According to Kathlene Collins, cofounder and publisher of Inside Higher Ed, many institutions don't know what they spend in aggregate on employee recruitment, given the often decentralized hiring process—especially for faculty positions—in place at many colleges and universities. The implications go beyond overspending financial resources, says Collins, who previously spent 20 years in the recruitment advertising department of The Chronicle of Higher Education, including developing The Chronicle's online recruitment Web site. The bigger loss may be in the missed opportunities to position your institution as an employer of choice in the minds of future employees. In the following interview, Collins declares the need for a shift in mind-set to focus on what candidates need and may bring to the institution—an approach to hiring that is similar to that championed in Marcus Buckingham's First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Now, Discover Your Strengths (Free Press, 2001).
What is the biggest mistake institutions make in their approach to employee recruitment?
Collins: Almost without exception, colleges and universities do a poor job of faculty and staff recruitment because most institutions still treat employee recruitment as an administrative chore instead of a strategic investment. During any given year, most institutions will engage in a few high-profile searches on which they will focus more effort and spend more than they need to, and then treat most other position vacancies largely as an administrative task. In those instances, the typical mind-set is one of wanting HR to find the cheapest, quickest way to match a candidate with a set of requirements.
For example, it's common for institutions to have a database of job descriptions, but too often, there is a tendency to take a database entry and [use it verbatim] in a print or online advertisement as a job announcement. The problem is that this description usually focuses on what the institution needs. The whole mind-set for many institutions is to consider their job openings as the valuable component of the employment equation as opposed to the candidate who might bring invaluable talent. If there is a common liability with the way most higher education HR functions approach the recruitment process it's that they tend to focus the process on what information and skills the institution needs from an applicant, rather than what will sell the job to great hires.
Why is this?
Collins: In part, I think this is because so much of the management of the recruitment process is making sure the institution is in compliance with hiring requirements. While that is certainly important, what that too often means is that institutions aren't focusing on the aspects of the recruitment process most important to the candidate. The first priority should be to reach out and compel the best candidates to apply. This is almost universally missing with how I see most colleges and universities approaching employee recruitment. Virtually all institutions do a fine job with the process once an individual applies. But most view the first stage as the application instead of a potential candidate's decision to apply.
Institutions also tend to treat potential hires as petitioners, making candidates jump through hoops to get the institution's coveted jobs. That's not to say there aren't different ways an institution should respond to different pools of applicants. For a position for which you might receive 600 applications, it's appropriate to require those applicants to do a little extra work, perhaps with some prescreening questions. However, you probably don't want to use that same tactic or establish hurdles with a high-demand position such as a vice president of development. And no matter the position, institutions must look at the recruiting process as trying to sell jobs to the very best hires. Too often, the attitude is: "We have jobs, and you want them." Institutions need to invert that perception. You want the best candidate the job can attract. That requires a change in mind-set and how you approach prospective employees.
What does that approach entail?
Collins: For starters, it requires positioning your institution as an employer, not just advertising your available jobs. There is a tendency to assume that if your inventory of open jobs is readily accessible to the public, then you've done what you need to do in terms of recruitment. Nothing could be further from the truth. As recruitment for all positions gets more competitive, institutions can't afford to recruit only for the positions they currently have available and from among those who are actively looking for jobs.
Whereas posting jobs is a sourcing strategy—getting specific people to apply for a specific job—marketing is about raising awareness to get interest in your institution in the pipeline. It's about positioning your college or university as an employer of choice for potential great hires who aren't looking or when you don't even have a particular job available. The key is to re-envision recruiting as a marketing opportunity for the institution.
What is the best vehicle for doing this?
Collins: Although an institution's Web site is probably the most visible way an institution communicates within the universe of higher education, employment-related sections of a site are almost never designed with a sense that the hiring process has a critical impact on the institution as a whole.
Consider an institution's Web page for potential students. This is usually a beautifully designed page targeted specifically to that constituency and addressing the top concerns and key questions that potential students have. Try to find a comparable section on a college or university Web site targeted to potential employees. Even for institutions that provide information about employment, this is most often limited to current available positions and doesn't provide strong, exciting messages for why an individual would want to work there. Some sites can even be a turnoff to prospective employees. I've visited a site that prominently notes the institution's policy of conducting criminal background checks before welcoming potential applicants or thanking them for their interest.
What is the right message?
Collins: Many of the same messages that are compelling for potential students are also attractive for potential employees. What makes your institution unique compared not only to other institutions but also to other employers? For instance, while most colleges and universities offer reduced tuition for employees and their family members, few institutions readily advertise that as a selling point to potential employees.
What role does this imply for HR?
Collins: One implication is that HR must re-envision its role as central in making the case for the institution as an employer of choice. This doesn't mean you have to reinvent the marketing function. Most colleges and universities have a sophisticated marketing function in place for student recruitment and admissions, but leaders fail to recognize potential faculty and staff in this same light—as a huge visible external community receptive to an institution's messaging. HR must work in conjunction with institution leaders and the institution's marketing function to define and develop those key messages to make your college or university stand out.