Moral Fables and Cautionary Tales from the Job Market--Annual Report of the Professional Division

Carla Rahn Phillips, April 1998

One of the responsibilities of the AHA's Professional Division is to monitor the market for jobs in history. A few years ago, issues such as plagiarism and allegations of unprofessional conduct comprised most of the complaints reviewed by the division. Recently, complaints about the hiring process have become more numerous—a change that seems related to the difficulty of finding appropriate employment for PhDs in history.

The AHA staff works with the Professional Division to develop and monitor guidelines for job advertisements, convention interviews, and the hiring process in general. We recognize that any job search will disappoint nearly everyone except the successful candidate and the hiring institution, and the AHA's guidelines and Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct (available free from the AHA, or from its web site) cannot alter that fact. Our aim is simply to see that all parties treat one another with professional courtesy and follow high standards of professional conduct.

Most of the hundreds of job searches in history every year proceed smoothly. Inevitably, however, there are situations that generate complaints for the Professional Division's clarification or review. Under the new guidelines adopted in 1995 (a summary is in the February 1996 Perspectives; details are in the Statement on Standards), the Professional Division does not automatically accept every complaint it receives. Instead, the members weigh very carefully whether or not a complaint merits full consideration. Some complaints involve clear violations of AHA standards. Others are ambiguous or based on misunderstandings or faulty assumptions about the nature of the job market or a particular job. Still other complaints appear to be inspired by nothing more than vindictiveness on the part of unsuccessful job candidates.

When evidence exists that AHA standards were violated in the hiring process, the Professional Division accepts the case for a full review. Many of the complaints we receive, however, deal with matters that are unlikely to be proven by written evidence or that simply do not fall under the AHA's purview. The division declines to accept those complaints for a full review. What follows is a series of moral fables and cautionary tales, based loosely on complaints that were brought to the division over the past several years. The examples are composites of various cases, constructed to recreate situations that regularly arise in the job market. Each example also explains the logic behind the Professional Division's decision.

Case 1

Professor A holds a tenured position at a small college. Despite the demands of her teaching schedule and related responsibilities, she has remained active as a scholar, regularly doing research, attending conferences, and publishing. She is widely known in her subfield. Though generally happy in her current position, she has sometimes thought about moving to a research institution if the right opportunity presented itself. In the latest issue of Perspectives, she sees the ideal job: a major research institution where she knows several faculty members, a senior position in her specialty, and a strong statement that the institution welcomes applications from women. The job description fits her so closely that she persuades herself that it was written with her in mind. Consequently, she writes her application as if that were the case, mobilizing support from colleagues in the profession who value her work. A few weeks after the application deadline, she receives a very unpleasant shock: a cordial and professional letter from the hiring committee saying that they had decided not to pursue her candidacy further. She feels betrayed, angry, and embarrassed, and fires off a letter to the chair of the search committee demanding to know what had happened. In reply she receives another polite, cordial, and professional letter that neglects to give details about the search committee's reasoning. Professor A then files a complaint with the Professional Division, alleging that the hiring department had violated AHA standards of civility and professional courtesy by not at least interviewing her for the job. The Professional Division declines to accept the complaint for full review. Why?

Analysis: On the basis of what was stated in the complaint, the hiring institution did not violate AHA standards. The search committee treated Professor A with professional courtesy. Professor A had no reason to assume that she would be a major contender for the job and made a tactical error by suggesting as much in her application. Job candidates have no right to decide who should or should not be interviewed or hired, nor do they have a right to know the internal deliberations of a search committee.

Case 2

Job candidate B is bright, well-trained, and due to defend his dissertation in the spring. There are many job openings in his subfield this year, and he is well-qualified enough to secure several on-campus interviews. One of them goes particularly well, and he is pleased, but not surprised, to receive a telephone call from the chair of the department offering him the job. He accepts, and they plan a further telephone call to arrange the details of salary, class assignments, and other matters. B decides that he is in a strong bargaining position, given his qualifications and the demand for his specialty. When the chair calls back, B argues forcefully for a higher salary than the dean had authorized. He also wants assurances that his wife, who is getting her PhD in English, will be favored for the first position that opens up in the English department. The chair is taken aback and is in no position to accede to candidate B's demands. Nothing is decided during that phone call, and they hang up. A few days later, the chair calls B with the devastating news that the department has decided to rescind the verbal offer of employment, preferring to deal with a candidate whom they judge to be a better potential colleague. B files a complaint with the Professional Division, alleging unfair hiring practices. The Professional Division declines to accept the complaint for a full review. Why?

