How to Gauge Candidate Seriousness

By Lucy Leske

We’re in an era in which higher education leaders are doing a lot of looking around, wondering if there isn’t a better opportunity out there. It’s a sign of the times, to be sure. All of us have experienced a great deal of stress and pressure during and after the pandemic and the ongoing social, cultural and economic challenges facing higher education. It makes sense that individuals are wondering about their job security and whether another institution might offer a more stable, financially rewarding or friendly environment. Naturally, if there is no room for professional growth or if looming budget cuts might threaten their position, candidates start thinking about their next steps and engage in searches.

And there is something to be said for testing the waters of a job change. As people plan their careers and explore options, it is helpful to know what other institutions might want and offer in return, whether it is compensation, benefits, added responsibility or opportunity for growth. Just like a new suit, it is important to test the look and feel while considering the financial implications (relocation expense, cost of living differences, compensation), how it might impact your lifestyle, the potential for professional growth. The act of inquiry often uncovers an opportunity that is just the right fit.  

This is all quite natural. However, recently my colleagues and I have experienced a larger than usual number of people who enter into a search process only to realize that they aren’t prepared to change jobs. This of course is in no one’s best interest – least of all the candidate’s – and is something we try to anticipate and discourage. 

While it’s certainly okay to test the waters, at what point does the candidate have to determine whether to fully commit to a job search process? I think sooner rather than later. We as search consultants have a substantial responsibility to present our clients with candidates who are eager and “all in” on a search. We are always looking for telltale signs that might indicate someone is not fully committed to a recruitment. Part of that responsibility is being candid with executives about what exactly a job entails. Speaking for myself, I strongly recommend to executives inquiring about new positions that they ask themselves a number of critical make-or-break questions right off the bat:

  • Does this job further my career? Is it a logical step?
  • Is this an institution at which I could see myself? Are the people there individuals whom I’d like to call colleagues?
  • Would I really move to this location and thrive there?
  • Would my significant other and/or children be able to move? Would they really want to?
  • Can I afford it? Will the salary justify the move and a potential higher cost of living? 

I implore executives to ask these questions when they first learn about new jobs, and answer them honestly. The family question is often the most revealing one—it forces the individual to factor others into their deliberations and decision-making.

For the Employer: Gauging Signs of Seriousness

As a hiring institution, it behooves you to be on the alert for candidates who are just not that into you. The most obvious sign of a lack of seriousness is a candidate who has not done their homework. To be fair, it is one thing to express initial interest having not done a lot of research. As candidates advance in a search, a clear indication of seriousness is their own investment in the search including trying to understand your organization and its needs.

The Cover Letter and Application Materials: Notice the care and consideration that a candidate has put into the letter and provision of materials. A canned letter that has little to say about the institution is a potential red flag. Materials that appear hastily assembled or don’t provide all the requested documents are another sign. Don’t rule out a candidate simply because their application isn’t perfect, but raise your antennae and see how genuinely interested this person is moving forward.

In the Interview: As the search committee or hiring organization, pay very close attention to how involved and intrigued a candidate seems during the interview. Do they intently inquire about the specifics of the job, the strength of the leadership team, the culture of the institution? Do they seem to really want to visualize what it would be like for them to be in that role and environment? Do they ask follow-up questions? A candidate’s thirst for inside information should be obvious to those in the room.

Interviews are not exams, but at least a few questions should be designed to gauge candidates’ knowledge of the organization, and the answers should be more than generic responses. Such questions include:

  • What draws you to us as an institution?
  • What excites you about the opportunity before you? What is your vision for what you could accomplish in this role?
  • What are your career aspirations and how does this role align with them?
  • What do you like about this city/state/region that makes you want to live here?
  • Do you have any barriers to relocation?
  • What would be the hardest part of leaving your current role? 

Considerations for Video Interviews: During the pandemic, many institutions moved preliminary interviews to video instead of in-person. While this significantly reduced cost and made it much easier to schedule both committees and candidates, it also made the first-round interview virtually risk-free for candidates. Peeking at a job meant no more than an hour of their time seated comfortably at their own desk, not taking a day or two off work to jet across country.

Even before setting up a video interview, probe a candidate’s intentions deeply before moving them forward. Pay attention to signals like degree of flexibility in scheduling, response time to requests and general preparedness. You would hope that a committed candidate would take a video interview as seriously as a face-to-face one.

Follow-up: The most telling post-interview indicator of sincerity is the thank you note. It should get people’s names and titles right. It should be thoughtful, well written and express interest in continuing conversations about the open position. It should imply or outwardly state excitement.

Beyond the note, the candidate should keep tabs on the search progress whether this is checking in on occasion with the search consultants or a designated representative of the institution. 

People enter searches with different degrees of motivation, and sometimes just being in a search confirms that the grass really is greener at the candidate’s home campus. Their institution counters with a good offer. The new position or location turns out not to be what they thought it would be. This happens. It is in everyone’s best interest, however, to probe into candidates’ seriousness as early in the process as possible, so that those who move forward are individuals whose enthusiasm and commitment to a search are genuine.