Friday, January 25, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Job Searches and Confidentiality, Part XXXVII

A de-lurking correspondent writes:

I'm in my second year of full-time faculty teaching at a small CC. I have a Ph.D. and adjunct experience too. My plan has always been to stay at this CC for three to five years and then, when the CV is a little bulked up, go back on the job market. There are three reasons for this. One, we are the second lowest paid CC faculty in [my state]. Second, and frankly, more importantly, I HATE living in a small town and for my sanity must find a way back to a more urban area. Third, I have no family close by and the general population "'round these here parts" does not present me many choices for friends. As a flaming liberal, single female, with no kids, in my thirties, and highly educated, I am a freak of nature to the people around here.

And now to the point...
A recent job posting caught my eye. It is only 8 miles from my sister and in an urban area. My salary would nearly double with this new position. I decided I would like to put my application materials in even though it was not in my "plan" to be on the market at this time. I wanted to list a co-worker and my division chair as references. I was very clear when I spoke to my division chair that this was the only job I would be applying to during this academic year. During my formal evaluation earlier this year we had spoken about the prospect of me being on the job market so she already knew of my intention to eventually leave. Again, I repeatedly made it clear the reasons for applying to this particular job posting and how this did not indicate a move into the job market in earnest. The meeting where I expressed my desire to apply to this particular job was approximately two weeks ago.

One week ago I was speaking on the phone to a colleague about participating in an annual local event. He was the organizer of a team that I was interested in joining. He called to explain that the team was disbanding but he hoped to arrange another one next year. He went on to say that I was welcome to join next year if I was still around. His exact words were, "If you are still here next year." I know that this particular colleague is a close, personal friend of my chair. My question is two-fold. First, was I mistaken in telling my chair about the application up front even though we had discussed my career path and moving on to another school just six weeks prior? Second, how should I handle questions about my 'leaving'? At this point, I haven't been invited to interview let alone given a job offer. Should I explain fully, minimally, or would it be better to treat the topic with what would be considered close to disregard? I've already been approached this week by two co-workers asking when I plan to move.

In the future, when I do start on a serious job search, should I let my chair know? It seems that the chair feels it necessary to share information about my position with other faculty that I think should be confidential until there is action necessary (i.e.: job candidate search). It seems responsible to speak with other administrators about possible ramifications but not to faculty and staff who would be, generally, unaffected by my departure.

This is close to my heart, since I've been walking a similar tightrope myself. (Don't mix metaphors like that at home, kids. I'm a trained professional.)

As long as academe insists on the absurd and useless and counterproductive system of references, these issues will pop up.

I can think of a few guidelines, but most of them are context-dependent, and none is perfect. Readers with other ideas are invited to comment.

If you're in a setting in which you think that being 'found out' would result in you getting fired, then obviously keep it on the DL. You can even address the issue in your cover letter. There's no assurance that this will work, but it can at least reduce the downside risk.

If you're in a setting in which being 'found out' would be awkward but not fatal, I'd adopt a two-pronged strategy of “need to know” and “strategic evasion.” Tell only those folks you would need as references, and stress to them that you consider the matter confidential. When it leaks – which it will – simply don't answer the question directly. Don't lie, but don't compromise yourself, either. “I have no plans to be anywhere else next year” is technically true, since you don't have an offer in hand. (Administrators and politicians can do this in our sleep.) If your skeptical interlocutor keeps pressing, change the subject. Think of it as cultivating an air of mystery.

Besides, in this market, there's a drastic difference between “applying for jobs” and “getting offers.” Don't assume that the jump from the first to the second is automatic. Until you have an offer in hand, it's all hypothetical.

(Interview trips can be tricky to negotiate, if nobody is supposed to know you're looking. When I was at Proprietary U and interviewing at my current cc, I did it over a few below-the-radar long lunches and one vacation day. Luckily for me, the dress code at PU was formal enough that 'interview wear' didn't stand out, so nobody questioned the suit and tie. The interviews I've gone on from here have been an improvised mix of personal days and vacation days.)

In terms of your responsibility to notify others (beyond references), I don't think you have one until you've actually accepted an offer. (Or until you've received an offer, and you're trying to negotiate a counter-offer. But that doesn't seem relevant in your case.) If all goes well and you accept an offer in, say, early April, I certainly wouldn't wait until May to tell people; at that point, prompt notification is a professional courtesy. Before receiving an offer, though, it's premature.

