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I work as an administrator at a university and will soon be resigning from my position (the job has already been posted). A student who I formerly supervised is applying for my position and has asked if I would serve as a reference. Is there a conflict of interest in doing so? I am not part of the hiring committee and, while I don't think this student has enough experience to be called in for an interview, I would gladly speak to my experience as her former employer if she was offered the job.

  • Thank you, everyone, for your input here. This has been very helpful in thinking through this situation; I am moving forward with the student listing me as a reference. My main concern was that my being listed as a reference might influence the search committee, but that is out of my hands. – dclarke May 26 '15 at 15:57
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I think there is a slight conflict of interest to the disadvantage of the applicant. You might be more negative in a reference addressed to your own employer (to whom you may feel a duty to help as much as possible with their hiring process), than you would be in a reference addressed to a perfect stranger (to whom you only owe a general duty not to defraud them).

People recommend other people to their employers all the time, so this is something the hiring committee should be able to deal with. However, if you plan to actually say anything negative about the candidate in your reference ("I don't think this candidate has the experience to be interviewed for the role, let alone hired"), then you should make sure that the candidate fully understands the situation before choosing to use you as a reference. They might have other referees they'd prefer to use in that case.

As Kimball says in a comment, the existence of this conflict of interest isn't an ethical problem provided all parties understand it. The hiring committee knows your job and expects to take account of your relationship to the applicant when considering a reference, so no problem there. The student knows your job, so the only risk is if they don't appreciate the implications of that. After that, if either of them thinks you're too conflicted to use as a reference then they won't ask you for one, you don't need to recuse yourself.

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There's no conflict in my mind, and given how hard hiring can be, I would value your input if I were on the hiring committee.

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I would say that when your student applies he or she should have sufficient external references and add you in addition to that. Your opinion, as an insider will be much valued by the hiring committee as indicated by others, but you may be biased. I think a conflict of interest may be a bit exaggerated, it's just a possible bias.

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If there were to be a conflict of interest for anything, that she was your (PhD?) student would be the first concern. (Your title indicates your main concern is otherwise.)

Indeed, advisors are not often allowed as reviewers for things like grants and tenure applications, but it looks more strange than not for an advisor (at least for recent PhDs) not to be a reference for job applications. That you have held this position makes you even more natural for a reference.

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    Note that, in business, "conflicts of interest" typically just need to be disclosed so additional relationships are public. From this point of view, the only sort of unethical conflict of interect would be if both of you tried to hide your student-advisor relationship, which would make no sense. – Kimball May 26 '15 at 14:11
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I don't think this student has enough experience to be called in for an interview

You would be doing the student a disservice by not gently communicating this to her. There's no point in setting her up for disappointment.

If she wishes to apply, in order to gain more experience with interviewing -- yes, please supply a polite recommendation.

Make sure you offer (to the student) to write recommendation letters for any other positions she may apply to.

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  • The student has asked if I would serve as a reference (no letter required). Knowing the hiring process at my institution, I would only be called if she were being offered the job. If writing a letter, I would certainly have a conversation about a student's level of experience if I did not think he/she was qualified (as you suggest). In this case, I see it as good practice for her to be applying for professional positions in our field (the arts) and, considering I am not on the hiring committee, she very well could be called in to interview depending on the pool of applicants. – dclarke May 27 '15 at 15:15
  • @dclarke, let's think it through, with sort of a flow chart in mind. If she gets offered the job (no matter how unlikely you think that is), what will you do? – aparente001 May 31 '15 at 3:23
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This problem is not specific to Academia. This is quite typical in Industry as well.

The hiring committee has

  • on the one hand detailed information about the capacities of one applicant (your ex-student) - initially to her disadvantage (not enough experience)
  • on the other hand a bunch of candidates with more or less boosted CVs.

I said initially to her disadvantage because if the hiring committee is not experienced in such positions (and they may not be), some hand-waving candidate with better experience (on the paper) will win.

Now, if all candidates are the same she will definitely have an advantage because both her weaknesses and strengths are tangible.

I would talk to her about her experience to prepare her for disappointment if she is not chosen. I would also send a recommendation letter to the committee (not via her) to explain her strengths and weaknesses. It will certainly be a candidate which will stand out (this is the bit about "conflict of interest") but having hired a lot I always valued inside information from someone who has actually worked with a candidate.

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