Saturday, May 5, 2012

Deceptive Job Searches

In the world of academic job searches, especially for well-known faculty and experienced administrators, there remain more posts than people, which in turn can lead some to engage in job searches without any intention of taking the position if offered. There is nothing illegal about this, but is it ethical?

Colleges and universities go to considerable expense in searching for people to fill their leadership positions. This may odd in locations where unemployment remains relatively high and in fields like architecture and design, which have felt the impact of recessions more than some other disciplines. Economists might say of such a situation that it simply reflects supply and demand. In parts of the economy where the supply of people outstrips the demand, unemployment will stay high and compensation low. And where demand outstrips supply, as often happens in the area of academic leadership, the opposite occurs.

Even in high-demand parts of the job market, however, it remains relatively rare for people to go through the effort of pursuing a position, especially when that involves traveling and often-grueling two-day interview processes during the search for academic leaders, without intending to take the job if offered. What accounts for the surprising frequency of this? To outsiders, such insincere job applicants can seem selfish, as if they go through this process to stoke their egos rather than to seek new employment. And to critics of the cost of higher education, it certainly represents a waste of time and money on the part of both the institutions seeking new leadership and those whose existing leaders engage in such deceptive job searches.

This seems especially true when the process leads to a failed search. A lot of time and money gets spent on all sides only to have the best candidates decline the job offers, leaving the institution to start over again. Of course, no employer wants a reluctant leader, someone who really doesn’t want the position or who feels forced to take it out of a sense of obligation because of the effort taken by the institution to fill the post. But why, then, do prospective academic leaders start the process to begin with?

The economic reasons remain clear. In many institutions, the salaries of the faculty and staff often increase slowly. And so often the only way to beat the system – particularly among those who have a national reputation, a track record of effective leadership, or a demonstrated ability to attract research dollars – involves getting job offers from other places, which can trigger a “retention” pay raise if the current employer wants to keep a valued employee from leaving. This also involves risk, of course. An institution might not make a retention offer, at which point the people who engage in such deceptive practices might find themselves either having to take a position they don’t really want or to stay with their existing employer who didn’t care to retain them and so doesn’t really want them all that much either.

Ethics has long argued that deception or a lack of honesty in dealing with others doesn’t pay. In the case of academics deceptively seeking jobs in order to get retention offers, however, that doesn’t seem true. It clearly pays for at some, given the number of academic leaders who have successfully secured job offers and had salary increases or received other perks from their existing employers as a result. But word gets out if done too often, and eventually such deception no longer works. The job offers and the retention packages stop coming when neither side believes a person’s sincerity.

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