Recruitment in Residence Life: Are we phoning it in?

If I asked you when recruitment season happens in your office, what would you say?  Do you typically post positions early in the Spring, interview a slew of candidates mid-semester, and make offers before move-out?  If you do, that’s something to be celebrated as this “traditional” timeline is becoming a rarity in our field. What seems to be more common for recruitment in Res Life Programs these days is a revolving door of departures and new hires, candidate interviews filling up our calendars like monthly meetings, and positions sitting vacant or carried out by one or more employees for the foreseeable future.  Is this the “Great Resignation” at play?  Or have our standards for selecting talent shifted in the face of declining interest, poor retention, and general burnout?  In this blog I will share some insights into recruitment decisions we tend to make to fill our vacancies with some suggestions on how to minimize regretting them later.

Internal or External?

One thing to consider when running a search is the value placed on internal hires versus external hires as both have pros and cons. Internal candidates typically possess an understanding of the culture, values, and needs of the department.  As such, they are positioned to appeal to interviewers and say “the right thing” to get good marks. They also require less training and onboarding and time to build relationships within the institution and thus can hit the ground running when it comes to the work.  Internal hires may also hold on to the norms of your organization and be less inclined to approach things differently if it has already been working for them. Their rising of ranks could potentially cause discord if there were multiple internal candidates going for the position or if the successful internal candidate is someone that others in your organization did not view as fit for the job.

External candidates can bring new skills and ideas, a different set of institutional context and practices, and a fresh perspective of the organization’s work.  They can help change things that always have been, ask questions on topics that others consider to be “just how it is,” and offer new methods to enhance practices.  Their newness can be a boon or a curse depending on how the organization views change and new ways of doing things.  As such, external candidates can also engage in institutional/organizational “no-nos” and unintentionally ruffle feathers by doing things that tenured staff know not to do.  

A preference for Res Life programs these days appears to be valuing the internal candidate above anyone else due to factors such as prior connection to the department (I know them and what they could do), cost saving of running multiple searches (we could save on travel, onboarding, and start them immediately), and the perception of little risk (they understand us so they are less likely to disrupt things).  But is a convenient hire the best hire?  Does already working at the organization reduce your chances of leaving it?  As the ultimate goal in recruitment is to select the person who will add the most value, consider having your search committee reflect on these prompts after to counteract personal preferences for a certain type of candidate.

  • Who will help us progress toward short and long term goals?
  • Who will create stability and consistency as a peer and/or supervisor?
  • Who has skills or talents not represented on the team?
  • Who demonstrates a capacity for our core values?

Plan Ahead or Jump Right In?

When a vacancy emerges in your organization, who do you assemble to help you?  In my experience, I have noticed that higher-level jobs have a cross-department search committee assembled to bring in the new recruit.  On the flip side, entry-level positions usually comprise an internal search committee composed of members of the department such as student workers, peers, and supervisors of the future hire.  Why is that?  Part of the reason I believe is we see more frequent vacancies in our entry level positions compared to the senior ones.  Given that, it can take a lot of time and coordination to wrangle campus partners together and to get them on the same page about how the search will go.  But does either type of search committee lend itself to bias?  Think about it.  If you are interviewing your next peer or supervisee, could there be some inclination to favor the candidate with whom you like or you think you would get along with?  Furthermore, if you wouldn’t work with this future hire beyond the occasional interaction here and there, would you care either way on which candidate is successful?  Either way, without a clear standard or vision on what an ideal candidate would embody, a search committee is undoubtedly going to be subjected to what they think makes the best candidate.  Too often do we form a team of folks and jump straight into reviewing resumes and scheduling interviews that we miss the opportunity to establish mutual understanding on how to achieve the end goal.  

Your organization is likely doing some of all of these recommendations below, but if not, consider pulling together your search committee at the beginning of the recruitment process to address these areas..

