooked someone who can bring different experiences or skillsets?

Design an interview process that reflects inclusive values. 

Nowadays, first-round interviews typically happen via video conferencing. While conducting a virtual interview feels different, committees should comport themselves in the same manner as they would if the meeting was in person. This should go without saying but it’s worth repeating: During video interviews, it’s not OK for committee members to take phone calls, check email, depart suddenly, and exhibit other such distracting behaviors.

Since people process information differently when it’s delivered via a video conference, it’s best — and most inclusive — to avoid asking lengthy, overly complex questions. When possible, break up a question into two parts and offer to repeat a question if necessary. Some of the search committees I’ve worked with have decided to send candidates the list of interview questions 30 minutes in advance. That way, the candidates are not overly rehearsed yet have a visual aid to consult as the questions are asked. 

In my experience, these inclusive practices lead to productive search committees and better candidate pools. Inclusion is about feeling welcomed and heard. It’s about being able to bring your true, authentic self to a given situation — in this case, by contributing to an important hire on your campus. In these times, that seems like something we all could use.   

This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to reprint has been granted.