Diversity warning on universities’ use of recruitment consultants

Report warns of risk of overlooking women, internal candidates and those from ethnic minorities

March 21, 2017
Source: iStock
Universities need to take as much responsibility for interviews carried out by consultants on their behalf as for those they conduct themselves

Universities need to think far more carefully about diversity when using recruitment consultants, the author of a report on the issue said. 

Interviews conducted by Simonetta Manfredi, professor in equality and diversity management at Oxford Brookes University, and colleagues at the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice, highlighted several areas where UK institutions’ use of consultants could work against their efforts to improve the diversity of their senior management teams.

Both universities and consultants often fell back on “very woolly terms” such as “chemistry” and “cultural fit” when judging candidates, “even though there is a risk of subjectivity”. “That’s a place where bias might infiltrate in the way that people go for a familiar type of leader,” Professor Manfredi told Times Higher Education.

Another “grey area”, Professor Manfredi added, is the point when you move from the longlist to the shortlist. Search consultants “have quite a lot of discretion and carry out the interviews themselves”, she said. In some cases, this seems to involve only a single interviewer, when two or more would help to “mitigate for any possible bias”.

A particularly sensitive topic in such interviews is relocation. Questions about this, Professor Manfredi pointed out, “inevitably lead to the issue of the family, and how candidates are going to balance work and family. You enter territory which might be a bit personal, something you would not do in a formal recruitment interview. We need to be careful that equality considerations are fully taken into account.”  

The research, published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education as Increasing the Diversity of Senior Leaders in Higher Education: the Role of Executive Search Firms, is based on interviews with nine consultants, 12 human resources directors in universities and eight chairs of governing bodies. Although they had planned to look at both gender and race, Professor Manfredi said, the conversations “turned out to be focused on gender”. “A few consultants who work in the public sector more generally said that universities interpret diversity in a rather narrow way,” she said. “Where they are given targets [for numbers in long- and shortlists], they focus on gender.”

In order to minimise the risks of using consultants, “universities need to be clear [that] they are in complete control of the process, and set the standards of what they want”, according to Professor Manfredi. “They are outsourcing part of the selection and recruitment process but still have a Public Sector Equality Duty to make sure they promote equality and eliminate discrimination,” she said.

One thing that universities value about search firms is that they can “cast the net very wide”, Professor Manfredi added, persuading “passive candidates” who wouldn’t otherwise have considered applying to put their names forward. However, a possible danger is that it may “send out a message that, unless you are contacted by a search firm, you need not bother to apply”. It can also lead to a kind of “organisational inertia” that overlooks the internal labour market, she said.


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