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.

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