Hiring for Success: Best Practices

Although hiring is one of the most important things we do as managers, we are usually out of practice when it is time to make a hire. IT employees in higher education stay at their institution for about 10 years and have been in their current position for about 3 years, according to the EDUCAUSE report The Higher Education IT Workforce Landscape, 2016. This means that your hiring decision is often a lasting one. It is also an expensive one, as Kirk Kelly mentions in “Hiring: The Million-Dollar Decision.” Hiring a new staff member provides a wealth of opportunities, beyond just filling a role. My personal favorite is that you have the opportunity to move further toward a culture change. In one particular situation, I wanted to move our team further toward a collaborative mindset, both across IT and with key university partners. Another opportunity is to redefine roles and include skills that are needed within the team. In a major round of new hires last year to build and improve our services in research computing, I wanted candidates who could see things from the faculty or student prospective, manage projects, and lead others, while still possessing the technical skills to do the job.

Many of us are looking to grow the soft skills in our teams because jobs no longer only depend on technical skills. In addition, the data show that most of us are lacking in both ethnic, gender, and age diversity in higher ed IT. This is important to note, given that studies show that diversity increases productivity and improves results. For me, this is especially important as we make major shifts in some of our services, such as integrating cloud infrastructure and growing our research support from mostly engineering and natural sciences to also include social sciences, humanities, and medicine. Today, many IT services are available on-demand just by entering a credit card number and pushing a button. We must be in a position where we can facilitate the use of new services and have conversations with end users to better understand needs.

In this post, I will walk through methods that have helped me make successful hires. I have had to make several new hires over the past year and have created a few new roles. The steps I took allowed me to hire candidates who hit the ground running. I should mention that I also used recruiters for some of my positions, especially when the skill set was highly specialized.

Define Your Goals

When hiring, we are looking to fill a gap. This gap can be available staff hours, project management skills, leadership skills, technical skills, etc. Whether replacing a former employee or creating a new position, it is vital to take a step back and assess what is really needed. This is especially true when replacing a former employee. We often are eager to fill the spot, since our team is overloaded with extra work. However, I urge you to take a step back and see what is needed from your team today. This may end in a simple facelift of the open position or something completely different. Perhaps you need someone who is familiar with the cloud or someone who can lead a coming change initiative. Academic environments and IT are constantly evolving. It can pay to take a look at institutional priorities, the CIO’s priorities, and your team’s priorities and assess the gaps in meeting those goals.

You can also capitalize on new hires to help move the team toward a culture change, such as improving customer service, increasing communication within the team, etc. At other times, you may want to ensure that your new hire fits into the current culture. This requires first defining your team culture. For example, I currently look for someone who takes initiative, is collaborative, enjoys learning, and is committed to service excellence.

Diversity is another common area of needed improvement. As I mentioned earlier, studies show that diverse teams perform better than nondiverse teams. In higher education IT, ethnic workforce diversity is below national figures. The higher education IT workforce is also older than the national average. A new hire offers an opportunity to improve the diversity across your team. Keep in mind that the idea is to hire the best person for the role, no matter the ethnicity, age, or gender, while knowing that you performed a thorough candidate search.

Finally, define the essential skills for the job. When keeping this list to the minimum skills needed, you will not only allow more flexibility as you work through your candidates but can also increase your diversity pool.

Writing the Job Ad

The job description is your opportunity to capture the attention of potential candidates. Use language that allows someone to picture themselves in the role. Be clear about what the job entails and the requirements.

I generally try to broaden my candidate pool to get as many qualified applicants as possible by minimizing requirements and using inclusive language.

  • As mentioned earlier, list the true minimum requirements for the job. Separate these from preferred skills, which also should be a limited list. A widely reported internal Hewlett-Packard report showed that women typically only apply to jobs when they meet 100% of the requirements, as opposed to men, who apply when they meet 60%. As explained in the Harvard Business Review article “Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified,” this is because women believe that those are the requirements for the job and would not be hired unless they meet all of them. A limited list of requirements also makes the job ad more readable.
  • Consider your wording of the requirements. Do you need an expert, or do you actually just need someone with three years of experience? Someone may not identify as being an expert but does have three years of experience. Also, do not use terms such as “ninja” or “rock star.” They can be alienating to some, and there are other ways to describe what you need.
  • Explain why the job is unique early in the description and use a title that is attractive. A study done by TheLadders.com showed that job seekers spend less than a minute looking at a job ad before dismissing it as inapplicable and spend just over a minute if it is of interest.
  • When writing the job ad, avoid jargon. Jargon deters those who may not have learned the skills through traditional means, such as formal education or conventional career paths. Workshops, MOOCs (massive open online courses), bootcamps, and meetup groups are increasingly popular ways to learn technical skills. While it is important for candidates to have the skills needed, it is often not important how they learned them. Avoiding jargon opens up your pool for more diverse candidates as well.
  • Help people picture themselves in the position. When possible, use words like “you” and “your” and avoid “he,” “she,” “s/he,” etc. While we are on this topic, never only use “he” when referring to the person in the role. You are likely to immediately turn off many women (and some men).

Often, we may need to work within HR templates. If these templates do not fit your ideal job description, such as being able to use a catchy blurb or adding bullets, you can use a separate job description on career boards that link to the HR description.

These tips can be difficult to remember, and there are tools to help you. I have found that Textio, a machine learning application that makes recommendations to improve your job description, can be helpful in writing job ads. In addition, the National Center for Women and Information Technology provides a handy cheat sheet. When using these tactics, I have found that my candidate pool increases in both quantity and diversity of qualified candidates.

