Seeking a diverse candidate pool

Professional librarianship is still overwhelmingly white, even when the communities we work with are not. We talk a good game about wanting to become more diverse, we post ads that say we value diversity, and then we lament that all of the really qualified applicants look just like us. What are you going to do? You can’t hire more diverse librarians if they don’t apply, or if the ones who do are less qualified… Of course, others have written about this pattern, so I won’t rehash how it happens.

I’ve seen this play out at my library several times. I believe the people who chaired those committees had the best of intentions. The people hired in those searches have been wonderful colleagues. But the library faculty do not reflect the student population of my campus, which was reported as 36% black and 53.2% white in the 2015-16 Fact Book (p 37). In July 2016, only one out of 16 library faculty members was black (before that, the faculty was all white). Of course, diversity encompasses many dimensions other than race, but this is an area where we, and librarianship in general, are falling down. After seeing several searches in which all of the candidates brought in for on campus interviews were white, when I learned last summer that a position would be opening up in my department, I asked to be on the search committee. I wound up getting to chair the search committee.

And I’m writing now to tell you that whenever anyone tells you there just aren’t enough well qualified diverse candidates out there, don’t believe it.

Here are the things I think made a difference in our search last year:

Getting started

Your strategy needs to start all the way at the beginning of the process.

The composition of the search committee can be a factor to consider.

They are not trained in recruitment, are rarely diverse in makeup, and are often more interested in hiring people just like them rather than expanding the diversity of their department. (Gasman 2016)

The search committee I chaired was not diverse – we were 5 white women. But we were committed to expanding the diversity of the library faculty. While a more diverse committee would have been valuable, you have to balance that with consideration for peoples’ time and energy. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard of the one non-white member of a department being expected to serve on every search committee the department ever has. A search is a big time commitment, and it’s unfair to single out one or two people to serve every time.

As for training, you will probably have to seek that out on your own. My university offers a training, but it’s led by HR and is focused on “don’t get us sued” legalities. For example, at one point they were talking about how you shouldn’t write down anything you wouldn’t want anyone to see, because all documents from a search could be subpoenaed… I had to be the one to pipe up and suggest that, if there’s something you wouldn’t want on record, maybe you should spend some time examining your implicit biases and questioning why you’re considering criteria you couldn’t easily defend in court, instead of just focusing on avoiding being sued.

Check out the links at the bottom of this post for articles that served as my “training”.

Before posting the ad

I see these messages go out; and then several months later when no “diverse applicants” successfully apply—inevitably happens with such slapdash recruiting efforts such as these—I see the recruiting leaders bemoan how “difficult it is to get diverse people” because they “tried really hard and everything and no one was interested.” (Hathcock 2016)

Boiler-plate language sounds as genuine as a form letter. You may have to include some – my university requires a statement that we are “an Affirmative Action / Equal Opportunity Institution.” But requiring that you include a canned statement doesn’t mean that’s ALL you can say. How will you highlight inclusion throughout the ad? We clearly stated our interest in diverse candidates, but also made sure to mention our mentoring program and support for research. Some of us can’t afford to travel to present at conferences on our own dimes, and faculty librarians at my university are expected to present and publish in order to earn tenure.

We also included “Professional and pedagogical commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion” as a requirement. Be aware that you may be asked (as I was) how you plan to evaluate candidates’ qualifications on something like this, since it’s not as easy to quantify as X years of experience or Y degree. I responded that we planned to evaluate the teaching philosophy statements for evidence of inclusive teaching, look for examples in the cover letters, and include interview questions related to this.

We also clearly stated that, where possible, we would consider a range of types of experience – so teaching experience could come from teaching info lit sessions at a library or teaching high school or teaching discussion sections of a large lecture course as a TA, or other settings if the person makes a case for it in their cover letter. This may not seem like much, but those of us who don’t have the right connections may not realize this stuff can count. When I started applying for library jobs, I don’t think I even mentioned my experience as a Graduate Instructor for an Intro to Anthropology course – I was the instructor of record and did everything from writing the syllabus to entering final grades. But that was back when I was in a PhD program for anthropology, not library experience, so I didn’t realize that would be relevant for a library job… Luckily for me, my library school program had a resume review service, which connected me with a librarian who suggested major revisions in my cover letter.

Being willing to consider experience in other areas for transferrable skills seems like a really important factor in diversifying our field. If we require 2 years library experience, and somewhere around 88% of librarians are white, then somewhere around 88% of qualified applicants are going to be white. If we instead require teaching experience (for an instructional services librarian position, obviously some other type of non-library experience would be more relevant for other areas of the library), defined broadly as above, then we can draw from a much more diverse pool of potential applicants.

Also, I almost forgot to mention this, because it has been standard practice in my department at least since I applied: while we do request transcripts, all we ask for at the application stage are UNOFFICIAL transcripts. We don’t care whether that is a scan of the candidate’s official transcript (if they purchased one copy for themselves at some point) or the version you can print for free from whatever system your campus uses for that. Our university does require official transcripts as part of the hiring process, but this way only the person we offer the job to has to go to that expense.

Posting the ad

If you want diverse applicants, you HAVE to go outside the pipeline. Think of folks from underrepresented groups who may be in your professional networks. Reach out to them and ask if they know of specific people who may be interested in your organization or program.

