What Is Cluster Hiring?

Cluster hiring is the process of hiring new employees in groups rather than individually. This concept has become a common practice for universities and academia across the nation to help boost diverse hiring needs, but could this hiring process work for your business or organization?


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Carla Freeman, in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, says that this process can take many forms, but the main goal and structure are simple: “Prioritize and invest in multiple positions in a broad field, or across a range of related fields, rather than hiring faculty members one by one in specific subfields. This increases the likelihood of a diverse pool of candidates, identifies synergistic connections among candidates and, by recruiting faculty cohorts together, fosters collaboration and a shared experience.”

While Freeman recounts how this process directly relates to academia, more and more businesses are seeing the value of adopting this strategy in order to recruit diverse talent. Sam Walker, Deputy Editor at The Wall Street Journal, explains how corporations are now adopting this strategy to hire C-suite leadership roles.

“In business, companies sometimes hire entire teams, too, especially when an incoming chief executive decides to clean house,” says Walker. “In recent years, new bosses at Uber, Chipotle, Borden and Bed Bath & Beyond, among others, have chosen to recast their executive teams. Sometimes the chemistry clicks, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Boyce Thompson Institute Tries ‘Hunger Games’-Style Hiring

In the academic world, Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) in Ithaca, New York, implemented this strategy by targeting individual scientists who were interested in “collaborative science.” “To attract more nontraditional candidates, they didn’t ask for letters of reference or obsess over resumes and specialties,” says Walker. “They asked researchers to send memos about their approach to collaboration.”

Walker adds that this approach allowed for better-quality candidates and more diverse candidates—especially in gender terms. BTI then invited these candidates to a symposium, where they had to target potential teammates, prepare a 15-minute presentation about their research, and then “speed date” around the room to discuss the research.

At the end of the day, candidates were invited to a private dinner, hosted by BTI, which allowed them to open up more and be themselves without worrying about BTI faculty judging them, as these members were not in attendance. “By the next morning, the candidates had embraced the idea that their fates were largely in the hands of others,” said one attendee. “Everyone started making subtle ‘social calculations’ about which of the others they felt they could depend on, and got down to the hard work of crafting proposals.”

The next stage of the process required candidates to submit different proposals and join groups to finish the projects. Walker says a few candidates ended up joining multiple groups, and each team was given several weeks to collaborate using video chat. At the end of the process, “BTI invited two teams back with a total of five members, all of whom received job offers,” says Walker.

David Stern, CEO at BTI, says the experiment produced an impressive pool of candidates with strong ideas. “We were pleasantly surprised,” Stern added.

“A friend of mine called it the BTI Hunger Games,” said attendee Andrew Nelson, then a research scientist at the University of Arizona. “But it wasn’t quite like that.” If you’ve seen the blockbuster hit movie, you know how it ends for most players: death. But obviously, that would never fly in the real world.

When it comes to team hiring, can a “Hunger Games”-style approach work for business?

Cluster Hiring in the Business World

As previously mentioned, corporations across the country are already implementing this process when hiring CEOs and other C-suite-level positions. And as Walker puts it, “If the rate of CEO turnover is any indication, it couldn’t hurt. Last year, 1,640 U.S. chief executives left their posts, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That’s 13% more than in 2018 and the highest total since the study began in 2002. Some of these departures were voluntary, of course. But how many of the deposed leaders could have survived with a stronger team?”

Walker suggests that in order for this to work at a higher level, companies need to invite qualified candidates in for something similar to what BTI did. “The candidates would be left alone to self-assemble into groupings that felt natural to them and produce memos about some interdepartmental initiative they’d like to collaborate on,” recommends Walker. “If a group of strangers can bond together and produce solid work in 48 hours, imagine what they could achieve in a year.”

While it may help you uncover which candidates work well within a group of other candidates, how these candidates interact with your workforce once hired is a whole different story. For hiring managers who are interested in trying this approach, it may be worthwhile to have current employees pose as potential candidates to get a better idea of how the real candidates would fit in.

Cluster Hiring May Not Solve Your Diversity Needs

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that cluster hiring is not the be-all and end-all to hiring diverse teams, especially in academia. “Cluster hiring is not the single ticket to successful faculty diversity,” says Freeman. “To be clear, cluster hiring entails labor-intensive, emotionally sensitive, and time-consuming work. It is work that also represents a sea change in the intentional—rather than passive—approach to diversifying the faculty.”

Walker explains that cluster hiring offers a tangible alternative to some of the classic hiring mistakes, but some companies will continue to hire teams based on qualifications or cultural fit, and that may lead to a toxic or nondiverse culture in the end. “Maybe the best way to assemble a great team is to let the team assemble itself,” concludes Walker.

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