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I just had a job interview (permanent lecturer position not connected to a grant) and, immediately afterwards, I found out that the person who is the group leader and responsible for recruiting is the sibling of one of the candidates.

I made sure that this is actually the case. It is not a suspicion; it is a fact.

Could this be justified under some circumstances? This seems ridiculous. Should I raise a complaint?

This in the UK.

  • Did this other candidate also get a post? – Dmitry Savostyanov Oct 15 at 12:44
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    @DmitrySavostyanov I do not know at the moment, however I know a couple of more things that I didn't write and it seems that it was decided beforehand that they get the position. – tst Oct 15 at 12:47
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    The only fact stated in the question is that the group leader and the candidate are related. The title asks about something not asserted in the question itself. Should the leader interview the sibling? No. Should the sibling be prohibited from applying for the job? Probably not, but I think that's the real question here (and the answer should discuss the limits placed on the group leader's role in that application process). – chepner Oct 15 at 17:07
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    If a decision really was made beforehand, that raises a flag on the entire process, not just the group leader. – chepner Oct 15 at 17:07
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    Typically, the sibling(/relative/partner) has to excuse themselves from interviewing/discussing that candidate (not the others). Which doesn't make that much difference, as the others know. And if you think about it, ethically not much different from interviewing your ex-students (MA, PhD, PostDoc), which specialization makes rather inevitable. [*I've worked a 0.1FTE finite-term position for my partner at a UK uni... only one other candidate applied.] – user3445853 Oct 16 at 10:26
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Interviewing a family member is not permitted. Yes, you should raise a complaint. Do it politely, of course. But in the end, you have to ask yourself whether or not a work group that would even try to get away with this is one you want to get involved with.

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    I strongly agree with this answer. For what it is worth, when I applied for graduate school, my cousin-in-law was a professor in the department at one school, and he explicitly stayed away from any admissions decisions connected to me. He later sort of implied that he had wanted to stay away from admissions decisions for the entire year's cohort, but he was persuaded not to by the others in the department who apparently had enough trouble finding people to do the committee work already. The idea that someone would take this active a role with a sibling is absurd. – JoshuaZ Oct 15 at 1:44
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    For what it's worth, I have chaired and served on academic hiring committees in my research institution. Rules vary from country to country, but in the US academy, this conflict of interest in hiring is not permitted. – Philly Oct 15 at 2:24
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    Were you not asked (on the application) if you know any people at the Institution you are applying to ? I thought this was common at UK universities. In which case, the sibling would have had to indicate the relationship. Which might mean that the group leader might have been banned from the actual recruiting decision. You can ask for clarification, but do not go in alleging mis-conduct. For example, I sit on a panel with my partner of 20 years, this is recorded, and there is a procedure in place for any conflict of interest that may arise. – Marianne013 Oct 15 at 10:42
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    @DmitrySavostyanov Imperial College asks for it. – Marianne013 Oct 16 at 10:00
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    @cbeleites: That's why it's a free form field, it gets accessed for relevance. Knowing someone at the place you are applying at and/or working there (for internal applications) is not a reason for rejection. – Marianne013 Oct 18 at 10:49
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From my personal experience, very unsubstantiated and anecdotal, family hire and similar conflicts of interests do still happen in UK universities. It is very frustrating and demotivating for other candidates, particularly when your skills match the job description well and you've put a lot of time and effort to prepare the application and the interview presentation.

Such conflict of interests are of course unethical and potentially illegal, but it is not easy to prove a case, particularly if HR are inclined to turn a blind eye towards the problem. If you want to raise a complaint, take care not to reveal your identity to your immediate line manager (Head of School) and explicitly request form HR to maintain your anonymity, particularly if you are still on the probation period. It may be a good idea to talk to your local unions. Good luck.

  • Thanks for the advice. Luckily my line manager has nothing to do with this group and it is easy to keep this confidential. What do you mean exactly that is is not easy to prove a case? I guess you mean it is not easy to prove that hiring was not objective. Does it mean that the universities have a tendency to turn a blind eye to such cases? – tst Oct 15 at 13:26
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    I can't draw meaningful conclusions based on my limited personal experience, so I can't say what is a "tendency". But proving anything is not easy, if the other side is reluctant to collaborate. People may say that the head of the recruitment panel stepped out and did not interfere with the assessment of their sibling, and the case collapses from severe conflict of interests to slight procedural mistake, bearing little consequence to anyone but yourself. But you never know which side HR will take. – Dmitry Savostyanov Oct 15 at 16:23
2

Background

Some countries, and I don't know about the UK specifically, have requirements at state-funded universities when it comes to hiring.

One such requirement is that someone cannot be hired directly. The position needs to be opened and announced in some public medium, and kept open for at least X time so everyone has time to apply. Then interviews, etc., are carried and the best candidate is hired, if one is found.

