51

There is a rather attractive position to be filled at my department. The heads of department are already quite sure about who should fill this position. Jobs being filled with preselected candidates are not exactly legal, but common practice in my country. Thus, there legally has to be a job announcement, as everybody has to be given the chance to apply for the job. There further is an equal opportunities office that ensures that all candidates are being judged by the same categories and no one gets preferential treatment.

I never found this practice of preselecting candidates particularly fair or ethical, but let's just say that up until now I had to deal with other challenges. Then I recently stumbled across the list of applicants for that position by accident (was still lying in the printer) and saw that I know one of the applicants who apparently will have no chance against the preselected candidate. It's not that I desperately want this acquaintance ("friend" is too much) to fill the job, but knowing a name on the "you're never gonna get the job"-list made the unfair treatment so much more real. I don't find it acceptable.

Things that speak for me to do nothing:

  • Most importantly: My contract will be finished soon and I was, am and will be dependent on my boss's willingness to give me a contract or rather (because there is no funding) her cooperation on further projects.
  • The head of department is my direct boss and (in my opinion) a very likeable person.
  • I highly appreciate her concern for her staff, she nevertheless needs to make strategic decisions at some points, which comes with the job and is only professional - I understand.
  • Furthermore, as much as I know the preselected candidate seems to be a very good, high impact candidate who will fit in the department.

Things that speak for me to do something

  • Most importantly: It's a unfair/ unethical system and I don't want to stand by and watch
  • There is no funding for a future contract anyway (although my boss tried)
  • There may be many other candidates just as good or better than the preselected one

What should I do? I'm not gonna lie: talking to my boss (head of department) scares me quite a bit. But then again I don't want to go to higher levels, be the whistleblower and ruin parts of my boss's career...


[Update]
Based on your answers I did/will do the following:

  • I talked to a colleague, turns out she had the same impression and wanted to talk to me about it as well. So concerning the question "do you have proof?": at least I have another witness now. But then again, as Anonymous Physicist wrote: up until now, no rule was broken. However, we decided to closely follow the application process in hope that our concerns were exaggerated (which I highly doubt)
  • "maybe it was just a statement about the quality of the candidate?" It very much exceeded this, as my boss was talking about how important it is that they get the participant through the application process and what possible pitfalls could be. Nevertheless I'll talk to her in order to find out, what her behavior would look like if "someone better" shows up and if that'd be a case of nepotism (see answer of xLeitix).
  • 35
    Any reason to think they're wrong in thinking this candidate would be the best option? – Azor Ahai May 22 at 0:45
  • 6
    Indeed. I see little wrong to post a job description, invite a number of people who would fit it, and then pick one of them if they really end up being the most qualified one. In fact, every department will do its best to identify suitable candidates and ask them whether they are interested. – Wolfgang Bangerth May 22 at 3:10
  • 7
    What proof do you have that a candidate has been pre-selected? – Herman Toothrot May 22 at 3:53
  • 7
    @123happytree The boss says they want this person, does this mean that they will necessarily hire their desired candidate, even if they get better applicants? To me, it sounds like your boss knows someone who will fit the position well, and is therefore expecting them to be the chosen candidate. There's a big difference between stating that you want to hire one particular person, assuming that they will be the strongest candidate; and stating that you will hire one person regardless of who the strongest candidate is. – JMac May 22 at 13:36
  • 10
    Sometimes management have someone they want to hire, interviews are opened up.... and then someone incredible turns up who gets the position because they're just so much better than the individual they were initially planning to go for. I've seen that happen. Which is part of the point of legally requiring those interviews. It's not always as guaranteed as you may think from listening to people. – Murphy May 22 at 16:37
85

One important consideration that you should take into account is whether there is an actual case of nepotism or not. Nepotism is if the preferred candidate is objectively inferior to at least one other candidate from all the information that is accessible to the selection committee. Or, in other words, if the head of the department is willingly hiring a worse candidate because they like them better, owe a favor to somebody, or have some other invalid reason to give one candidate preferential treatment.

The problem is that many "not really open" open positions aren't actually like that. In practice, what I often see as the main reason why a department or selection committee quickly zeroes in on a specific candidate is that they know much more about one candidate than about the others.

The most typical example is as such: There is an open search procedure, and a number of external candidates apply plus Alice, a candidate that has worked tightly with members of the department before, and which has been explicitly invited to apply. What you now see is a tremendous information asymmetry - the department knows little about the external candidates, but before they even open Alice's application folder they already have a great deal of information about Alice. They know what she can and can't do. Where other candidate's past successes are just a line in a CV to the committee, for Alice they know the full story, how she achieved them, what she has learned from them, and how this would help her be effective in her new position.

