Ethical Standards for Executive Searches

By Constantine Curris    //    Volume 22,  Number 4   //    July/August 2014

It is not surprising that in the relatively young, evolving, and highly competitive enterprise of higher education executive search, unseemly practices have surfaced and drawn news-media attention and public scrutiny. They highlight the absence of a commonly understood and accepted set of standards for governing boards and search-firm professionals to follow. How has the scene been set for such infractions, and how can governing boards guard against them?

In recent decades, executive search firms have become an integral part of the higher education landscape. The number of firms working in the marketplace has multiplied, and the positions for which external search assistance has been contracted have also grown dramatically. Increasingly, searches for vice presidents, deans, foundation heads, and even athletic directors are now managed by firms external to the campus. Nevertheless, it is executive searches for presidents and chancellors that engage governing board members and command news-media attention.

Recently, the search firm engaged by Southern Illinois University to fill its presidential vacancy was accused of “poaching” the newly installed president of Youngstown State University, who had been in office less than seven months. There are other notable instances of search firms “churning” presidents they had previously helped to place.

What these examples point to is the lack of understood and honored ethical standards to guide this burgeoning industry. National publicity in the aftermath of the Southern Illinois poaching incident illustrates this point. News stories quoted the managing partner of one firm saying that his group will not recruit a chief executive (president or system head) who has served for less than five years in his or her current position. Another managing partner indicated that her firm never recruits a president it has helped to place, while the managing partner of the firm handling the Southern Illinois search affirmed that his firm’s obligation to its current client trumps any ethical obligation to another university.

It should be noted, as an important aside, that poaching is not a unilateral action. Someone must be willing to be poached. While most college and university presidents, as well as system heads, make a genuine commitment to the institution or system they serve, some people in this profession, as in others, have a drive for personal advancement that supersedes any sense of responsibility to the college or university that appointed them. Governing boards should be leery of such candidates. They should carefully review those candidates who frequently change positions. Established executive search firms are aware of “perennial” applicants and should alert governing boards seriously considering such candidates.

Irrespective of presidential motives, there is a pronounced and growing need for the development of standards to serve as guideposts for professionals engaged in executive searches. It is in the best interest of higher education that governing boards (both campus and system) enunciate their ethical expectations in clear and effective terms. As a starting point for such discussions, I suggest four basic standards:

1. Avoid Recruiting Recently Appointed Presidents or Chancellors

Executive search firms should not recruit any sitting president or chancellor they have helped to place, nor should they recruit any sitting president or chancellor in his or her first four years in office. Exceptions to this standard should rarely occur. If an exception is to be made, the search firm should notify the chair of the governing board where the potential candidate is currently employed of its efforts. Under no circumstances should a governing board interview a sitting president or chancellor unless the chair of his or her governing board or system head has been so notified.

In some circumstances, a sitting president or chancellor in his first four years of service is not recruited, but rather applies on his or her own or is nominated by a colleague. While there should be no prohibition against a sitting executive seeking another position, or a governing board selecting whomever it concludes best meets its leadership needs, the standard of notification to a candidate’s governing board or system head should be upheld.

2. Present a Valid List of Candidates for Consideration

The list of nominees and applicants assembled by an executive search firm should be a valid listing. No name should be included that has not been nominated by a valid source, followed by a prompt inquiry to determine whether the nominee wishes to have his or her name forwarded to a search committee or governing board.

One firm has a reputation for making its own nominations without the knowledge, much the less the permission, of the nominee. While such “padded” lists can impress search committees, they are misleading. Not only are such actions unfair to the college or university seeking new leadership, they can be damaging to the individuals whose names have been forwarded without their consent.

Given the increased incidence of open-records requests, as well as the occasional leakage of confidential information, it is important that individuals who have no interest in a position at another university not have their names associated with such searches.

3. Conduct Thorough Background and Reference Checks

Governing boards and system executives should expect that executive search firms conduct thorough background and reference checks on that select group of candidates (often referred to as “finalists”) from which a final selection will be made. Such checks should go beyond the references supplied by the candidate to include individuals knowledgeable about the leadership and managerial talents of the candidate, as well as those potentially aware of character or behavioral issues that could compromise the candidate’s ability to function in an executive leadership role. Among those who must be interviewed prior to a decision to offer employment would be the candidate’s immediate superior(s).

While there are limits to what an executive search consultant can discover about a candidate selected for an interview (such as an individual’s mental health or marital bliss), a standard for thoroughness in background and reference checks should be required in all executive searches. The search firm has an obligation to the governing board and its search committee to elicit a full picture of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as to make a good-faith effort to determine if there are any character defects that would impact his or her effectiveness.

