Tips for Holding an Interview in the Middle of a Campus Crisis

We can’t control every crisis that happens on a college campus that might impact potential campus interviews. But we can do better working with candidates impacted by these crises. I offer three tips on how to work with candidates before, during and after they come to campus for an interview.

It has been a few months since my last post about my on-going, long-term search for a new job. What used to be a one-season hiring time in student affairs is now a year-long process that makes it hard to plan out a month in advance much less six months. So here I am, searching HigherEdJobs daily and keeping as positive as I can.

I was lucky to score a phone screen and search committee interview for a director-level position recently. Both went well and I was happy I was going to visit the campus. On Monday prior to the campus interview, I was preparing myself for my interview the following day when I received an email notification from my HR contact on my phone.

Email notification icon with a 1 in the corner

An email from the college BEFORE the interview? What kind of news could this be? Certainly not an email that says I already got the job…

My stomach dropped when I received the email. The college had postponed my scheduled interview that would have happened the next day. Without context, the email made me feel anxious and unsure about the position. Was the position being eliminated? Did the funding get shifted to another area or office? Had the position been offered to an internal candidate already (this has happened to me before so I know it’s a real option)?

I Was Prepared for the Gotcha Moment

A few hours later, I received a follow-up email that the interview was postponed for only one week. Also, I would be contacted by a faculty member prior to the interview. The person’s role would interact with mine, regarding diversity and inclusion work. She would also fill me in on-campus issues and climate prior to the interview.

I was a little taken aback. In nearly 20 years of campus interviews, I had never been contacted prior to the visit to prep me on climate issues. Ever. So I was emotionally prepared for a barrage of questions, just in case the call became an informal interview.

What I got was heads up on a campus issue that was at the core of the role I was going to interview for. Instead of inviting me to the College, while they managed the fall-out, they decided to give me a heads up. They wanted me prepared for the student questions surely to follow. I admit, I was not ready for this and kept waiting for the faculty member to ask me for advice or solutions.

What I got was an honest appraisal of the College’s handling of the situation, a real take on what the students’ issues were. Most of all, I got an idea of what the College needed that was both in my wheelhouse and what I would need to learn. It was one of the best pre-interview conversations I ever had.

Not all of my pre-campus interviews have gone so well. I was prepared for the worst.

Interviews with the Mourners

I haven’t always had good luck with knowing information about a College before the interview. One job search comes to mind. When I was looking to leave a job, I looked at a school doing interviews at ACPA. I was glad I scored a follow-up interview with the Dean of Students during the conference. However, I learned that the person who held the role died in a ferry disaster less than a month before. When I arrived for the campus interview only two week later, the college was still in mourning.

Now I have a natural bubbly demeanor. Always smiling, always with light in my eyes. And in nearly every interview I had that day, everyone was in tears as they talked about the work of the previous person in the role. My attitude felt out of place, but not with the skills I was going to bring. I don’t fault the people who would become my colleagues for the endless tears, it was a natural response. But it did show me that you can’t over-prepare a candidate who is going to walk into an office, department or division dealing with crisis or loss.

We Can Do better

I’ve since learned that campus interviews teams believe that in order to treat people with equity, we need to treat them all the same and make sure no one has a leg-up on information. But what we forget is that climate and culture issues usually aren’t posted on public websites and we could blind-side candidates with questions on how to help with these issues. If you don’t know something is an issue, and it’s not made public, how do you prepare for the campus interview where it might come up?

We can do better to help prepare our candidates, with equity. And it starts with the search committee.

What You Can Do on your Next Search Committee

If you have a candidate search about to happen, consider three suggestions to help your candidates be more successful, in case something goes wrong. It is better to be prepared for the unexpected, when bringing on candidates!

Call (don’t e-mail) the candidate if there are changes to the scheduled interview.

I searched high and low for suggestions on how to reschedule a job interview, as recommended to the employer. I found plenty for candidates, but nothing for the employer. Be a leader and know that not everyone checks emails but nearly everyone looking for a job will answer the phone from an HR office!

Don't send that email - pick up the phone during job interview crisis

In case the headline wasn’t clear. Don’t send an email – pick up the phone!

Be honest about why the time and day need to be changed and answer questions in the moment. The waiting for email responses, as a candidate, can feel like a lifetime. But 2 minutes on the phone could be incredibly helpful.

If there is a crisis, be as forthcoming as you can.

Our students and colleagues can be trained on proper and ethical questions, but that sometimes won’t stop them from bringing up sensitive campus issues. They might bring up the campus issue as a ‘what if’ question. They could just flat-out ask if a candidate has heard of it. Whatever the case, it could blind-side the candidate into trying to answer a question without context.

Cartoon tea cup with the text Spill the tea, sis above.

For those who are unfamiliar, the “Tea” is just short for the word “Truth.” Or at the very least, tell me what I need to know as an outsider trying to become an insider!

I’ve worked at plenty of colleges that have weathered campus crises. Embezzlements, deaths, hazing allegations, LGBTQIA harassment and bullying, collegiate sports team antics, racism, you know the basics. Our students want to know if candidates are equipped to manage the changing climate. Or the very least, can they make sense of it? We should prepare candidates with the background of what we can, so they don’t feel pressured to step around the issues. I can say from experience that knowing the college was in mourning helped me from asking insensitive or triggering questions. Though, that was enough to get me through the day.

Ask for feedback from a candidate perspective.

A keen candidate will pick up on a number of things during an interview. We are listening for patterns, and if lucky, for what is being avoided. Search committee heads should ask the candidate on feedback on what they heard and what was avoided during the interviews.

While I might not be the best person for every job I interview for, I am trying to help the College solve problems. Ask us what we think about these campus issues and listen to our feedback on what might be avoided from the insiders and those too close to be critical. In short, I might be a great outsider to help you with your insider issues.

Looking Forward

I am looking forward to my newly rescheduled interview. The issue the college is managing will change the community and I look forward to asking critical questions. And while I might not be hired, my hope is that with this heads-up conversation I will be able to contribute something to the conversation.

One thought on “Tips for Holding an Interview in the Middle of a Campus Crisis

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