Due diligence: Resources for schools hiring a superintendent

Hiring the right applicant for the top job in a school is a job in itself.

It can also be an education in itself.

The major points to keep in mind are that the hiring must be done fairly—each candidate evaluated by the same criteria—through a transparent process that is adequately documented.

In the U. S., public schools not only have to meet the standards that apply to every employer but also have to worry about exercising due diligence.

A school board can held liable for negligent hiring if a reasonable inquiry into an applicant’s background would have shown that the person was not suitable for the position and that the subsequent hiring puts a dangerous or unqualified person in a job where co-workers or third parties can be harmed.

Under emerging legal precedents, a school board can also be held liable for negligent referral if, when asked, its representative fails to disclose information so negative that the candidate would not have been hired if that information had been known.

Reference checks are key to exercising due diligence in hiring.

The importance of reference checks

Reference checking is the most misunderstood and most important part of hiring. Many people think checking references means phoning the individuals whose named and contact information the candidates have listed on their applications. That’s about as useful as calling the candidate’s mothers for an objective opinion about their offspring.

Reference checking means:

  • verifying that the information an applicant provided on the application is accurate, and
  • getting additional information about the candidates that will show the relative strengths and weaknesses of each candidate for the particular position.

Schools should never assume that the previous employer—or any employer—verified that the information the candidate provided was accurate.

Verify information on the application

We’ve all read news stories about people who for years passed themselves off as having credentials they never earned or experience at places where they never worked:

  • After 19 years as New Jersey City University president, Carlos Hernandez stepped down when it was revealed he never received the master’s degree he claimed to have.
  • Senior vice president at Texas A&M Alexander Kemos lied about being a Navy SEAL and having a master’s and doctorate from Tufts University.
  • Notre Dame football coach George O’Leary resigned five days after having being hired, admitting he lied about his academic and athletic background.
  • Leslie Berlowitz, former president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, repeatedly lied about having a doctorate degree.
  • Doug Lynch, vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education, resigned after a newspaper reported the falsely claimed a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

In some cases, the people who claimed credentials they didn’t have were able to do well the work for which they were hired. However, when the false statements were made public, the credibility of the educational institution took a big hit.

No school board wants to be in a position of having to explain to voters why they paid a doctoral-level salary for 15 years to someone whose academic preparation consisted of taking a few non-credit MOOCs from prestigious institutions.

Still less do they want to have to explain to voters why the district advertised the position was open only to people with doctorates when the guy without any degree consistently received outstanding ratings on his performance reviews.

Pre-interview checks on basic info

Before selecting candidates to interview, some basic checks on those who appear to meet the stated qualifications can be done to weed out the most blatant problems:

  • Search for criminal conviction records
  • Search for professional license(s)
  • Verify the current (or most recent) employer
  • Verify the highest degree held

The human resources department of the current  employer and the registrar’s office of the university granting the highest degree must be called. Databases can be searched online.

Flesh out the picture from the interviews

After candidates have had an opportunity to tell why they think they should be hired, the school authorities responsible for hiring should check references.

This reference check is, first of all, to verify the details in each candidate’s application.

Second, the post-interview reference check is an opportunity to see if the people who have worked with a particular candidate see the candidate’s work experience, skills, and personal qualities in ways that suggest the candidate is suited to the job to be filled.

The least that should be asked of the current (or most recent) employer is:

  • Verification of employment (if not done earlier) and of dates of employment
  • Verification of title of position(s) held
  • Confirmation of last level of compensation
  • Is this person eligible for rehire?
  • What is the reason for separation?
  • Is this person recommended for another position / role?

The school should develop other questions to ask to probe each candidate’s fitness for the job for which he or she is applying. For professional and administrative (executive) jobs topics that might be important include these:

  • Ability to attract and mentor top talent
  • Budget administration
  • Crisis management
  • Decision making
  • Employee relations
  • Integrity
  • Interpersonal relations
  • Leadership
  • Long-term planning
  • Managerial skills
  • Oral communication
  • Overall performance
  • Productivity
  • Short-term planning
  • Technical skills

As at the other steps in the hiring process, it is important that the same questions be asked about each candidate and that the responses be recorded in the same manner.

Resources on reference checking

Reference release forms. Having all candidates sign a reference release form that authorizes even those employers whose policy is to verify only the fact and dates of employment to give more detailed information makes securing references from reluctant employers somewhat easier. Reference release templates are readily available on the web. This one in Rich Text Format can be used in most Windows-environment word processing programs. This one is in Word format.

Guide to Reference Checking. One of the best resources I’ve found on reference checking within an education context is the Guide to Reference Checking: Resource Information for Classified Supervisors and Managers from the Los Angeles Community College District.

The Guide is easy to use and jargon-free. It covers:

  • Legal aspects of employment reference checking, including defamation of character, qualified privilege, negligent hiring, and negligent referral.
  • Reference checking fundamentals
  • The reference checking interview
  • Sample questions for the reference check interview
  • Reference checks for promotional and transfer candidates
  • The reference release template used by LACCD is in the Appendix.

The 15-page Guide is available free to download in PDF format.

Forms for reference checks. Samples of forms used by reference-checking firm Allison & Taylor show one way to record information from reference-checking interviews. (They could also modified for use in face-to-face interviews with candidates.)  Sample are shown for:

General hiring resources

The National School Boards Association recommends the National Affiliation of Superintendent Searchers (NASS) as the best resource for finding and recruiting qualified school superintendents. A list of the 34 states in which the recruiting service is available on the NSBA website. (New York is not one of the 34.)

Model policy standards for educational leaders from the Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium (Council of Chief State School Officers) may be helpful as a source of topics about which executive staff should be asked.

The Teacher and Staff Selection Toolkit, available from Opportunity Culture, has diagrams of the hiring process and resources to help with the hiring process.  Opportunity Culture “envision[s] excellent teachers leading their profession to achieve great results by using job redesign and age-appropriate technology to extend their reach to more students, for more pay, within budget.”  The tool kit reflects that teacher-focused approach to improving schools. [Added Jan.21, 2016.]

It’s easy to be misled by candidates if you don’t listen carefully to what they say and don’t say in an interview. Learn what to listen for and how to compare that to your needs and culture in this 2016 article from Harvard Business Review. [Added Feb.16, 2016.]

How do you make sure you’re getting the right people to give you their honest assessments when you check references? This Harvard Business Review article gives six tips. [Added Apr. 6, 2016]

Do you know of other resources that should be listed here?