Thursday, January 06, 2011


Ask the Administrator: HR as Black Hole

A new correspondent writes:

What happens when a community college Human Resources department receives
application materials for a job (in this case, a Deanship)
and never passes them onto the respective hiring committee? I
have evidence that this recently happened in my case, and have written
to the office many times without a response. I even wrote the
President of the college, whom I had met once about six years ago: no
response there either.

I mean, I might not have gotten the job anyway, but this seems . . .
very curious. Do I have any recourse here?

In a nutshell, yes, HR can intercept applications. There are caveats, however.

In private industry, it's fairly common – if a bit nutty – to allow HR to make actual hiring decisions. I've never really understood that, but it's widely practiced and accepted. In academia, as far as I know, that practice remains an exception. However, it's fairly common for HR to function as a first level screen (or what some less humane sorts call a “bozo filter”).

Most postings stipulate both “minimum qualifications” and “preferred qualifications” for the position. The minimum qualifications are exactly that; if you don't have them, you will not get the job. It's fairly common for colleges to empower HR departments to intercept applications that lack the minimum qualifications before they even get to a search committee. The reason given is usually saving the time of the committee members, and there's some truth to that, but it's also a way to prevent a committee from violating the ground rules by falling in love with someone unqualified. That's important from a legal perspective. Imagine the lawsuit if a minority candidate who met the minimum qualifications lost out to a white candidate who didn't. Ouch.

(It has the secondary salutary effect of reducing the number of lawyers in the pool. Once more and for the record: being a lawyer does not, in itself, qualify you to teach across the entire curriculum. It does not. Does my PhD allow me to practice law? I thought not.)

“Preferred” qualifications are a different matter. Those are stipulated to give a committee ironclad grounds to prefer one candidate over another, even if it's entirely possible that a chosen candidate will have, say, only five out of seven of the preferred characteristics. (It's pretty rare to find someone who has absolutely everything.) For example, at my college, the default setting for faculty positions is something like “master's required, doctorate preferred.” That gives the college the flexibility to hire an excellent instructor with a master's, but it establishes that a doctorate carries some weight.

In most cases, HR will intercept applications that lack minimum qualifications, but won't filter based on preferred. It leaves that up to the search committee.

In many settings, HR will also highlight any self-identified minority candidates who meet the minimum qualifications. Depending on the position, it may require that all qualified minority candidates get interviews; at the very least, it will raise a question if none of them do. (Contrary to popular myth, those who don't meet the minima get thrown out. Affirmative action does not trump minimum qualifications, even if it carries some weight against preferred qualifications.)

I won't claim that the HR filter gets everything right; it's entirely possible that you were inaccurately lumped in with candidates who had no real shot. The best way to prevent that is to ensure that your application materials address clearly, even pedantically, the minimum qualifications in the job posting. If you're in a field where hundreds of applications per position is the norm, you have to know that readers are looking first to winnow down the pile. If your qualifications aren't obvious, you may not make the cut.

In terms of legality, my understanding – and consistent with above, I am not a lawyer – is that HR can screen, but it has to do so in a consistent, rational, and nondiscriminatory way. As long as it applies its rules evenly, and the rules themselves are reasonable, then there's no legal issue.

I know that's small consolation when you feel like you've been wronged, but it's the way the game is played.

Good luck. I wouldn't wish this job market on anybody.

Wise and worldly readers, have you had any weird experiences in that nether zone between HR and the search committee?

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

In private industry, it's fairly common – if a bit nutty – to allow HR to make actual hiring decisions. I've never really understood that, but it's widely practiced and accepted.

One possible explanation for this "nutty" approach is that in industry, many hiring decisions are quite routine and banal. Take a bank for example, supposing this bank wants to hire a new teller. The bank has hired dozens if not hundreds of tellers in the past, the role is very well defined, and HR probably has a very good idea of what to look for in candidates. Also, there is a certain amount of redundancy; if a new hire doesn't work out, they can be dismissed and the process started again with relative ease (even if the process is annoying). You simply don't need to convene entire bank branches to decide whether to hire Sally or Harry for the role.

