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.