Search Committee Follies

This is my fourth installment in a series of articles concerning recruitment. On this occasion, to a limited extent, I will address what I refer to as "search committee follies."

In one way or another, most of us have had an encounter with a search committee. We may have participated as a search committee member or, more likely, in the process of being recruited, our talent has been subjected to the scrutiny of a search committee.

Some search committees are better than others, but all must deal with a fairly defined set of issues concerning the selection process and the qualifications of potential candidates. Objectivity shouldn't be an issue but, more often than not, it is a very serious matter that is intentionally overlooked.

The life of a search committee usually begins with the identification of a committee chair, which is typically when the follies commence. More frequently than expected, the committee chair is the person with the greatest vested interest in the outcome. Going into the search process the chairperson may feel threatened by the addition of potentially superior talent to an established "team," of which they are a key member.

The committee chair often has a major say in deciding who serves on the committee. This further complicates matters, leading to the selection of committee members who will essentially function as bobbleheads. Deference is the major issue, and the chairperson inevitably approves of members whose heads are most likely to bobble in unison as the candidate selection and review process unfolds. True to form, the chair goes to great lengths to dismiss potential search committee members who truly have something to offer. Bobbleheads are exquisitely ignorant, which offers an ego boost to insecure committee chairs, who are often zealots seeking approval.

Based on my experience, with few exceptions, the chairperson has already decided who they think should be hired. After all, over a period of several months, prior to even being named the committee chair, they have quietly and deceitfully conducted an informal, non-competitive, word-of-mouth search, consulting with people who think as they do. From their perspective, vanilla ice cream is preferable to Rocky Road. However, to subterfuge the process, in search committee meetings, the chair repeatedly emphasizes the importance of conducting a thorough, impartial, competitive search to identify an "outstanding candidate" that will be an exemplary addition to the proverbial "team." Unbeknownst to current team members, the committee chair is partial to bobbleheads. Consequently, the preferred job candidate will be yet another bobblehead.

The recruitment process usually begins with the benign placement of expensive banner advertisements in various professional publications, accompanied by position postings on a variety of Web-based job boards, an approach that has a lot in common with anonymous sex. A little joy is engendered with a courtesy telephone call or two from the committee chairperson to prospective candidates. This is usually accompanied by a dash of heavy breathing (as the candidate gets excited about their job prospects), coupled with a customary expression of satisfaction, but the committee chairperson intentionally avoids making anything that even resembles a commitment. At this point everything is very superficial, and the process amounts to "trolling for candidates." Eventually, an e-mail from the chairperson follows, thanking each candidate for their interest, complimenting them on their credentials, but dismissing each aspiring individual as an unfit partner in what is intended to be a long-term relationship. Needless to say, the aforementioned foreplay does nothing to dignify an unseemly process.

Over a period of several months, perhaps a year, the search committee moves beyond anonymous sex, and gets more serious. The committee members continue to participate in the charade the chair conducts, with each member dutifully complying with the script provided by their talented "leader." At each search committee meeting the credentials of some of the more compatible candidates is reviewed, with curriculum vitae neatly placed in two piles - hopefuls and rejects. At this stage, rejects are rarely informed of their demise. They usually know their circumstances anyway. Why bother? Their application was a long shot, and they knew it. Why did they even apply in the first place? Meanwhile, the hopefuls are judged based on the threat they are likely to pose to the committee chair, who immediately goes from conductor to director. In the pile of hopefuls is the person the chair intends to hire. All other potential "shortlist" candidates are exterminated, much like undesirable weeds in a vegetable garden. Roundup® and Weed-B-Gon® are worthy metaphors in describing the process the chair directs.

Ultimately, the position is offered to the person the committee chair handpicked months, or even years ago. In this regard, don't be surprised if the favored person has had a previous association with the committee chair. They may have been a trainee, or they may have been a colleague in some previous association. They could even be someone who was found under a familiar academic "ancestral tree," or compatible "school of thought" with which the dogmatic chair is comfortable. However, despite the circumstances, let's be clear about one thing: professional incest, like biological incest, should not be tolerated.

Where does all this nonsense lead? First, if you've been subjected to the process I've described, it's obvious you shouldn't feel let down when you fail to land the job to which you aspired. Instead, although disillusioned, you should feel elated because the job on offer wasn't the one you envisioned. Did you really want to be a lackey who is expected to defer to a bunch of like-minded bobbleheads? I'm sure you will agree: relief is preferable to dismay.

Second, when considering whether or not to apply for an open position, always make an attempt to identify the search committee chair. This person may be listed as the individual to be contacted regarding the position. In my opinion, the name of the committee chair should be public information. Ideally, all members of the search committee should be identified, and their curriculum vitae should be readily accessible. Candidates have every right to know who will be considering their credentials. Recruitment is a two-way street, and the process must be open or, as fashion has it today, "transparent." It's likely there will be at least one search committee member whom you consider suspect. For example, in the past you may have had a disagreement or a "run in" of some sort with a search committee member. More bluntly, there may be someone on the committee whom you simply dislike. Remember, always respect truisms: "one bad apple spoils the whole bunch." If there is so much as one committee member with whom you have had a difference, don't even consider applying for the position. There is virtually no chance you will be treated fairly and equitably. You're a marked person and, if you choose to apply, you're an idiot, which the committee will eventually confirm to your chagrin.

Lastly, be prepared for confidentiality breeches, which usually occur in relationship to reference checks. References are an integral part of the recruitment process. However, search committee members often take it upon themselves to contact people you may not have listed as references, despite reassurances to the contrary. They may feel your listed references will offer nothing more than a biased perspective of you. Don't be fooled. Herein lays another devious maneuver. It's possible to eliminate prospective candidates by destabilizing their current position. For example, the committee chairperson, a committee member, or even an "internal" candidate may contact a prospective candidate's current "boss," even if this person has not been listed as a reference. This clearly "let's the cat out of the bag," and inevitably jeopardizes an individual's current position. In turn, the experience leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the candidate, who now feels violated. As a result, they may choose to withdraw from what they have concluded is a trumped up competition.

Now you ask: is there a way to avoid the problems I have described? The answer is yes, but the approach is very difficult for most people to accept.

In both sociological and anthropological terms, a team of any sort has a distinct subculture. Search committees exist to reaffirm the subcultural values of the team of which they're a part. There is a very small margin for tolerance in accepting new members. The conventional search committee chair is the "enforcer," making certain that the subculture is not disrupted. In reality, recruitment should present a subcultural challenge for an existing team, but this is impossible to achieve, given the role of the traditional committee chair.

What, then, is the solution?

There is no definitive answer, but it's clear the search committee chair should be a person without any vested interest whatsoever. In fact, all search committee members should be free of any manipulative vested interest in the outcome of the committee proceedings. While all members of the search committee should have subcultural awareness, they should not be in a position to maintain the status quo subculture.

Here's the alternative to the conventional search committee nonsense.

Let's say the Division of Cardiology in the Department of Medicine of a major academic medical school/center plans to recruit a transplant cardiologist. In my opinion, the search committee should be composed of members who come from other divisions within the Department of Medicine, or even other departments, such as surgery. No member of the Division of Cardiology should be permitted to actually serve on the search committee. Relevant members of the Division of Cardiology should be given an opportunity to provide input, but only when they are consulted by the search committee. This approach creates a meaningful system of checks and balances that eliminates conflicts of interest and eradicates professional incest, both of which have been the source of traditional subcultural myopia. In addition, the zealotry associated with chairperson despots will be exterminated. In the final analysis, there is a path forward, and change is possible. Unfortunately, courage may be lacking.