What is our true work as K-12 HR Leaders? Is it to process I-9s? To ensure compliance with FLSA? To attend job fairs, manage position control, and ensure there’s a substitute in every classroom every day?
As you all know, the answer is “Yes.” Yes, to all of the above, and yes to so much more. There is no shortage of tasks that the HR office must do to ensure that it meets its two most basic functions—which are to ensure the district’s compliance with employment law, and to ensure that positions are filled. But there is a deeper ideal, a more salient reason why we exist—and that is to ensure that every child has an outstanding educator in front of them, every day. And because each school district employee is, at any given moment, an educator – we must not lose sight that our most important responsibility is to ensure excellence in every single hire we make, and to unabashedly address performance concerns when they arise.
Let’s talk today about the first of these two important callings: to ensure that each hire we make is a quality hire. Given the reality of lean HR departments, we all struggle to make time for this. Few HR departments are seeing an increase in staffing unless it’s correlated to an increase in enrollment, and even in those rapidly growing school districts, the HR office all-too-frequently still falls behind. All of us are tackling far more legislative mandates and numerous new initiatives than ever before. We also face morale issues around pay and workload, hiring challenges when leadership vacancies occur, and the need to deepen our commitment to diversity and equity with a changing workforce and a changing student population.
But for many HR leaders, the greatest challenge faced in ensuring an outstanding workforce is far more basic: it is that district leadership often does not equate our role with this mission. In other words, while we’re tacitly held accountable for the quality of the workforce, we’re not always authorized to do much about it. Many superintendents are not clear on what the purpose of HR is, beyond ensuring compliance and position control.
Ask yourself these two questions:
- What steps do you take, as an HR professional, to ensure that every new hire is top-drawer?
- What systems are in place to ensure that a marginal candidate is not hired into any position in your school district?
Most of us, if we answer those questions honestly, will find that our response is wanting. Why? Because in far too many organizations (not limited to K-12 by any means) hiring decisions are fully decentralized – meaning that once minimum qualifications are met, a hiring manager (rather than HR) makes the ultimate decision as to whether or not a candidate gets an offer.
Those of us in HR recognize that this is problematic; even a gifted principal is fallible when it comes to making a hire. Indeed, some of the most otherwise-capable principals I know are not particularly strong when it comes to hiring. And sometimes food services managers, custodial coordinators, and special education directors, to name a few, are stymied by a lack of quality candidates applying for their vacancies. Given this, they are often more apt to make a mediocre hire than to not make one at all.
So, if our most sacred role is to ensure excellence in every hire we make – how do we translate this into actuality, given the context of our current organization?
Let’s start with two things we know are true:
- In any organization with more than a few hundred employees, it is unlikely that HR leadership can be intimately involved in every new hire.
- HR leaders very rarely hold veto power over hiring decisions. Likely, when presented with a poor-quality recommendation to hire, their best option is to try and persuade the hiring manager to think differently. Once in a while the art of persuasion might work, but most of the school principals I know have already checked the item off their to-do list once they send a recommendation to HR – and they’re none too excited to have their decision-making questioned at that point.
And let’s add two things that we know are true but that we might not be prepared to say too loudly:
- Many of your principals and managers, as well as members of the senior staff, aren’t particularly skillful when it comes to hiring.
- “Who you know” is notoriously endemic is the world of school hiring. It is much easier for a principal to hire last year’s student teacher, or the convivial long-term substitute, than it is to hire an unknown teacher from another state who might potentially be a significant change agent. This is even more true in the days leading up to the start of school, when time is limited and the plate is full.
Still, despite these limitations, we are accountable in HR to ourselves and to our organization to ensure quality hiring.
So as we re-enter our own school workplaces, only a couple of months before the first hire recommendations for the next school year arrive at our desk, let me suggest some of the following resolutions for the next year.
- If you sit on the Executive Team of your district, request time on the agenda to facilitate a discussion around, “How do we prevent managers from making poor hiring decisions?” Allow this to be a collaborative discussion on the executive team. The truth is, none of your peers want to make a bad hiring decision either – and they will look to your for some good ideas. Which brings me to my second point…
- Make sure you have some good ideas to offer. Your peers on the Executive Team probably care deeply about this, but this is your area of expertise. Are there any objective criteria such as testing or electronic reference data that your district uses in making hires? If not, research some. Do all hires get vetted before an offer is made? If so, under what circumstances can a manager’s recommendation be turned down?
- Bring some data with you. Many districts are surprised when they find out how many teacher hires are made out of current substitute and student teacher pools. If you find that that’s a high number in your district, it begs the question: how do we ensure excellence in the hiring of substitutes and the placement of student teachers, knowing that many of them will ultimately be recommended for full-time hires? In most districts, there is very little if any vetting of candidates for these positions. What’s particularly wonderful about this group of employees is that, unlike teacher hiring, substitute hiring tends to be very centralized, and often student-teacher placement is centralized too. So likely, you in HR already have a great deal of clout to determine the entry considerations for substitutes and student teachers.
- Don’t just start the conversation; bring it to fruition. You don’t need to single-handedly come up with the solution, but you need to be dogged about making sure that a solution comes forth and is blessed by the leadership of the district.
Of course, Step 1 pre-supposes that HR sits on the Executive Team. If that is not the case in your district, that’s actually a problem you’ll want to take on too, but maybe not this week. You don’t, however, have to wait for a seat at the table to begin the conversation. Most Executive Teams invite other senior staff to present and discuss topics of importance. If this is the case in your district – get on the agenda anyway.
Ultimately, your best bet to ensuring a systemic approach to ensuring excellence in the hiring process is to recognize that as an HR leader, your job is to facilitate the conversation and to project-manage the outcome. Indeed, it is every district leader’s responsibility –not yours alone-- to ensure that every hire is a good one. But bringing the issue to the table, and ensuring that the conversation does not die before it takes hold – yeah, that’s your role. It’s a sacred mission, and we are the stewards who will make sure it happens.
Hank Harris is interim executive director of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators. This article first appeared in Aspex Solutions Newsletter