Executive search firms (ESFs) play a vital role in recruiting to executive and board level roles in higher education institutions (HEIs). Their contribution is valued by HEIs: they can cast the net wide and elicit potential talent from outside the networks of the ‘usual suspects’.
Little is known, however, about the impact of ESFs on the way higher education delivers its public equality duties. How do ESFs support the sector in addressing imperatives for improving diversity, with better representation of women and people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds? How can HEIs work with ESFs to ensure that equality considerations are built in to each stage of the recruitment process? How can they establish and ensure their accountability for equalities in this context?
The search for answers
In April 2016 the Diversity Summit, a group of sector agencies representing leaders and governors brought together by HEFCE, commissioned a study to find out more. The research was led by a team from Oxford Brookes University and supported by HEFCE and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) in partnership with the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. The approach was exploratory and based on interviews with nine search consultants, twelve directors of human resources and eight chairs of governing bodies. It captures insights into the interaction of search firms with their clients.
It is clear that ESFs are a valued and ubiquitous part of higher education recruitment for senior roles, including, increasingly, searches for independent members of governing bodies. The research sheds light on how the relationship works and has three main take-home messages.
First, higher education institutions appear to be more focused on increasing gender than ethnic diversity in senior roles. Search consultants who work with the rest of the public sector feel that higher education takes a ‘narrow view of what diversity is’. Some HEIs give search firms equalities targets, but these tend to be focused on gender.
Second, the research identifies that certain processes used by ESFs, combined with a lack of HEI understanding and oversight, may allow subjectivity and bias to creep into the recruitment process, disadvantaging certain groups of potential candidates because of their perceived lack of ‘cultural fit’ in terms of racialised and gendered perceptions of leadership.
Finally, and importantly, the findings from this research challenge HEIs to rethink their relationship with ESFs. The research suggests that they should look beyond simply ‘outsourcing’ recruitment to the private sector. In order to safeguard responsibilities for equality, more should be done to develop robust processes for ensuring accountability. This will require HEIs to review whether they have sufficient checks and balances in their contracts with ESFs, and ensure they retain oversight for risk management.
To this end, the research draws helpful lessons from the corporate sector and sets out practical guidance for higher education institutions in the form of an accountability framework for diversity. This will help to rebalance existing successful partnerships between HEIs and ESFs, to make sure the responsibility for achieving diversity of senior teams is in the right place – with the HEI.