The State of Hiring at Independent Schools

Fall 2017

By Amada Torres

The hiring process for most organizations encompasses multiple steps and various practices, including application forms, interviews, pre-employment testing, reference and background checks, and employment offers and contracts. To better understand the hiring process at independent schools, NAIS conducted an online survey of 1,657 heads at member schools. Ultimately, this information (there was a 30 percent response rate) will help NAIS understand the ways we can better support our schools in attracting high-quality staff, hiring best-fit applicants, and screening for indicators of potential risk for students.


More than half of respondents (54 percent) reported having a centralized hiring process (through one office, i.e., human resources department) in their schools, and of those with a centralized process, the oversight responsibility resided most frequently in the head’s office (58 percent), followed by human resources
(21 percent). In schools with a decentralized process (through individual departments or administrative structures), hiring was overseen by a dean of faculty, an assistant or associate head of school, or by a combination of HR and an academic leader.

Not surprisingly, in small schools, heads tended to oversee the process, even though it can be time-consuming. Generally, heads of school are either the first to review résumés or brought in at the end for finalist interviews or to finalize offers. In larger schools, the process was described as collaborative and involving several departments and people.

Hiring Policy Statements

Only half of respondents reported having a written policy statement to govern hiring. This could be a potential problem, as having a formal policy in place helps organizations explain how they will deal with specific issues when they arise and show that they operate in a fair and consistent way toward all employees.

The most common elements included in written policies are reference check requirements (82 percent), background check requirements (82 percent), and the person responsible for approving a position (74 percent). Elements that were less likely to be a part of the policy were federal and state employment requirements (28 percent, in each case), and screening for cultural competency (23 percent).

However, a majority didn’t have a process in place to ensure the written policy is followed. Consequently, it is possible that schools have de jure policies that may not be followed de facto. Respondents with a process in place tended to use checklists to make sure that each step is followed. In most cases, the human resources department is the main party responsible for ensuring the procedures are followed, but sometimes, this responsibility lies with the head of school (especially in small schools), dean of faculty, division heads, and business officers.


Almost all respondents indicated that heads are involved when interviewing for administrator positions, followed by faculty members and division heads. These three roles are also heavily involved when interviewing for faculty positions, while staff interviews are conducted mostly by heads, business officers, and HR directors.

Only half of respondents reported that their schools provide interviewing staff with preferred interview questions, and 64 percent have screened them for legal compliance, bias, or both. Most of the screening is done by internal staff. Close to two-thirds of respondents (64 percent) added that their school does not provide training on effective interviewing practices for staff conducting interviews. This could be a potential challenge for schools. A standard interview process based on consistent, replicable policies helps ensure that hiring managers select candidates who meet consistent standards for the school.

Reference Checks

While nearly all respondents mentioned that their schools require reference checks for all hired positions, more than three-fourths of respondents say their school does not have training for staff conducting these checks. Given how critical it is that anyone conducting a reference check avoids the use of discriminatory questions and uses and reports on the information gathered in a legally acceptable manner, schools should consider offering training for all staff involved in this activity.

Reference checks for administrative and faculty positions are most frequently conducted by the head, followed by the assistant or associate head, and the HR director. References for other staff positions are mostly checked by the head or human resources.

Our survey also revealed that only a third of respondents provide reference check questions that must be asked of each reference, and 60 percent indicated that the questions have been screened for legal compliance, bias, or both. This screening is done in most cases by internal staff. Since reference checking has its own set of confidentiality and legal issues, it is advisable for all schools to make sure their questions are screened.

Background Checks

As is the case with reference checks, almost all respondents indicated their schools require background checks for all paid positions, with the most frequent background checks being criminal history (86 percent), state criminal background checks (83 percent), and state and federal fingerprint checks (70 percent).

Background Checks Required for Employees and Volunteers
Source: 2017 Nais Survey on Independent School Hiring Practices

Our survey also asked about background checks for volunteers. Due to budget constraints, organizational pressures, or other reasons, many schools rely on volunteers to perform certain functions inside and outside the classroom. However, only 56 percent of respondents require background checks for volunteer positions. This finding reveals a potential liability for schools that send volunteers out into their community without performing proper background checks. Having a consistent vetting of volunteers is recommended since it can reduce schools’ exposure to unintended risk.

Participants reported that class trip chaperones (67 percent), classroom parents (48 percent), and parent organization volunteers (46 percent) were at the top of the list of volunteer positions that require background checks. As with employees, the most frequent background checks conducted for volunteer positions include criminal history (68 percent) and state criminal background checks (62 percent).

Employment Offers

Almost nine out of 10 survey respondents say they send out written offers of employment (88 percent). The items most frequently included in the document were salary offer, position title, and start date.

Attracting, hiring, and retaining the best talent continue to be challenges for all organizations. While factors such as education, skill sets, and experience are often shown on résumés, they do not describe the entire person and his or her ability to do the job well. The time and resources spent on putting a schoolwide hiring management process in place—that includes a written policy, a properly conducted preemployment screening program, a formalized behavioral interviewing process, background checks, and extensive reference checks—can aid school leaders in learning more about the candidates and making better hiring decisions, while ensuring a safe, secure, and productive workplace.

To read the full 2017 NAIS Survey on Independent School Hiring Practices report, go to

Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.