The Art of Recruitment

Written by Dr Ben Wilkinson, Interim Deputy Director & Senior Research Fellow, Policy Institute & Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD 

One of the key aspects of leadership – whether you’re in charge of a team, or helping to build it up – is recruitment. Recruiting the best people to work alongside you is essential. Not only for the good of your research group or research project, but also to make sure that your working environment is a happy one. After all, you will spend about a third of your life at work.

There a numerous rules of thumb, strategies and even companies devoted to getting recruitment right. Here are three useful rules of thumb:

  • Values, values, values:

Some organisations deliberately and overtly look at the values of potential recruits. The logic is simple: over time, people’s interests and ambitions can change, but their values rarely do. If someone’s values reflect those of an organisation or a bit of an organisation, they are likely to settle in more quickly, and contribute more effectively. This is why it’s a good idea to include values-based questions when recruiting new staff members. The NHS, for instance, overtly conducts “Values-Based Recruitment. Universities do this less overtly, perhaps understandably putting a premium on expertise and knowledge, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive and there’s no reason not to ask values-based questions when recruiting potential staff members.

  • You don’t need to recruit in your own image

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, always said that you should try to recruit people smarter than you. He also acknowledged that that is really hard to do: we’re all human, and egos get in the way. Indeed, Schimidt thought that universities were on to something here. By using committees and peers, universities had found a way to improve recruitment.

Of course, there is a danger to this, and that is recruiting people who are like everyone else on the panel. They have similar skills, they have similar experience. But the difficulty is that if you recruit someone who has many of the same skills as you, you won’t have someone who has all the different skills you will need to get the project done, or to make your research group a success. There’s real power in diversity of skills – and its wise to use that.

  • Listen to your gut feeling but also be aware of unconscious bias

In the current enlightened days of recruitment we all try to follow processes and procedures that enable us to recruit from a diverse pool, the reason being that objectivity will result in better recruitment outcomes than relying on our subjective and often unconsciously biased perceptions.  It can be surprising how influential unconscious bias can be.  There is a wealth of research demonstrating how much this disadvantages people who are from minorities in recruitment and how much a leader can benefit if they welcome difference.  Occasionally though we meet someone at interview to whom we have an instinctive cautionary response.  As long as you are sure that your response has arisen from an appropriate source, it is worth paying attention to it as it can save many headaches down the line.

The gentle art of recruitment is essential to good leadership; getting the right people around you will make your research group or team more productive and happier.