The Bad Impacts of “Good Fit”

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Hiring is really, really hard. We winnow a giant pool of applicants down to a few who hit every single requirement plus some we hadn’t thought of, and then we’re faced with the impossible decision of which one of the remaining three or four should be invited to become a permanent colleague, should be given all of the start-up costs and training and resources we offer to members of our community. At almost every level of the organization, bringing someone on board is the riskiest decision we’ll make, loaded with potential and fraught with peril.

For the most part, though, the technical side of that decision was already made before the finalists come to town. We’ve already done the work of eliminating the unqualified and the confused, bringing the pool from two hundred to twenty. We’ve further sorted them by the criteria we find most important, whether that’s teaching record or publication record or funding history, moving from twenty to the final three or four. All that’s left in the pan is gold.

(As a side note, if you aren’t faced with this kind of hard decision, if you’re still thinking about whether any of your finalists is going to be capable, then your organization probably doesn’t have a reputation as a good place to work. I’ve seen broadly advertised executive searches that only attracted a handful of initial applicants, which means that an awful lot of talented people saw that ad and said, “ehhh…”)

So here we are, with our three. What is that final interview process doing that the previous round of phone interviews didn’t? I mean, we should have been able to tell from the phone call in the second round whether someone was rude or overbearing, whether they interrupt women more than men, whether they could think on their feet. All of that basic social stuff is already known. So we bring them to town in order to see if they spill salad dressing on themselves?

It’s this last round that has so much potential for bias, because for the first time, we’re seeing a living human being in front of us. A physical person of particular age, gender, race, height, weight. A person with a particular culture, a particular vocal tone, a particular set of choices about clothing and jewelry and tattoos and piercings. And in the end, we decide from among those highly qualified candidates by choosing which one would be “a good fit for our department.”

Just as a new Pope isn’t likely to be Buddhist, a “good fit for our department” isn’t likely to be someone whose beliefs and whose carriage in the world makes us uncomfortable. The “good fit” test is a place where we can lose an awful lot of women and people of color and people whose sexuality or gender expression makes us nervous.

The “good fit” test is also the place where we can lose a lot of risky, exciting scholarship. If, as Max Planck once said, science advances one funeral at a time, we put a pretty firm boot on the throat of progress if we insist on hiring only those people who fit our disciplinary orthodoxies or habits. We doom ourselves to what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science,” a world of incrementalism around which we’ve hammered in our own constraining fences.

So here’s a modest proposal. Let’s say we receive 200 applications for a position. The hiring department should only be allowed to bring that number down to about six, and should have clear criteria for eliminating the ineligible. (Remember your grad school methods class and the concept of inter-rater reliability? Now’s the time to trot that idea back out…)

At that point, the whole process should be turned over to the HR department, and the academic unit should have no more say in the decision. They’ve already spoken enough, in the framing of the job ad and the phone interviews and the choice of the finalists. And the new hire will become a member of a college or university anyway, not merely of a department.

Once there’s a handful of finalists, there should be no more interviews. HR should arrange to fly them in and meet with a local real estate agent to show them around, give them a sense of the quality of life. Now is the chance for the finalists to decide whether our college is worthy of them.

If a couple drop away because they don’t want to live in a particular physical or cultural landscape, then we’re left with two or three. That final choice should either advance particular issues of diversification that the institution has identified as important, or be drawn from a hat. All of them are stars; don’t choose the one that fits a predetermined constellation.

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