Full Disclosure: Being a Leadership Candidate Means Being Candid

By Zachary A. Smith, PhD

At the start of every leadership recruitment, my fellow search consultants and I always give the same advice to applicants: Be forthcoming and candid about any sensitive or confidential information that may materially affect your candidacy. Search committees and hiring managers — and I can’t stress this enough — hate surprises. So it’s critical to disclose a potential roadblock as soon as possible once you’ve decided to become a candidate. 

And yet it never fails: At least one qualified candidate will breeze through the early stages of the recruitment process only to later disclose an important issue that limits either their chances of landing the position or their ability to accept it. In too many cases, the candidate doesn’t even disclose the issue; we learn about it as we conduct routine background checks. (Did I mention that search committees and hiring managers hate surprises?)

All of which suggests that some candidates need a better understanding of what constitutes “important” information or “surprises.” Before I get to the advice, let’s discuss four factors you need to be up front about in the hiring process.

Skeletons in your closet. Did you make a mistake in your past — such as a drunk-driving arrest or some other transgression — that may need explaining if it became public, or if the institution got wind of the situation? If so, get out in front of the issue early. Disclose anything that could eventually come to light and influence how the search committee or individual making the hire perceives you or affect your ability to accept a job offer. 

If the issue is a deal-breaker, it’s in everyone’s best interest — including yours — to be transparent, sooner rather than later. By being candid about such a personal crisis, and how you overcame it, you build a reputation as open, honest, and trustworthy. You’re also acknowledging that you’re an imperfect human being who has the capacity to learn from your mistakes. But if you keep it to yourself, and the institution finds out later, the consequences could be severe. 

Negative media attention. Nearly all executive searches include a check on whether a candidate has been the focus of adverse news coverage in the past. Such checks can uncover faculty grievances, Title IX issues, votes of no confidence, lawsuits (in which you were named as a defendant), or social-media scandals (posting or “liking” something now perceived as problematic). If you’re aware of any such transgression with your name attached, disclose it to your search consultant immediately. 

Negative publicity does not mean you won’t get hired. However, not disclosing it will raise a red flag and could cause search-committee members to think you’re trying to hide something (and some candidates are). Make sure to go over any and all issues that have been published in news media outlets so that your search consultant understands the full context of the issue and can strategize with you on how and when to discuss it with the search committee.

Barriers to relocating. Discussing such barriers is something that a search consultant should do during one of the first conversations about your interest in a new executive role. However, if your consultant doesn’t ask about this important topic, the responsibility is on you to proactively share information that could make your candidacy — and ultimately, the move — more challenging.

Personal issues that make relocation challenging might include aging parents, child-custody arrangements, and children or family members with special needs who must be near specialty healthcare. Perhaps you have a home with an underwater mortgage that makes a sale difficult. Or your politics might be misaligned with that of the state in which your potential new employer is located. A big one that candidates don’t share until the end of the process (when it’s often too late to manage) is their need for a spousal/partner accommodation — that is, a faculty or administrative job on the campus for a spouse or significant other.

At this point, you might be wondering why such personal issues should be discussed at all. Isn’t it illegal for the consultant or the hiring institution to ask such intimate questions? 

The short answer: Yes, it often is. Most consultants will avoid direct questions about your personal life and will only ask you generally about potential barriers to relocation. However, it’s in your best interest to volunteer personal and professional information — early in the hiring process — that could become a major issue at the offer stage. 

If we’re aware of a potential barrier, we can work with you and the hiring institution to deal with it early so that it doesn’t get in the way of your ability to accept an offer at the conclusion of the search. Sometimes candidates are reluctant to point out these considerations, early on, for fear it will hurt their chances of getting the job. Our experience is that, if an institution wants to hire you, it will do everything it can to iron out any difficulties, but accommodations take time to arrange. The sooner we know, the better.

Leaving on bad terms. Last but not least, dicey job situations are one of the most common issues that candidates fail to disclose. Say, for example, during the course of a leadership search, you are asked to step down from your current executive-level position. Or it could be that you were ousted from another position at some previous point in your career. Nobody involved in the recruitment process wants to hear that kind of news second-hand. 

If you have negotiated an exit from your current role, tell your search consultant. If you have been asked to step down and assume a new position at your home institution, tell your search consultant. If you were fired, tell your search consultant. If you voluntarily stepped down to spend more time looking for your next position, tell your search consultant. If you had a personal situation — such as a divorce, illness, or death in the family, or some other situation that required you to step down — tell your search consultant. 

There is rarely a good reason to keep this information to yourself. You and the search consultant can work together to discuss the situation, and how and when to share it with the hiring committee. Remember, no surprises.

What Happens After Disclosure?

The frequency of candidates’ failing to disclose pertinent information, I believe, has grown in proportion to the uncertainty and change gripping higher education. I get it. We are seeing a lot of campus leaders out there whose jobs are tenuous, whose institutions are cutting back or changing course, and whose career motivations and objectives have evolved. Leading a college or university today is not easy, nor is pursuing that next great career step with confidence and transparency. 

Once you share sensitive and potentially career-altering information with your search consultant, they have a few options:

  • If it’s a matter of such significance that it dramatically alters your candidacy and chances for moving forward, you must immediately inform the search consultant and hiring committee. Remember that a search consultant’s primary obligation is to their client, and that includes availing the hiring institution of all relevant information regarding candidates.
  • Keep in mind, however, that the search consultant can be your advocate in situations that you know are going to be awkward, at best, and unpleasant, at worst. Lean on our experience and expertise to help you navigate the disclosure of difficult details.
  • Should the issue be one that does not tangibly impact your candidacy but may still be significant — an appeal for a later start date, a hybrid work scenario, or a needed accommodation for a disability — the search consultant would likely want to share your request with the search chair or hiring manager only. In this scenario, both you and the hiring organization can come to a general agreement on the matter without the need to involve the entire committee and potentially skew its decision-making regarding your application.
  • With less significant matters, you will want to disclose to the search consultant to gain insight on how to deal with them as the process plays out. This might include the illness of a family member, ongoing divorce and custody proceedings, or a potential complication with a reference. In such cases, a search consultant can confer with you, the candidate, and seek to come to an agreement as to whether the information is important enough to immediately raise with the hiring manager or search committee, or to determine the best timing for revealing the details. Again, you never want to surprise or startle the committee late in the game, but the committee members will understand that certain information does not rise to the level of “must share” at the start of your recruitment and can be disclosed in due time.

Fingers crossed? I believe the main reason why many candidates fail to disclose vital information early in a recruitment is that they hope the committee will eventually get to know them well enough to overlook or downplay red flags or flaws that surface later. 

In my experience, that is rarely what happens. Instead, the search-committee members are left feeling misled and even dismayed when they find out a candidate has been withholding critical information, causing them to question that person’s credibility and overall suitability for a leadership role at their beloved institution.

Difficult though it may be, disclose what you can, as early as you can. You’ll feel better for it and your career will benefit as well. 

Zachary A. Smith is executive partner of WittKieffer’s Education Practice.


This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to republish has been granted.