In smaller settings, a voracious appetite for gossip can combine with generally slow happenings to make something as juicy as a possible departure a big story. It's unfortunate, annoying, and counterproductive, but there it is.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

No ideas about the question you asked -- Dean Dad is far more expert than I am -- but I've been in that small town and I know *exactly* what you mean! Good heavens, did I get tired of the slantywise looks and women stepping closer to their husbands when I walked in. Furthermore, there was exactly one person of color in a fifty-mile radius; the poor woman had been ordered there by her organization which was oh-so-concerned about diversity. To this day I wish I'd reached out to her, but I was so taken up by my own bewilderment that I just missed the chance.

I hope you do get the job in the city near your sister. Good luck.
To the writer: How do you ~know~ that the team-organizing colleague didn't just ~assume individually~ that you might be gone? I mean, if your personal traits are as obvious in this e-mail as they might seem, it could be that everyone around you is just waiting for the announcement that you've moved on. - TL
I agree with DD and add that such anxieties are normal, unavoidable, and relatively unimportant.

What one shouldn't do -- and you don't -- is constantly advertise one's market opportunities and interests to anyone in earshot; it bugs people, especially if you never actually leave. On the the other hand, it seems to be human nature to nose into colleague's business, and even to whine about their interest in leaving. Which I gather is your worry here, though you have no real evidence of it.

These aren't actual social contracts, like marriage, and the place of loyalty is way overstated in academia, in my view. People come and go, some stay, etc., and why anyone should care beyond losing friends and valued colleagues is unclear to me. In any event, it is very rare that anyone actually acts on it. As DD implies, until there is an offer, this is all fantasy football.

Your consultations and DD's advice to keep a low profile and then continue to look out for your best interests are perfect. (And why the plan to wait a few years? Stay alert and seize the day, as you have.) While gossip about your plans may emerge, don't worry much about it.
I can certainly appreciate your feeling of paranoia. I probably would have wondered the same things.

As Anonymous 11:33 points out, people come and go and institutions will need to get with that program. They have no problem getting rid of people at a moment's notice when it suits them, so why should employees feel bad about being proactive about their own long-term self-interests?

As DD points out, it is unfortunate that structures impose these types of absurdities on otherwise sane or competent people on both sides of the table.
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I am in a similar situation, although I’ve been at my CC for 10 years or so. I am looking for another job and am keeping it very quiet. My current supervisor would definitely be angry and vindictive if she knew I was applying for another position. She is the type who “keeps score” and feels that most everyone is in debt to her in some way. I believe she would take my looking for another job as a personal affront.

Only one person at my current institution knows I am looking and that is because he/she has written me a recommendation. I trust this person to breathe a word to no one. I was lucky enough to be able to find two people who are not affiliated with my current institution to write recommendations for me. DD is 100% right that only people who are writing recommendations need to know, and those people need to be told to keep the information to themselves. If you don’t trust a potential reference to keep the information quiet, don’t ask that person to be a reference.

There is no reason for a chair or dean to know about your job search unless you have accepted an offer elsewhere. Period. You don’t owe them speculative information; they can’t actually use the information productively and it simply becomes grounds for gossip and/or malicious behavior.

I think it is extremely unprofessional for your chair to have mentioned your situation to a colleague and extremely unprofessional for the colleague to have said anything about it to you. But this is exactly what would happen at my institution. People can’t keep their mouths shut. The colleague should have said to the chair, “That is none of my business. I am going to pretend I don’t have this information,” and then should have erased it from his mind.
Author here... thanks DD for posting my question even though the subject has been the topic of a number of posts before.

Thanks for the support in the comments. I will probably not mention future apps to my chair. I thought it would look strange if on the HR form application I checked "Do not contact" for my last three positions. (current chatterbox, bad advisor, died) In retrospect, I jumped the gun in terms of notification.

Just a quick response to tim lacy - I don't "know", I just suspect because of the other two, now three, people who have asked about me leaving at the end of the year. Generally, I keep my career plans to myself and present a happy face. The questions are not a normal thing.
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