11 August 2014

Landed that faculty interview? 20 questions YOU should ask!

I recently received the following message from a colleague starting a new teaching position: Today was the first day of my new faculty position at Acme College [not the real name], and it was awesome! I can tell already that it will be a great place to work, teach, and learn. Everyone is very supportive and respectful. I even have a mentor who will be working with me over the course of the next few years. My new director is amazing and has eagerly invited feedback and ideas. I feel motivated and inspired to do my best work. I feel thrilled and privileged to be a member of such a forward-thinking team.

Contrast that positive and optimistic message with this one: I will be leaving my faculty position as soon as I can. I can’t stand the pressure anymore. I am spending money I don’t have to consult a health coach to assist me in dealing with my negative work situation. The effects of a hostile workplace are taking their toll. I am having difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and focusing. I’m distracted and preoccupied with worry about my work situation and, perhaps more importantly, how the fallout might negatively impact my students and co-workers. I feel like I am running for my professional life.

The above examples are representative and vary by degree with nursing faculty around the country. What accounts for these discrepancies? Although reasons for these contrasting experiences differ—budget constraints and increasing job competition from clinical sites, to name two—in many cases, ineffective leadership is a decisive factor. For better or worse, leaders make a significant impact on the workplace by setting the environmental tone and tenor of the milieu. It is often said that people don’t leave companies; they leave managers and leaders. If this is true, leadership matters if nursing education is to successfully recruit and retain qualified faculty members who, in turn, will prepare the nurse workforce of tomorrow.

When they ask if YOU have any questions, say yes!
— Digital Vision/Thinkstock
Ethical, effective, and supportive leadership styles are essential to fostering healthy workplaces and creating engaged learning environments where everyone thrives. A supportive work environment improves mental and physical health, decreases emotional exhaustion, increases organizational commitment, lowers absenteeism, and reinforces faculty members’ intent to stay. Certainly, it is everyone’s responsibility at all levels of an organization to positively impact the work culture. Leaders, however, play a crucial role in this process by defining the future, aligning people with a compelling vision, and inspiring action to achieve sustained and long-term cultural change. The heavy lifting of leadership requires vision, effective and continual communication, willingness to engage in and successfully negotiate conflict, and openness to other points of view.

One of my foundational beliefs about workplaces is that culture trumps everything. In other words, if the workplace is unhealthy, toxic, or uncivil, it will be challenging to retain faculty members. Given the current and projected nursing faculty shortage, we cannot afford to lose even one qualified nurse educator. Low faculty salaries, an aging workforce, dissatisfaction with the educator role, pressure to acquire research funding in an era of dwindling resources, and stress from rapid and sustained change are just a few of the stressors that affect nurse educators.

We must do better. As nursing programs place a cap on admissions and, as a result, turn away large numbers of qualified applicants—some of whom might choose to become nurse educators—lack of qualified faculty will result in insufficient numbers of registered nurses to provide patient care. Unfortunately, an uncivil or toxic work environment adds to the dreary list of reasons for faculty exodus. Without question, this is avoidable. The goal for all members of the academic workplace is to reap the benefits of a healthy, respectful work environment. What are the elements of a healthy, respectful workplace?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 key features are associated with excellent academic workplaces: collaborative governance, confidence in senior leadership, respectful supervisor or departmental chair relationships, active professional and career-development programs, healthy teaching environments, clarity regarding tenure and promotion processes, fair compensation and benefits, job satisfaction, respect and appreciation, diversity, workplace security, and an emphasis on work-life balance. These features are consistent with the six standards identified by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses for establishing and sustaining healthy work environments: skilled communication, true collaboration, effective decision-making, appropriate staffing, meaningful recognition, and authentic leadership.

I suggest the addition of three related elements: 1) establishing and living a shared statement of organizational vision, values, and team norms, 2) creating and sustaining a high level of civility, and 3) emphasizing leadership, both formal and informal, throughout all levels of the organization. At a time of unprecedented change and technological and cultural transformation, academic institutions are increasingly being called upon to create cultures of collegiality, collaboration, and civility.

It is vital, therefore, to ask timely, relevant, and important questions about the workplace culture. I contend that employment decisions should not be made lightly because a nurse educator spends an average of 50 hours or more per week fulfilling faculty responsibilities. Moreover, it is concerning that very few faculty members ask key questions about their prospective employment.

For example, over the course of my academic career, while serving as a member of interview teams charged with hiring new and potential faculty members, I have been amazed that applicants, when asked if they have questions, often say no. To me, this is an incredibly lost opportunity. Remember, you—the interviewee—are interviewing the organization as much as the organization is interviewing you. So, be sure to come to interviews equipped with essential questions that help lead to informed decision-making about whether or not to accept a faculty position.

To get you started, here are 20 questions to consider asking when applying for a faculty position. (To evaluate your current workplace, you may also want to ask these questions of yourself.) Each question calls for an explanation, so, for each one, be sure to ask the person or persons interviewing you to provide an example or two.
  1. How does your school live out its organizational vision, mission, shared values, and norms?
  2. How would you describe the level of trust between leaders and those they are assigned to lead?
  3. How do faculty members, staff members, and students describe the culture and character of your school?
  4. What policies has your school established to address incivility and promote civility?
  5. What values are fundamental and important to the school? How are they expressed?
  6. What are the best features of working at this school? How are they being celebrated? What are some of the most common complaints? How are they being addressed?
  7. How are the school’s organizational culture and faculty satisfaction assessed? Are they assessed on a regular basis? Where might I find the assessment results and measures taken to improve the workplace culture?
  8. How would you describe faculty and student engagement and overall morale?
  9. What are the school's vision and strategic goals for the future? How do faculty members participate in these initiatives?
  10. Describe the leader’s leadership style and specific attributes. How does his or her leadership style and attributes influence the workplace culture?
  11. Tell me how faculty contributions are recognized and rewarded.
  12. Describe how faculty members—and others in your organization—know what is expected of them and how people are held accountable for results.
  13. Describe how new faculty members are mentored upon hire and throughout their tenure.
  14. What is your process for shared governance and participative decision-making?
  15. Tell me about the school’s strategic approach to developing and sustaining a healthy workplace.
  16. How is faculty performance assessed? What resources are available for faculty support and development?
  17. Would you recommend this organization to your best friend or a family member as a good place to work?
  18. On a scale from 1 to 10—10 being the most fantastic, amazing, and inspiring workplace—what score would the collective faculty assign to this school?
  19. If this organization could be summed up in one or two words, what would they be?
  20. All things considered, is this is a great place to work?

If you believe, as I do, that culture trumps everything, take a proactive approach and be ready to ask some key questions that will help you make a well-informed and responsible decision about your next faculty position. By doing so, you will be sending messages to colleagues much like the one I received and quoted at the top of this post.

If you are currently in a position where answers to these questions fail to measure up to your desired expectations, perhaps it is time to be an agent for change in your organization or to carefully consider your next move. Either way, take care of yourself. The profession needs you and can’t afford to lose you!

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. Comments are moderated. Those that promote products or services will not be posted.