Focus: Personnel Management

Four Hallmarks of Effective Screening Interviews

by HENRY V. WAGNER JR.

Most school district leaders deal with the unpleasant reality of appointment recommendations for posted positions at all levels being questioned and second-guessed. Often, these appointment recommendations are the fodder of persistent rumors. Even school districts with effective succession planning sometimes find it necessary to advertise as part of a search for the best candidates for leadership vacancies. Succession planning is not applicable to lower-level posts.

 

Focus_WagnerHenry Wagner

Recent hiring experiences in the Dorchester County, Md., Public Schools have demonstrated that many of these issues can be addressed in a pro-active manner by paying close attention to the screening interview process. Specifically, we regularly and prominently communicate four hallmarks of this process to all stakeholders, including candidates, panel members, executive team members, board of education members and the public. We tell them our process is structured, principled, confidential and transparent.

Emphasizing these features over the last 18 months has had a distinctly positive impact on the general perceptions surrounding our recent appointments. We have discovered an additional twofold benefit of communicating these four features: (1) reassuring prospective appointees they are not wasting their time; and (2) keeping us ”honest” with respect to our processes.

MAINTAIN THE STRUCTURE OF SCREENING INTERVIEWS. The idea of a structured interview process is not a novel mechanism in screening applicants. What often happens, however, is that the structure breaks down to the point the experience is noticeably different from applicant to applicant. The mathematics supervisor serving on the panel, for example, might interject a curriculum question to the mathematics department chairperson who is applying for a principalship. This would innocently and unintentionally provide that candidate with an advantage the others did not enjoy. Therefore, we adhere strictly and consciously to the agreed-upon structure for each candidate.

In practice, the chair of the interview panel provides an identical scripted introduction and overview to each candidate. The same panel members seated in the same location are expected to pose the same questions to each prospect. Additionally, the administrative assistant administers the writing sample or performance task to each candidate in the same manner each time. Finally, point totals awarded by panel members determine the finalists who emerge for the next round of consideration.

This commitment to structure the interview might seem frustrating and limiting to the screening panel members, but practice has shown that differentiation is much more advantageous in later phases of the selection process.

COMMIT TO PRINCIPLED DECISIONS. By definition, this implies that fundamental and universally recognized values — fairness, integrity, justice, compassion and honesty — must be the compelling factors that influence what we say and do. We may know this to be true of our district, but the best candidate out there pondering an application may not!

Therefore, we have come to recognize that an explicitly stated commitment to this on a regular basis is necessary. With respect to the selection of new staff, this helps us to stay above the fray and to avoid more commonplace considerations, such as cronyism, nepotism and political influence.

In addition, external candidates come to know that we are not a “closed shop” that is just going through the motions to validate a decision that already has been made.

ENFORCE CONFIDENTIALITY. Because the selection of new personnel of all types is among the most important functions of a superintendent and school board, substantive data and information are needed to make the best decisions. However, with various stakeholder groups often represented on the initial screening panel, the possibility of unauthorized disclosures is increased. Human nature being what it is, individuals sometimes enjoy being “in the know” and feel empowered when they can selectively disclose what they know.

Few things are more embarrassing to an organization than having those trusted with sensitive information being the source of its own rumors. This, obviously, is detrimental to both the school district and the job candidates, who often take a risk by participating in the process. Therefore, frequent and forceful reminders about the necessity of confidentiality are necessary throughout the process, and verifiable violations need to be treated as insubordination.

DEMONSTRATE TRANSPARENCY. The final hallmark of our interview process is an ironic companion to confidentiality. In practice, the concept of transparency relates primarily to process rather than content. In other words, if an outside entity were to inspect the record of the screening interview process, the other three hallmarks would be verified.

For example, point totals would add up, and those candidates with the most points would be the finalists. Additionally, information shared with the panel would have remained only with the panel and other authorized personnel. In practice, this notion of transparency reassures everyone there is nothing to hide with respect to structure, principle or confidentiality.

Nothing’s Perfect
No process that attempts to identify the best candidate is perfect, and no one adheres to any process perfectly. However, our school district’s exercise of these practices has decreased criticism and second-guessing of our hiring decisions drastically in the last 18 months.

Henry Wagner is superintendent of Dorchester County Public Schools in Cambridge, Md. E-mail: wagnerh@dcpsmd.org