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If you are on a hiring committee and find out that one of the applicants is someone you have had a past romantic relationship with, should you recuse yourself?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 May 21 '17 at 3:19
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    If you're worried that some people may perceive an action as unethical, chances are some people are going to perceive it as unethical. It's usually better to play it safe in those cases. ;) If you are worried that you yourself might perceive it as unethical, definitely play it safe; no need to lay that burden on yourself. – jpmc26 May 21 '17 at 7:17
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    This is one of those rare questions where a one-word answer would certainly suffice... – R.. May 22 '17 at 12:03
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I will almost guarantee that your university has a Compliance office. Here's the one for my university; you'll notice that it has both a number of links to written guidelines, as well as phone numbers for an Ethics hotline. Your university may not have the exact same thing, but there are people there whose job is to answer these types of questions. Make use of them.

That said, from my completely uninformed standpoint, your situation sounds like a conflict of interest. If I was in a similar situation I would definitely recuse myself.

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    I slightly disagree. (Although it does not say so explicitly) the answer gives the impression that OP should stick to the ethics guidelines of his institution and nothing else. What if OPs specific university does not have this conflict of interest covered under its guidelines but then he moves to another university and, in the new institution, the guidelines consider it unethical. OP would then have been unethical in the past. I'd argue that using your own (personal) sense of ethics and sticking to the union of it with possible guidelines is better. – grochmal May 18 '17 at 13:16
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    @grochmal Even if the university asked about something like that (which they probably wouldn't unless something scandalous happened), the easy answer is "I followed the university guidelines and spoke to the ethics committee about it. They determined it was not a conflict of interest." and move on. – Anoplexian - Reinstate Monica May 18 '17 at 15:27
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    @grochmal I disagree with ethical rules applying retroactively. Some universities code of conduct forbid people from drinking coffee, should I throw away my PhD if I ever go to work there? – Davidmh May 18 '17 at 17:34
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    I would also suggest documenting that you consulted your ethics hotline in some way so that you have a paper trail in case someone tries to say that you should have checked before taking an action. – zero298 May 18 '17 at 20:01
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    @grochmal I don't think this answer says anything of the sort. Rather, it simply says, "If you're not sure, ask. And don't just ask random people on the Internet; ask the people whose job it is to answer those questions on behalf of your institution." – jpmc26 May 21 '17 at 7:19
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From my own experiences on faculty search committees, administrators would be very unhappy if we went through the hiring process and I later provided such information, since it could be viewed as a conflict of interest or nepotism, even if you do not see it that way. What do you have to lose by making this information known to others and at least see if the administrators in your department believe that you should or should not continue on the committee.

Also, who doesn't search for a good reason to get out of committee work? LOL.

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    Or, more specified, your nephew. If we can stretch to other family members, then why not to "one's inner circle" of friends? – Mawg May 18 '17 at 8:52
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    @NicoleRuggiano Ah, good point. In fact, the OED says it's been used to refer to non-relatives such as friends since at least 1859. Comment deleted. – David Richerby May 18 '17 at 17:30
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    Not quite sure what you are driving at. As today's meaning, I would say that nepotism is favo(u) ring someone known over someone unknown. Would that be about right? If so, it does seem to apply he – Mawg May 18 '17 at 18:22
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    Note that the conflict isn't necessarily 'positive'. The obvious potential conflict could lead to perceived favoritism (former flame wins competition and there is the perception of favoritism), but the converse is also possible: former flame doesn't win the competition and claims bias due to the previous relationship. Either one could leave the school vulnerable to lawsuit. – Keith Davies May 18 '17 at 21:40
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    @KeithDavies This is very true and the same issues apply. The a former partner could be highly qualified (or most qualified), but overlooked because of the conflict. This could cause future problems with the candidate. It also could be frowned upon by the administration, but I think that most faculty would pass over a highly qualified candidate who may cause inter-personal problems at work. – Nicole Ruggiano May 19 '17 at 18:19
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You almost certainly need to remove yourself from any decision about that candidate, especially if your interactions were recent, and you may need to remove yourself from the whole process. It has nothing to do with whether you can live with it, but if your university wants to risk litigation if the shit hits the fan.

You can simply say "I have a conflict with one of the applicants, and wish to be removed from this committee", and then the nature of the conflict is your business alone, or you can find the appropriate person to discuss the exact nature of the conflict with. I suggest a compliance officer or ombudsman, who will be able to understand the sensitive nature.