  • The position and the functions that it carries out.  This is especially useful to members of your committee who may not frequently work with this role or may not know the nuances of what the person in this position would have to do.
  • The qualities and skills that are being looked for at this given time.  This is a key information that the committee can use to ground their thinking on what candidate would be the best fit.  Without knowing the desired qualities and skills, your committee may preference a candidate who may not live up to expectations.
  • What interviewers should and should not do (i.e. can you coach the candidate to give a better answer, how to frame negative responses to candidate questions, how to score answers).  This understanding can equalize the playing field for candidates as not everyone is a great interviewer and having a committee that is knowledgeable about what they can do to clearly communicate to candidates and support them can leave candidates feeling more positive about their experience.
  • Reviewing your interview scale to leave little to be interpreted. By having a scaled-based assessment (I recommend a 5 point scale starting from 0) with an operational definition of what each value means.  Oftentimes candidates will answer parts of the question but miss the mark.  Or maybe they fail to address the question but tell a compelling story that wins interviewers over and earns the candidate a few points.  It is important in cases such as these to have a clear understanding of how to score an answer.  The picture below highlights how a 5 point scale could be constructed with descriptors to guide where the score falls.  The most important region of such a scale is actually between points 0 and 1 since it marks the difference in a non-answer versus a poorly constructed one and eliminates the tendency for subpar answers to fall in the median of the scale similar to how surveys put the “N/A” response in the middle of all the options.
Likert Scale in Hiring

Trust or Change the Process?

If you take a look at any social media group for higher ed professionals, a popular discussion topic centers on the job search with particular focus on prepping for the interview, gauging fit in the organization, and the importance of knowing the salary upfront.  Where we miss an opportunity as recruiters is failing to incorporate candidate trends in our recruitment process.  In some cases, there are limitations to what we can share on a position description or to candidates, but in other cases, we simply don’t have the time to evaluate our process itself as a factor for why candidates are not applying or why the ones we wish would apply do not.  Whether it be the impact of COVID or the generational differences in who is applying to our openings, candidates these days seek a work environment that values the wellbeing of their employees, that have a mission or stance that serves the greater good, and that have a spirit of integrity and transparency.  The days of being loyal to your employer and not needing to feel happy in the workplace are gone. So as recruiters, it is in our best interest to respond to this shift so that our candidate pools are filled with stellar options who want to work with us and who will hopefully accept an offer if given.  How can we do this?  Consider if you are doing these below

  • Go beyond your position description to say what exactly your organization is looking for.  Many times, a position description is a static summary of a job that does not capture the many nuances and changing components that encompass what the work will look like.  When you begin to interview candidates, make time up front to tell them more about your organization and what this role will specifically do.  Establish a context that candidates can understand what work would be expected of them so they may better frame their answers and questions to that.
  • Share the salary or find creative avenues to be transparent.  This can be tough if you work at a private school or if your Human Resources department discourages sharing the salary as it may be perceived negatively leading candidates not to apply.  If that is your reality, then you will have to either advocate for a higher salary or benefits package that is “commensurate with experience” or be clear early on about what the full compensation package looks like for this role.  It might seem counterintuitive, but a candidate will have a worse impression of your organization if they learn of an undesirable salary/benefit at the end of the process rather than having the ability to determine up front if this role would be appealing to them.  Even if the candidate still joins your organization because they developed an interest or connection throughout the process, you now have a new hire who potentially won’t stay for long unless they feel they get what they feel they are deserved.
  • Be honest about your organization’s culture, highlights, and lowlights.  As a recruiter, our job is to sell the job to others.  However, as mentioned before, this generation of job-seekers values honesty be it good or bad.  With that in mind, be prepared to be asked pointed questions about the culture of your workplace and what is going well and what is not.  Oftentimes, we tell our team to give a “positive neutral” response if we are asked about something that is, in fact, negative, but I would encourage us to reconsider this practice.  That is, instead of sanitizing the bad to keep up appearances, but upfront about what your organization is working through.  You might be surprised at how candidates will respond positively to something that isn’t positive, because they are seeing a potential employer who demonstrates a practice of being transparent.


Despite our best efforts, folks will eventually leave their roles and we will have to find a replacement.  Given the rise in vacant positions and a shift in what employees are seeking in the workforce, our search processes have become year-long operations instead of seasonal; making it harder for recruiters to secure that ideal candidate.  While it may be easier to favor the quick or easy hire to keep business running, we could unintentionally set up our organization for long-term issues if we pick a person not suitable for the job.  In order to have a better handle on recruitment endeavors, we should consider if our current recruitment strategies have evolved with the times and if those we task to assist in the recruitment process have an understanding of what our organization needs in a successful candidate rather than leaving it up to interpretation.

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