Sunday, October 15, 2017

Ask the Administrator: Do Job Ads Actually Mean It?

A new correspondent writes:

Can you please give me your thoughts about length of job advertisements in higher education?  When a public college or university advertises a professional position (no supervisory responsibility) for only a week is it always almost a guarantee that they know who they want to hire for that position?  Does the hiring unit advertise the position to the public just to be in minimum compliance with state rules and regulations?

I’ll admit that when I saw “length of job advertisements,” my first thought was the word count.  As an industry, both our cv’s and our ads tend to be far longer than just about anyone else’s.  That’s good and bad, but pretty much given.

Length of time is another question.  The question seems to be about sussing out when a search is a mere fig leaf for a predetermined outcome.

I’m resisting the terms of the question a little bit, because they imply that there are two types of searches: the truly open and the truly fixed.  But in my experience, and from talking to folks at other places, there’s a third kind that’s as least as common as the first two: someone has an inside track, but could be beaten.  

That last category is frustrating because it’s so fuzzy.  Does the presence of an internal candidate indicate that the search is fixed?  Not necessarily; I’ve beaten one.  But maintaining objectivity when deciding between a known quantity and someone brand new is difficult, just because of the information asymmetry.  

In collective bargaining environments, lengths of time for postings are sometimes negotiated.  At a previous college, the rule was that any position had to be advertised internally for a set amount of time -- I’m thinking a week, but I could be wrong -- before it could be advertised externally.  The idea was to give incumbents a head start on their applications.  At my current college, after a RIF, most positions were reserved for internal candidates as a way to save people’s jobs.  It’s humane to incumbents, though brutal to people trying to break in.  After a while, though, any organization needs some new perspectives and skill sets.

As a general rule, I prefer to err on the side of openness.  It’s hard to increase the diversity of a college’s staff if it only hires locally, unless it’s in New York City or someplace similar.  Open searches also work to the advantage of really strong internal candidates, because their eventual victories don’t have a cloud over them.  If an incumbent employee wins in a fair fight, then nobody can say boo.  That helps.

All of that said, though, I’ve never found the secret decoder ring to sussing out which searches are effectively unwinnable.  A brief posting may be a clue, or it may be a function of batch advertising, collective bargaining agreements, or a parsimonious HR department.  And even searches that start out with someone in mind don’t always end up that way.  Sometimes the chosen one pulls out, or does a face-plant of such epic proportions that it can’t be ignored.  In baseball, they teach hitters to run hard to first even when it’s an easy ground ball that should be an easy out; once in a while, the shortstop flubs an easy play, and hustle can make the difference.  That’s kind of how I look at job searches.  Just because it looks like a routine grounder doesn’t mean you’re out.  You’re not out until you’re out.

One admin’s opinion, anyway.  Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to suss out searches that aren’t?

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