A deviation from this standard was evident in the aforementioned recruitment of the Youngstown State University president to take the top spot at Southern Illinois. News-media accounts reported that the chair of the Youngstown board first learned of the pending appointment by reading the student newspaper. Aside from the board’s embarrassment at not knowing its president had been poached, the more disturbing message was that neither the Southern Illinois governing board nor the executive search firm it employed had interviewed the appointee’s superior at Youngstown. Beyond any considerations of courtesy, there was a failure to fulfill the obligation for a thorough background and reference check.

In recent years, there has been a growing trend to present only one candidate to the campus community and the governing board. This movement is predicated on the assumption that maintaining utmost confidentiality until an appointment is assured helps attract the best candidates who might otherwise not be part of the search process.

While the validity of that assumption can be debated, the movement has changed the dynamics of effective reference checking. Rather than having a role in evaluating potential executives and the opportunity to contact colleagues at institutions where a prospective president has served, faculty and staff are essentially bystanders in any search process wherein the names of all finalists are not revealed. When university stakeholders learn who the presumptive president or chancellor will be only hours before the appointment is made official, the search process becomes the academic equivalent of a debutante ball.

In such secretive searches, governing boards and system heads are almost solely reliant on the background checks conducted by or through the executive search firm. Their sources are limited. The standard for thoroughness becomes even more important.

4. Ensure Integrity in Fulfilling Search Firm Obligations

Calling for integrity in search processes does not imply that integrity does not already exist. In fact, virtually every search firm consultant works diligently to ensure good candidates are recruited, appropriate confidentiality is maintained, and a fair and honorable process is conducted—leading to a wise selection and a successful presidency. However, in some instances, executive search firms and governing boards nonetheless experience challenges to ensuring integrity in the process.

Occasions may arise in which a search committee or a governing board is so smitten with a given candidate that members do not wish to hear any unfavorable comments. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the search firm to present that information, giving a thorough assessment of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses On other occasions, it may be the search firm consultant who is smitten with a candidate and is tempted to overlook or ignore unfavorable observations. Representatives of search firms should be expected to maintain a fair and thorough professionalism in the search process. Anything less will not meet the integrity standard.

Responsibilities of Governing Boards

Governing boards and systems also have ethical standards to uphold. First and foremost, an executive search should be a genuine search, not a sham exercise. If a governing board has decided to promote a candidate from within the institution, it should conduct an internal search without engaging the services of an executive search firm. Boards and system offices have an ethical responsibility toward candidates who respond to position advertisements or search-committee solicitations to ensure that the search is open and that candidates meeting qualifications will receive full and fair consideration.

This expectation should not preclude governing boards from promoting from within an institution if its members conclude that the internal candidate is the superior choice. In essence, it is the responsibility of a governing board to attest to the standard that any formal search it authorizes is truly an open search.

Governing boards should likewise honor the integrity of the search process they have created, especially if there are political or parochial pressures to subvert the work of the search committee. The governing board has an ethical obligation to the members of the search committee it has appointed, as well as to applicants and nominees—all of whom have acted in good faith and expect the search to be a legitimate process.

Recent presidential searches at the College of Charleston and Florida State University have raised serious questions as to whether the actions of the respective governing boards in circumventing the work of search committees have violated the integrity of the search processes those boards created.

Another obligation of a governing board or system office is to make the choice of a new executive in a timely manner. Once the governing board or system head has interviewed finalists, and assuming the executive search firm has fulfilled its obligations for thorough background and reference checks and communicated those results, a selection should be made within days. Boards should avoid the experience of one of the nation’s larger systems in leavings finalists dangling in the public wind for nearly a month, resulting in both candidates withdrawing and considerable animus shared by them with colleagues across the nation.

If a governing board is dissatisfied with the choices presented by a search committee, it certainly has the privilege—better still the responsibility—to reject those choices and to continue or reconstitute the search process. Such a decision, if unfortunately necessary, should likewise be made in a timely manner.

The use of executive search firms provides many salutary benefits in the search for senior leaders at colleges and universities, as well as public systems. Persuasive arguments can readily be made that the caliber of executive leadership has been improved by the partnerships formed with and effectively exercised between professional search firm consultants and governing boards and system heads.

Yet to maintain and strengthen the confidence that higher ed leaders have in the use of executive search firms, good practices built around ethical standards must be developed and maintained. All higher education has a vital interest in seeing such standards widely adopted and honored.

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