Recruitment is always a risky proposition, in academia just as in industry. We all have seen candidates that looked great on paper but turned out unsuitable for reasons that were impossible to glean from an application package. Faculty visits help, but how much can you really learn about a person in one or two days, especially in a somewhat artificial and often strongly rehearsed environment? In this situation, a risk-averse committee (and, realistically, this is basically every committee) has a strong incentive to go with Alice over a candidate that may have a slightly stronger CV, but also a much higher margin of error. As a consequence, a committee may prefer the "known candidate" Alice despite her weaker CV for completely rational reasons (which makes it different to nepotism). In essence, them doing so may be the optimal move for them given the information they have and how much they are willing to risk.


What should I do?

Depending on how close you are to your boss, I would carefully try to find out why they prefer one candidate so much over the others (i.e., talk with them about it). It is completely possible that you may find that their reason is solid given the information that they have. Even if you disagree with their reasoning, understanding it may make the situation easier to accept for you. And if it turns out that there actually is a clear-cut case of nepotism (your boss knows the selected candidate is inferior, but decides to select them anyway), you have a much, much clearer argument for any potential whistleblowing.

  • 11
    +1 This answer deserves way more upvotes; it makes it so very clear that there is not (necessarily) anything unfair or unethical going on. Instead there is (probably) simply a preference for a candidate that is more likely to be the best fit on the basis of the information available. – Servaes May 22 at 13:55
  • 3
    TL;DR its only unethical if the candidate sucks. – Jared Smith May 23 at 1:12
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    @JaredSmith: Only if they know the candidate sucks. You missed the most crucial point. – Mehrdad May 23 at 6:32
  • 3
    And furthermore, the department may have grown to depend on some of Alice's skills that are not necessarily common in the field. For example, she is a biologist that knows how to fix computers. – Davidmh May 23 at 7:36
  • 2
    Definition of nepotism: favoritism (as in appointment to a job) based on kinship from Websters dictionary. It does not include the candidate being less qualified as part of the definition. You may infer this, but that is not how the word is defined. – cybernard May 24 at 15:14
26

It seems that you object to rule breaking and want to stop it. You have two problems here:

  • The rule has not been broken yet. It is only broken once the preselected candidate is hired.
  • It is very difficult to prove the preselection occurred. As you said, the system ensures all candidates are judged the same way. Probably the hiring records will show that.

I see no point in whistle blowing until the preselected candidate has been hired. Even then, I see little point in whistle blowing without clear evidence that someone has committed misconduct. I do not think you will get that evidence.

The reality is that it is impossible to prevent people from forming opinions before they get all the facts. As a result, hiring committees will always have preferences before they read the applications. You just have to hope they are open to changing their minds when they get new facts.

There is nothing you can do to help your acquaintance at this point. If you are correct, their time has already been wasted and it cannot come back.

  • 2
    @StrongBad I've seen second hires like the ones you mention surpass the first hires and the people that managed all the hiring process in six months. Systems may be corrupt, but if there's any incentive for effectiveness in any point in the hierarchy line, there's a chance for competent people. Even if it's just so their department can just slack off more. – Oxy May 22 at 9:10
  • 1
    -1 for not whistle-blowing before the hiring. The criterion should be evidentiary basis. – einpoklum May 22 at 13:20
11

Unfortunately it is common practice in many countries that the advertisement of a position (which is required by law) is the last step of a hiring process instead of the first step. See for example this recent article in Nature “Job vacancies posted after being filled: it’s time to stop wasting everyone’s time”. So you are definitely not alone in this situation and I have by myself applied for several position where I had much better achievements than the pre-selected candidate in pretty much every category and I did not even make it to the interview or the interview (for a permanent positon) was a 15-min joke where I did not even get the chance to present my research ideas (quote “No need – we see this from your written application anyway”).

In your specific situation the question is if you actually have hard evidence:

  1. Did the list you found in the printer contain a written statement that these candidates are never going to get the position or was it just a list of name without further comment? If so: is there a printer log that you can take a photo of showing that this document actually came from someone on the hiring panel?
  2. “My boss explicitly said that she wants this person in a conversation with me and others” - Are the other persons willing to act as witnesses? If it is only you (and your contract will not be extended) they might just say that you want to take revenge.