Of course, posting in national publications is important. But if that’s all you do, you’re likely to get the same results as you did for the last position you posted there. We posted in Inside Higher Ed because our university has an institutional contract there, so it was free to the library. We posted in ALA Joblist because that’s the major national site for library job postings. But we also posted on the ALA Black Caucus job posting site and regional listings.

Then we went for the list serves. In addition to the topical lists relevant to the position, we posted to Reforma and asked that the ad be shared on the Spectrum Scholars list. We could have been more comprehensive on that, but we hit quite a few lists.

I also contacted some people directly to ask them to share the ad, including people I have met at conferences and who I “know” on twitter. I was cautious about it – I was asking for a favor, and also didn’t want to seem like I was trying to poach their colleagues. I don’t recommend spamming every nonwhite librarian you can find, of course. But consider this reason #1357 to work on diversifying your information bubble now – not only will you learn new perspectives (if you read and actually listen to what others have to say), but you may also have a better network to share job postings with later on. Actually listening to – not arguing about or questioning, but actually hearing – others’ experiences will also hopefully help you learn to avoid, and protect colleagues from, microaggressions and macroaggressions, which will improve retention of valuable colleagues.

Reviewing applications

Brook, Ellenwood, & Lazarro advocate for true affirmative action on diversity:

“Develop a goal-oriented affirmative action plan for hiring. When a qualified pool of applicants has been selected, favor candidates who meet the library’s diversity goals” (268-9).

In the search I chaired, this was not necessary.

In general, this would be difficult to consistently do, because we are not allowed to ask about many aspects of diversity, including race. Sure, there is a form we ask candidates to fill out, but that goes to HR and they report the total number of people who returned the form and reported each category. This is an important way to protect against racism, but also means this information isn’t available for antiracist efforts. However, many people have their photos attached to their email profiles. So using gmail through the web browser (that’s how I habitually check mail, since my dept uses google chat a lot) meant that I had some information about some candidates that the rest of the committee did not have access to. I withheld this from the rest of the committee, though I was prepared to discuss it if we had selected a less diverse set of applicants for phone interviews.

We simplified the review meeting by all using a rubric based on the actual posted qualifications and rating the candidates before the search committee met to discuss them. I compiled the scores each committee member submitted. From those scores and gmail profile pictures, it was apparent that several of our top candidates were not white. Had this not been the case, I was prepared to discuss what was going on, whether some implicit biases were affecting our evaluations.

From this one anecdotal experience, I can’t say which part had the biggest effect. Did we just get a greater number of highly qualified racially diverse applicants because of how we wrote the ad, or how we went about sharing the ad? Or did the emphasis on judging according to the actual qualifications posted (instead of how catchy their cover letter sounds or where they got their library degree or whatever) keep people from being unfairly overlooked? Does it really matter, since these are all good practices?

And, to be fair, even having done all of this, it’s possible that the student demographics of our university attracted some applicants who would not have applied to work at a less diverse university.

Of course, reviewing applications is far from the end of the process. There are a lot of ways implicit biases can play out in the phone and on campus interview process. In our case, we wound up bringing two black women for on campus interviews. We had also invited a third candidate, who was white, but they withdrew from the search before visiting. So we didn’t have to deal with the questions that may have come up if we had interviewed candidates from more than one racial category. While it is always useful to keep April Hathcock’s critique of how black librarians are expected to perform whiteness in mind, I don’t think that was a factor in this case (which sounds weak, but I can’t think of a way to say more without saying more than I should). But I also don’t think we did anything useful to protect against falling into this pattern if it had been an issue. So I won’t pretend to have any great wisdom or experience in addressing that part of the hiring process.

Check out the links below for more on inclusive hiring practices, including how to do better interviews. And please let me know if there are other articles I should be including here.

*Edit, March 14* – I realized today that there is one more thing we do in our ads that many places don’t, that I think is really important. We advertise the salary we will pay. I have heard that some public institutions are not allowed to do this, but if you are legally allowed to, PLEASE DO! That’s a big pet peeve of mine. Make the salary expectation transparent, whether you have one set salary you can offer or a range. I don’t know if this will affect the likelihood of getting a diverse pool of applicants, but to me it signals a potential employer that will be honest and transparent about their processes, instead of trying to jerk me around (why else would they keep me in the dark about the range that has been budgeted for this position?). When I see a job ad with no salary range posted, I assume that employer is likely to have a significant gender gap and race gap in the salaries they actually pay. If you are allowed to, please show this basic courtesy to potential applicants.

Recommended reading

White librarianship in blackface: Diversity initiatives in LIS by April Hathcock
A cure for the common whiteness: Diversity recruitment by April Hathcock
Soliciting performance, hiding bias: Whiteness and librarianship by Angela Galvan
The quest for diversity in library staffing: From awareness to action by Jennifer Vinopal
Reducing bias in the library job interview by Jennifer Vinopal
In pursuit of antiracist social justice: Denaturalizing whiteness in the academic library by Freeda Brook, Dave Ellenwood, Althea Eannace Lazzaro
Project Implicit – includes many options to test implicit biases