Analysis: Job offers made and accepted verbally, unless they include specific information such as salary and term of employment, are often not enforceable by law, however firm they sound. B made a serious tactical error by assuming that his bargaining position was strong enough to support an aggressive approach before he had obtained a specific offer that included salary and terms of employment. Instead of gaining his ends, he alienated the chair and the department, who were looking forward to hiring a congenial colleague. B's tactics convinced them that he was not the candidate they wanted. Although B assumed that the initial offer was firm, the hiring department did not violate AHA standards in rescinding a verbal offer that was contingent upon reaching agreement regarding salary and other working conditions.

Moral: Historians rarely receive legal training, but we often find ourselves in situations in which a rudimentary knowledge of the law is not only advisable but crucial. That applies to both sides in the hiring process. Get the best advice possible for how to conduct yourself during the hiring process. Regardless of the state of the job market, remember that the hiring department generally has a stronger bargaining position than a job candidate.

Case 3

Candidate C is due to defend her doctoral thesis in the history of religion. She sees an advertisement in Perspectives for a job that seems well suited to her training: a history department at a small, religiously affiliated college, with an opening in the history of religion. Although the ad mentions the religious affiliation of the school, it says nothing about any religious requirements for job candidates. C applies for the job and is contacted to set up an interview at the AHA annual meeting. Delighted, she makes plans to attend the meeting, some thousand miles from her doctoral institution. She shows up at the interview enthusiastic and prepared to make a favorable impression. In the first few minutes, however, it becomes clear that the department can hire only someone who is an active member of the religious denomination that sponsors the school. The hiring committee tells her confidentially that they tried to get the requirement changed, but it proved impossible. Candidate C files a complaint with the Professional Division, alleging religious discrimination. The Division accepts the complaint, and finds that there was a violation of AHA standards, but it was not the violation claimed in the complaint. Why?

Analysis: Private, religiously affiliated schools have a legal right to restrict themselves to candidates who meet their religious standards. The AHA advertising guidelines require only that those standards be made clear in the advertisement. In the composite example cited above, the school did not violate AHA standards by its religious requirement. However, it did violate AHA standards by failing to make that requirement clear to potential candidates in its advertisement. Needless confusion, expense, and hard feelings could have been avoided by a forthright statement of preferences by the school.

Case 4

After a 15-year career in business, D decided to pursue a doctorate in history. He finished his coursework in record time and is about to defend a distinguished dissertation. He applies for a wide variety of jobs in his subfield and makes the short list for three of them. He has interviews at the AHA annual meeting with all three schools but is not invited for any on-campus interviews. Although nothing was said explicitly, D suspects that his candidacy was not pursued because of his age. He files a complaint with the Professional Division. After careful deliberation, the division declines to accept the complaint for full review. Why?

Analysis: Because there was no verbal evidence, let alone a paper trail, to prove that age discrimination took place, the Professional Division had no basis to reach a finding. The AHA does not have the resources to investigate complaints but relies solely on written evidence supplied by the complainant and the person or institution responding to the complaint. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many hiring institutions reject applicants on the basis of age, but most are careful not to do so openly or they would violate federal law. The AHA's "Statement on Age Discrimination" (Perspectives, December 1996, p. 23) urges hiring institutions to consider all candidates solely on the basis of their academic qualifications. Beyond moral pressure, however, there is little that the AHA can do to eliminate covert discrimination. In cases of overt discrimination, the Professional Division would not only accept the case but would urge the target of discrimination to pursue legal redress as well.

The composite cases outlined above offer several useful lessons for candidates in today's job market. The most important lesson is that candidates should be as well-informed as possible about the legal and professional standards that relate to the hiring process. Without a clear violation of law or standards, and without documentation of that violation, there is no basis for the Professional Division of the AHA to accept a complaint for review.

In 1997 there was a significant decrease in the number of cases submitted to the Professional Division. By my count, we currently have 10 cases at various stages in the process, whereas in 1996 there were 18, a few of the which involved complaints against several persons at once. The decline in cases has allowed the division to spend more time discussing issues of general concern to the profession, such as the future of tenure and the status of adjunct and part-time employment, as well as the job market. Two members of the division completed their terms in 1997: William J. Cronon and Barbara Ramusack (representing Council). I will miss their sound advice and dedicated service and offer them my sincere thanks for a job well done. The division welcomes James Grossman and Marilyn Young (representing Council), who began their terms in January.

—Carla Rahn Phillips (Univ. of Minnesota) is the vice president of AHA's Professional Division.