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I’m on the hiring committee for a Asst. Prof position. One of the applicants is working as a (non-TT) TA/postdoc at a dept in another university (but for only appx 6 mo) where I have a colleague (friend of a friend).

Is it ethical for me to ask my colleague about this applicant?

I could request my colleague keep my inquiry confidential, but in a competitive department, doing so may make public that this applicant is looking for another job. I don’t want to cause problems.

  • Is the applicant currently in a TT role in the other department? – Dawn Mar 21 '18 at 16:57
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    Not a TT position. Just a temporary instructor, not Asst Prof – Teusz Mar 21 '18 at 19:23
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    What sort of questions do you mean to ask? And what sort of potential ethical objections do you have in mind? Other than the confidentiality issue, and other than the case of asking illegitimate questions (e.g. about the candidate's political or religious beliefs), I don't see too much of a problem. But some caution may be required nonetheless, which is why I'm asking for more details. – Dan Romik Mar 21 '18 at 19:26
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    @Teusz then I don’t see any ethical problem. But you might consider whether you stand to learn anything useful. After all, if you don’t plan to ask similar questions from colleagues at the departments of all the other applicants you’re considering, you won’t have anything to compare the information you get about this person to. – Dan Romik Mar 22 '18 at 3:04
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    At what stage in the process? I don't see a need to do this in the early to mid stages but I can imagine a situation where you'd want to do this towards the end: suppose this is a candidate you and the committee feel somewhat good about but you have one reservation or red flag that makes you unsure. Then it would be good to check references carefully and also perhaps informal sources. I would clear it with the committee first. Disclaimer: I'm extrapolating from non-university hiring committees, hence not posting an answer. – aparente001 Mar 22 '18 at 3:58
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In most situations fitting the pattern you describe, you should not ask your colleague. There are several possible cases:

  • If the candidate has requested their application be kept confidential, you absolutely must not reach out to them or to anyone else the candidate has not listed as a reference.
  • If the candidate is currently in a tenure-track or other permanent position, I would not ask without checking with the candidate first, because outing them could be very problematic.
  • If the candidate is currently in a soft-money or other contingent position, then I would similarly be very careful about asking, but the consequences are not as dire as in the previous case.
  • If the candidate is in a postdoc or similar position where they are expected to be looking for a permanent position, then asking is a violation of the implied confidentiality of the job application process, but it is a common violation.
  • Thanks a lot. Well, the candidate didn’t ask for confidentiality in the application, so I have no reason to assume such expectations. Also, candidate is not TT, just a T.A. & postdoc, so I suppose it shouldn’t be unexpected that they are on the lookout. – Teusz Mar 21 '18 at 20:37
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    @Teusz There is still a certain implied confidentiality in job applications — the fact that Dr. A applied to job Z is not public information, unless Dr. A chooses to make it such or their on-site interview is communicated to the student body. – Michael Ekstrand Mar 21 '18 at 23:03

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