Only if you are sure that one of the two options above will absolutely hold then you can consider reporting it. In a second step you can weight your arguments above if you should do it. But the second step is a personal decision of yours then (where other persons cannot really help you) while the first step is purely based on the fact if you have evidence hard enough or not.

One more thing: as stated in the earlier answer you should only report it once the "crime" has been committed i.e. the candidate was officially selected.

5

For all you know, they want to give the position to "the chosen one", unless someone better shows up.

And it's impossible* to prove otherwise. Even if they end up hiring "the chosen one", no provable ethics violation will have taken place.

If it really bothers you a lot I recommend talking to your boss. If you manage to raise it as a concern instead of an accusation, there should be no repercussions. They'll try to assure you that there will be a fair selection process - If they manage to convince you, you'll have peace of mind, if they fail to convince you, you haven't lost anything.


*If you happen to have legally valid proof of the transgression, the question is entirely different, and my answer is to discuss the proof with a local lawyer, unless such an action exposes yourself to legal liability under the specific circumstances.

3

Your distress at this situation is understandable: it's certainly not fair to other candidates to put in equal effort for an interview they do not have an equal chance of gaining a position out of. But I would question your conclusion that this means the situation is unethical, based on the information provided. The hiring process is unfair by nature because it cannot take into account individual life situations. If you are currently homeless, you will find it an added challenge to appear as presentable as a candidate with a private bed and bathroom. If you bear primary responsibility for children in your family, you will not be able to agree to the same conditions as someone who can work whatever hours they choose. There are many things employers do not know and cannot know about the people they interview. That can be a disadvantage on both sides.

In this case, one candidate has the advantage that quite a lot is known about them already. Even you know they would be a good fit for the position. That is likely to lead to their being the successful candidate unless someone else comes across as absolutely amazing. That's common sense: employers want to minimise risk and get someone who is likely to fit in well and be an asset. If one of the candidates came with a recommendation from an existing employee who is respected and trusted, they would have an advantage over all the other candidates who performed as well in the interview but didn't have a good contact within the organisation. Not fair, but not considered unethical in any situations I've observed.

If I were you I would be questioning my insistence that something unethical is taking place here, and would stay very far away from this unless there becomes reason to believe interviewers felt another candidate was a better fit for the position and they went with the internal candidate for personal/political reasons. Expressing a desire to take on someone already known and liked is not good evidence; it's just a given. There is no way even hinting that you think your boss is doing or allowing something unethical will play out well for you: it is likely to be an end to any good relationship with her and anyone else who gets to hear about this. As for going higher, I would consider that utterly inappropriate unless you brought legitimate evidence to your boss and received an unsatisfactory response. It's certainly not an option to consider because you feel awkward about addressing the situation with your boss. At best I would expect the relevant higher-ups to tell you to stop bothering them with unfounded gossip.

The person who is getting forgotten in your consideration of what to do is the preselected candidate, who based on your account doesn't have any part in this other than perhaps being interested in the position. By virtue of being part of the organisation already they probably are the best candidate, and that shouldn't be something held against them. Getting caught up in this will be at the least upsetting for them and may be career-damaging. Will it be fair if this individual ends up feeling obliged to leave altogether? Once you start any sort of proceedings, you cannot know for sure how things will play out. Rumours and gossip can and do damage lives.

You are clearly motivated here by your desire to do the right thing, but sometimes the answer to the question of 'what is the right thing' is murky. Rather than a why/why not list, I would suggest you consider what you might achieve by speaking up, as someone very far down the food chain with no compelling evidence, against the harm you might cause, to yourself and to your colleagues who you appear to think are very nice and capable people.

  • 2
    The hiring process is unfair by nature -- perhaps, but still some processes are more unfair than others. – Dmitry Savostyanov May 22 at 15:22
2

What should I do?

1. Reach certainty that the hiring process is/will be subverted

You wrote you the heads of department are "already quite sure" about the candidate they will choose. This is a claim regarding their thoughts/psyche, which you can never have exact and accurate information (essentially). Perhaps it appears they are sure? Perhaps they seem to just be biased in favor of someone they already know? Perhaps they're just assuming there will be no other worthy applicants? What makes you sure they have already decided? Until you yourself are entirely sure they will subvert the process in a meaningful way, obviously - do not take any overt or committed action, and keep other actions, like fishing for evidence, inconspicuous.

