Sunday, March 17, 2019

Internal Searches and Generational Justice

This is one of those cases where my personal inclination and my organizational imperatives conflict almost perfectly.  

In a setting of declining resources, we still sometimes have to hire.  Part of that is because natural attrition doesn’t necessarily happen where it would be most organizationally convenient.  Part of it is because much of the time, attrition means dividing the same amount of work among fewer people, and that may mean reconfiguring a job enough to require a new search.  Sometimes it’s less linear than that, where a combination of attrition and reconfiguration has a snowball effect, creating a new role two or three steps removed.

As a matter of principle, I favor open -- meaning external -- searches.  That doesn’t necessarily mean favoring external candidates; it just means giving them a shot.  Occasional new blood can bring fresh eyes to old problems, and can bring skill sets that no incumbents have.  Ideally, they also bring with them experience elsewhere that can prevent easily-foreseen mistakes. External searches also open up the possibility of increasing the diversity of employees; at many places, including my own, that’s a real concern.  

Having done plenty of external searches over the years, I can attest that incumbents generally have an advantage.  They’re known, they know the local land mines, and they (usually) have the sympathetic support that comes with home field advantage.  So favoring external searches does not necessarily mean favoring external candidates.

But sometimes the gravitational pull towards an internal search can be powerful.

That’s particularly true when you’re cutting budgets.  If you’re able to move a person from role A to role B, and collapse role A behind them, then the only new cost is the difference in salary between roles A and B.  If you bring in a new person, role B is an entirely new cost, unless you pair it with firing the person in role A, which has costs in both money and morale. So the general preference for external searches on the grounds of fresh eyes and diversity starts to look expensive.  If you stick with internal people and leave old roles unfilled behind them, you conserve the morale of the existing employees, give one lucky winner a raise, and save money; if you go with a pure new hire, either you take on the entire new salary, or you lay somebody off and take the hit to morale.  

I don’t generally see conflict aversion as a legitimate basis for decisions, but I have to admit that some conflicts are easier to avoid than others.  Assuming a real cost to conflict, there’s a valid short-term argument to the effect that when resources are drying up, adding perceived insult to real injury is unlikely to end well.

From a generational perspective, this is how upward distribution works.  Defaulting to internal searches amounts to de facto discrimination in favor of those who happened to get there first.  If you’re late to the party, well, sorry. For new folks just coming out of grad school, or people in other places looking to make a change, you’re just out of luck.  And diversity takes a back seat, however reluctantly, when it costs more than it otherwise would.

(Jefferson Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive” is excellent on this.  It’s a history of the 1970’s in the US. The highlight of the book for me -- I am soooooo much fun at parties -- was the discussion of the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment act.  Nearly forgotten now, many civil rights leaders saw it as the key to making affirmative action sustainable over time. They foresaw, correctly, that it would be hard to diversify and downsize at the same time.)

But in terms of campus politics, it’s much easier to shut out potential newcomers than it is to kick out incumbents.  Potential newcomers aren’t here yet; they don’t have any say on campus. Politically, leaving a role unfilled is infinitely easier than firing somebody.  Unions don’t grieve unfilled positions. Shared governance is not shared with them. People who lost the chance to apply don’t get to file suit over jobs that didn’t appear, or to participate in votes of no confidence.   They just...don’t show up. It is, by far, the path of least resistance in the short term.

The decision to go with an internal search may make abundant sense in any given case.  But keep doing it, and the opportunity cost sneaks up on you. Over time, your campus slowly loses touch with what’s happening in other places.  Diversity stalls. The age distribution creeps upward. And you gradually, prudently, without meaning to, leave an entire generation out in the cold.