Finally, when posting the job ad, remember to distribute it across several professional organizations, such as higher ed IT, field-specific organizations, underrepresented minority and women’s professional organizations, and local meetup groups. Many professional organizations are happy to share job posts via Twitter if you tweet it to them (just be sure to use a shortened URL). In addition, use listservs, Slack channels, and other means of communication to share the job posting. It can be a lot of work up front, but it will reduce your time to fill significantly. I have also attended local recruitment fairs for women in technology. Conferences may also be useful for recruiting and advertising open positions.

Résumé Screening

Before beginning your interviews, you will presumably complete résumé screening. HR can be extremely helpful in this process if you have a large number of candidates applying for positions. If you are not screening the résumés yourself, you may want to ask to receive a qualified pile, a maybe pile, and an unqualified pile. Look through all of the piles to ensure that you’ve communicated the appropriate requirements to your HR team. For more specialized positions, you may be able to screen all résumés yourself due to a lower number of applicants.

Phone Screen

Once you have decided on your candidates, start with a 30-minute phone screen. After giving an explanation of the team and the role briefly, I normally start with, “Tell me about yourself.” As the candidate speaks, be sure to probe areas where you need more information, such as why a decision was made, what tool or programming language they used and why, understanding the stakeholders involved, how did the person communicate with customers, etc. During this time, you can also address any gaps or red flags that you may have found in the résumé. I often leave 5–10 minutes for questions from the candidate. You can usually gauge their level of interest and understanding of the position by the questions they ask.

Second Round

When a candidate makes it past the phone screen, it’s time to dig deeper. I set up another time to speak with the candidate along with the search committee. This committee should be limited to those who are required to assess whether the candidate meets all the job requirements, usually 1–6 people. For example, when interviewing for a job that is out of my area of technical expertise, I will bring in those who have more experience with the tool or programming language to determine whether the candidate has the proper skill level. However, I would still meet with the candidate to evaluate interpersonal, organizational, managerial, and decision-making skills.

During this round, I set up a video conference or face-to-face meeting. In addition, I use behavioral interviewing, which requires the candidate to walk through a specific example of a past experience. If you haven’t used behavioral interviewing, the idea is that the performance in a previous experience will give you a better prediction of how a candidate may work through a situation in the future. I develop a set of 8–12 questions to ask over the course of an hour. I have found the Manager Tools Interview Creation Tool to be immensely helpful in creating a useful set of questions (license is required).

I often only get through about five of the questions. Like in the phone screening, I ask for more information by probing or asking follow-up questions. I want to know why the candidate made a decision, who was involved, what the candidate’s role was, or what modes of communication the candidate used to meet with stakeholders. In addition, it is important to ensure that you encourage the candidate to give you a specific example. If you receive an answer that generalizes behavior, such as, “I normally will just…,” you can adjust the conversation by asking, “Can you give me a specific example of a time when that happened?” This will give you a better idea of how the candidate does actually act, rather than an idealized answer.

The On-Site Interview

Before the on-site interview, it will be important to ensure that everyone meeting with the candidate understands the role and requirements. Explain hiring practices to your team, and go over the questions that you would like asked. If they want to ask their own questions, ensure that they have checked them with you beforehand, especially if they are inexperienced as interviewers. I also ask my staff to repeat some of the questions as their teammates, during a separate interview session. This helps increase consistency and fairness during the interview, as some team members may perceive an answer differently from how others see it. In addition, this repetition allows the candidate another chance to better answer the question.

During this interview, make sure that you give the candidate a chance to be at his or her best so that you can see the full potential. I spend the beginning of the interview reviewing the schedule. The end of the interview is often when I dig into any concerns and ask the candidate if he or she has any further questions.

If you are unsure who should be included in the interview, start with your immediate team, including your boss. Do not include any low performers because they may turn off a candidate from joining your team and are likely not invested in the future of the team. If a high level of interaction is expected with another team or faculty with the role, you may want to include partners from outside the team or even faculty during the lunch portion. I will sometimes set up formal interview times with key partners whose interview style I know.

Finally, encourage your interview committee to send feedback as soon as possible for best accuracy. With my team, I will set up a quick meeting to discuss the candidate at the end of the interview day.

Making the Offer

When you are deciding whether to extend an offer, your candidate of choice should meet or surpass the bar. If you are at all unsure if a candidate is a fit, he or she probably is not. Keep in mind that higher ed IT employees stay at their institutions for an average of 10 years. It is better to miss a good candidate and find another one later than to make a bad hire. If none of your candidates meet the bar, do not rush into a hire. Keep in mind that when you hire, the new team member should move the team toward success, not just fill a gap. If feel that the hire could take a large portion of your time, keep looking. Go back to the drawing board to see if you need to adjust your job ad and reassess if there are other ways to advertise and recruit for the position.

If your candidate meets or exceeds the bar, congratulations! It’s time to check references. I check at least three. Check references yourself, which allows you to listen for red flags. I tend to ask about working with others, response to supervision, strengths, and opportunities for improvement. Be firm on checking for professional references rather than friends. Early-career candidates may have trouble providing three references, but excellent students should have at least three professors, teachers, or administrative staff that know them well. I have found that it is also important to speak to at least one past supervisor. If you notice any red flags, do take them seriously.

After your reference check, it’s time to move toward an offer. Depending on the desirability of the hire, you may want to move through the HR hiring process as soon as possible. Each institution has different processes to make the offer. I suggest that as the hiring manager, you extend the verbal offer. This shows that you are invested and excited about the candidate. It is important to welcome the candidate into the group yourself to give yourself the best chance at snagging your candidate.

I wish you the best of luck in your hiring. It is not something that we get to practice very often, but it is one of the most important things managers do — and something that we need to do well.


Jackie Milhans is manager of computing and data support services at Northwestern University.

© 2017 Jackie Milhans. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.