2. Consider whether to deter or retaliate/condemn

The approaches to action are either to deter the decision-makers from acting inappropriately, or alternatively to act ex-post-facto again the process and/or the decision makers.

Pros of first option:

  • A lot less effort.
  • Much much lower evidentiary standard.
  • You will not be perceived as vindictive or a trouble-maker, especially since you yourself seem to be a candidate (you haven't clearly indicated whether that is the case)

Pros of second option:

  • It is usually pretty easy to mask the pre-selection of a candidate; if you tip them off, they'll know what they've missed, address it, and still do the same thing.
  • Will have a much stronger deterring factor on this problematic culture - if you succeed.
  • Much higher potential for recruiting "allies", if those exist.

3. Collect evidence

Don't hack into people's computers or break into anywhere; and don't start chatting people up if you can't trust them to be discrete, but definitely consider going as far as taping your conversations on your mobile phone (but you might want to check local laws about doing so).

I don't know what evidence you do have so I can't really counsel you on getting more. Just remember that you want both quantity and quality; and that evidence is worth very little if it requires interpretation by your view of things or even your knowledge and experience. Thus, also consider locating evidence for facts/circumstances which are obvious to you but would not be obvious to an outsider (e.g. in court).

4. Find allies

Talk to:

  • Other candidates which you are close with and can trust despite your partially-conflicting interests here
  • Colleagues who are close friends and/or known for being both discreet and highly concerned with fairness.
  • Your union representative, and possibly more central, assertive/active figures in your union at the university level.

The conversations could be about the basic dilemma of whether to act; for sharing evidence; and possibly even for collaborating actions or acting together as a group. With your union, you might stronger recourse both to formal procedures to prevent/undo a hire, or to informal but collective action. It is very much in the union's interest - and in that of the members - to fight the ability of university management overall and department heads in particular to be able to skew hiring procedures. That is not just bad in itself, it weakens the collective ability to fight for other issues.

5. Continue based on previous phases

This is too speculative for me to say anything specific about. But actions could involve any or some of:

  • A formal challenge to the hiring process
  • Disciplinary complaints
  • Public letters
  • Private/Group/Union meetings with the department heads
  • Organizing a public meeting of faculty at your department
  • Getting in contact with all candidates about the matter
  • The threat, or actual filing, of a lawsuit
  • A labor dispute between your union and the university

But it could also be "nothing" (especially considering phase 1.)

1

On thinking about it, I would say - you can't do much. But you can ensure those affected can do something. Which is right and proper as they are the ones affected.

A common answer to hidden dubious conduct, in some situations, is to call it out. Put these two together, I'd handle it like this:

  1. Do this only if you trust the employee concerned.
  2. Tell the employee who "doesn't have a chance" exactly what you found. Do this jointly with your other friend, 2 people with a concern are more convincing than 1. Give them at least one direct quote or comment from it (as best you can remember anything) in case it's denied.
  3. Tell the employee to raise it directly in the interview. It's a bit risky but not that risky.

He/she should wait until they ask if there are any questions, then ask directly - "I had expected that candidates are assessed by merit without preconception. But a number of employees - who I'd rather not name - have told me directly that there is a document that effectively concludes that X is the predetermined candidate, and implies other candidates don't have much of a chance. I've been directly told this by those who saw it. Is that true?"

Expect shock, fumbling, embarrassment, and await interesting outcome. It makes it hard for them to do other than a truly merit based choice, as they know the scrutiny that will exist. If denied, state what the document said - any quote or paraphrase or comment from it, so they know you did speak to someone who saw it. Being caught in an untrue denial would be harder to counter if it happens.

Of course it may not be appreciated. Or the dubious conduct may be legitimate after all. But it's actually a fair question, so they are less likely to be penalised for it.

  • This would be a transparent measure, thanks for suggesting. However I think there are several problems. (1) If my "friend", refers to a source from inside the department, it will heavily influence the atmosphere in the department in a negative way. My boss probably doesn't feel like she could trust us any more and that's not something I want to provoke. (2) If my "friend" says he knows that there is a preselected candidate in front of the committee, the entire application process wil be canceled and nobody gets the job and the position will not be offered at all: everbody loses – 123happytree May 31 at 7:42
  • And in future they'll probably be aware of the possibility of suspicion, and maybe be fairer? Or is that a Pipedream? I'd be willing to expose the malfeasance that way and take a chance if the job is withdrawn - if it is, it probably wasn't really needed anyway so no loss? – Stilez May 31 at 18:03

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