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Homework for Hiring

Last year, Deanna Marcum’s issue brief on talent management in academic libraries reflected in part on some of the challenges that academic libraries face in their processes for selection of library staff. Shortly thereafter, Meredith Farkas argued against using “fit” – that ambiguously dangerous catch-all – in hiring and in the workplace. Interviewing as a tool or methodology in a selection process is probably especially susceptible to the undesirable use of “fit” in selection. In some ways, John Lehner’s reflections on “personnel selection” (in Scott Walter’s and Karen Williams’s excellent The Expert Library) points towards some of the ways that interviewing can be strengthened. But there are also a variety of techniques beyond interviewing that can be used as part of a selection process.

At Ithaka S+R, I introduced a “homework assignment” for job candidates some years ago. Our process begins with a screening interview, and for any given opening it is not unusual for the hiring manager to conduct 15 to 20 of these 30 minute telephone calls with candidates. These initial conversations examine the candidates’ motivations and interests, include a brief walk-through of their resumes, and give the hiring manager an opportunity to “sell” the job to candidate, which is a vital aspect of recruiting. These interviews are designed to ensure that there is a plausible ability for the candidate to fill the position and a strong interest on their side in doing so. From these screening calls, the hiring manager selects 4-8 candidates to receive a “homework assignment.”

This assignment is customized for the job opening and is intended to assess the candidate’s ability to take on a core responsibility of the position. For example, in the case of an analyst with qualitative responsibilities, we have shared several interview transcripts and asked candidates to provide an analysis that is organized around a set of research questions. Or, in the case of a survey administrator, we have provided some challenging email correspondence relating to administering a survey for a university and asked candidates to provide their plan for how to respond. These exercises may be expected to require as much as 6-8 hours of time from the candidates, and we generally give approximately three days to complete the assignment. In these cases, the range of responses is substantial, even though the candidates appear equally qualified from their application and the screening interview. Of the half dozen or so candidates who are asked to complete the exercise, we typically identify three finalists.

These finalists, all of whom are qualified for the position, are then invited to visit with us for a day of interviews and to give a brief presentation to the Ithaka S+R team. Someone takes each candidate to a casual lunch but we don’t generally schedule dinners even with visitors from out of town. After an internal discussion with team members, the hiring manager selects a single candidate for a final review, including reference checks, and extends an offer to that individual.

After a new colleague joins, I always ask them to share their perspective on the hiring process. Of course, there is a bias towards liking a process in which one succeeds! But even so, the specific reactions have been helpful. Colleagues have shared that they did not mind the homework assignment, because it helped them understand the exact nature of some of the work they would be doing, while they appreciated having their performance reviewed in advance because they knew that their abilities were understood transparently and they were hired “with eyes wide open.” They also indicated that even if the process has more steps than they have experienced elsewhere, they appreciate an organization that devotes time and care to building the right team.

No hiring process is perfect, and each must be well suited to the organization and position in question. We continuously review our recruiting processes and change them as needed, so we are eager to learn from others as well. What techniques beyond interviewing and reference checking does your organization use to assess candidates in a recruiting process?

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