Selection panel politics

I’ve been re-reading sections of Dale Spender’s book Women of Ideas (And what men have done to them). It was published in 1982. This is important to keep in mind as the tone and thesis is a reflection of the times.

In her Introduction she makes a case that “women have not been treated as serious intellectual beings” and this is an understanding central to her explanation for women’s disappearance from our history. To support her case she refers to an analysis by Bernice Carroll of entries in a book called Notable American Women (James et al). The entries for women consistently show negative, disparaging comments that diminish their contribution. In contrast, the entries for men are consistently described in terms of their originality, innovativeness, creativity and excellence.

Spender’s conclusion: “We must begin to accept what Berenice Carroll points out, that the terms original, innovative, creative, first rank, excellent, are political terms, in that they are terms used by the gatekeepers to exclude women from entry to the ‘worthwhile’ records of our society.” P. 28

This conclusion prompted me to think about how these terms are used in the context of job applications and assessing applicants. And further, the politics of selection panels.

From talking to hundreds of people who have sat on selection panels, the politics of selection is real and has serious consequences both for panel members and applicants.

What do I mean by politics? Joan Kirner and Moira Rayner in their book The Women’s Power Pocket Book, make the point that “Every human transaction – family relationships, work, partnerships, contracts – is political, involves the distribution of power.” Politics is about the interplay of relationships, particularly where power is involved.

How does politics express itself on selection panels? Here are eight examples.

  1. Members of selection panels make judgements about what people write and say during selection processes. People and their examples are assessed as original, or not, innovative or not, creative or not, complex or not. Who decides what these terms mean? What are those meanings based on? Are they shared by the whole panel?
  2. Chairs of selection panels may exercise undue power during the process. In procedural terms, all panel members are equal contributors. In practice, the views and wishes of the chair may prevail regardless of what other panel members may think.
  3. Delegates may exercise undue power during the process because they insist on multiple (and unnecessary) points of approval, seek undue levels of consultation from the panel, alter valid panel recommendations.
  4. Managers may exercise undue power during the process because it is known that they have preferences.
  5. Panel members from another area, such as HR, may have particular barrows to push during the process, such as to keep the panel ‘honest’, to ensure that certain procedures and practices are carried out. These may compete with other members of the panel who are looking for a ‘quick fix’.
  6. A panel member can be ‘kept in the dark’ about the full nature of the job so that they are not an equal contributor.
  7. A panel member may hold a dissenting view about the result of the process but be railroaded into conformity by other panel members.
  8. Staff who are interested but outside the selection process may make life difficult for panel members by seeking or providing information on an informal basis.

Such politics can make life uncomfortable for panel members, result in poor decision making and contribute to low levels of perceived process fairness.

What can be done to minimise the impact of selection panel politics?

  1. Have a clearly stated selection policy and set of procedures that are easy to read and accessible.
  2. Ensure that staff understand these documents and are trained in selection skills.
  3. Ensure that selection panel chairs are trained and accept that selection panel members are equal contributors and that shared understanding of all aspects of the process is essential.
  4. Monitor and evaluate selection processes.
  5. Hold managers and delegates accountable for their role in selection processes.
  6. Provide information to applicants so that they understand how the process works.
  7. Have mechanisms available so that panel members can seek information and guidance outside the panel.
  8. Encourage honesty amongst panel members.
  9. Build assertiveness skills amongst staff.
  10. Foster a culture of openness, responsibility and accountability.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.