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  • Case Study: When Faculty Refer and Rank Students for Employers

    Organizational Structure
    A career services director defends her decision.

    TAGS: faculty, candidate selection, case study, ethics, references, principles

    Scenario: A faculty member is approached by Corporation X, a frequent campus recruiter and financial contributor to the institution, for assistance with recruiting efforts. Coupled with the promise of an unrestricted donation to the academic department, Corporation X asks for the resumes of the faculty member’s top five students. The faculty member agrees to provide them and even rank orders the students for the recruiter. A week later Corporation X cancels its reservation for the fall job fair and schedule of interviews in the career center. Dismayed that Corporation X will not visit campus this year, a student asks the career center if there is a way to contact the company. She explains that several of her fellow students’ resumes were referred by their professor, and they now have onsite interviews. In a subsequent call to the faculty member, the career center director (CCD) learns of the arrangement with Corporation X. To the CCD’s surprise, the faculty member doesn’t see an issue.

    Questions: What responsibility does the CCD have in this situation? Which of the Principles for Ethical Professional Practice are relevant to this situation? What options does the career center have in responding and what are the possible consequences?

    Analysis: Before taking action, it is wise for the CCD to consider the multiple perspectives of the constituents. By providing an external screening process Corporation X believes is reliable, the faculty member enables the company to bypass normal campus recruitment efforts and avoid consideration of perhaps hundreds of applicants. From the employer’s perspective, this may be attractive not only in terms of cost and efficiency, but also a more certain way to secure the most competitive candidates. From the faculty member’s perspective, the request from Corporation X is reasonable considering the generous gift they are prepared to make. And, it is a “win-win-win” for everyone: the company secures top candidates, the department gets additional funding, and the most deserving students get interviews.

    From the perspective of students not referred, this is patently unfair. They have no chance to make their own case for employment with the company, and they have no knowledge of the selection criteria applied by the faculty member. Furthermore, they feel the faculty member is acting in the best interests of an employer rather than of the students (whose tuition dollars support the faculty).

    For the CCD, this is an issue of fairness. Through managed career events and on-campus interviews, students have a chance to compete for opportunities based on objective rather than subjective criteria. The university may consider the screening of potential candidates by a faculty member a conflict of interest and potentially an EEO issue. Furthermore, the precedent set by this arrangement could lead to a group of the most affluent employers seeking to bypass open recruitment practices, attaining treatment not accessible for employers that can’t offer special funding to departments or other campus entities. In other words, the practice is unfair to other students as well as to other employers.

    It is imperative that the CCD address the issue with the faculty member, the department, the employer, and the university’s legal counsel.

    Principles: Principle 3 states, “Ensure equitable access without stipulation or exception relative to contributions of financial support, gifts, affiliation, or in-kind services.” Principle 4 states, “Comply with laws associated with local, state, and federal agencies, including but not limited to EEO compliance, immigration, and affirmative action.”

    Options for Resolution: Responding to this particular situation requires diplomacy. Keep in mind that part of the career center’s mission is bridge building. Students, employers, and faculty are all constituents of the center. In this case, one of the constituents is being negatively impacted by the actions of the others. The CCD’s goal is to help the faculty member and the employer recognize the ways in which it is harmful and possibly counter-productive.

    Faculty members, who indeed get to know individual students in a way campus support units don’t, may bristle at the insinuation that they should not have a role in screening students they instruct. After all, faculty are frequently asked to write recommendations in which a reckoning of the student’s skills and strengths must be included. How is this different? The department that would receive the corporate financial support may ask what business is it of the career center to interfere with a mutually beneficial arrangement. This can be especially problematic if the company representative is a personal friend of the faculty member and/or a prominently placed alum who also donates individually to the university. Disruption of this agreement could cost the department some much needed financial support and good will with a donor, as well as impede opportunities for the selected students.

    The most important first step is consultation with the university’s legal officers. Is this situation a clear conflict of interest by the institution’s policies? Is it potentially a legal matter with respect to EEO guidelines? If either is the case, it is in the faculty member’s and department’s best interests to be aware of this fact rather than act in ignorance of the vulnerable position in which they may have placed themselves or the institution.

    Conveying this information respectfully to the faculty member—as an agent seeking resolution to the dilemma rather than as an enforcer or adversary—is the best way to open a dialogue. Confrontation will not likely lead to a satisfactory outcome. Preferably, the exchange should occur in person and possibly include the department chair or an assistant dean. It may also be advisable to include the CCD’s supervisor. Reference to NACE’s Principles for Ethical Professional Practice may provide a framework for discussion, but the approach should be one that acknowledges the multiple interests at stake.

    A number of options may be considered. First, is there a way the faculty member can assist in Corporation X’s recruitment efforts that don’t involve screening out or ranking students, or eliminating the opportunity for students not personally known to the faculty member? Faculty members can, for example, encourage all students in the department’s classes to take a look at the Corporation X opportunities and consider applying. An alum from the company could be invited to speak in class about how their work relates to what they studied, increasing student interest in the company. Second, a coordinated attempt—involving the career center and the department—to re-involve Corporation X in broader-based recruiting activities, such as the career fair and/or on-campus recruiting, should be made. Most importantly, the CCD should seek to include the academic department in crafting a solution.

    The CCD should also consider a constructive discussion with the recruiter, who may have been acting opportunistically or out of ignorance. It should also not be assumed that the recruiter was following the company’s recruitment policies. If necessary, a conversation with a higher authority in Corporation X’s human resources hierarchy may be warranted. Appealing to the goal of sustainable recruitment success may prove most effective. A case can be made that limiting interviews to only “hand-picked” students may backfire, both because it causes the company to miss out on excellent candidates who were subjectively excluded, and because it may produce a negative reputation among students denied a chance to apply. In addition, it may be advisable to review the company’s recruitment focus: Is it artificially narrow? Or, if the company feels that its previous broad-based recruitment efforts resulted in too many unqualified applications, perhaps the objective qualifications could be tailored to produce a more appropriate candidate pool.

    Other Considerations: In the aftermath of discussions with the faculty member and the employer, it may be advisable to launch an education initiative for academic partners. With input from deans or other university administrators, materials may be developed that inform faculty of policies and other considerations in the event they are approached by employers to make candidate referrals. The career center should be cited as a consultation resource eager to assist when these issues arise. In addition, the CCD may seek invitations to discuss the topic at departmental meetings or address new faculty at orientation programs.

    The initiative should be taken as an opportunity to educate faculty broadly about the role the career center plays for students and employers. Many may not be aware of the mission, resources and services, or existing programs and events organized by the center. The initiative may include the development/fundraising and corporate/foundation relations functions of the institution that have a parallel stake in employers successfully recruiting graduates.

    A review of current recruitment policies for employers may also be in order. Are the current policies up to date and readily accessible? For employers posting positions through the career center or participating in on-campus recruiting, is compliance with the policies solicited prior to granting access to programs and systems?

    Reviewed by the 2020 Principles for Ethical Professional Practice Committee.

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