Contrast that that post-secondary hiring decisions. Departments can have very specific, even esoteric, wants for a new hire. Throw in tenure or even control of a classroom/division/department for at least a few years and the stakes raise even more. Lastly, these days if a new hire "doesn't work out", the position could be removed entirely. The situations are much different. Of course, I wonder how much effort goes into finding adjuncts for the upcoming year...
Sometimes HR gets the blame because it is easier for a hiring authority to say they didn't see it than they saw it and passed. If you wrote the President and still didn't get an answer then unfortunately, no answer is likely an answer. I'm not saying this is the case, but occasionally you also get candidates who either are or are perceived as having an inflated sense of entitlement. persistence is good, but depending on presentation, it might not be perceived as such... In which case the CV/App gets passed, along with HR's perceptions. As for recourse, no one is entitled to a job or interview, unless you have a reason to believe you were rejected based on a protected reason (race, gender...), which can be very difficult to prove, you have no recourse. Probably best to move on an not burn bridges.
Hearing nothing back at all is very frustrating. I continue to believe that applications should be acknowledged, even when the answer is no.

And if responding to all applicants is too much work, restrict it to credible applicants who provide an email address.
@Johan I agree, in a perfect world there should be a response. Sadly the world is not perfect, and lots of Orgs are understaffed and stretched thin and restricting your candidate base is not always an option. If he reached out multiple times and all the way up to the President, and still hasn't received a response, there is probably a reason and/or he pissed someone off. But there comes a time when you have to realize it is out of your control and move on...
I have a nice horror story about this. Last year I had an interview at South Texas College. Shortly after I was given reassuring phone calls by the search committee about my candidacy, which over the weeks and next month or so became a verbal commitment to hire me. It was just a matter of "waiting for HR to process the paperwork." In the meantime I forfeited two adjunct positions that I had lined up based on the verbal commitment I had received from the hiring committee. After another month or so of telling me it was just a matter of time, late July had rolled around and I had no choice but to push the matter. At this point the search chair was on vacation and it was difficult to get through to anyone. Finally, I got through and was told that there was a "hold up" in HR. Since I was applying for a philosophy position but my degree is in Religious Studies, apparently HR was not happy with that, even though the position's requirements said that either degree was sufficient. When told by the search chair that it really could go either way, and that she suspected the dean was using this as an opportunity not to hire anyone new and save money, I gave up and looked desperately for a job for the fall, since I had already forfeited the adjunct posts that were available to me. I received profuse apologies from the hiring chair, and she even suggested that the philosophy dept. might try legal action against their own HR dept., which struck me as a symptom of a deeply dysfunctional school. Out of desperation I took a job teaching TOK in an IB school in China where I am now, back on the job market. Two days before the start of STC's semester in August--the day before I was to leave for China--I received an offer for the job I interviewed for in April. They are advertising the same job this year.
I applied to various positions at a major university on the hopes that I would be noticed and offered a teaching position. Yes, I was qualified to teach. So, I applied for any job in financial aide, in the dept in which I wished to teach, etc. I was given this advise by someone who knew better than I. I failed to get a job that was in financial aid that required only a hs education or GED and 15 years experience in the job. It became evident that the job description was written for someone who had been on the job at the school, and the decision had already been made as to whom to hire. Another time, I went in at the deadline to bring my application...15 min under the deadline. Two teens )okay, so they may have been 21 or 22) were sorting great stacks of something. I mentioned the fact that I hoped I was not too late. "Oh, no. We are going through the applications now, deciding which one to take to whomever." I was shocked that they had the right to determine what adult might be capable and maybe overqualified for the job. If I had been able to talk to anyone, I could explain my comparable experience in another capacity. It was humiliating and demoralizing, to say the least. That was the last time I applied to that university.
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