Another requirement is that those with a conflict of interest with any of the candidates should state so. And hopefully excuse themselves from the hiring committee in order to not influence the result, independently of whether this is mandatory.

In practice, sometimes a candidate has already been chosen in which case the position requirements are tightened, if possible, to ensure their champion is the right fit for the position. This leads to positions, which have already been filled, being opened with the sole purpose of meeting hiring regulations.

Consequences

This is the most important part. I'd like to speak of consequences.

Raising a complaint brings you little or no benefit, but might gain you an enemy:

  • The end result may or may not change, but complaining will ensure you're not hired. The group leader is the accused here, sounds unlikely he'll hire you to his group after your complaint.

  • The group leader might affect others' impression of you, not only on this particular group but on other locations as well where he might know someone. If he didn't bother excusing himself from interviewing his sibling (which is morally reprehensible, if not illegal) then this seems a possibility.

  • Between two prospective candidates of equal competence, I'd guess the one most likely to be hired is the one not known to be a troublemaker.

There might be some degree of privacy when presenting a complaint, but I don't know how these are processed. Meaning there's a chance the accused party would not know who presented the complaint. In this case in particular, you're simply pointing out something that is easily proven. You don't have to present a lengthy justification.

Complaint without complaining

A simple email to the right person asking whether such behavior is allowed by the institution's regulations might be all is needed for someone to look into it. You could add a note stating you'd like your identity to be kept private for fear of reprisals. But without an official complaint it's possible they'll ignore it.

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    Thanks Daniel, your answer is very informative. I have considered your points and I decided it's a safe bet. There are certain things I cannot really comment on. I did consider the points you raised and I decided that on one hand I don't want this job any more and on the other hand they cannot really affect me beyond that (as I said, there is more background I cannot tell). Things are already in motion, I will update my post next week when I know more. – tst Oct 17 at 17:13
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    By the way, the position specs were rather broad because everyone else that was invited for an interview was more qualified than than the sibling. So narrowing down the position would have excluded the sibling. – tst Oct 17 at 17:15
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You describe a situation as you see it, but you have no way of knowing or understanding what's going on behind the scenes. My own assumption would be that if you know about this, than others know about this, including members of the home department that work with the group leader in question every day.

There is an obvious appearance of a conflict of interest, but there are ways of managing conflicts. My own assumption, which can certainly be wrong, is that this is so obvious that they must be managing the conflict.

So, should you complain? I don't know laws or procedures in the UK, but I'd first ask, who do you plan on complaining to?? Next, keep in mind that you don't know the whole situation, a complaint might be impugning the integrity of a person when the whole conflict might be handled behind the scenes already. This is a fairly serious accusation. You'd also be impugning the standards of the department, questioning whether they'd let such a conflict stand unchecked.

Next, lets say the conflict is unmanaged. Would you really want to work in an environment where such obvious conflicts are left to stand? Not getting the job may be a blessing.

With all this in mind, and the possible harm to your own reputation this may cause, I wouldn't recommend complaining. There may be nothing improper going on, and if there is, it just doesn't seem like you have any options that can improve your situation. I'd move on, and see if you get the job offer.

  • I have talked with the person from HR that was present during the interviews and I was told that the conflict of interest was declared and managed because independent people were on the panel. Subsequently I spoke with an HR manager who was shocked to hear what happened and said that no matter what paperwork was submitted this is never ok. I'll see what happens next week – tst Oct 19 at 3:59
  • Regardless of what the outcome will be, I do not plan to try to get a job there. I prefer to work somewhere where there is no bad blood with existing members of staff – tst Oct 19 at 4:03
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Is it ridiculous, maybe. Is it justified, yes. Should you raise a complaint, no.

It is ridiculous when HR gets in the way of a group leader not being able to hire the person that the group leader thinks is most qualified. HR would probably prefer the group leader to not be involved, but then you lose a key person, possibly the only person, who can evaluate the technical competency of the candidates. Realistically HR will probably be happy with an independent observer of the interview and might even be happy with documentation that the selected candidate is the best candidate.

Either the process has been approved by someone, in which case you are not going to get anywhere and just come off as a complainer. If it hasn't been approved, then you just made an enemy of the group leader, which is not helpful either.

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    I'm curious, how can this be justified? It was a rather broad position, not highly specialised. – tst Oct 15 at 2:03
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    "It is ridiculous when HR gets in the way of a group leader not being able to hire the person that the group leader thinks is most qualified." Is it always ridiculous, then, for HR to get in the way of any decision, as long as the group leader thinks that choice is best? Besides, OP is not claiming that the hire should be stopped, only that leaving the decision to someone with such an obvious conflict of interest is improper. – richard Oct 15 at 2:55

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