Dr Jouni Kekäle, Human Resources Director from the University of Eastern Finland, walks us through strategic academic recruitment research, including the proactive recruitment model
Universities everywhere are currently aiming — in addition to their traditional tasks — to solve the “wicked problems” of humankind and to increase the innovation capacity of economies, made necessary by global competition and structural changes. The old wisdom is that academic staff appointments are the crucial element in institutional success (1), perhaps the most important decisions a university ever makes. The recent challenges and ambitious institutional strategic aims have made recruitment even more important. Successful academic recruitment may indeed lift the level of research. At the same time, a poor hiring decision often contributes to a toxic workplace atmosphere and can cost one and a half times to five times the employee’s salary and benefits (2).
The University of Eastern Finland (UEF) has a project that started in 2015, that attempted to improve strategic academic recruitment (3,4). The author has been responsible for the project. The aim is to help the university accomplish its strategy with human resources (4). The project has involved interplay between theory, practice, research and action. It was based on research literature and discussions among the university leadership throughout an iterative and open process.
Recruitment has been studied extensively, but we still do not have a full picture of the complex phenomena. We aim to find the best possible persons who share institutional targets and fit well into the group. A persona-related key finding is that intrinsic motivation predicts quality of performance (5). Given our population of 5.5 million and diminishing age cohorts, the UEF also aims at broadening the international recruitment pool and heightening our innovation potential. Research points to three factors that appear to almost invariably foster innovation: diversity (of thinking, backgrounds, etc.), intrinsic motivation and autonomy (6, 4). The first two are connected to recruitment.
Proactive recruitment model
Traditional methods of recruitment are based on vacancy advertisements and interviews. The approach has fundamental problems. It is difficult to attract good researchers from abroad through traditional recruitment. The main obstacle for not applying for a job is that the candidate does not know what it is like to work in the organisation (7). Traditional recruitment cannot often give a deep understanding on a candidate’s motivation, drive and persona. Even a competent recruiter needs to make important decisions in too short a time period with insufficient knowledge. S/he is typically a researcher, not trained in recruitment or interviewing. The candidates have the same problem: a lack of information and time. Both land on poor decisions easily.
The proactive model overcomes these problems. The proactive work assures that potential candidates are identified, their motivation and skills are known, and they also know the group in question and, therefore, might be movable when the need for recruitment arises. A research group constantly tries to strengthen their research profile while networking with international researchers working in their area. Visits, collaboration and tenure track positions enable the group to develop relationships with best groups, like-minded researchers, and to discover their capabilities, aims, and motivation (3). This expands the pool of candidates before recruitment. To any observer, such cooperation gives a deep and important real-life knowledge about how candidates cooperate with their research group.
Proactive recruiting is not (commercial) headhunting, in which consultants offer their lists, which cannot cover relevant candidates in all areas. In proactive recruitment, the research group identifies best parties for cooperation and proactively reaches out for cooperation with them. The resulting international collaboration has benefits: it appears to be the best driver and predictor of research productivity (8). Where traditional recruitment is viewed as an administrative procedure, proactive recruitment is led by the academic leaders aiming at elevating their group’s innovative capacity, quality and output with diverse and suitable candidates.
The EU’s open transparent and merits-based approach
The lack of transparent, open and merit-based recruitment (OTM) is an important barrier for open European Union (EU) -wide labour market for researchers (9). The Proactive Model does not contradict with the OTM approach. The Proactive Recruitment Model can be used for direct recruitment (where approved by the law, as in Finland for professorial recruitments with undoubtedly qualified candidates). However, the model can also be used for broadening the recruitment pool, enhancing research quality, and for increased international cooperation. The final recruitment decisions can and ought to be carried out along the OTM principles.
Proactive Recruitment helps to gain a better understanding of key applicants’ motivation, their fit to the group, and their social skills and movability. It broadens the recruitment pool which might otherwise remain severely lacking and local (thus hindering diversity and mobility).
Any recruitment should be carried out without discrimination based on candidates’ ethnicity, gender, social background, or sexual orientation. Fair treatment, benefits, facilities and atmosphere are important for work outcomes and retaining people after recruitment decisions.
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Kekäle, J (2017): Proactive strategic recruitment in research groups, Tertiary Education and Management, DOI: 10.1080/13583883.2017.1407439.
Kekäle, J. and Varis, J. (2019) Responsible University: In Search of HR and Leadership Solutions. In: The Responsible University. Exploring the Nordic Context and Beyond. By Mads P. Sørensen, Lars Geschwind. Jouni Kekäle & Rómulo Pinheiro. (Eds) p. 3-29. London: Palgrave MacMIllan. Open access: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-3-030-25646-3.pdf
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