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    Good suggestion. I recommend using the gender-neutral "compliance officer or ombudsperson". – Greg Martin May 17 '17 at 22:55
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    I have a conflict with respect to one of the applicants. // Otherwise, great answer. – aparente001 May 17 '17 at 23:17
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    The second paragraph of this answer is wrong. As I explain in my answer, at least at some universities the search committee member would be required by university policy to disclose the nature of the conflict, and cannot "simply say" that they wish to be recused or claim that the nature of the conflict is "their business alone". – Dan Romik May 17 '17 at 23:41
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    To clarify Dan's comment: You may need to disclose your conflict to someone, typically the committee chair or the department head. You almost certainly do not have to disclose the nature of your conflict to the entire committee in an open meeting. (At least, this is the case at my university, which has similar formal policies to Dan's.) – JeffE May 18 '17 at 1:33
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    @DanRomik, In the UK, pressing the issue could make you run afoul of the UK Human Rights Act of 1998. And in the US, pressing the issue could make you run you afoul of Federal anti-discrimination laws. If one of your committee members ever tells you "I am recusing myself from the selection process because I've had a very close relationship with one of the candidates.", "No, I'm not telling you which candidate, nor am I going to tell you what was the nature of the relationship. This is personal information. You'll have to trust that I'm telling you the truth." Then legally, you better let it go – Stephan Branczyk May 19 '17 at 5:15
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My university requires members of search committees to disclose any potential conflict of interest in connection with their evaluation of job candidates. The disclosure form is accompanied by an explanatory text titled "Aspirational Principles and Guidelines Regarding Conflict of Interest on Recruitment Committees", which states in particular (emphasis added by me):

Examples of situations that might create either a real or perceived conflict of interest for a member of a recruitment committee include, but are not limited to, the review of candidates who are current or former students, postdocs, mentees, co-authors, close collaborators or partners in a business or professional practice. Other situations may involve review of a candidate who has or has had in the past, a significant personal relationship with the faculty member, either positive or negative, that might impact the ability of the faculty member to participate objectively in the comparison of the qualifications of that candidate with those of other candidates.

The document goes on to list options for dealing with a potential conflict:

Depending on the nature of the relationship, and based on discussion with the recruitment committee chair, the faculty member may:

  1. Voluntarily recuse him or herself from participation on the recruitment committee or in the review and selection process;

  2. Voluntarily recuse him or herself from discussion and/or voting on the particular candidate with whom there is a potential real or perceived conflict of interest;

  3. Continue to serve on the committee and in the review/selection process, but with full disclosure of the relationship to the committee and, if the candidate is on the short list, to the department;

Thus, at the very least, in the scenario you describe you are certainly required to report the fact of the past relationship to your department chair and other members of the committee. Given the nature of the relationship, I would expect that you would also be asked to recuse yourself from any discussion of the specific candidate, and possibly to recuse yourself entirely from membership in the committee.

All of this is according to my university's specific policy, but this policy is based on currently accepted legal and ethical norms in the United States that I would expect to also apply in any major US university. I also doubt that these norms will be materially different in any western country.

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    Sorry, stupid question: if the faculty member recuses him or herself, then why does (s)he also need to "report the fact of the past relationship"? I would have thought that the recusal should render the rest of it irrelevant. – ruakh May 17 '17 at 22:37
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    I assume that the faculty member could choose to try to recuse themselves initially, without disclosing the specifics of the reason (as per Scott Seidman's answer); or they could choose to disclose and see what the recommended course of action is, which might turn out to be recusal. Maybe it depends on what they hope the decision will be. – Greg Martin May 17 '17 at 22:58
  • @ruakh I didn't write the policy so I can't give an authoritative answer, but I do think the reporting requirement makes sense, since we don't want faculty recusing themselves from search committees for arbitrary or trivial reasons (say, because they once had dinner with the candidate). If you are on the committee your service is presumed to be valuable and we want you to stay on it and not recuse yourself unless there was a very good reason.But faculty are not trained in assessing the potential for a conflict of interest, so it's best to inform and consult the dept. chair on such a matter ... – Dan Romik May 17 '17 at 23:32
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    @GregMartin as the document I linked to states, my university's policy requires disclosing the potential conflict of interest, so your assumption that "the faculty member could choose to try to recuse themselves initially, without disclosing the specifics of the reason" is simply incorrect, at least at UC Davis and probably at the vast majority of similar US institutions. – Dan Romik May 17 '17 at 23:37
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    Your form is for committee chairs, and doesn't say the reason for conflict by a member be disclosed, just the fact that there is a potential conflict. In fact, if I were asked the reason, I might well decline to answer, unless a careful read of my faculty handbook suggested I must. Note that a form is not your employment contract, but your handbook describes the conditions and regs associated with your employment. – Scott Seidman May 18 '17 at 11:00
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I would, without question. The benefits of being seen to act in a way that leaves no doubt as to integrity will far outweigh the probably-zero benefits of sitting on a committee that's making a career decision on behalf of your employer and for a past romantic flame of yours. I can't see any good whatsoever coming out of putting yourself in that situation, and plenty of respect from being seen to avoid the conflict. Recuse without question, citing "non work previous social friendship with the candidate" or similar (you don't need to give the detailed reason)

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