Some hiring questions from Judge Kavanaugh’s job interview

Have you ever seen a job interview as riveting as the one the Senate Judiciary Committee held last week for Brent Kavanaugh?  Regardless of whether you think Judge Kavanaugh should get the promotion to the Supreme Court, the televised interview raises a few questions relevant for nonprofits (and other organizations) when they’re interviewing candidates for senior leadership jobs, including when search committees are hiring a CEO.

1.       How far back in the candidate’s life do you want to probe?

You obviously want to know about the candidate’s work history and character.  For most senior jobs, the past five to ten years are probably the most relevant.  But the Kavanaugh case gives us pause. How much of the candidate’s life do you want to learn about?  Will you go back 20 years?  30 years? To summer jobs during college? For Judge Kavanaugh, it’s not a question about work experience at all, but how he conducted himself while in high school and college.  Do you care about that part of a candidate’s life?  Should you?  Does “a long time ago” ever become irrelevant?

2.       Do you believe everything the references say?

Before making an offer, you’ll of course want to talk to references.  What happens if one reference says something critical?  If two or three other references are entirely positive and even effusive in praise, does one person’s criticism kill the offer?  What do you do to verify references’ comments, whether positive or negative? Do you allow time to contact additional people to get additional perspectives?  

3.       Do you go “off-list” to speak to additional references?

Will you speak to references who are not suggested by the candidate?  If so, do you have a responsible way to identify people who can speak knowledgeably without violating the confidentiality of the search process (obviously not relevant for a very public Supreme Court nomination)?  How many references do you need to talk to before you feel you have enough accurate and relevant information to make a hiring decision? 

4.       Do you force yourself to make a key hiring decision by a certain date?

CEO search committees often find it convenient to schedule interviews with short-listed candidates, or to seek the full board’s approval, during an already-scheduled board meeting, which sometimes takes place only once every few months.  Does that self-imposed deadline force you to make a key and perhaps irrevocable decision before you’ve had sufficient time to assess the top candidates in a thoughtful manner?

5.       Do you have a good back-up plan in case the top candidate doesn’t get or take the job?

Sometimes, after you’ve convinced yourself who the very best candidate is, that person evaporates from the process.  Maybe it’s due to surprising comments from the final references, or the salary and benefits in the job offer are nothing like what the candidate expected, so he or she turns it down.  When this happens – after you’ve fallen in love with this top candidate – can you pivot to a strong runner-up to consider quickly whether that person can also be great for the job?  Or can you resurrect the search process to surface quickly some new viable candidates?