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Mitigating Bias on Institutional Search Committees


Posted June 12, 2018 by Jim Norfleet - Search Associate - Spelman Johnson

Recently, when asking members of a search committee how they would evaluate candidates in a senior leadership search, everyone offered up comments about being fair and assessing candidates solely on their qualifications. Although we all like to think that we are objective and open-minded, the truth is that every one of us brings a lifetime of experience that influences us in ways that are hidden from our conscious mind and shapes our evaluations of others.

Search committee members can become more aware of their own implicit (or unconscious) biases by taking an Implicit Association Test that can reveal hidden stereotypes and prejudices. These tests are offered online by Project Implicit, a collaborative research effort between researchers at the University of Washington, Harvard University, and University of Virginia. The tests are designed to evaluate an individual’s potential biases in 14 distinct areas, including gender, age, race, and religion, to name just a few.

Beyond developing an awareness of one’s own biases, here are some strategies that colleges and universities are using to address unconscious bias within a search committee:

  • Review research on biases and strive to minimize their influence on recruiting and screening candidates.
  • Create the role of “search advocate” to help the committee reduce the effects of unconscious bias (see Oregon State University’s search advocate program).
  • Build a diverse applicant pool.
  • Establish a specific set of evaluation criteria—a refined, shared understanding of the minimum and preferred qualifications—and create a matrix for evaluating candidates.
  • Suspend judgments about candidates based on their educational pedigree or current institution.
  • Allow adequate time for the committee to review and evaluate each candidate’s application materials.
  • Provide a structured interview process by asking all candidates a set of core questions.
  • Encourage open airing of ideas and opinions and pay attention to every perspective, especially when there are differences of opinion about the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate.
  • Be able to defend every decision to reject or advance a candidate. For a search to be compliant the search committee must be able articulate, at each stage of the search process, why a candidate is advancing or not based upon the agreed upon evaluation of skills, experiences, and qualifications.
  • Consider whether unconscious biases and assumptions are influencing the committee’s decisions regarding qualified women and members of underrepresented groups.

In addition to these considerations, committees also should consider the unique visual aspects of interviews that can present unintentional biases.

Search committees are increasingly using video conferencing, in lieu of the traditional phone interview, for first-round interviews. But there is lingering concern that video interviewing may actually facilitate unconscious bias because interviewers can observe a candidate’s gender, race, age, disability, and other characteristics. It is therefore critically important that search committees conducting video interviews take steps to reduce bias and assess candidates against relevant job-related criteria. Ideally, each candidate should be interviewed by all committee members, who should encourage each other to recognize and point out any perceived biases.

At a time when higher education institutions and businesses are making explicit efforts to create more diverse and inclusive environments, search committees, as a significant part of the hiring process and armed with knowledge of unintentional bias, offer an opportunity to continue to advance a mission of inclusivity.


Jim Norfleet, Spelman Johnson Jim Norfleet is a search associate at Spelman Johnson, a premier executive search firm exclusively committed to serving higher education. Spelman Johnson is a business member of AACSB’s Business Education Alliance.

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